motorola atrix hd review 22 640x359With the introduction of the Atrix HD, Motorola has just released its first 4G LTE smartphone for the AT&T network. The phone benefits on Motorola’s experience acquired with the design of the Motorola Droid RAZR and the Droid RAZR Maxx. Both the industrial design and the internal software are heavily inspired by its two predecessors which were launched with Verizon a while back.

While the Atrix HD does not have the huge 3200mAh battery of the Droid RAZR Maxx, it does have most of the software features that Motorola has developed internally, and that includes SmartActions which remains unchallenged at this point in time. Now, the question is: where does the Atrix HD fit in an extremely competitive Android landscape? It’s time for a real-world test…


Technical highlights

Display: 4.5″ 1280×720 LCD (330 ppi)
Dimensions: 69.9x 133.5 x 8.4mm, 140g
Processor: Dual-core 1.5GHz, Qualcomm Snapdragon S4
Storage: 5GB of user storage + empty micro-SD slot
Battery capacity: 1780 mAh
Cameras 8 Megapixel camera (back) + 0.92 Megapixel (front)

Context

We all use smartphones differently, so it’s important that I tell you what I do with my smartphone(s): I typically check email often with the built-in email app (via Microsoft Exchange), and reply moderately because typing on the virtual keyboard is tedious. I browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, but rarely watch movies or play music. I don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all.

On the “apps” side, I have a couple of social networks (FB, G+), a receipts manager and random apps (<20), but I rarely play games or do something super-intensive like video editing. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful. Now you know where we’re coming from…

Industrial design

motorola atrix hd review 19 640x359From a design standpoint, the Atrix HD is truly the fusion between the Motorola RAZR and the Motorola RAZR Maxx. It has the general shape of the RAZR, but in a slightly thicker format (8.4mm). The overall design inspiration obviously comes from race cars, especially the black line in the middle which is reminiscent of American classic muscle cars. Note that the phone is “splash resistant” too, according to Motorola.

motorola atrix hd review 11 640x359In the hand, the Atrix HD feels more like a Motorola RAZR Maxx, which is good because I thought that the edge of the Droid RAZR was a little too sharp for my taste. In the back, you will find the same scratch-resistant carbon treatment that previous Motorola smartphones featured. This is particularly suitable to the “racing” design of this phone, feels soft to the touch and provides additional grip which prevents the phone from slipping away. Like other Motorola phones, the camera module is in the little bulge at the top.

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On the front, the 4.5″ “ColorBoost” LCD display covers most of the surface. We’ll come back to the display description later, but this looks clean. In my opinion, Motorola should have passed on the “Motorola” marking at the top of the phone – it would look more classy – but corporate branding was just too strong this time.

motorola atrix hd review 18 640x359On the sides, Motorola has kept the number of physical buttons to the bare minimum, namely Power and Volume controls. There is also a micro-USB port for charge/sync along with an HDMI port to connect to a large display. HDMI ports should not be confused with MHL ports which also end up connecting to a full-size HDMI port on a TV/display.

The difference is that not all TV/display support MHL, and that’s particularly true for older televisions. In general, I really like it when the charging port is located at the top or bottom (vs. the side) because you can use the phone almost normally while charging.  finally, there is a SIM card and a Micro-SD slot which is empty by default.

Display (very good)

motorola atrix hd review 13 640x359With a 1280×720 resolution, the Atrix HD is right there at the top with other high-end Android phones. The screen is based on LCD technology and protected by a Gorilla Glass outer layer. Just like other high-end LCD displays, the color reproduction seems quite good, and its brightness can be pushed relatively high to make sure that it is readable outdoors.

Overall, the display is “very good”, but I can’t give it an “excellent” rating because it is slightly more reflective than select competitors, and the space between the glass surface and the LCD matrix seems a bit deeper than I’ve seen elsewhere.

Killer apps

Virtual keyboard: Ironically, despite having hundreds of thousands of apps at their disposal, most users sill refer to text-based communication as being the “critical” application for them. That’s why you must not underestimate the importance of a virtual keyboard. The more productive you want to be, and the more likely this element may get in the way.

Users have the choice between the Motorola Keyboard or Swype. Although called Motorola Keyboard, it looks very much like a stock Android keyboard and any differences would be non-obvious. It benefits from the responsiveness improvements of Android 4.0, and even with the word suggestions, it is more responsive than Android 2.4.x keyboards. That said, I expect the Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) update to further improve this aspect of the phone.

Swype keyboard: If you’ve never heard about Swype, it looks and can work as a regular virtual keyboard, but its real power is revealed when you slide your finger from one letter to the next to form words. It’s very powerful because your finger doesn’t leave the surface of the screen, making the whole motion much more accurate than “tapping” on the screen. I generally find myself typing faster with Swype, and even when I don’t use the sliding motion, the keyboard’s response time is noticeably better than the default virtual keyboard.

The weakness of Swype is that it relies a lot on a dictionary to get it right, so when I was trying to type “Activesync”, it thought that I meant “quebec”… Swype is great for conversations, but eventually, you may have to fall back to “taps” for slang or technical keywords.

motorola atrix hd review 24 640x359Email (very good): Motorola has had very good email clients for a while, and this one is no different. The typography makes emails very readable, and it is possible to perform actions on multiple items at once. This is great for email curation while on the go.

Some email clients “cheat” by checking only the notifications, but download the actual message only when you open the email app – this is NOT the case here. Deferring the email download *may* save some battery life, but it is also a major annoyance in my opinion. I get a lot of emails, so this is a big deal for me, and I feel like I can actually get some work done in an efficient way with this.

On a daily basis, the most important features are the search and background download. Not having a search is a “no go”, and having the app load the emails only when you open the app is frustrating.

motorola atrix hd review 24 640x359Calendar : the agenda view isn’t pretty or fancy, but it has everything to make you productive. You can choose between the usual month/week/day views, but given the small display the “Agenda” view is my favorite as it compresses all the appointments in one view. Adding and editing the events is fairly easy, but that’s something that I tend to do from my desktop machine whenever possible.

motorola atrix hd review 26 640x359Google Maps/Navigation (awesome): It is clear that Android has the best mapping service at the moment, and Google Maps has been instrumental to provide Google with an edge on Apple’s iOS when it comes to mapping. With Google Navigation, the lead has extended even further, especially if you take into account that you can pre-load 10 miles square worth of maps to the local storage.

Navigation is slightly different of Maps in the sense that it replaces a personal navigation device (PND) completely and provides, routing , voice directions, re-routing etc… and it does it in a very smooth way. Right now, you need to pay decent money to get the equivalent functionality on iOS.

Skype: Skype isn’t really glamorous on mobile devices, but it works decently for audio calls, even if video chats can be a bit sketchy – but still better than nothing at all. That said, it remains at the top of people’s “want” list when it comes to calls or event text chat. Skype simply has a great network of users. Of course, there are alternatives like Tango, or simply Google Hangouts, but I convincing my family and “low-tech” friends to use something else has been a losing battle.

Entertainment (Excellent)

motorola atrix hd review 33 640x359The Motorola Atrix HD is a very powerful phone which had no problem at all with any of the multimedia tasks that were thrown at it. Whether it is music or video playback, and of course gaming – the Atrix HD did all of it with ease.

It was able to play all our usual 1080p movies without breaking a sweat, and ran Riptide GP in 1280×720 at 60FPS, That’s a pretty good indicator of how fast it is, right? In the back, the Atrix HD has a powerful speaker that should be plenty loud, even in a mildly noisy environment such as an office. The sound quality is fair, but we’ve heard better, especially with the HTC One X.

Overall, the Motorola Atrix HD is a powerhouse when it comes to entertainment, and I would say that if you plan on connecting it to a TV, its native HDMI (vs. MHL) support gives it an edge when it comes to display compatibility. Most MHL phones use a micro USB to HDMI cable so they should be easy to spot. The good thing about MHL is that it also charges the phone while connecting to a TV…

Imaging (Good)

motorola atrix hd review 28 640x359Motorola has improved the camera capabilities by quite a bit. Although previous phones were  “OK”, this Atrix HD is much better in low-light than any other Motorola smartphone before it. In low-light, the photos can be a bit noisy (like with the iPhone 4S), but they look great for web uploads and social network updates. That said, if I open the photos on a big 30″ screen (2560×1600), I can see that they could be sharper and more detailed. The Motorola Atrix HD also has a tendency to crank-up the contrast.

motorola atrix nighttime photo

This photo was shot late in the evening, and it was fairly dark already

The video recording has most of the same properties. I’ve tried shooting a 720p movie outdoors, and again, for web usage this will work very well. Now, this is not something that I would want to display on a 55″ 1080p HDTV. In conclusion, I would say that while Motorola has made indisputable progress in terms of photography, the Atrix HD still faces very tough -and superior- competition from the best Android handsets out there. Check our Ubergizmo Flickr account to see some samples.

Performance (Excellent)

The Motorola Atrix HD comes with the same dual-core Snapdragon S4 at 1.5GHz, and performs in benchmarks very similarly to other phones that use the same hardware, namely the Galaxy S3 and the HTC One X (U.S version).

Antutu is an overall system performance benchmark (CPU, graphics, storage), and what it shows is that overall, most recent phones land in a comparable performance footprint. This means that unless you do something very specific (like “gaming” or “downloads”), those phones should provide a similar overall performance.

antutu atrix hdAs you can see, the Motorola Atrix HD scores pretty close to other phones equipped with a similar Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 chip which has very fast floating point performance. In this test, the quad-core chip would tend to do better because Antutu has been written in a way that is friendly to more general (non floating-point) operations.

Nenamark 2 is a test aimed at measuring the graphics processor performance. It is handy, but keep in mind that the latest games use much more complex techniques that are not represented in this test.

nenamark2 atrix hd b

 

In this test, Qualcomm Snapdragon-powered phones take the lead and grab the three top spots. They can all run a game like Riptide GP at 60FPS, and score very highly in Nenamark 2. In fact, this benchmark is near obsolescence as far as I can tell.

SunSpider is a JavaScript test that mostly measures how good the JavaScript engine is. Performance jump of 100% have been witnessed after software updates, so keep in mind that this may not be a great CPU test. It also uses a single-core, so it won’t be able to differentiate much between single and multi-core architectures. Also, please don’t consider SunSpider to be a “web performance” test, because it is not. Most of the perceived web performance is felt during the load time and rendering time, both of which often have nothing to do with JavaScript performance.

sunspider atrix hdAs you can see, the Motorola Atrix HD benefits from the latest improvements to the JavaScript engine, and easily gets the highest score. Given that it runs on basically the same hardware than the GS3 and the EVO 4G LTE, you can see how much software optimizations matter.

Perceived performance

“Perceived performance”: Synthetic benchmarks can only carry us so far. What they don’t show for example is the user experience is smooth and responsive (responsiveness is not always solved with brute-force processor power). In the end, what good is raw performance if you can’t perceive it?

Perceptibly, the Atrix HD does well and it is comparable to other high-end phones in its category. Android 4.1 should increased the perceived performance and at this point, my Galaxy Nexus with Jelly Bean (Android 4.1) is the only phone that I find perceptibly more responsive.

Battery life

With a 14% drop overnight (8hrs) when using only the LTE radio, this means that this phone could stay up and synching with 4G LTE for a couple of days. This is also the battery depletion that we expect to see when the phone is sitting in your pocket all day. With WiFi, the battery life should be better, and we’re still running the test at the moment. Now, you need to know that Motorola has built-in smart actions, a system that allows users to easily program many types of automatic behaviors and some of them are really handy for saving power.

For example, you can pre-program the phone to turn off all the radios you go to bed, this is for sure a huge battery saver. And because it can wake up 30mn before you do, by the time you have the phone in hand, every email and updates will have been synchronized. You can use many “triggers” like location, WiFi network name, time etc… the possibilities are huge.

It’s too bad that Motorola could not include the awesome 3200mAh battery of the RAZR Maxx, which is probably what every Motorola user was expecting. In the end, the market will decide if that was the right decision, but I am 100% sure that it would have been worth it as customers are willing to pay for additional battery capacity.

Keep in mind that battery life varies a lot depending on the apps that run in the background, your network reception, your local network density and the amount of time that the: display is ON. You can always refer to the Android battery report to see what is consuming the power. Finally, keep in mind that network transactions generated by apps can appear as “Android” as it is ultimately the OS that handles those transactions.

Conclusion (very good)

motorola atrix hd review 02 640x359

From left to right: Droid Razr, Razr Maxx and Atrix HD

I consider the Motorola Atrix HD to be a “very good” phone: It has a large and crisp display, a fast hardware platform, a recent Android version and unique features like Smart Actions that few competitors have.

That said, this is an extremely competitive environment and despite all its goodness, the Atrix HD faces a ferocious competition with the Galaxy Nexus, the HTC One X and the Galaxy S3 – all of which are more expensive by at least $100. If you are an business user, you may want to take a closer look at what Motorola has done to help IT departments integrate its phones. For the general public, the choice will be harder and things will often come down to the industrial design, or whichever financial incentives AT&T may be offering. If you want a subsidy, the Galaxy Nexus is out of the picture, at least with AT&T.

From my point of view, the software is really what sets the Motorola phones apart. SmartActions is my favorite one, as it is a feature that is genuinely useful and which may help you save battery life. The MotoCast software can also be very handy if you need to access files on your home computer while on the go.

I hope that this review was helpful, and if there is something that I did not cover, feel free to drop a comment below. I’ll take a look as soon as I can.

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