Motorola Atrix

The Motorola Atrix isn’t just a mobile phone handset, it’s a story. It’s a story that draws into sharp contrast the convergence that has been going on in the mobile space for a number of years. Motorola aren’t just launching a high-end handset in the Atrix, but they’re trying to suggest it is much more. Have Motorola put too many eggs in their convergence basket, or is this a revolutionary step forward?

When we first saw the Motorola Atrix at CES 2011 Motorola told a convincing tale and tantalised us with the range of possibilities. Whilst LG talked up their Optimus 2X handset (also a launch device for Nvidia’s Tegra 2 dual core mobile chipset) they focused on gaming. Motorola, however, talked about putting a computer in your pocket and providing a range of accessories to get the most out of it.

The result is the handset and a number of docks, expanding the remit of the Motorola Atrix beyond just a phone. But how unique is this really and is it a move you’d reasonably want to take? First and foremost, the Motorola Atrix is a mobile phone and it will have to compete against some formidable opponents for space in your pocket, opponents like the Samsung Galaxy S II and the aforementioned LG Optimus 2X.

Designed to be different?

The Atrix bears the hallmarks of Motorola design and at first glance looks like a large Defy, with rounded corners and those four touch controls across the bottom of the screen. The 4-inch display occupies the face of the device, competing with most rivals in terms of sheer space, even if the rest of the device feels a little chunky.

The Atrix doesn’t look especially eye-catching. The flat screen lacks the quirky curved edges that you’d find on the LG Optimus 2X or the HTC Sensation. Around the back it is flat, and save for the patterning of the plastic back plate (which looks like a mock carbonfibre weave) there isn’t that much detailing to get excited about. It measures 63.5 x 117.75 x 10.95mm, that 10.95mm might sound thin, but it’s fatter than the Samsung or the iPhone 4 and something about the Atrix just makes it feel a little bulky in the hand. We also noticed that the bottom of the phone got warm in use too.

The in-the-hand experience is also marred by the incredibly slippery back cover. It is plastic (although feels solid enough, free from creaks) but we’ve sent the Atrix skittering across the room on a number of occasions already. This isn’t helped by the placement of the standby button on the top of the device. The standby button, uniquely, incorporates a fingerprint scanner (for added security), so in the action of swiping your finger over the button you end up with a really odd grip on the device, which at times saw us juggling with the phone as it popped-out from our grip. It’s something you do get a little more adept at doing (and you program in both left and right index fingers which is really handy), although we did sometimes find ourselves so frustrated with the whole experience of unlocking the screen we resorted to the manual PIN entry instead.

The display deserves a special mention because it is one of the first Android devices to take a step-up in resolution. The 4-inch screen offers a 960 x 540 pixel resolution, resulting in a pixel density of 275ppi. This means it can reproduce finer, sharper, details and you’ll be able to resolve smaller text than you can on a lower resolution screen. When it comes to video playback, for online content you are streaming it often doesn’t make a difference, because the resolution is low anyway, but it gives a mild boost to local higher-resolution content. The colour reproduction is a little flat, lacking punch and vibrancy, but the display is bright enough and makes a good show of whites and depth to blacks. The screen is topped with Corning Gorilla Glass for added resilience to damage.

Motoblur rears its head

Power the phone on and you are greeted by Android 2.2.2 (at the time of writing), with Motoblur layered over the top. This being an Orange exclusive handset in the UK, it was preloaded with some Orange applications (Orange Maps, Orange Wednesdays, Your Orange) which in this case are pretty much harmless and in some cases useful. Orange Maps is the exception and we can’t see why anyone would opt to use it over the already excellent Google Maps: when we came to start the app it failed anyway.

Motorblur itself offers up some interesting tweaks, which mostly circulate around social networking, letting you login to many online accounts so it can serve up the results through various apps and widgets. As Android has developed over the last year or so, the provision of Motoblur has become mostly irrelevant, the native Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc, apps providing plenty of functionality in their own right and often better presented. Some of the supporting Motoblur widgets are questionable: the social networking widget shows you one update, or you can have a widget that shows your latest status update. But they never really give you a sense of what is happening, and they seem rather low impact for the screen space they demand.

The Widgets can be resized, so rather than presenting you with a list of three variants of the same thing (like HTC do) you can adjust the one widget. Overall, the widgets lack excitement, but they do pick up images rather well, better than Sony Ericsson's Timescape does. Given that there is the resolution on the display to present plenty of information through widgets, Motorola find themselves bettered by rivals: HTC is well known for its glossy widgets and even the Optimus 2X we have on the desk offers richer visuals in widgets.

Motorola also offer a universal inbox as part of Motoblur. It isn’t quite as universal as we’d like however, relying on your Motoblur accounts. If you are signed into all the services, then your messages will fall into place into the universal inbox. If you opt out then the universal inbox becomes much less useful, as it won’t offer up messages from standalone Android apps.

Generally speaking the touch response from the Atrix is excellent, the on-screen keyboard is reasonable, but Swype does come preinstalled as an option and can save your key presses. Navigating around the device is slick and fast and we saw very little sight of instability. The camera, perhaps, was a little slow to launch at times but on the whole we didn't have problems with day-to-day use. 

Cutting into core applications, this being an Android phone you’ll find everything present and correct, from Gmail to Android Market and everything in-between. Motorola haven’t tinkered too much here, the calendar and browser are as you’d expect from Android, but they have tinkered with the camera interface, giving it a control makeover.

 

Caught on film: cameras

There is a 5-megapixel camera around the back of the Atrix, supported by a dual LED flash which is mostly ineffective when it comes to image capture in low light, but works well as an illuminator for the video camera. There is also a front facing camera for video calling or filming yourself.

The camera results are pretty much par for the course. We’ve seen some great results from the likes of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc when it comes to photography recently as well as the Samsung Galaxy S II. The Atrix doesn’t hit those highs, but performs well enough. Yes, it struggles in high-contrast environments, but so do most other phone cameras. As mentioned the “flash” is largely ineffective - once you get close enough for it to illuminate the subject, it will blow out highlights. There is no touch focusing on offer, so it's basically point and shoot with the on-screen button.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Motorola Atrix doesn’t (yet) offer Full HD video capture like some of its dual core friends. The 720p 30fps footage that it does capture looks good enough and Motorola have promised that there will be an update in the future to pack in those extra pixels. 

 

Entertainment

With an eye on entertainment, Motorola have packed in a number of apps to keep you going. You get DLNA streaming, which will pick up content from a sharing device as well as a Media Share app which will offer to share your phone’s contents for other devices to use. Although they sit in the same realms the apps are separate, that is until you dive into DLNA and find it also has a sharing option. In fact the two apps use the same mechanism, with the Media Share app basically offering up a wizard to get you started with media sharing.

We didn’t find DLNA to be as stable as it was on other phones, nor was file support that wide with some formats throwing up error messages. This being an Tegra 2 device, however, you’ll find there is plenty of power to cut through HD video and it tackled our sample DivX HD with rare gusto. However, it refused to play the HD MPEG4 and MOV files we supplied it, the sort of thing we'd capture on digital cameras. Of course, you can expand playback by downloading a different player from Android Market.

This is something of a problem when it comes to docking the device, as although you access to Motorola’s Entertainment Center (more on which later), you might find that you struggle to play many of the file formats you’ve got - either having transferred them to the local memory (or microSD) or streaming from your home server.

Local video isn’t the only source of movie fun on your phone. As this is an Android device it is happy to play Flash video too, and will serve up BBC iPlayer (through the app or browser), as well as other catch-up TV services. YouTube is also in place and Motorola have adapted the music player to be a “connected” player, pulling in community support and giving you the option of searching YouTube and saving video (shortcuts) to a library for easy access. The latter is a nice idea, but made largely irrelevant by the likes of Vevo, which provides you with plenty of music options and is a free download from the Android Market - such is the way with Android, the app space is quick to surpass the tweaks made by manufacturers in many cases.

The music player isn’t that dynamic compared to many others these days: there are no lock screen controls and the notification bar will only tell you music is playing, it won’t let you do anything with it, like pause or skip tracks. That’s not really a big deal because the likes of Amazon MP3 or DoubleTwist can put these things in place for you. It will offer you TuneWiki lyrics in the player, but we can’t really say we’re excited about that proposition.

In fact, Motorola haven’t added any controls to the notification bar at all - others will let you access settings, toggle Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, or access your recently used apps, but Motorola’s is barren.

 

Entertainment central

If Motorola is guilty of not quite keeping up to pace with some aspects of their customisation, it would be fair to say that a number of elements could be responsible for the distraction. Entertainment Center is one such option. Entertainment Center is essentially a media player view that gives you a nice clean interface for browsing music, movies and photos.

It uses tiles for movies, photos and music which scroll across the page. It’s neat enough and means you can get to organised content easily, so it is ideal for the big screen. Plug your Atrix directly into an HDMI cable and this is the view you’ll get, with the phone display becoming the controller. There is no HDMI mirroring and if you don’t want to go for the docks, then Entertainment Center is the default view over HDMI. You can’t access Entertainment Center in the phone itself, only when it is connected to another display device.

We can’t quite figure out why Entertainment Center offers everything up at an angular view, but it’s better than messing around with files and folders. Entertainment Center is part of webtop too, so if you plug into the Lapdock or HD Multimedia Dock then you’ll get the option to launch Entertainment Center.

 

Web-slinging webtop

Webtop is the user interface you’ll be presented with if you plug into the Lapdock or the HD Multimedia Dock. It’s a simple interface, with a selection of shortcuts in the App Tray across the bottom of the screen. The left-hand side is dedicated to your phone, the right to the file manger and browser applications. You can add your own browser shortcuts for that favourite site if you want too. Across the top of the webtop display you can control basic settings, as well as getting notifications.

The browser is Firefox and essentially gives you full browser functionality, so in theory you can saunter off and load up all your cloud services and get on with your work. The Atrix comes preinstalled with a Citrix, a nod to business users. Although we couldn’t test Citrix ourselves, we did have it demoed by a Moto Agent, who could log into his corporate Moto Windows PC in the office and work as normal. For us mobile workers, having a full browser to access Gmail, Google Docs or just the back end of your website is a real benefit.

You also get full access to your phone OS, so you can use any of the apps you already have installed on your phone, with the option to go fullscreen and rotate as need be. That means you could fire up Angry Birds (control issues aside) and play on the 11.6-inch screen of the Lapdock, or on your 40-inch TV. You can run the phone view and the browser side-by-side, so you could, for example, be keeping an eye on Twitter for Android or Spotify while working on Google Docs, just as you might do on a real computer.

Webtop is really geared towards browsing, and as Firefox is fully Flash compliant, you’ll be able to fire up BBC iPlayer, for example, to view on the big screen. The range of options are only really limited by what you have on your phone and what you can access through the browser.

Have keyboard, will type

Add the Bluetooth mouse and keyboard into the mix with the HD Multimedia Dock and you’ve essentially turned your TV into an Android computer. The output resolution is 720p and while some may complain about the lack of resolution output it isn’t a huge deal given the convenience of the setup - and the fact that early adopters (i.e., those who sign-up in the month of May) can get these accessories for free or handsomely discounted, from Orange.

We like the keyboard, it is a respectable size and the typing action is good, with the rear battery bulge setting it at a good angle for typing. Media controls and things like volume find their way onto the keyboard along with convenient Android shortcuts - to contacts, Gmail or messaging. The quality isn’t brilliant and we’ve seen a few loose keytops on the sample we have, but treat it with respect and we think it will fair well in casual use. The mouse is a little low quality and isn’t so good, but works well enough.

Both the keyboard and the mouse connect to the phone via Bluetooth. Once connected they can control the device no matter where it is, whether docked or not. In practise we can’t see that anyone would opt to do this, but it does at least mean that you can use the mouse with the Lapdock, if you’ve gone the whole hog.

Turning to the Lapdock you see yourself hitting that £299 price which does raise a lot of questions, as for £299 you can get a netbook of similar screen size, which then gives you a full OS. But let’s not hang the Lapdock out to dry without exploring what it offers first.

The back flips-up to give you the dock for the Atrix, which slots in and becomes the brains. The Lapdock itself is just a host and provides no processing power. It essentially offers batteries, the screen, the keyboard, trackpad, two USB ports and stereo speakers. Plug the Atrix into the slim-profile Lapdock and you launch into webtop, as we’ve already detailed. The Lapdock hits its claimed 7-hours of battery life, and will charge the phone as it goes, so after a session on the Lapdock you won’t have drained your phone - you can just rip it off the rear dock and off you go.

The keyboard is reasonable, but it is a little cramped and being flat doesn’t make it the best for typing, which is where it starts to loose out against some of the better netbooks out there. The trackpad also feels a limited, control is a little indistinct and using the mouse is a far better experience. Little details, like the front battery level monitor (as found on the MacBook, but ironically not the MacBook Air which is of similar slender dimensions to the Lapdock) are nice touches, as are the USB ports on the rear, so you can plug in a memory stick to access additional files, although it won't read large discs, so you're restricted manly to thumb drives.

Pulling your Atrix from a webtop session won’t lose what you were doing and you’ll be able to open up the browser windows you were looking at by heading into the Webtop Connector app. You can still take calls and access your regular phone features while it is docked, so the only thing you really give up is the direct touch control.

In reality there are two things we don’t like about the Lapdock. Firstly it’s the degree of change from our regular workflow, which is purely subjective. If you only really interested in web-based solutions, or find that you can accomplish everything without having to resort to more advanced applications, then fine, the Atrix and the a dock might be all you need. Secondly it’s price: with a netbook of the same price you have the flexibility to install more, but could rely on cloud services synced through Google just as effectively. It’s going to come down very much to what you want from your phone and whether you want to dive in with the accessories.

 

Telephone first

But remember that the Motorola Atrix is a mobile phone first, with the possibility of expansion. If you don’t want to walk down this path, you’ll find that the Atrix is a respectable device in its own right. We found calling to be good quality and over the trail period we were very impressed by the battery life. Motorola have packed in a higher capacity battery than average and it shows. With many high-end devices we find ourselves running short of battery in the afternoon, and charging every night. Over the weekend with light usage we had over 30 hours from the battery, and we've managed to get through busy working days without a problem, which is a strong positive point.

Verdict

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this review of the Motorola Atrix. Many of the features that make the Atrix distinct are rolled into the accessory docks so it seems fair to cover those at the same time. As a phone then we feel that there are other devices that offer more excitement. Motoblur isn’t that engaging, but like LG and Samsung rivals, it’s relatively easy to step away from it and rely on the wholesome Android experience instead.

But something about the Atrix doesn’t wow like some of it’s rivals. The hiccups with video formats, the display that’s begging to be a little more vibrant, the fiddling with the finger scanner and finish that isn’t quite tactile enough leaves us with the impression that Motorola have a little more work to do before the Atrix becomes the darling of consumer convergence.

We love the fact that Motorola have really thrown themselves into the Atrix and time will tell whether the Lapdock is something that people really want. We’re not quite sold on the experience, but it’s certainly innovative and for some it will be an attractive proposition.



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