Motorola Atrix: great phone, lousy accessories

From the outset, it’s a bit tough to describe exactly what the Motorola Atrix is meant to be. Is it a smartphone? A netbook replacement when coupled with the Lapdock accessory? A full-fledged hybrid device that can even give a business laptop a run for its money?

The answer is really none of the above, largely because the device is so promising on its own, but not a slam dunk when you add the accessories to the equation. The Atrix is arguably the most advanced Android smartphone currently released, particularly from a hardware standpoint. Indeed, it’s probably more advanced under the hood than just about any handset out there.

The specs are certainly impressive: a 1 GHz dual-core CPU, 1 GB of RAM, 16 GB of internal storage (expandable to 48 GB with a 32 GB microSD card) and a 4-inch screen with a 960×540 resolution that Motorola Mobility is calling “qHD.” Despite being made out of plastics, the phone doesn’t feel cheap in your hand at all, and the screen is made from Gorilla Glass, a company renowned for making screens that can withstand some punishment. Battery life is also about nine hours of talk time, but you can probably get away with a good 20 hours of general usage.

There are two cameras, one front and one rear-facing, the back lens has a 5-megapixel image sensor that is also capable of shooting 720p HD video. While there is no actual application that makes video calling possible off the bat, Qik has made a free “Qik for Atrix” app in the Android Market that enables two-way video calls between Atrix handsets, though it doesn’t appear to do the same for other Android handsets.

The power button on the top in the back also doubles as a fingerprint scanner. You can use it to add an extra layer of security but it was a bit finicky during testing, sometimes requiring two or more swipes to fully register. That’s far too long when you just want to check something quickly, but you do have the option of opting for a security passcode instead.

Once you do start using the phone, a few things stand out immediately. For one, Motorola has overlaid the main screen with its Motoblur social networking aggregator. You don’t have to use it if you don’t really want to, but it can prove to be a useful information gateway, especially for services like LinkedIn, Twitter and email. Of course, the list also includes stalwarts like Facebook, Yahoo! Mail, Picasa and a Corporate Sync app as well. These can be added too, so long as the app has an account of its own. So, for example, if you prefer to have your Skype account active, you can add it to the list and feature it prominently on the home screen.

After you get past setting up Motoblur and start navigating around the phone, you will notice the sheer speed of the device. Pages open quickly, apps render faster and processes take much less time than would be the case with previous Android phones. It’s just a shame that a device this powerful is using Android 2.2 Froyo, rather than 2.3 Gingerbread. Motorola has all but confirmed that the Atrix will be upgradeable to 2.3, but there’s no timetable as to when they will do so. Additionally, Google has begun upgrading its own core apps on Android, even if the operating system itself doesn’t change, so that is at least some consolation.

What’s especially impressive with the Atrix is that it harnesses its power the right way in just about anything it needs to do. Playing HD video is not a problem, even when streaming it via Bell’s 3G+ network. It is DLNA-enabled off the bat, and also has a Media Share app that can communicate with servers from Windows PCs and network attached storage boxes.

Copying content over to the Atrix’s internal storage or a microSD card is simple enough, except it was disappointing to find that some files could play, while others couldn’t. For such an open platform, Android seems fairly restrictive on video file formats, though there are apps in Android Market that help alleviate that. It’s just unfortunate that you can’t do anything about it when trying to stream a video or movie from your home server that is in an incompatible format.

Web browsing is a pleasure on the Atrix, with the speedy browser, pinch to zoom, bookmarks, and the scope of Google’s search capabilities. There is also a Webtop Connector app pre-installed that allows you to carry on from the Web pages you were browsing in the Firefox browser preloaded in the Lapdock accessory. This also includes any bookmarks you have, but not the add-ons.

This is a good segue into the Lapdock itself because its existence is what helps make the Atrix such a compelling device. By slotting the phone in the back, the Lapdock becomes almost like a netbook. It’s useless without the phone, since nothing will load or launch otherwise. The screen shows a projection of the Atrix’s display beside the browser, and you can interact with both seamlessly. You can enlarge the Atrix projection to full screen, but it just expands it without any bump to the resolution, so don’t expect crisp graphics.

Aside from the Linux-based platform it runs on, the Lapdock can’t really be considered a fully mature combination by any stretch. The Firefox browser it runs on is the latest release as of this review, though 4.0 is about to launch on both Windows and Mac.

The browser is a bit sluggish compared to its PC or Mac brethren. Yes, it plays Flash video, but not with the kind of fluidity users would expect. Tabbed browsing, bookmarks and other basics, including a Google search bar, are all standard fare you can use on the browser. You can add a URL as an “app” to the bottom tray, but you can’t actually install any real apps on the device.

Motorola Mobility executives told me that Firefox upgrades will be delivered to the Lapdock via software updates on the Atrix itself, so they would be applied after they’ve been downloaded and the phone is plugged into the dock. In addition, Firefox add-ons won’t all work – extensions and themes are fine, but plug-ins can’t be installed on the Lapdock.

The Lapdock is really just a shell with a screen, battery, keyboard and trackpad, so it doesn’t have anything inside that could handle those processes. Its internal battery lasts a good eight to 10 hours, just as Motorola claims, and every time you plug in the phone, it charges the Atrix, regardless of whether the Lapdock is plugged in or not.

What’s especially puzzling is that Motorola designed the trackpad to only recognize one finger. You can’t slide two fingers to scroll up or down, you actually have to press the left button and scroll down the side, as if you were browsing circa-1999. The absence of a webcam above the display also seems to be an oversight in that it would prove useful for having video calls while working on the Lapdock.

It’s important to remember that the Lapdock’s very existence begins and ends with the Atrix. It uses the 3G+ and Wi-Fi connections of the phone to do its thing online. Business users who can access and edit documents through cloud-based services and software shouldn’t have much of a problem here, so long as there’s a steady connection, and roaming charges are on someone else’s dime. Otherwise, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done offline.

The good news is that all the apps you downloaded onto the Atrix are accessible, and you can use them just the same. Have a Skype call coming in? Great, you can answer it. Got a regular call to the Atrix coming in? No problem. Using QuickOffice or some other app to look at documents? Easily done. The two USB ports in the back also come in handy in case you need to use peripherals or view documents from an external source.

But the usability still begs the question of whether the Lapdock is worth the investment. Motorola is mum on if it will have any forward compatibility with future handsets, and the pricing is currently set at $329.95 for the Lapdock alone. The Atrix is being offered for $169.95 on a three-year contract with Bell Canada, who is the exclusive carrier. And in order to qualify for the three-year contract, you must have a voice and data plan that is at least $50 per month. With no contract, the device will run you $559.95.

Seeing the Atrix + Lapdock combination as a netbook replacement is a bit tough, though it could potentially pull it off if the user was able to work in a mostly cloud-based environment.

As for the HD Multimedia Dock, I won’t really go into it here, but I will say that it’s a cool little accessory to help you playback media files on an HDTV. Only problem is, you can pretty much do the same thing by just plugging the Atrix to the TV using the included HDMI cable. Plus, $129.95 is hefty for a dock that only works with one device and doesn’t even have a USB port to playback media stored on an external hard drive. Moreover, it’s not as conducive to pulling in content from a NAS or home server, either. Spending a bit more on a dedicated media player solves all that in a jiffy.

The Atrix is not better or worse because of the accessories, since it easily stands on its own as a powerhouse. The disappointing thing is that the Lapdock isn’t more robust and functional to justify the inflated price point. It’s got a novelty to it that is hard not to like, and it is capable in some ways, but it’s hard to argue that it really amplifies or complements the Atrix the way Motorola intended.

If you’re looking for a phone with serious horsepower, the Atrix won’t disappoint, but the accessories that could come with it are another story. Despite the fact they aren’t really all that necessary for every user, the Lapdock could be useful to someone who likes the idea behind it.

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