It was my last day at CES 2011 and we had already had quite a full morning. I was exhausted, but Francis just kept pushing. “I want to go see Motorola. I want to go see Motorola.” And he kept whining, “I want to go see what Motorola is offering and I want to go now.” He wore me down. So I acquiesced.
Okay, so perhaps that’s not exactly how it happened. In actuality it went something like this:
Francis – “Hey Dan, what do you say we go check out Motorola?”
Me – “Sure.”
And, thanks to Francis, we had a chance to spend about an hour with a number of the key representatives from Motorola checking out their newest offerings.
I have to give Francis a good bit of credit; during our time with Moto I was gushing like a giddy schoolgirl, and he was remarkably patient with me.
There was a good reason for me to be so excited, however; you see, Motorola was rolling out some of the sharpest tech I had seen in a while. They showed off the Xoom, the first true Android tablet running Android 3.0 Honeycomb and the Atrix, what looked to be a powerhouse Android handset with more than a few tricks up its proverbial sleeve.
I’ve been using an Atrix for quite some time, and while I could have posted a review on it some time back, there is SO much going on with the handset that I wanted to use it for an extended period first. I have done just that, so the question now is… was my initial giddiness deserved? Does the Atrix live up to my initial excitement? Let’s take a look.
The world’s most powerful smartphone: With its advanced dual core processing technology Motorola Atrix 4G puts the power of a PC in your pocket. The Motorola Atrix 4G features with top, a web-based application used with optional docs that truly mobilizes your desktop.
One-of-a-kind security: Motorola Atrix is smart about security. Fingerprint recognition technology means only you can access what’s on your phone. It’s faster, enhanced security that beats password or pin locks.
Your center for entertainment: With up to 48 GB of memory–16 GB onboard an optional 32 GB micro-ST card–you can store thousands of songs, photos and other files, including full-length movies. Now that’s entertainment.
Dual core, like your computer: Dual core technology makes stuff go faster. Dual core gives your phone computer like processing speed. That means you can do e-mail, play media, browse the web and access documents all at once. You can also see graphics and play video games faster than most other smartphones.
The display so clear it hurts: You’ll be blown away by game stuff look super crisp and rich with 24-bit color is the world’s first qHD smartphone display. That kind of display on your smart phone screen means everything becomes clear, whether its words, games, TV shows, pictures for the latest movie.
Face to face in the palm of your hand: Really need to make eye contact for that important call? You can with Motorola Atrix front facing web camera and free Qik video chat app. Face-to-face chats easily switch to video share with the five megapixel rear facing camera, so that you can show and tell eye-to-eye.
Watch all your HD videos with big-screen clarity: That’s right–watch all of your HD videos on a big screen. Watch the ones you take as well as the ones you buy or rent. Motorola Atrix keeps your favorite shows with you and let’s you watch them on your phone, on your computer or on your HDTV. It’s real mobile content.
Do everything you want or nothing at all: Is it too much to ask to be able to listen to your music, work on your latest slide presentation and IM or text your pals? Absolutely not. If you can do all that, your smartphone should too. Motorola Atrix can keep up and make it easier with apps from android market.
PC power in your pocket: Get the freedom to access your files, photos, e-mails and web from any large screen wherever you might be. Motorola HX delivers the computing power an instant connectivity to the Internet no matter where your actual computer may be.
Get on the web. The real, full web: The full Firefox browser available via webtop along Adobe flash player enabled rich web browsing and store and access to your work or personal documents no matter where you are. Open, view, edit and send presentation spreadsheets and standard documents on your phone with quickoffice or by using the available web apps for popular document, spreadsheet and presentation tools, with Motorola’s webtop application and compatible docks.
Widget icon too big? Shrink it. Too small? Make it bigger. Up to you: No need to log in. No need to open multiple apps. Just look at your home screen to find real-time Facebook updates, incoming e-mail without important lunch date- all at the same time. Resizable widgets let you prioritize and personalize, to see what’s going on at a glance.
Okay, so there was a good amount to read right there. Motorola has a lot to say about their flagship handset, and it is worth the space to really get a sense of HOW the company is trying to position this phone. Yes, there is a lot they have to say about the handset and much of it, from my experience, is spot on. It took a bit for me to actually get to the point of being able to write “from my experience”. Let me explain.
When Francis and I saw the super-phone at CES, I knew I wanted one. It was really quite amazing to see what this dual-core handsets is capable of and the laptop and media docks appealed to my inner (and outer) geek. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the device. I hoped to go hands-on through a review, but a short time before the phone went on sale reviews started popping up and it looked like I would have to go the retail route, and so … I did.
I bought an Atrix and brought it home. At the time I was reviewing the T-Mobile MyTouch 4G. The MyTouch is single-core while the Atrix is dual-core, which means the Atrix should be able to run circles around the MyTouch, right?
Well that wasn’t my experience.
In fact, the Atrix kept locking up on me while the MyTouch kept chugging along.
And so I returned my Atrix.
The very next day a review unit arrived. Seems the earliest reviews were handsets that came from the carriers. My review sample came directly from Motorola (thanks Moto!), and they had waited until the phone was actually released to send me a review version. It was a good thing they sent me one, though, since it was immediately clear that the Atrix IS blazing fast, and for whatever reason — the one I purchased at AT&T was a lemon. I was impressed.
Based upon my impressions of the second unit, Judie ordered an Atrix from AT&T as well.
Unfortunately my tale of how I finally got up and running on the Atrix isn’t done. No, the review unit of the device was working well; it was working well until I tried to shoot video with it, that is. The second day I was using it (and really starting to love it), my 10th grade confirmation students were learning how to share a prayer in sign language. I was pretty impressed and wanted to video tape them. I started the Atrix camera in video recording mode, and it did just that … until it hit the one minute mark. At the One minute mark, the phone froze and I could not unfreeze it until I pulled the battery and rebooted. I did so and started recording again. The same thing happened again. And again. And again.
Clearly something was wrong.
I spoke with the represenative at Motorola, and two days later a replacement review unit came. It worked flawlessly through the rest of the review period. I’m going to chalk the first two units to my dumb luck, but I did need to share my experience before jumping into the actual review.
I was initially disappointed in the feel of the handset. This is most likely because I have been using an HTC HD7 and a T-Mobile MyTouch 4G (also made by HTC). Both of those handsets are made from heavier materials, with the T-Mobile handset constructed from heavy metal and hard protective rubber. The Motorola Atrix, by comparison, is made almost entirely from plastic; with the exception of the glass screen, of course. The result is that the Atrix, while not actually all that light, FEELS feels far lighter and less substantial than the others.
This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but it did remind me of something I had seen when the Atrix was demoed in Las Vegas — that unit had a tremendous number of scratches around the microUSB and HDMI ports. Let’s face it, plastic is going to scratch more easily and consistently than other materials will.
There is another side to this, however. When I first showed Elana the MyTouch 4G she HATED the heft and the way the phone felt in her hand; she far prefers a lighter, simpler handset, and that is what the Atrix offers when compared to the MyTouch 4G or HTC HD7. In other words, whether you like the light plastic used to construct the Atrix or not is largely going to be an issue of personal taste. And let me be perfectly clear — the Atrix does not feel cheap. It does feel quite solid, and despite my initial misgivings about the plastic it has held its own while I’ve been using it for the past few weeks.
Buttons?? I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Buttons:
When Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone, he noted that when you add physical buttons to a phone you force the phone to be used in one screen orientation and one orientation alone. By skipping all but the home button, Apple ensured that the phone could be used in any on any of four orientations. It also meant that the iPhone could serve multiple purposes and not be limited by a physical arrangement of buttons. That is the same tactic that Motorola has taken with the Atrix. When you look at the phone you really see nothing more than the screen. It is big and beautiful, and it isn’t limited to one orientation by a set of physical buttons. A lot of people love that. As I discovered during my review of the MyTouch 4G, however, I kind of like having physical buttons; I missed them when using this device at first.
The lack of buttons makes it more difficult to use the phone without actually looking down at it, but it does have the added benefit that you can use the phone in pretty much any orientation. It is a trade-off, and I found after a few days with the Atrix I could go either way and be quite happy.
A little more than a month ago I had the opportunity to review another of AT&T’s Android handsets. One of my big issues with that particular phone was that it was almost impossible to control the volume on the handset without looking down at it, due to the degree to which the volume rocker was recessed into the phone. That is not the case with the Motorola Atrix at all. The volume rocker is raised just enough for you to be able to adjust the volume without looking down.
When I heard that the Atrix had a fingerprint reader I thought it was a gimmick; let me assure you that it is not.
Enrolling your fingers (that is, letting the phone know whose fingerprint it is) is simple and takes a few seconds. After that all you have to do is swipe your enrolled finger across the reader and then #@!BAM!@# — the home screen is unlocked.
It works quite well, although at times I tended to swipe my fingers too quickly and was asked to repeat the process. The location of the fingerprint reader (center part of the upper back) was not ideal for me comfort-wise, but that might be the arthritis speaking.
Once the video issue with the second phone was fixed, the cameras worked quite well for both stills and video. No, I still would not use this to replace a dedicated camera, but it certainly did the job when needed.
Overall I need to commend Motorola on the actual build quality of the handset. I experienced three different Motorola Atrix headsets over a two-week period, and all of them had an excellent fit and finish.
The back cover goes all around the handset, covering the sides, top and bottom as well. It feels rather flimsy on its own, but one put it back in place the whole handset feels quite solid. Best of all, everything fits together quite precisely. Which again is a huge improvement over the last AT&T handset I reviewed.
What can I say about the screen on the Motorola Atrix? It is big, it is bold, and it is absolutely gorgeous. After using it for a while I went back to my iPhone and, wow, does my iPhone screen look tiny. Sure the iPhone’s Retina display is gorgeous, but Motorola found a way to have a screen that is both large and gorgeous. And YES! The Atrix’s screen is also made from Corning’s Gorilla Glass.
The phone’s body may feel light and a bit too “plasticky” for me, but the screen… that is one tough beautiful screen! Bravo Moto!
The Atrix ships with Android 2.2. No, it is not Android 2.3, but 2.2 is still quite nice.
The Atrix also ships with Motorola’s Motoblur. As Motorola explains …
Motoblur is more than just some handy homepage widgets. Those widgets actually can combine and continuously sync your most used content, including your contacts (even profile pictures) from your personal and work phone books and from Facebook and twitter, your e-mail accounts from Yahoo, Gmail, Facebook and your corporate mailbox, and status updates from Facebook and twitter. And that’s just a sample. Each of these widgets can be customized to include more or less information, and sized to fit your screen. There are no logins or apps to open, and your data is always safe, backed up on the Motoblur servers. Now that’s smart.
Use your power for good: Motorola Atrix comes with Motoblur. And Motoblur has the battery manager widget, which allows you to customize your phone’s power consumption. Save 30% here, 10% there, I get 100% peace of mind that you have more time to talk and less time worrying about charging up.
Clean up that address book: Have your brothers three different e-mail addresses in five different places? No problem. Put Motoblur to work. When you set up your account, Motoblur post anything on addresses, phone numbers and addresses, and set up your phone automatically with contacts from Facebook, twitter and MySpace, e-mail, Gmail and more. Done!
Keep it safe and secure: Once you set up Motoblur, your data is continually backed up, so you don’t use the name or number. Need to replace your phone? Use a computer to lock or white info from your old phone. Or move it to a new Motorola phone with just a few clicks. Lose your phone? Find it for free using Motoblur and the phones built in GPS. No apps required.
Keep your friends close: Motoblur easily keeps you up to date with your Facebook, MySpace and Twitter friends, in real-time, in one place. It also has the ability to thread updates, tweets and profile pics through your calls, messages and contacts, creating an experience that’s both smart and social. Blast your status to one or more networks. Or use Motoblur to help narrow the noise, receiving news from only the friends you care about most.
Before the Atrix was released, I had read a fair bit of complaining that it was shipping with Motoblur. Personally I like it, although Judie does not [at all]. I like the integration, and I like some of the widgets that it offers. As an aside, however — I should note that while I LIKE Motoblur, I LOVE HTC Sense. Given a choice, I would go with Sense.
I found that once I had configured Motoblur to my liking and had determined which widgets to use, Motoblur did give me a sense of a more unified experience that I appreciated. At the same time, I did find that this dual-core phone would inexplicably slow down at times, and a number of friends suggested that it was likely Motoblur causing the issue. In light of the fact that I saw no such issues with the MyTouch 4G, which also runs Android 2.2, I suspect they are right and Blur was the cause of the problem.
If you are a regular reader, then you’ll know that voice recognition is a huge deal for me. It is something I rely upon quite heavily, and once I started using an Android handset this became even more the case. Why? Because with Android I can use voice-to-text transcription anywhere there is text input. On the MyTouch 4G, Nuance’s transcription technology is deeply embedded. I like this since their engine is more accurate than Google’s. This level of integration is not available on the Atrix, but thanks to Nuance’s FlexT9 keyboard the same technology can be added as a $4.99 “after-market” app.
The excellent microphone on the Atrix combined with the speedy dual-core processor is amazing; transcriptions were fast and accurate. Overall it was a pleasure to use in this manner, and it is reason enough for me to love this phone.
So the short summary of the Motorola Atrix as a phone is this: I’m mixed on the plastic build of the handset, I love the Gorilla glass used for the screen, I love the screen in general, and I am impressed by the speed of the phone itself. The cellular radio is quite good at getting and holding a signal, and the voice quality I experienced was excellent. I’m mixed on Motoblur, and I currently have a like/don’t-like relationship with it.
If I were in the market for an Android handset on AT&T would I buy the Atrix? Right now I think it is the best choice on their network, so yes.
The excitement over the Atrix was not just about the phone, however. The accessories that Motorola has released with it are a big part of the story. I had originally planned on making these accessories, the lapdock and the media dock a central part of the review, but that changed as I used the devices with it.
Let me explain.
The Laptop Dock is an awesome concept. We’ve seen attempts at doing something similar over the past few years, but all of them fell short — one never even shipped. The Atrix doesn’t have that problem. The day the phone was released, so was the laptop dock. It looks like a can’t-lose proposition.
The actual dock is quite nice. Unlike the Atrix it’s largely metal; it has a sleek look and feel that is reminiscent of something that would be released by Apple or Sony. In other words, from an industrial design stand-point it’s pretty impressive.
It is rather thin, although the MacBook Air 11″ has it beat.
The MBA is wider but shallower.
It’s also impressive once you open it up. The island keys on the keyboard are quite pleasant to use.
The trackpad is another story. While not exactly spacious, it isn’t small and unusable by any stretch of the imagination either. Unfortunately, the mouse trackpad is a pain; I don’t know how else to put it. For instance, it isn’t possible to scroll on the screen; for that you need to use the up and down arrows, and that is a pain. Furthermore, the motion while moving the cursor is not nearly as fluid as what I have become accustomed to from using other laptops, most recently the MacBook Air.
The screen is quite nice. It’s nicely sized for what they had to work with, and it’s quite clear and bright.
The laptop dock includes USB ports, has speakers, and it also has a 3.5mm jack for audio.
Trackpad issues aside, at first pass this whole setup is rather impressive. The problem for me is that when actually using it, it leaves a good bit to be desired.
Plug the phone into the lapdock (the cradle is on the back), and the phone screen pops up on the laptop’s screen; it is rather cool. You can also open a full Firefox browsing window. That’s great so long as you only expect netbook speeds. It’s fast enough, but certainly not speedy. It works, don’t get me wrong, but it very much is similar to the experience of an underpowered netbook, and there’s no question in my mind that we are in a post-netbook era.
A big disappointment for me as well came in terms of voice recognition. As noted previously, one of the key reasons I’ve been increasingly drawn to Android is the ability to use voice recognition anywhere that there is also text input. The problem here is that once you plug the phone into the laptop dock, you lose the soft keyboard in favor of the physical one; that means you lose the microphone button as well.
The fact that the laptop dock will charge the phone and gives you a netbook experience while you are using it is a huge plus, but just don’t go comparing it to something like the MacBook Air 11.
I know, I know, the MBA is an entirely different animal at an entirely different price point, but here’s the thing; the idea here would be to NOT carry the MBA but to carry the Atrix and dock instead. In other words, with this setup I would trade a phone and a notebook for a phone that becomes a notebook. Two devices traded for two devices, but the two devices from Motorola offer a fully integrated package. In other words there IS an either/or situation set up here, and on that count there is a clear winner … and it is not the Atrix.
My recommendation is this:
If you have a laptop, then you don’t need this piece of equipment. If you can afford it, go buy a refurbished MacBook Air 11” notebook. If, however, you want to have access to a good keyboard and a larger screen than what’s on your phone, and you want to only pay $300 or so, then there is a good bit to say about purchasing this laptop dock when you pick up the phone.
Bear in mind however that the $300 additional that you pay for the dock isn’t the true cost of having the laptop dock. AT&T forces you to get a tethering plan if you choose to use the laptop dock. When I first heard about this, I actually defended the choices that AT&T was making; having used it for a while I have to say that the added expense doesn’t thrill me, and I’m not sold on the cost of adding the laptop dock along with the added data expense.
The Media Dock is also a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand I love the concept; I love the idea of being able to plug this dual-core phone into a dock in order to use it to share and view media.
The Media Dock adds USB, HDMI and Audio out. It also charges the phone.
I love the keyboard that Motorola is selling. It is refined, comfortable and just an overall impressive design.
In fact, it reminds me a lot of Apple’s wireless keyboard.
The mouse, on the other hand, feels rather cheap and toyish.
It really is amazing the contrast between the quality of the keyboard and the mouse.
The remote, while also plastic, is quite nice. It feels good to hold and use and it has just enough buttons to make navigation simple; Apple could learn from this.
So yes, the Media Dock works, and it is executed quite nicely.
Here’s the thing however – I am now used to using my iPhone or iPad to stream media to my TV. I can now use my iPad to share iTunes movies through my Apple TV, and I showed slides that were on my iPad to my students the other night through a single cable attached to the HDTV in my study. Moreover, I’ve now reviewed a number of devices that will wirelessly send the signal from your laptop to the large high-definition television in your den or bedroom.
There are lots of ways to get media from the web or off of your mobile device to display on the TV, this is just one of many. A year or two ago, this would have been “WOW! OMG! AMAZING!!!”, but in 2011 it is more like, “Oh, that’s nice.” Add to that the fact that when the phone is docked in the cradle on the other side of the room, it isn’t sitting on the arm of the chair next to you and… it is a mixed bag. Still, if I were buying the Atrix, I WOULD pick up one of the cradles so that I at least had the option to dock it when I wanted.
Motorola Atrix left, iPhone 4 right
HTC HD7 left, Motorola Atrix Right
So after going gaga at CES and then finally using the Atrix for an extended period of time. If I were buying this phone, I would get the Media Dock and the remote. I might even pick up the keyboard; I don’t think that I would purchase the Laptop Dock, however. If I did NOT have a laptop , then I might consider it — but I would never dump my laptop in favor of this.
If I wanted an Android phone on AT&T’s network, right now I would most likely pick the Atrix. All my criticism and initial issues aside, the phone is a good phone. It does stand on its own quite well, and it is probably the best Android phone available on AT&T at this moment. With seemingly thousands of new Android handsets released each month, though (okay so I exaggerated a bit, but not by much), I’m not sure how long that would be the case. I enjoyed using the Atrix, but am not heartbroken to be sending it back. The excitement that I had at CES was not fully realized when I had one for real. In fact, it was not realized at all. I would not be UNHAPPY to be using an Atrix but it would not make me giddy the way it did in Vegas or the way using the iPhone still does on occasion. The Atrix is a good phone, but it is not the slam dunk I expected it to be. And for the record, Judie returned hers within a week.
The bells and whistles of the laptop dock and the media cradle were amazing when I saw them at CES. Unfortunately they’re a bit like a moped or a sailboat – they look great when you first see them, and they’re exciting when you first get them, but once you splurge they end up not being used nearly as much as planned; I suspect that’s what would happen here.
The Motorola Atrix and its accessories are available from AT&T Wireless.
MSRP: $199.99 with 2-year contract, $499.99 off contract, Laptop Dock $299.99 (when purchased with the phone and after $100 rebate), Media Center Kit $189.99, Bluetooth Keyboard $69.99
What I Like: The phone is fast, except for occasions when it is [possibly] bogged down by Motoblur; it has a lovely big Gorilla glass screen; the Atrix has an excellent microphone, which is helpful for when you rely upon Voice Recognition; Android 2.2; Motoblur is convenient to use
What Needs Improvement: My first two units were problematic; Android 2.2 is not Android 2.3; Motoblur seems to bog down the phone at times; Laptop Dock was a disappointment