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First Look: Motorola Atrix is an OK smart phone, lacks as a quasi-laptop

Consumer Reports News: March 03, 2011 02:38 PM

The Motorola Atrix (large photos after the jump)
Photo: Motorola

On paper, the Motorola Atrix, available from AT&T for $200 with a two-year contract and rebates, seems tailor-made for James Bond. It's the first phone on the market packing two 1-GHz processors, also known as dual-core, which promise blazing performance. It runs on AT&T's faster "4G" HSDPA+ network. And it has a fingerprint reader that can be used to unlock the phone. 

Coolest of all, the Atrix transforms into a laptop with the optional LapDoc docking station ($300 when purchased with the phone), which boasts a large, 11.6-inch display and full-size keyboard with a built-in battery that Motorola claims delivers up to 6 hours of use without taxing the phone's power supply.

But in my tests, this Android 2.2 phone turned out a less-than-blazing performance as a smart phone—and it was positively disappointing when connected to the LapDoc.

The details:

Phone speed. The promise of dual-core technology, introduced at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), is dramatically faster phone performance, particularly for multitasking, and a "full" Web browsing experience that's more like that of a laptop, or at least a netbook. In fact, Motorola bills the Atrix 4G as "the world’s most powerful smart phone."

That may be true on the drawing board, but in my hands the Atrix's actual performance fell short of the hype. The Atrix does have the ability to run a full version of the Firefox Web browser, but only when it's connected to the $300 laptop attachment. When the phone is on its own, the browser is indistinguishable from other advanced smart-phone browsers, displaying the mobile version of many sites I visited.

The Atrix did seem slightly faster when jumping between applications such as voice search and camera, but it exhibited the same half-second delay most smart phones have when launching Facebook, Twitter, and other Internet-dependent apps.

Network speed. The Atrix is AT&T's second "4G" phone (the first is the HTC Inspire), and it's hard-wired to be able to receive data at up to 14.4 megabits per second (mbps) and upload data at 5.76 mbps. But in and around our offices in Yonkers, NY, where AT&T's HSPA+ signals are fairly strong (at least 4 out of 5 bars), the best download speed I was able to record using the FCC app by Ookla was 2.1 mbps—about as fast as 3G phones from AT&T. Upload speeds maxed out at 0.5, again, typical of 3G phones from AT&T. In fairness, I've yet to see any 4G phone come close to the theoretical speeds that carrier flacks keep spouting.

Security. The Atrix comes with a secret-agent-class arsenal of security features. It's preloaded with Motoblur, a free interface/service that lets you back up your contacts and most of your settings over the air to a remote server, track down your phone via GPS if you lose it, and wipe the phone remotely to keep your personal data from getting into strangers' hands. You can manage this data from a computer, as well as import new contacts from other sources.

But my favorite security feature is the phone's half-inch power button, located on the top rear of the phone, which actually doubles as a fingerprint reader. To unlock the phone's screen, you just drag your right or left index finger over the top of the button. This is so much faster and simpler than typing in a PIN number—something I have to do frequently on my corporate-connected smart phone. Training the Atrix to recognize your fingerprints is easy.

Display. The Atrix's 4-inch "qHD" display seemed reasonably sharp and was easy to read outdoors. But it was no match for the ultra-sharp and bright displays of the Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy S series phones.

LapDoc accessory. Measuring 11-1/4 x 9-1/2 x ½ inches and weighing a fairly light 2.4 pounds, the Atrix's laptop extension is a semi-dumb terminal that has its own power source, two rear-mounted speakers, and two USB ports for swapping files or plugging in peripherals, such as a printer or a mouse. It comes to life only when you plug the phone into a rear-mounted cradle that flips open to accept the phone. You have to line up the cradle's mini USB and HDMI jacks with the corresponding ports on the left side of the phone, then push down until the phone nestles securely in the cradle's concave crevice.

The docking station also has its own Internet-connected "webtop" applications, including a full version of the Firefox Web browser, QuickOffice, and Facebook. Though the phone provides the processing power, the laptop apps work independently (it's possible to switch between the phone's and laptop's browser and Facebook apps).

While having your phone transform into a laptop for intense computing sessions is an innovative idea, the Atrix LapDoc turned out to be slower than the slowest netbook I've ever used, confirming that heavyweight smart-phone hardware is still no match for even welterweight netbook hardware. The resolution of some of the content on the dock's display seemed unusually low, like looking at a newspaper page under a magnifying glass—especially when running apps off the phone.

Also, the large, 4- x 2-1/4-inch trackpad was unresponsive, and the Shift, Enter, and Arrow keys seemed scrunched on the keyboard's lower left side, making typing occasionally awkward. You can activate the phone's camera from the dock, but you can't use it for video chats, because the dock's display is in the way.

Bottom line. The Atrix is a surprisingly uninspiring smart-phone performer, despite its dual-core chipset and 4G connectivity. And the LapDoc, though a great idea, is no match in terms of price or performance for a decent netbook. But thanks to its fingerprint reader and Motoblur, the Atrix does an outstanding job of keeping your personal information from getting into the wrong hands.

—Mike Gikas

Atrix_Lapdock_Phone_Dyn_L_Shadow_NA_Lg
The Atrix's LapDoc, an optional accessory for the phone
Photo: Motorola
ATRIX-4G_Front_horiz_Camera_Lg
The Atrix features a 4-inch "qHD" display
Photo: Motorola

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