Everyone's been saying for ages that smart phones are becoming as powerful as full-sized computers, but only Motorola has had the cojones to actually put that claim to the test. The Motorola Atrix is an Android smart phone that can be plugged into a range of docks, converting it into a sleek netbook, a media centre, a sat-nav or even a humble alarm clock.
The Atrix is available on Orange, from free on a £35-per-month contract. It's also available unlocked and SIM-free for around £500. If you want the accessories, expect to pay even more. For example, if you buy the phone on a contract, the laptop dock will cost you £300 and the multimedia dock will cost £33.
One thing that sets the Atrix apart, though, is the fingerprint reader on the top, which doubles as the power button. You don't have to take advantage of it, but it gives you the option to unlock the phone with a swipe of your finger, rather than using a password gesture or swiping on the screen. The fingerprint reader works only with your fingerprint too.
The Atrix prompts you to set up the fingerprint reader by swiping your left and right index fingers over it, and also asks you to provide a back-up password in case you go into the witness-protection scheme and have your fingerprints erased. In our tests, the biometric sensor responded to a quick swipe from either finger, so we found it fun and convenient to use. It seemed secure enough too, denying access to all of the interlopers we roped into our tests.
You have to look closely to spot the quality of Atrix's 540x960-pixel, 4-inch touchscreen. Motorola calls this resolution 'qHD', and it's higher than the 480x800-pixel displays on most other smart phones. It's almost the same resolution as the iPhone 4's 640x960-pixel 'retina display'. Indeed, the user interface looks noticeably sharper and clearer than on the Google Nexus One, for example.
One place where sharpness really counts is in the Web browser, where you tend to do plenty of reading, and pictures abound. When using the browser, the Atrix's screen struggles to impress. Text and images don't look nearly as sharp and clear as in the iPhone 4's browser, which indicates that the Android browser needs to work harder to take advantage of the pixels available to it.
Android and Motoblur
Gingerbread only adds a few features to Froyo, such as SIP calling and NFC support, and those features haven't exactly blown our minds in the past. The update will be good to have, but we don't think you'll miss it too much while you're waiting.
Even if you don't give a hoot about Google's sweet-toothed updates, you'll enjoy the smorgasbord of features that the Android operating system provides. Features such as syncing your address book to your Google account or packing the home screens with live widgets are just the tip of the iceberg for this smarty-pants software.
Motorola has slapped its own skin on top of Android, which it calls 'Motoblur'. In the past, we've dissed Motoblur for having ugly, buggy widgets. But we have to give the company props for listening to our feedback and sorting out most of our complaints. For example, the social-networking widget, which used to only have a firehose of all your Facebook and Twitter updates, can now be filtered depending on exactly which social network -- and even which contacts -- you want to see. The design has been sorted out too, and the widgets fit together well on the seven home screens. We particularly like the fact that you can resize widgets to see more or less of the information on offer.
Motoblur includes more than just widgets. There's also a website that allows you to track your phone's location and wipe it remotely if it gets lost.
The Atrix's appearance isn't much to write home about, and its Android software is fairly common these days. Why, then, are we so excited about this phone? It's all about the raw power.
The Atrix has a 1GHz dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, which gives it amazing multitasking oomph without draining the battery. The phone also has 1GB of RAM, which is twice as much as most current smart phones pack.
In our tests, the Atrix performed as well as dual-core rivals such as the LG Optimus 2X. It scored an average of 36 in the Linpack test, which measures floating-point computing power, and averaged a blistering 3,200 in the Softweg benchmark test for CPU operations per second.
Still, benchmarks are dandy, but we're all about real-world performance. We pushed the Atrix to the limit by connecting it to its laptop dock -- more on this later -- and doing some serious surfing.
To test the Atrix's oomph, we ran apps on the phone while opening multiple tabs in Firefox on the laptop dock. The Atrix claims to be suitable for remote working thanks to the powerful Web apps that you can access through the laptop dock's browser, so we fired up processor-intensive apps such as Google Maps, Google Docs and photo-editing app Picnik.
The Atrix did an admirable job of keeping all of the balls in the air, although we did experience one fatal Firefox crash. The dock system felt slower and less responsive than a full-sized laptop, but it allowed us to get similar things done as long as we were patient. Overall, the experience was similar to using a netbook -- we wouldn't trade our laptop in for the dock, but it's not too painful to use if you need a highly portable system.
Motorola also promises that grabbing data off the Interwebs is lightning-fast, thanks to 802.11n Wi-Fi and HSDPA for speedy downloads over 3G. The Atrix even has separate antennas for downloading and uploading data, which the company claims will keep the Internet tubes unclogged. In our tests, Web surfing was indeed speedy, both over Wi-Fi and 3G.
But what's the point of so much power, unless you can tame it and use it towards your own nefarious ends? That's where the docks come in.
For starters, there's a basic charging and syncing dock that you can throw on your bedside table, letting you use the phone as an alarm clock. You can even set up profiles so that the phone displays different widgets and shortcuts when it's plugged into different docks -- a weather widget in the kitchen, and email in the office, for example.
Hold onto your hats, though, because there's also a multimedia dock. Pop the Atrix into that, and its one micro-USB port gets bumped up to three USB ports and a pass-through HDMI port. The phone also comes with a suitably sized HDMI cable in the box. Plug that into a telly, and the Atrix fires up a media-player interface on the big screen. You can then use a Bluetooth remote control to play the music, photos and videos on your phone's memory card on your TV, without resorting to a mouse or keyboard.
The multimedia dock worked perfectly the first time we plugged it in, but, subsequently, we noticed a problem. When we disconnected the phone, it flipped out. The Motoblur widgets on our home screens seemed to get confused, with images overlapping and boxes resizing themselves. What's worse, the battery went from 100 per cent full to red in just a few seconds.
The widgets freaked out each time we tried the multimedia dock, and could only be sorted out by restarting the phone. This bug may never affect your Atrix, but, if it does, it's a biggie. It's a particular pity that it affects the Atrix's battery life, which is otherwise epically good.
The belle of the accessory ball has to be the wafer-thin laptop dock that essentially adds a screen, keyboard and trackpad to the Atrix. It doesn't contain a processor -- all the heavy lifting is done by the phone -- but it packs two batteries, providing up to 7 hours of usage time and leaving you with a fully charged phone.
The problem, though, is that using this dock is more like using a Chrome OS netbook than a proper laptop. While connected to the laptop dock, the Atrix runs the Android operating system on the small screen, alongside another, Linux-based OS called 'Webtop' on the big screen. Webtop can't do much except run Firefox, however. When you're connected to the dock, you can use the phone's Android user interface in a window in the corner of the screen, while surfing on Firefox at the same time.
You can run Android apps in full-screen mode, but you can't install Linux programs or anything else within the Webtop environment. You can access the phone's memory to get at your files, and then you can work on them in Web apps like online photo-editing software. Citrix is also included so that you can remotely control your Windows PC.
The Webtop user interface owes much to Apple's laptop interface, with a dock along the bottom featuring bouncing icons. Webtop only offers links to Firefox and a file browser, but you can fill the dock up with shortcuts to your favourite Web apps. The downside of this dock is that it takes up plenty of space on a small screen. Webtop also has a status bar across the top, which is useful but reduces the vertical screen real estate even more.
It takes some mental gymnastics to get your head around using two operating systems at once. For example, let's say you want to check your Twitter account for the latest pearl of wisdom. Using the laptop dock, you could fire up the Twitter website or a Twitter Web app in Firefox. Alternatively, you could look at your Twitter app in Android. Having so many choices can be confusing when you're in full work flow.
On the plus side, the Atrix has some helpful features to make the transition between using the phone and the laptop easier. When you remove the Atrix from the dock, all the pages that you had open in Firefox are listed as links on the phone, so you can open them quickly in the Android Web browser. If you're in the middle of a phone call, plugging the Atrix into the laptop dock automatically turns on the loudspeaker function.
The laptop dock itself is sleek and wafer-thin. Its stealthy black design makes it very crave-worthy, but the keyboard feels rather shallow and flabby, and the large trackpad is easy to hit accidentally when you're typing. We'd recommend throwing a wireless Bluetooth keyboard into the mix and turning off the trackpad with a quick double tap in the upper left-hand corner of the screen.
Despite these drawbacks, we like the laptop dock. It's more portable than a proper laptop, and there's something very appealing about having everything stored in the same place -- your phone. It's convenient for checking the Web too, as most people leave their phone continually turned on, unlike their laptop. We're just not sure if the whole other operating system is necessary, or the £300 price tag is worth it.
Like an accountant with a secret collection of crazy hats, the Motorola Atrix jazzes up its smart-but-dull appearance with some astounding accessories. Unfortunately, the presence of three separate user interfaces -- phone, Webtop and media player -- can be confusing. It's not cheap to collect all of the Atrix's accessories either, and there's a chance that you'll uncover more bugs, such as the one we noticed when using the multimedia dock.
Nevertheless, we can't help but feel gadget lust when we think of having three docks to run every aspect of your life, and one phone to rule them all. Even if you don't invest in any of the Atrix's docks, the phone itself is powerful, fast and offers fantastic battery life. Viewed simply as a compact, feature-packed smart phone, the Atrix is impressive.
Edited by Charles Kloet