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Sunday, 21 August 2011

Wiki-Review: The Motorola (Google?) Atrix

An object from the future.

That was my first thought when I saw the videos of the Motorola Atrix from the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where it won the Best of CES award.

It was a spark that lit a flame of unabashed gadget lust.

Not only was it the most powerful Android phone to date, the first to sport a dual-core processor, it is also the heart of an ecosystem of modular accessories that extended its functionality beyond that of a mere smartphone, enabled by a host of modifications that Motorola has made to the Android operating system - it speaks to the promise of innovation that Google expounded when they launched Android.

The most exciting of these accessories is the Lapdock (pictured above). The dock itself is essentially a large battery wrapped in a sleek dark grey aluminum package housing a full-sized keyboard, generous trackpad and crisp 11.6", 1330x768 resolution screen and weighing in at just over 1kg it resembles nothing so much as a competitor to Apple's Macbook Air. Except that the Lapdock doesn't do anything until you insert the handset into a hinged dock behind the screen and that's when the magic starts: a glowing red Motorola logo pops up on the screen and within about 20 seconds you're in what's dubbed the Webtop environment.

Basically this a custom shell and graphic user interface (GUI) built on top of a lightweight instance of the Linux operating system. The phone continues to run live in a window that allows you to access all of the phone's functions, including voice calls, SMS and apps. A bar along the top of the screen has notifications and status indicators and along the bottom of the screen there are shortcuts to important phone apps such as the dialer, contacts, file system and most importantly a full blown, desktop version (v 3.6) of Mozilla's Firefox web browser - which is where things get really interesting. Having a desktop grade browser, running flash, means that you can access pretty much any website or web application as you would from a traditional computer including cloud based productivity suites such Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live, as well as video sites like YouTube and Vimeo.

The HD dock allows one to bring the same experience to the desktop.

Narain's Atrix set-up with all the accessories connected.

Bluetooth and native Linux drivers make for easy interface with a wireless mouse and keyboard.

So was that gadget lust justified?

I've had the Atrix for a month now and have been using it both as my primary phone and laptop.

Undoubtedly it is a paradigm shifting device, one that challenges conventional notions of what a computer is.

However, in order to get the most out of it one either already has to have a cloud based workflow (which I do) or be ready to move to one and be ready to accept some compromises.

From a hardware point of view the phone itself is fairly anonymous, but it feels well constructed and solid - the, crisp, bright 4" 960x540 screen is covered with a sheet of Corning's scratch and shatter resistant Gorilla Glass. It has both a 5mp rear facing camera and 2mp front facing camera for video chats and checking your hair. The removable battery panel has a faux carbon fiber look to it, handsome but without any tactile texture, making it a bit of the slippery side though I have yet to drop it. The power button is unique in both design and placement, with an integrated fingerprint reader, positioned at the top center of the back panel.

While it presently runs Android Froyo (2.2), not the latest version Gingerbread (2.3) - this is due not just to Motorola's customizations associated with Webtop but also with the tweaks its made to Android itself dubbed Motoblur. Many reviewers have criticized Motoblur but personally I find it an enhances Android from both aesthetic and functional points of view making for a slick and unobtrusive package with hands-down the best Android email client for non-Gmail accounts. You can feel both Motorola's experience at phone making and the thinking they've put into making the device enterprise ready come to bear in Motoblur, not just in the email client but also contacts, calendar and other core functions.

As already mentioned the Lapdock is beautifully designed, thin, light, sturdy and delivers up to 8 hours over battery life while simultaneously charging the phone - it does have it's downsides though, namely in the form of small keys and slightly poor accuracy on the trackpad (which also doesn't allow for even the most basic gesture based input). Also, while there are a variety of keyboard shortcuts available for Android functions, such as the CTRL key bringing up the Android menu, there are no indications of this on the keyboard itself so it's a bit of a treasure hunt when it comes to figuring them out.

But the bigger question is: Does a phone, even a dual-core 1GHz one, have enough horsepower to run a desktop grade browser?

The answer is linked to one's expectations - the reality is that it will not deliver performance anywhere near the current generation of Intel Core i3 laptops. It is more akin to Atom powered netbooks - not sluggish (unless one has many, many browser tabs open) but there is discernible lag. Which means that while multi-tasking isn't impossible, one is probably better off focusing on one or top tasks at a time (in some ways not a bad thing) - this applies primarily to browser based applications, one can quite happily have multiple Android applications running in the background (like a music player) and still have a good browsing experience.

Also, the phone chokes on HD video greater than 720p though the forthcoming upgrade to 2.3 allegedly solves this issues for video stored on the device, but not for streaming web video.

Battery life is on par with other high-end phones but using it in conjunction with the Lapdock significantly extends it.

So, who is this phone for?

If you're looking for the latest, greatest standalone Android powered smartphone and are happy to accept a heavy manufacturer's custom skin then you're probably better off with Samsung's flagship Galaxy II S or HTC's Sensation.

On the other hand, if your workflow is cloud based, you regularly tether your phone and laptop because you need internet access on the go and you are looking to minimize the number and weight of the gadgets you're carrying on a daily basis then the Atrix is certainly worthy of your consideration.

And remember, you're buying a piece of the future. Today.

My set-up is as follows:

Motorola Atrix - AED. 2,399
Lapdock - AED. 400
HD Dock - AED. 400
16GB MicroSD Card - AED. 120
Logitech DiNovo Edge Bluetooth Keyboard - AED. 350
Logitech Anywhere MX Mouse - AED. 325
LG 23" LED Monitor - AED. 695

Posted By: Narain Jashanmal, General Manager, Jashanmalbooks.com 
Narain posted this as a guest reviewer for us. He is a graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts where he majored in Screenwriting and has had a lifelong affair with technology since he got his first computer at the age of 4.  If you're on Twitter, you can follow Narain on his twitter handle (@njashanmal)