Hardware

Motorola Lapdock 100: Disappointing, but great potential

Donovan Colbert thinks the Motorola Lapdock 100 is a nice piece of equipment, but he's disappointed that the Mobile View displays HD apps in Gingerbread resolution.

Motorola'a approach toward enhanced personal digital device convergence is an interesting concept that seems to be a precarious balance of hit and miss. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Motorola Lapdock 100 -- a device that hits all the right gadget lust buttons but yet still leaves me unsatisfied.

The Lapdock 100 is a clamshell keyboard and LCD that your Motorola Droid smartphone docks into, essentially converting it into a netbook. The Lapdock alone costs $249 (USD). That approaches competitive pricing with other Android "convertible" solutions -- like the ASUS Transformer and Prime tablets, which dock into a keyboard that transforms them into a similar form factor.

The Lapdock is a nice piece of equipment. The keyboard is superior than the keyboard on my 1st generation ASUS Transformer. It has a traditional layout, and the keys seem to be of better quality and more responsive. Sure, the Lapdock is more expensive that the ASUS keyboard dock, but that's largely because it includes a 10.1" LCD display. Really, it's hard to complain about the design, construction, or execution of the Lapdock hardware. Motorola puts out pretty high quality hardware, and this device is no exception.

However, the problem is with the delivery of the concept of docking a phone into a clamshell-style interface. Unlike my Android tablet, which is a touchscreen device that supports Honeycomb, the Lapdock is a non-touchscreen device being driven by a smartphone running Android 2.3.x (Gingerbread). For now, anyhow, the execution of the docking concept exemplifies the struggles with a fractured Android platform.

There are a lot of things you can say about the Honeycomb platform, but it actually works well for tablet apps. In fact, many apps recognize Honeycomb and are written to take advantage of the more generous screen real estate of a tablet. I've tested countless Office Suite and e-mail alternatives for Android, and almost all of them leverage the extra screen space on a Honeycomb tablet. This kind of feature is so subtle that you might not even be aware of it until you have to deal without it -- and once you get used to it, it's hard to go back.

Unfortunately, Motorola had to figure out a different method of delivering the experience of the Gingerbread smartphone to the larger display of the Lapdock 100. They approached this from two different directions -- with a solution they call "Webtop." It's difficult to describe, but there's an "app dock" along the bottom of the display that looks very OS X-like.

The first icon in the dock is the "Mobile View" icon. When you click this, a window opens up that's basically a remote session into your docked mobile phone. If you're used to RDP or Citrix sessions, you'll understand -- you're accessing the phone's "desktop" through a window that's displayed from the Lapdock's desktop. You can use the pointing device to navigate around the phone, and you can orient the window in either a portrait or landscape display.

While you can maximize the Mobile View window, it simply scales the graphics -- like running a non-HD iOS app on an iPad. Unfortunately, even Honeycomb-aware apps that run in this window remain scaled in native phone resolution, so email and Office Suites waste a tremendous amount of the larger screen. It's like running a 22" widescreen monitor in 720 resolution. It isn't very pretty or elegant.

To partially address this, the Lapdock runs a local Linux with a native version of Firefox. If you run the stock Android browser in the Mobile View window, even maximized, you're limited to a mobile browsing experience and a zoomed view of the native resolution of the phone itself. However, if you run the Webtop native Firefox, you get a higher resolution display and a better desktop browser experience. Sites will identify that you are running a Debian distribution of Firefox and render the pages accordingly.

It's difficult to describe and clunky to experience. The full Firefox is pretty nice. It worked perfectly for me on sites like Google Docs -- but basically, this is what the Lapdock experience boils down to:

The Lapdock is virtually the same concept as a Chromebook, but it relies on a docked phone for memory, processor, and storage, and it runs Firefox instead of Chrome. It delivers native phone apps through a window -- or you can set up "web-apps" in the "app-dock," which are links to your favorite web-based apps, like Google Docs, Dropbox, or any other web site. If you click on these links, the native Firefox will open and take you to the sites.

For me, that doesn't quite work. I was disappointed when my HD apps, such as Office Suite Pro, pulled up in the Mobile View window in default Gingerbread phone resolution. Side-by-side with a Transformer running Office Suite Pro in HD, there was no competition. Running HD-optimized native apps on a Honeycomb tablet trounces running non-HD apps scaled up to Motorola Lapdock "Mobile View."

But the concept has promise. The phone and Lapdock give you a netbook-like experience with 4G wireless without getting gouged for tethering, and you only have to worry about the single bandwidth cap for the phone, regardless of how you consume your data -- through the phone or the Lapdock. With the release of Android 4.0/Ice Cream Sandwich, we'll hopefully see phones able to leverage the HD version of apps when rendered on the 10" LCD and the mobile version when your phone is not docked.

Ultimately, the Lapdock remains like a Detroit concept car. There's great potential, and they're moving toward delivering a product that will be very compelling -- but they're still stumbling on the little details in ways that mean it's not quite ready for production. I hate to say that, because this is a product I want to see succeed. Right now, it appeals to a very limited audience. With a few improvements, that audience could become huge.

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About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

11 comments
nwallette
nwallette

Given the limitations, who at Motorola thought this was a viable idea? I agree, great concept but almost totally worthless in practice. Maybe they're trying to hatch the chicken from the egg? I.e., where the software won't be written to take advantage of a large screen until there's a large screen available, which won't happen until there's software written to take advantage of a large screen . . . .

Sul52
Sul52

A few years back Palm came up with a companion for their Treo Smart Phones that was nothing more than a larger screen and larger keyboard that the smartphone attatched to for easier reading and text entry. see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_Foleo Of course, it failed!!! They forgot to test the idea with the users of the Palm Treos and discovered that for $500 they were happy to continue to use the smaller input keyboard and smaller screen on the phone! Surprise, Surprise! What did sell to Palm users, myself included, was a great piece of software that moved the Screen and function of the Palm Treo to your computer screen called PDAreach made by Junefabrics.com. And as it was software you didn't have the issue of one more piece of equipment to pack and carry when you went somewhere. It seems more practical to move your mobile device's screen to your desktop or laptop in a window that you can resize that to have a piece of hardware dedicated to a job that could be handled by software. Then you plug your BT headset, connect to the laptop of PC with USB (or if you want to get really fancy by Wifi - probably overkill since the purpose is to simply "move" your screen) and you now have the same function with the same hardware you already have and you can use more powerful software for the real tasks you do everyday, like Excel spreadsheets, Access database, etc. In retrospect, the lesson is that no matter how "cool" that device is, you should listen to your customers and maybe use outside the company users before you get to the point of product in package. Palm found out the hard way that in the end the customer will be the final judge, and you can generally get that feedback a lot quicker if you listen. Palm quit listening at some point in time (there were no links on their website for suggestions or comments) and eventually their customer base went away. Don't need another piece of equipment, my laptop is small, powerful and light. Move the screen, leave the extra equipment in the box!

dcolbert
dcolbert

A Motorola RAZR docked in the Lapdock 100 running Office Suite Pro 5 side-by-side with an ASUS Transformer TF101 also running Office Suite Pro 5. Both are in the same place in the app - sitting at the Documents screen connected to my Google Docs account - ready to download documents, edit them, and send them back up to the Google Docs server. The Lapdock screen looks more colorful and is easier to read in such a tiny picture because it has blown up the display presentation of Office Suite Pro 5 for a mobile phone - but there is far more information as far as menus and files on the Transformer. The layout and presentation of Android apps just doesn't work as well on the Lapdock 100 as it does on a Honeycomb tablet in practical application. Disappointing.

GaryOtto
GaryOtto

I dock my Motorola Atrix and find it extremely useful for Business when I am on the road. If you are in a business environment that leverages RDP or Citrix you can use the webtop capability to access any work related applications, such as MS Office Suite, Outlook and the graphic capabilities are more than acceptable. As it has the Citrix reciever built in to the Webtop software I think this is more the potential use that Motorola had envisaged. Also as a replacement for a Netbook which most people just use for web surfing and web based application such as Webmail and Google docs the webtop OS is perfect.

dcolbert
dcolbert

The design precludes the software from being able to take advantage of the bigger screen. The software that WILL leverage the bigger screen is already there. Look up there and click on that photo. The same app... but on an Android *tablet* running Honeycomb it knows to render a high-definition screen. On the Motorola Razr in a Lapdock 100 - it thinks the lapdock screen is no different than the screen on the phone - and so it renders the mobile version. But the software that is written to take advantage of the bigger screen already exists. Part of the problem is how Motorola decided to make the phone interface with the dock and pass apps on the phone through to the dock's display - but part of the problem is that they're running Gingerbread on the phone, and Honeycomb has the logic to fork a single app to a standard or HD display depending on what it is running on, I'm guessing. Which is why I wonder if ICS might be able to bridge this problem for Motorola. Add a touch screen and make apps on the phone render in HD when it is docked, and this device would be a winner. They are *so* close...

dcolbert
dcolbert

Was the balance/ratio of price and benefits and features in the example you cite. It was too far out ahead of the curve so it was pretty expensive and didn't deliver a lot for what it cost. This is not so far out ahead of the curve, and is less expensive. At some point, that equation balances, and something like this has a market. Motorola is getting CLOSE with this device. My goal is to ditch the laptop altogether - and with the ASUS Transformer, I mostly have. But I still have to lug around a phone which is really redundant - and in the case of the Transformer, I generally bring along a Mifi hot spot. This addresses the need for a hot spot brilliantly. The problem is that the convergence of the phone into a laptop like productivity form-factor is just ever so flawed. My Transformer has the edge in being able to deliver Android mobile apps in a format that is enhanced for and by the Transformer's form factor.

nwallette
nwallette

You're right. If there are built-in full resolution remote access apps, that tips the scales to marginally useful. With just that, web browsing, PDF viewing and a mini office suite, it could really have value to the business market. But at that point, you would assume there's an available API for native Webtop apps.. and that's what they desperately need for this thing to be worth the cost.

dcolbert
dcolbert

So basically - the Lapdock turns your 1.4Ghz dual core phone into a dumb terminal so you can thin-connect to remote Windows machines offering MS Office and email client software? Not exactly my vision of remote computing nirvana. Not that it SUCKS... it is cool that you can do that. So can my ASUS tablet. I don't use it much because well... I've got local apps that do the job better than RDP or Citrix into a published app or remote desktop. Not to mention that this limits the appeal to solely corporate users in environments where they're willing to license and host published apps like Office and Outlook. The other aspect - accessing web based apps... like I said... a Chrome-book. It is a nifty trick. I can see how for a certain class of business executive, it might be an interesting little perk (although again - for THAT kind of employee, it seems like they're going to be dragging the laptop along anyhow - so where is the value if it doesn't get rid of them lugging around their workhorse PC?) Broadly speaking though - it is a real niche device with limited application, though. It has potential to be far more than that. For me - I'll stick with a tablet that docks into a keyboard of some sort for this kind of mobility. My dream is to have that kind of tablet experience in a device where the CPU core is my cellphone. The ASUS Padphone, then docking into a clamshell - would be awesome... but obviously that isn't something to hold your breath for. That product seems vapor-ware-ish. http://www.itproportal.com/2012/01/12/asus-padfone-dock-connections-similar-transformer-prime-connection-keyboard-dock-possible/

nwallette
nwallette

If the apps are dynamic, and the display drivers can drive native resolution, it's just the phone firmware that is the bottleneck. To me, that just seems dumb. If the features technically exist in Honeycomb, then WTF would they release it with Gingerbread? If they don't, why release it at all? To me, it looks like a cool proof-of-concept design, but a colossal blunder of a product. It's crap like this that makes the iPhone successful, I think. Apple has their stuff together before they sell the thing. (Well, usually at least.)

dcolbert
dcolbert

They're most of the way there - they are just missing a few little details here and there that could push this from executive's expensive toy to major productivity enhancer with wide reach with middle-management and beyond. I'm not sure why so many companies are afraid to make their products appeal outside of general *business*-demographic markets. Really, it seems that this is what held up Windows Mobile/CE. They also positioned it as a business product in competition with Palm and Rim - products seen as corporate tools with no interest in providing solutions to broader audiences. Then Apple comes across and releases a product that is all about the broader interests, with hardly any focus on business - and it puts Microsoft and Rim almost out of the running. Motorola has the wrong focus with this at the moment. They've got to appeal to a broader market.

dcolbert
dcolbert

I've got some thoughts on that I'm going to try to spin off into another article. In the meantime - read the comment below. I think there are users ready to put up with the hassles and short-comings - I just think for now they'll be the minority. Eventually they're going to get this fine-tuned and worked out and it'll become ubiquitous. This approach to device convergence only makes sense for the future - as surely as laptops slowly replace desktops for the majority of PC users. You have to start somewhere and evolve through Moore's law. If they're doing this now - what will they be doing 18 months from now with similar technology? I mean - they've got to reach their critical mass for development and research and forward momentum - but once they do, change will come along fairly rapidly in these kind of technologies. 15 years from now, we're going to be blown away by where this has evolved. But for now - we're at the earliest stages of this stuff.