Smartphones

Motorola Atrix review: The beginning of the smartphone-as-PC

The Motorola Atrix establishes four new breakthroughs in smartphone experience. See what they are and how well its Webtop software measures up in creating a desktop-like environment.

When I first saw the Motorola Atrix at CES 2011 in January, I was pretty shocked. I didn't expect to see smartphones that could double as PCs for at least another year or two, and I certainly didn't expect Motorola -- and not Microsoft or Apple or Hewlett-Packard -- to be the first company to deliver it.

Now that I've had the opportunity to use the Motorola Atrix for a couple weeks -- including its two docking accessories -- I'm still impressed by what Motorola created. While the Atrix isn't quite ready to replace corporate or personal PCs on a large scale, the phone itself is quite impressive and Motorola's Webtop experience offers a glimpse of where the future of computing is headed.

Photo gallery

Motorola Atrix photos: The docking smartphone

Specifications

  • Carrier: AT&T Wireless
  • OS: Android 2.2.1 (Froyo) with MotoBlur UI; Motorola Webtop
  • Processor: NVIDIA Tegra 2 AP20H Dual Core
  • RAM: 1.0GB
  • Storage: 16GB internal; microSD slot (add up to 32GB)
  • Display: 4.0-inch qHD, 540x960 resolution, 240 dpi, 24-bit color
  • Battery: Lithium-ion with 1930 mAh capacity
  • Ports: Micro USB 2.0, Micro HDMI 1.3, 3.5mm audio jack
  • Weight: 4.76 ounces (135 grams)
  • Dimensions: 4.64(h) x 2.5(w) x 0.43(d) inches
  • Camera: 5MP (2592x1936), auto-focus, dual LED flash, 1.3MP (640x480) front-facing camera
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, A-GPS, e-compass, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, fingerprint scanner
  • Keyboard: Virtual QWERTY
  • Networks: UMTS 850/1900/2100, GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz, HSDPA up to 14.4 Mbps
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n; Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR; DLNA
  • Tethering: USB + mobile Wi-Fi hotspot
  • Price: $199 (with 2-year contract)

Who is it for?

The Motorola Atrix is the first smartphone with a dual core processor and one of the first to include a full 1.0GB of RAM. It has all of the horsepower needed to run the most demanding Android apps, to multitask, and to soar through multimedia. When you combine that with its Webtop capability, the Atrix is clearly a device for power users who do a lot work on their smartphones beyond just phone calls, email, and light Web surfing. More than any smartphone on the market, the Atrix is capable of replacing a secondary PC.

What problems does it solve?

For years, people have talked about the idea of a smartphone running a full PC operating system and docking to become a full-fledged computer. Bill Gates championed the idea almost a decade ago, and lots of people in the technology industry have been hinting about it the past few years as powerful ARM and Intel chips have gotten dramatically smaller and consumed far less power. Companies like Palm and Redfly toyed with the concept of the smartphone-as-PC before the technology was ready, but Motorola is the first to pull off a device that runs a smartphone OS as well as an embedded desktop OS that offers a full PC experience when docked. Another key innovation of the Atrix is the integration of a fingerprint scanner for logging in and unlocking the device.

Standout features

  • Speed to burn - The Atrix is smooth and zippy for almost any task you throw at it. A smartphone doesn't really need a full 1.0GB of RAM. The extra is there to run the Webtop in docking mode. So, when you're not docked, there's plenty of RAM to burn for multitasking. The Atrix isn't quite as snappy at opening apps and Web pages as the HTC ThunderBolt, but it doesn't suffer from the battery life challenges of the ThunderBolt either.
  • Excellent battery life - For a smartphone this powerful, I expected the Atrix to struggle in terms of its battery life. However, Motorola has shown once again that it knows how to balance speed and power in its mobile devices. The NVIDIA's Tegra 2 dual core processor also deserves a nod for battery efficiency (see why NVIDIA says multiple cores can be better for battery life). The Atrix battery easily gets through a full day, even when it's on AT&T's HSPA+ network, and the Lapdock can give it a boost by charging the docked phone even when the Lapdock is unplugged.
  • Ultra-slim form factor - Smartphones are almost like fashion now in that people prefer different styles and sizes. If you like something a little more svelte in your smartphone, then you'll like the Atrix. It is small, thin, and light -- the exact opposite of the ThunderBolt. You pay for it with a little bit smaller 4-inch screen, which is still an excellent display but not as roomy as the ThunderBolt and other 4.3-inch Android devices.
  • PC-like docking - The Atrix's docking experience uses Motorola's Webtop software, which is essentially a stripped-down, customized version of Ubuntu Linux that primarily runs a Firefox Web browser and MobileView software that pulls up the Android OS in a window on the desktop. That way, you can still answer calls and text messages from your phone while in Webtop mode, as well as open Android apps in full screen view.
  • Fingerprint scanner - Another thing to add to the list of the Atrix's breakthroughs is that it's the first major smartphone to integrate a fingerprint scanner, which the user can easily set up and which serves as a more secure method of unlocking the device than either a passcode or a pattern lock.

What's wrong?

  • Webtop feels like a beta - While I'm impressed with how good the Motorola Webtop software is, considering Motorola is a hardware company and not a software company -- and keeping in mind that this is version 1.0 of something quite new -- the Webtop still feels raw in spots. In the Lapdock, the performance can get pretty laggy, especially when running videos and Flash sites. The performance in the desktop/multimedia dock is better, but it needs to be able to support larger display sizes. In general, I felt like the Webtop experience was acceptable and workable, but it could have really used more power to make it run smoothly. With quad core mobile chips coming soon from NVIDIA and Qualcomm, this kind of software will soon have the hardware it needs to be a much more formidable product.
  • Plastic finish - For a high-end device that packs in so many innovations and breakthroughs, the Atrix feels remarkably ordinary and even a little cheap when you hold it in your hand. Its plastic casing feels a little more substantial than the Samsung Galaxy S phones, but not much.
  • Accessories are too expensive - The Lapdock for the Atrix is thin, light, sturdy, and has a very impressive look and feel with its brushed aluminum finish. However, it's just a display, keyboard, touchpad, and extended battery for the docked Atrix, and Motorola has priced it at $499 (you can get it as low as $399 by ordering online). It really shouldn't cost more than $200. The HD Multimedia Dock that you need to connect desktop peripherals to the Atrix retails for $129. Companies typically mark up accessories so that they can make more money on them than the actual devices, but with the Atrix, they've priced them way too high. Even though the Lapdock is impressive, for $400-$500 I can't recommend it.

Bottom line for business

The Motorola Atrix breaks through barriers in performance and mobile experience, and it's one of the most impressive Android devices that you'll be able to get your hands on in 2011. It combines impressive speed with excellent battery life. It packs a lot of punch into a svelte form factor. And, it introduces the first true desktop PC-like experience in a smartphone.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Atrix just for the docking experience, because you'll be likely disappointed. However, if you want a thin, highly-capable smartphone with a battery that can last all day and that can also give you a glimpse of the future of smartphone/PC convergence by serving as a replacement for a secondary PC, then the Atrix is a pretty exciting option.

The concept of the smartphone PC may still be slightly ahead of its time, but Motorola has given it a big boost with the Atrix, and the quad core mobile chips that are coming to market over the next year could give it another push forward. While I don't see this replacing primary PCs for heavy users like software engineers, IT professionals, and financial wizards, I think it could have a big impact on non-desk workers in sales, manufacturing, health care, transportation, etc.

Competitive products

Where to get more info

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

46 comments
Get-Smart
Get-Smart

The concept isn't new but it's the first to be near usable. But the capabilities and price don't jive. Here's what I would like to see: 1. Put additional RAM and battery in the docking station. Make it modular. The Atrix may be portable, but I'd take it on business trips or for (small) presentations only; most of the time it will sit on my desk at the office. Maybe overclock the processor when docked. 2. Make the keyboard _wireless_, with mouse. Ergonomically, I'd rather have the keyboard on my lap while the display is at eye level. Plus, this gives the ability to customize it easily and a cheaper part to swap when it breaks. 3. Touchscreen option. Want a pad? remove the dock and keyboard and just plug the phone into a bigger display. 4. Add network and peripheral connections to the dock. USB minimum. Thunderbolt, anyone? 5. Have other docking abilities like a speaker doc, too. This is why the market is so crazy about Apple - lots of options because it works with so many third-party add-ons. Basically, make it a three-part system and a true multi-purpose machine: pluggable display for a pad experience; separate keyboard and mouse for comfort; dock for more power, speed, memory, peripherals. If the whole package, with phone, were priced around $500-600, it would replace a pad and notebook/netbook/tablet with a versatile system you don't have to synchronize with other devices. I think Motorola would have a winner.

Hazydave
Hazydave

Have a few issues with the execution. For one, I don't really seen the point of Webtop. Android itself is perfectly suited to laeger screen devices. Webtop gives me Firefox? I have that on Android. And Opera, Dolphin, the Google browser, etc. Many with plug-ins, all perfectly good on a tablet/netbook sized screen. I don't see the point of WebTop. The single-unit idea is great. Many users don't need more computing power than the Tegra 2, which is substantially faster than many PCs going back not all that many years. Distributed computing in a house wide high speed network could let you tap the power of PCs, game consoles, or appliances (TVs, BD players, etc) from the phone when you're home, or deliver your phone data and environment to your TV or dektop, all seamlessly. I think that's the big vision for the future of personal computing. Works in the office, too. Smart distributed data management can deliver the user a seamless view of the same computing environment, with policies that sync changes for some things, link via network/cloud for others, and even restrict others... no worries about corporate theft of documents, as the document itself won't leave the building, on anyone's computer.

doug.montgomery
doug.montgomery

I like the fact that the device has great connnectivity, and has the ability to remote into the terminal servers. If a salesperson has one of these puppies, they no longer have to carry a big laptop, and call me when something doesn't work. RDP into the network from android phones workes great, and if you could have a big screen and a keyboard, thats just gravy. The entire remoted desktop saves us time, money, and is easier for the users.

mcmlxxvi
mcmlxxvi

Some models of smartphones with tv out and bluetooth, can easily add bluetooth keyboard and external display to it and wa la u have it. These are there way before already...

MytonLopez
MytonLopez

I currently have one with a dock that I am testing. Although I haven't really tested it that much I love it. It is good for internet point blank. I was impressed by the speed, the video quality, and the battery life. I didn't even plug in the power cord for the dock yet for I haven't needed to and use it to go online to surf the web rather than my full fledged laptop or desktop. I took it to a coffee shop and it did catch some stares for it is thin and kind of looks like a MacBook Air for it is thin. And with Android having flash support didn't have any problems with my browsing experience. I think the real question is are there enough apps to support your business needs like VPN, edting for office docs and etc... If the answer is yes than you can deploy this just like you would an iPad. I think alot of executives want to carry something light and this is it.

mjrogers
mjrogers

This is another device that will facilitate my boss being able to exploit more fully my waking hours. Why else would I want another compromised version of a desk or laptop computer?

Slayer_
Slayer_

Rather than having the phone have all the power, the dock should provide some CPU and some GPU processing. The operating system and file would still be on the phone, but some extra processing power would be added by the dock. Make the dock upgradable and you would really have something.

poultrygeist
poultrygeist

I think the future of personal Mobile Computing should be more like this: I have a PC and I can reach that PC on my Phone, Desktop, or in a Citrix like web environment. A phone as a PC, you are still tied to an appliance. I see the future and freedom in a mobile/thin OS.

Jambotech
Jambotech

Looks impressive as a device however, until Android can connect to Cisco enterprise networks via IPSec VPN, it's just another home users device. In other words, it's a non-starter for business use.

tkejlboom
tkejlboom

Unfortunately, it's only on AT&T, so it's WiFi Xoom and tethering with my Nexus S instead.

jon_bauman
jon_bauman

I don't see what problem or void this fills. If all WebTop is, is a skin/interface over Android then this seems little more than a tablet with a keyboard. Am I missing something? The dock is still another "device" to carry that isn't quite a desktop/laptop replacement but gives you more screen and keyboard than a phone. Don't get me wrong, the phone part sounds like an excellent device. The dock I think is useless, especially for its price. For about the same cost as the phone dock combo, you could have an iPhone/iPad combo or an Atrix/Xoom combo. If you need more power than a tablet than the Atrix/dock combo probably won't cut it either. In which case you are better off with a phone and an ultra portable laptop. To me, these are all better options for the money and functionality. And I know what you are thinking..."But this option has all my data in 1 place." A non-issue thanks to Dropbox, Goggle Apps, etc, etc. I have a Mac laptop, PC desktop, Android phone, and iPod touch. All with Dropbox and all able to access the same data. Combine that with Goggle, Mail, Calendar, and Contacts and I have everything I need no matter where I am or what device I'm on. So again, what is the point of the dock?

Arazmus
Arazmus

if this is the way mobile phones and pc will combine (which i find very very exciting) theres 1 major problem.. Standardisation. it has taken years for the mobile industry to agree on a standard way to charge phones, and even this wont happen for some time. However i do not feel that the downfall of this type of phone/pc will be the power or the ram or what you can do on it, eventually i believe this type of smartphone/pc will be powerfull enough to remove the need of a pc all together (including installing and playing PC games etc) the downside will probably be when more and more companies venture forth into this area, eg Microsoft, Apple, HP etc etc, they will all bring out various devices that can only be used with the phones they provide, thus users will be stuck with the expensive products from the phone manufacturers. For this to 'Fly' companies need to get together early and thrash out some standards, eg how to connect so that the end user can get a fantastic experience and be in the full knowledge that there smart phone will work with existing products from a wide variety of manufacturers and future products.

jred
jred

The cost of a dock wouldn't be so bad if you knew you could use it with a succession of phones.

stubones99
stubones99

If it can't I see that as a major weakness. It may not have access to the atrix cell data store but it should at least be able to browse the web. I thought the $499 included the phone and dock so not that bad pricing...

LarsDennert
LarsDennert

Can you load things like open office in to the Ubuntu partition? Can you edit a document in android Docs to Go and then continue in Ubuntu? Is there an sudo command in Ubuntu? I've considered an HDMI cable and BT keyboard for the X to do similar.

as400
as400

It would be great if you could just hook up a wireless keyboard and mouse and a 19" monitor and run the phone as a PC without having to buy a $400 docking station. Does anyone know if this is possible with any current smart phone?

fhrivers
fhrivers

As the context changes from smartphone to netbook so should the computing environment. This is why the Atrix is probably the most important product of the decade and will revitalize the netbook as a viable option. If Gingerbread were a viable desktop OS they wouldn't need two different Android versions. They could run a lighter version of Gingerbread in phone mode and the full version once in Netbook/Tablet mode. I'm sorry, Webtop has to go. The less OSs the better. Microsoft better create a SoC compatible version of Windows 7 to fill this vacuum, because Context Computing devices could single-handedly destroy Windows dominance in the consumer market.

jurisgnostic
jurisgnostic

This is exactly what i'm hoping will work for me in the near future. i have a desktop at home, and the convenience of having much of my data with me on my phone when i travel would mean i would not have to have both a smartphone and a laptop.

ajgregory
ajgregory

I've been using an Atrix for a few weeks now. Performance is great - no argument there - but I am on my second unit having returned the first due to poor voice quality. A lot of people have experienced an issue whereby the person you are calling finds your voice to be muffled and indistinct. I'm still not very happy with it and I'd be interested to know what your experience was. BTW, I strongly suggest buying the phone from Costco online. $120 w/new 2-year contract, 90 day exchange policy, free shipping/activation, and excellent customer service. Blows AT&T out of the water.

melias
melias

Sounds impressive. If I were in the market for a phone, I would definately look at this one. Thanks for the article. BTW, "??? I???m still impressed by what Motorola." I am assuming "did." or something to that effect. :)

stevew22
stevew22

We are charged with finding mobile devices to equip our traveling sales reps with to replace their current (aging) laptops. I have seen little in the two pads we are looking at that will replicate their current functions, and this device MAY be more of what we need. But the advertising for the pad devices has made them so desireable for consumers that our management has gotten caught up in the hype.

MytonLopez
MytonLopez

Ok I have been dragging my feet on testing this device but finally did and here are my results. This device is great for the web as I mentioned in previous post. The speed and video quality and flash support is all great and my web experience was awesome. But I am not looking for a web only device and need to do more and this device has its limitations. I had tested the Motorola Atrix with the laptop dock and was able to plug in a USB keyboard and mouse with no issues. I had also plugged in a flash drive and was able to read the drive and open up the files I had saved on the flash drive with no issues. I had opened a pdf in PDF Viewer and it looked good. For all the other files I had it tested (*.doc, *.docx, *.xls, *.xlsx, *.txt, *.ppt, *.pptx, *.pps, and *.ppsx) they all opened ok using Quick Office but could only ready only and did not have the option to edit any of them. I think there is a paid version of Quick Office that will allow you to edit but did not test that. The one thing that bugs me is that when using the phone in the laptop dock I cannot view programs on the phone using the full screen size and am limited to the view size of the Mobile View window. For example: I open a *.docx file and that program is not on the App Tray on the bottom of the screen when in the laptop dock and so Quick Office opens within the Mobile view window and in full screen view it does not fill the whole screen and the resolution is not that great. The only thing you can add to the App Tray is a Firefox bookmark or a web application. That needs to be fixed so programs from the phone can run from the App Tray in full screen view. I had tried connecting the phone out of the dock with the HDMI cable plugged into a TV and that brings up the Entertainment Center and that only gives you options for music, pictures, video, and settings. This was useless for I figured if I had a PowerPoint I should have an option for files and browse to it and open it up and view it through the HDMI connection. That needs to be fixed. So instead of spending more time trying to get everything to work within the phone as far as all the apps and stuff I figured if you treat the smart phone or tablet as just a thin client to do a terminal session into your desktop for instance than once you accomplish that than your done for your desktop will already have all the programs you need. So I tried to VPN /remote desktop into my work computer and was only able to do that while on our business wireless network at work using free app Remote RDP Lite so I would not be able to do this from home and that is what I really wanted to do. At my job we use Juniper to VPN in with an RSA token and downloaded and paid for Remote Desktop Client by Xtralogic, Inc and could not get it to work. I had downloaded free app Junos Pulse and once again I had failed to get it to work. I think I tried a couple other free apps but what I was getting was this terminal session is not supported on your computer trying to connect through a terminal session using Juniper VPN. I had tried connecting through our citrix site and have Citrix receiver installed on phone and while in the laptop dock I get the same error ??? this terminal session is not supported on your computer. Out of the dock was getting error ??? your browser must have java enabled to use the client for java and have that enabled and still can???t get it to work. Others are running into this same issue - http://code.google.com/p/android/issues/detail?id=12578 and until this is resolved I cannot even consider an Android type phone/tablet to use for business to replace a laptop.

ShockMe
ShockMe

I think this is the correct path. Each additional component adds capability, battery life and processing power and perhaps ports. But I have this with iPhone iPad and MacBook Air.

khunter
khunter

apparently no longer have unlimited data packages available, so the cost of ownership could be a lot more.

mckinnej
mckinnej

I see this as bleeding edge tech that is trying to carve out a market that may or may not exist. Don't get me wrong, it's super cool, but there have been a lot of super cool gadgets over the years that failed because there really wasn't a market. (Satellite phones anyone?) I see a couple of deal breakers with this setup. One is the docking station. If you have to carry that along then doesn't that bust the whole portability paradigm? And as jon pointed out above, anyone that needs their all their data to travel with them has almost certainly developed their own specific solution which could be anything from a thumb drive to the web services jon described. So what we have is an expensive solution without a problem to solve. Now I'll rant a little on the concept of doing work on a smartphone. Lets be honest, if you can do your job on a smartphone without needing a desktop or laptop then you either have the coolest job ever with a slick workflow system worthy of Star Fleet or more likely, your work is trivial from a computing standpoint. I'm not saying the job isn't important; I'm just saying the job requires low to insignificant computer resources to complete its tasks. You probably only need email, a web browser, a calendar, and something to edit documents. In other words, you're probably not a developer, accountant, project manager, or that weird guy over in the corner with 3 monitors packed with more windows than you can count. Its hard to imagine any of those people being truly productive on one of those tiny screens. The small size of smartphones is both their biggest advantage and their ultimate limitation. Except for a niche of users, the smartphone is not going to replace the desktop or even the laptop anytime soon. I wish the media would quit acting like they will. The hype is getting old. The real truth is they are great technological feats that allow you to perform a limited set of activities in a truly portable manner (provided you can get a signal)...

JCitizen
JCitizen

That and some sync software ought to take care of it.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

universal docking capabilities for smartphones in hotels, cafes, conference centers, etc. Then, you really wouldn't need to carry a laptop. Your phone would have all of your data, apps, and preferences.

jonrosen
jonrosen

it IS AT&T. I've never been impressed with their call quality or problems with dropping, though I can't speak for the Atrix itself. Overall, I like where it's going. I like that it's Android.. .Just not AT&T.. and I would have to agree about the 'accessories pricing' problem.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

And, no, I didn't run into the call quality issue you mentioned. However, it sounds like a similar issue I've heard of with some AT&T iPhones.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Thanks Ron. I hope you keep updating it with your progress.

andrewberdahl
andrewberdahl

"But the advertising for the pad devices has made them so desireable for consumers that our management has gotten caught up in the hype." I couldn't have said it better. Commercial computing is driving corporate computing when, only a little time ago, it was the other way around.

JCitizen
JCitizen

definitely makes it a cool idea.

HumZ
HumZ

With the advent of low consumption CPU, and large capacity SSD, and better batteries, one can imagine having a single device for both office, mobile and home computing. Interesting would be having a standard dock interface many device to support.

Slayer_
Slayer_

SO I have my basic phone, minimal power, lots of file storage. Let's say I have Dragon Age 2 installed on it. The phone itself doesn't have the horse power for it, but I plug the phone into the dock and the phone switches to the docks processor, all work is offloaded to it. The dock can have that massive quad core processor, maybe an attachment for a high powered GPU. When I am done, I unplug the phone, and leave. Take it to work, plug it in to the dock, it now has a processor provided at work, but no GPU cause at work I don't need one. Then I take it to a friends house, plug it into his dock, and it powers back up and I can show him my games. When I am done, unplug it, take it home, plug it back in to the dock, and do some video conversions. Next day, I take a bus to work, and decide to browse the web using the phone, maybe watch the videos I converted or downloaded. This would be my dream of computing.

JCitizen
JCitizen

This is more like it! Carrying the redfly box to places where the monitor, keyboard, and mouse would already be, would be great! It would sure beat using a docking station at all access points and motels.

vegesm
vegesm

the whole concept would be pointless. But having docks everywhere - it would be awesome

JCitizen
JCitizen

Maybe when Verizon offers something like it...maybe.

ajgregory
ajgregory

It's hard to get an objective evaluation of the sound quality, but I was told the second unit sounded better than the first. If you were 100% satisfied with the performance of your handset I will try exchanging again. Fortunately Costco covers all costs and only requires a $120 security deposit when one requests an exchange. On the original topic/question: absolutely. It's clear that this is the way of the future. With a phone replacing at least the low-end PC functions already, who knows where this will go in 5 years!

JCitizen
JCitizen

I find myself in agreement with you almost 100% of the time! :D

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