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.
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 professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.