I had just one day with Motorola's soon-to-launch Atrix smart phone and its collection of innovative accessories before writing this review. That's not enough time to properly figure out how long the battery lasts, much less definitively determine whether it delivers a compelling ongoing user experience. However, it was enough time to realize that this phone and its optional extras could represent the vanguard of a brand new kind of personal electronics ecosystem.
But first, just the phone.
Aside from a curiously positioned power button that doubles as a fingerprint reader and sits on an angle on the phone's top rear edge, the handset looks much like any other Android device. It's a familiar black obelisk, shiny on the front, matte on the sides and back, with the usual smattering of physical buttons and a couple of cameras (a low-res picture popper on front for videoconferencing, a 5MP sensor with dual-LED flash on the back). An HDMI Micro port on the side outputs high-definition video.
Under the hood, however, lurks an NVIDIA Tegra 2-powered monster. With eight parallel processors - including dedicated audio and graphics controllers running alongside a dual-core 1GHz CPU - plus a gigabyte of PC-grade DDR2 RAM, Motorola calls it the most powerful smart phone on the planet, and I'm inclined to agree.
Multitasking on a handset has never been quicker in my experience. Apps loaded instantly, and I encountered not the least bit of delay while playing games or working with media files. And with HSPA connectivity through Bell, you can look forward to downlink speeds of up to 14Mb per second (I didn't test this).
The four-inch screen, meanwhile, is a 960-by-540 QHD display, QHD being an acronym for Quarter High Definition (one-fourth the amount of pixels of a 1080p television). Unlike Samsung's Super AMOLED and Apple's Retina displays, it starts to look a little washed out when held at an angle, but the resolution is terrific. The tiny font of full web pages was perfectly clear, and it makes for great photo and video viewing.
All of this cutting-edge hardware might seem like overkill for a phone, and perhaps it is. However, much of it is necessary to facilitate the phone's most innovative and intriguing use case: Functioning as the brain of a laptop computer.
The Atrix is designed to attach to an optional accessory Motorola calls Lapdock. The Lapdock looks like a very thin notebook computer, but there's nothing below its 11.5-inch screen save a keyboard and touchpad, a pair of speakers, a battery, and a couple of USB ports. It's a mindless husk brought to life only when the Atrix is snapped into a port behind the display.
Pair the two devices and Motorola's Webtop - an application that runs off the phone and simulates a simple desktop experience - automatically launches within a couple of seconds. A row of icons runs along the bottom of the screen providing access to a windowed replica of the phone's display, a full-featured Firefox Internet browser, a basic media-browser for enjoying pictures, video, and music, and even a file browser that provides quick access to data stored on the phone.
To be clear, Webtop is not an operating system. You can't install and run common applications like Microsoft Office or Photoshop. However, it does provide a laptop-like experience for accessing and working with documents stored in the cloud via services like Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live. What's more, Citrix users can access their virtual desktops for an even more complete PC experience (I watched a demonstration of this feature but didn't try it myself).
It's an excellent idea, this amalgamation of gadgets. The benefits are obvious. No need to transfer files between devices. No need to sync your calendar and contacts with your computer (in fact, I was able to right click on phone numbers displayed in Firefox and either call or save them to the phone's contact list). No need to buy a laptop because your phone essentially is your laptop.
Wait a second... that last one's not quite true. The Atrix doesn't come with the Lapdock; it's an add-on - and a costly one at that. Canadian prices hadn't been released at press, but in the U.S. it comes either as part of a bundle, which increases the phone's price by $300 (the cost of a cheap netbook), or on its own for $500 (the price of a decent laptop).
This is an unfortunate barrier, especially since the vast majority of users will still need a laptop. The lack of a full-fledged OS that permits the use of common programs is a constant reminder that the Lapdock is not, in fact, a notebook. Unless your daily tasks revolve around web-based productivity, you simply won't be able to get by without a traditional computer.
Even if you do happen to spend most of your day with your head in the cloud, lag could be a deal breaker. This technical hitch was almost imperceptible at first; the pointer seemed a bit sluggish and web page load times were a little slow. Then I noticed minor chop in video playback. The files were caching well, they simply weren't running as smoothly as one would expect. When I began editing documents I observed a distinct delay between keystrokes and characters appearing on screen. If I punched the keys quickly enough entire sentences wouldn't display until I stopped typing. This kind of delay will undoubtedly prove frustrating for those who intend to use the Lapdock for serious productivity.
A more affordable Atrix accessory is the $100 HD Multimedia Dock and remote. It functions like the Lapdock in that it launches Webtop on an external screen, but you need to provide your own display, speakers, keyboard, and mouse. I plugged it into my television and found it a good way to enjoy photos, video, and music stored on the Atrix through my home theatre system.
However, since you can already connect the phone to a television using the HDMI connector and included HDMI cable - in which case the phone itself becomes a nifty touch screen remote for surfing multimedia files - the HD Multimedia Dock makes little sense unless you intend to use it for web browsing and productivity...which brings us back to Webtop's limitations.
Even if the Atrix's novel accessories don't quite manage to live up to their pre-launch hype, they ought not to detract from the phone itself. It's among the best performing Android handsets I've tried - and not just in terms of processing speeds. Call quality was excellent, and people on the other end of the line had no trouble hearing me, even when the phone was in conference mode and docked behind the Lapdock screen. Photos and videos were on par with what I've captured using other 5MP phones, and with 16GB of onboard storage - expandable up to 48GB via the microSD card slot - running out of space will take most folks a long while. The phone is priced at $599.95, or $169.95 with a three-year contract and minimum $50 voice and data plan through Bell.
And don't count Lapdock out. The notion of using just a single mobile computer and storage device and simply plugging it into other screens and interfaces as needed is too appealing to be dismissed based on the costs and problems I encountered in this first effort. The technology just needs time to evolve.