Critics' Choice: Smartphone Review of Motorola Atrix 4G

Raise your hand if you saw this one coming: A phone maker that had lost its considerable cachet in recent years scored one of the recent Consumer Electronics Show's biggest hits. And their buzz-generating smartphone incorporates a concept from a product that Palm announced but never released.

The Motorola Atrix 4G's CES debut renewed interest in Motorola as well as the idea of 'modular computing,' which Palm tinkered with in 2007 but never brought to market with its Foleo sub notebook.

The Atrix 4G won the best smartphone category in the Best of CES awards, despite the formidable competition, and lots of raves.

"No doubt the most innovative smart phone at CES, and perhaps ever, the Atrix …pushes the boundaries of the handset definition," declares LAPTOP magazine, awarding the Motorola Atrix 4G one of its top 5 smartphones at CES 2011.

The Motorola Atrix 4G is "the craziest, most radical smartphone at CES," writes Sascha Segan for PC Magazine. "The more I think about it, the more I think it may be the single most interesting product at CES. The Atrix is an entirely new approach to mobile computing, and it's the first smartphone to take on both the iPad and the netbook market."

David Pogue of The New York Times wrote that the Atrix 4G smartphone is "an Android app phone…with a huge, towering, brilliant twist."

And here's the twist: The Motorola Atrix 4G smartphone can be used like any other Android mobile OS device. But when plugged into Motorola's Laptop Dock, the smartphone is transformed into a notebook computer--or what LAPTOP calls a 'webtop notebook.'

What's more, the Atrix 4G is the first dual-core processor phone offered by a U.S. carrier (it's based on Nvidia's Tegra 2 dual-core chipset). And it will support AT&T's HSPA+ 4G network for speeds up to 6 Mbps.

It's too early for full-fledged reviews, as the Motorola Atrix 4G isn't expected to ship until early March. (The smartphone should retail for about $200 with a new two-year contract from AT&T.) In the meantime, here's a look at some first impressions from LAPTOP, CNET, PC Mag, Mashable, and The New York Times.

The 4G Smartphone Specs

As an Android 2.2 smartphone, the Atrix 4G "is a beast of a device," notes Mark Spoonauer of LAPTOP, thanks to its dual-core chipset. "Coupled with a whopping 1GB of RAM, this CPU is capable of 1080p video playback and smooth Flash performance."

Mashable's Charlie White writes that the dual-core chipset runs Android "in an unusually sprightly way, responding to each touch with a quickness that's beyond any cellphone we've used. Add to that its potentially speedy 4G connectivity and its display versatility, and you have an impressive package."

Here are some other quick specs:

* A candy bar design in basic black, the Atrix 4G is a bit heftier than most smartphones, weighing 4.76 ounces. It measures 4.62 inches long by 2.5 inches wide by 0.43 inches deep.

* The 4-inch high-def touch screen supports 960 by 540 pixels, an accelerometer, and proximity sensor. The screen "isn't as gorgeous as a Super AMOLED panel, but menus and web sites looked bright and colorful," according to LAPTOP. The keyboard is virtual, rather than physical.

* Onboard memory is limited to 16GB and 1GB of RAM, though the Atrix 4G can accept microSD cards up to 32GB.

* The Atrix 4G features a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash, a second VGA front-facing camera, 720p video recording and HD video playback, the Android WebKit browser (with Adobe Flash support), plus Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1, and the standard set of Google apps.

* The smartphone also features "a unique and convenient biometric fingerprint reader…for unlocking the phone," notes LAPTOP. "But don't worry, there is a pin-number backup in case you leave your phone at home and need someone else to unlock it and look something up," adds Roy Furchgott, writing for The New York Times' Gadgetwise blog.

Here's the Exciting Stuff

The Atrix 4G can run two operating systems at once: Google's Android 2.2 and a customized Linux version that helps transform the smartphone into a laptop or desktop computer, depending upon the dock accessory.

* The laptop dock. The "ultrathin 2.4-pound clamshell" laptop dock (an optional purchase whose price hasn't yet been announced) consists of an 11.6-inch display and a "chiclet-style keyboard that felt solid but somewhat scrunched," notes LAPTOP. It also includes a trackpad "that worked well when we briefly surfed the web" and has two touch buttons.

The dock is "essentially an empty laptop shell that connects to your phone," explains Kent German of CNET. "You're still running everything from the Atrix, but it brings the Web browsing and media experience from the small to the big screen."

The "sexy" dock is "almost like a MacBook Air with a little Motorola logo on top," says PC Mag. "When you dock the phone and flip open the laptop, the alternative Linux OS boots in about 10-15 seconds."

The laptop dock has its own battery, which promises 8 hours of use from one charge. The dock will also have USB ports to attach peripherals such as an external hard drive. You'll still be able to make calls while using the Atrix 4G when the phone's docked.

* The desktop and HDTV dock. Alternatively, you can connect the Atrix 4G to an HDTV or to a desktop monitor, keyboard, and input device via the Motorola HD Multimedia Dock. The dock, another optional (and still unpriced) accessory, features three USB ports and an HDMI port.

"The beauty of these docks is that you can just pick up where you left off," notes LAPTOP. "For example, when we loaded Laptopmag.com on the phone itself and then connected to the Atrix 4G to the Laptop Dock, the Firefox browser automatically opened the site."

Also when docked, you can use Android apps on the big screen or "place the phone screen on the left and web interface on the right," says LAPTOP. "You can even leverage both interfaces at the same time, such as looking up a business in the browser and then dialing it on the phone."

The docking options are likely to simplify life for those who juggle multiple devices or computers, notes Pogue of The New York Times. "Think of all the problems this solves! Now you don't have two copies of everything. You don't have to sync anything--music, photos, videos, mail, Office files--your phone contains the live copies of everything. You don't have to worry about your phone battery dying, because it's actually charging whenever it's plugged into the laptop."

Still, a Few Questions

It remains to be seen how well the smartphone's 1,920mAh lithium ion battery can handle the strain from its dual-core processor, notes CNET.

Also, PC Mag says the demo unit they saw "was having trouble dealing with smooth animations on a big screen. Sitting in its desktop dock, with Angry Birds blown up to full-screen size, animations were noticeably jerky." Prices for the docking stations (which haven't been announced yet) could be a sticking point, too, PC Mag notes.

The Phone of the Future?

Could the Atrix 4G be a harbinger of what's to come--one device that's highly portable and can be used in a variety of ways? Mashable thinks so: "Someday, all PCs will be this way, and the line between smartphones and PCs will be forever blurred."


James A. Martin has written about mobile technology since the mid 90s and is the author of Traveler 2.0, a mobile technology blog for travelers.


mobile, smartphone, Motorola, 4g, 4G smartphone