Monday, May 23, 2011

Motorola Atrix 4G Review

Not too long ago Motorola innovation was stagnating and they were, in some way, living off the success of its extremely successful and RAZR line of ultra thin feature phones. Their first forays into the world of smartphones were difficult and they were looking to jump start slowing business. That boost came with the advent of Android as a major player in mobile tech. Today we see the latest incarnation of Motorola's Android powered assault on the tech world, the Motorola Atrix 4G. Performing triple duty as a phone, laptop and media center, we look at whether this dual-core behemoth has what it takes to be the alpha of a new age of mobile computing and the omega of traditional computing as we know it today.

Overall Construction
With other manufacturers beginning to understanding the importance of form going hand in hand with function, Motorola seems to, at first glance, have taken a step back by going with plastic as its predominant material for the exterior.

But this simply isn't the case with Motorola Atrix. The overall design oozes of Motorola's signature style of producing phones with incredibly solid build quality. Much like the DROID/Milestone, DROID X and other Motorola high-end devices, the lines, curves and overall design are ultra-masculine and in some way aiming for the techie/geekie demographic.

As far as thickness is concerned, the Atrix actually feel average, but in fact it is not that much thicker than the gold standard for thin handsets, the iPhone 4. This is quite a feat considering the "heat" that this phone is packing. The edges aren't as rounded off or tapered a say the edge of an iPad 2, so overall it physically is thin without feeling like it would fall out of the hand.

Overall aesthetics of the device are quite nice. In fact the back panel on the Atrix 4G has an interesting carbon fiber-like pattern to it. In addition the choice of a matte back panel is definitely a welcome feature, as there is nothing more annoying than to have to wipe down both your touchscreen and the back of your device.

On the down side, the use of plastic materials has more or less made the exterior of the phone more susceptible to cosmetic damage such as scrapes and looses a bit its sheen and polish over time. This isn't too big deal as more particular users can prevent this damage with the use of a case.

Motorola Atrix 4G

Motorola has seldom let down in the screen department as far as their high end smartphones are concerned and the Atrix is again a token of that consistency. The screen on the Atrix is yet another testament to the fact that the a screen doesn't need the "Super" prefix or a name based on a body part to be an excellent display. It simply just needs to be a high quality LCD display. The fact that this screen touts a ultra high pixel density qHD 960x540px resolution certainly doesn't hurt either.

On the 4-inch TFT LCD colors are rich, and black levels were good. Brightness levels were also very good, although like most screen outdoor usage is difficult without cranking up the brightness manually.

The Corning Gorilla Glass found on top of the screen seems to have been covered by an oleophobic coating, which is just about standard issue today and allows for the phone to be quickly wiped down of fingerprints and grease with little effort.

In my day to day use, I found the screen to be very responsive. Rare was the situations where I mis-pressed a button and felt that I was aiming at a correct key on the keyboard or button in the UI. One thing worth noting about the phone is that while the touch digitizer can detect more than two touches at a time but seems to be limited to two touches at a time. Since this is obviously a software limitation, perhaps Motorola will enable this in a later update.

While everything seems peachy and perfect, sadly there is one blemish on this otherwise excellent screen. The Atrix uses the Samsung proprietary PenTile Matrix Display that is found in other screens like the Super AMOLED equipped Samsung Galaxy S. This has been well publicized as well as well criticized.

In this case, while it's unfortunate to see the lack of the traditional RGB stripe, there are several factors that seemed to have factored into Motorola's choice. For one the screen is sporting the highest resolution that Android Phones have reached. This certainly offsets the noticeable aliasing of text for example.

Another reason (according to Anand from Anandtech) is that PenTile reduces the amount of blue pixels, which are more susceptible to intensity degradation over time. The last factor in the choice of PenTile was the power consumption savings. Again, according to Anand from Anandtech, there were significant power saving from choosing the PenTile matrix.

That being said, PenTile can be irritating to some, especially those who know what to look for to notice whether it's PenTile or not. Personally though, I don't believe it's not enough of a con to really get frustrated about, as I value color, clarity and contrast in displays.

As with most Android phones you find the usual Menu - Home - Back - Search keys. On this phone they are capacitive buttons that are simply extensions of the touch digitizer below the screen. They are quite responsive and in my two weeks of testing the device I didn't get any accidental button presses when aiming for another button.

When it comes to the actual physical buttons it's a tale of Jekyll and Hyde. The volume rocker has, what I believe to be, the ideal size to it and it's clearly separated between the volume up and volume down portion of the rocker. The rocker has a good feel, needing just about the right amount of pressure to activate and is raised just enough to distinctly identify it by touch alone.

The power button on the other hand is a bit of a mystery. The inclusion of a fingerprint scanner is a very novel idea and in my test worked very well. But this forced Motorola to not only have the button place in an odd angular fashion but also force Motorola to have the button placed in the middle in order not to favor left-handed people or right-handed people. This combination make for something of an odd experience locking and unlocking the device.

Battery Life
Battery life on the Motorola Atrix 4G is excellent. Given the hardware this phone is packing it's not too much of a surprise to see a battery as large as the one found on the Atrix 4G. That being said from my day to day usage, I believe even a 1500mAh would have been sufficient to power this beast for a day's worth of usage. The 1930mAh battery easily gets through a full day of email checking, browsing and of course gaming. If you were unfortunate enough to forget to charge your phone overnight it could probably even get you through at least half the day.

Internal Hardware
As far as internal hardware is concerned the Atrix is rocking;
- Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core 1 GHz Cortex-A9 CPU
- Ultra-low power (ULP) GeForce GPU
- 16GB of on board storage (expandable to 48GB with a 32GB microSD card)
- 14.4Mbps HSPA+ capable chipset
- WiFi b/g/n
- 5MP auto-focus camera with dual LED flash and 720p HD video capabilities
- HDMI output

Simply put, this is just about as good specs as you will get on an Android phone. Only the LG Optimus 2X/G2X or the Samsung Galaxy S II are in the same league as the Atrix as far as pure power is concerned. The Atrix has the baseline hardware for which Android tablets are built on, so that gives a pretty good idea of the hardware capabilities of this phone.

I definitely appreciated the fact that the Atrix has both 16GB onboard memory as well as a microSD card slot for those media junkies that need that extra room for videos and music. When used with the Webtop and HD dock the extra space will definitely come in handy.

HSPA+ "4G" Capabilities
While the Atrix was initially launched on Bell simply as the "Motorola Atrix" recent changes by the ITU reclassifying HSPA+ as "4G" has allowed Bell to re-brand many of their devices as "4G" devices. This includes the Atrix which is now called the "Motorola Atrix 4G" like it's US brother on AT&T.

Coverage permitting, HSPA+ covered area's yielded some pretty satisfying results. They are consistently hovering around the 3-4Mbps area. This isn't as close to the 14.4Mbps or "4G" that people might be expecting, but honestly for whatever you will do on this phone the speeds are sufficient for a great experience.

One problem with the speeds were the very lackluster upload speeds, the same problem that plagued the US version of the Atrix. Hopefully this will be remedied with a future software update.

These tests were conducted in HSPA+ covered areas of Montreal, so if you live somewhere else in Canada with HSPA+ coverage your mileage will definitely vary. But this should be a rough estimate of what speeds you should expect with the Atrix.

Speaker and microphone
The earpieces sound quality is as you can expect from Motorola, loud and clear. The same can be said for the external speakers which were surprisingly good as well, especially for games, videos, and music.

Based on our tests, the microphone quality was clear with the help of a second noise cancelling microphone, which seems to be the standard with high end Android handsets.

The camera on the Atrix 4G has to be one of the top cameras on any smartphone. The camera excellent at taking still in almost any lighting situations and the dual-led flash was more than sufficient to get those night shots. In low light situations where the flash isn't needed noise level is quite good considering it is a smartphone. Although some closeup night shots did end up being over flooded by the flash in low light situations needing the flash. Overall, I would have no issues with leaving a standard point and shoot camera at home in favor of the Atrix.

Where the camera really shines is in it's 720p HD recording capabilities. In my tests the video capture was excellent in both outdoors and indoors as well as normal and low light situations. Videos were crisp and detailed as well as having a solid frame rate. Sound quality on video taken with the Atrix was also fantastic. One downside that I noticed was that during recording if you don't grip the phone certain way and the phone moves around in your hand during recording the plastic case reverberated into the main microphone, but of course this is a very minor problem.

The VGA front facing camera isn't anything other than your run of the mill camera. So nothing really much to report here other than it does that job for video chatting and those quick self-portrait pictures.

Sample Pictures


In the world of Android, not much of the OS is set in stone and one of the most hotly debated parts of the Android OS is its UI.

In this case Motorola went with their latest iteration of MotoBlur. While custom manufacturer UIs are maligned amongst Android enthusiasts, MotoBlur has been the recipient of an exceeding amount of criticism. Motorola's latest UI offering isn't too different from it's previous MotoBlur devices.

Motorola's customizations of the UI are somewhat tamed compared to other manufactuer UIs like Acer's Breeze UI or Samsung's TouchWiz UI and still keeps the familiar feel of stock Android. So it is a little surprising that it would get the ire of Android enthusiasts.

One issue that might be the reason for the criticism of MotorBlur is the fact that a lot of the devices sporting the UI were lower end phones that never saw an update to Android 2.2 Froyo and even worse some MotoBlur clad devices in Canada getting abandoned at Android 1.5.

Although, to be fair, the Atrix isn't just any other MotoBlur phone, this is the pinnacle of Motorola Engineering. One would assume that this phone would be kept up to date with with the latest versions of Android.

Another aspect of Blur that could drive seasoned Android users mad or just plain confuse novice users would be some redundant features like MotoBlur's social aggregation services which makes users have to logging to Facebook and/or Twitter twice.

That being said, it is a bit disappointing that even with Android 2.3 being already released Motorola launched the Atrix with Android 2.2 and unfortunately, as of the writing of this review, the phone is still running Android 2.2.

There are however some nice touches by Motorola. One such improvement is the Motorola keyboard. Motorola was one of the first companies to finally add a multitouch enabled keyboard and the one included with the Atrix does not disappoint. Motorola also included Swype as a preloaded alternative keyboard, which will surely please many people.

The Motorola widgets aren't the most visually appealing widgets I've seen but I love the fact you can resize almost all the widgets to the desired size. This is definitely something that should be adopted by more manufacturers, even Google seems to have taken notice, adding widget resize support out of the box in Honeycomb version 3.1.

Another good Motorola improvement is in the camera and camcorder app. With a bevy of options and settings and a tweaked UI is without a doubt a great improvement over the stock camera/camcorder app.

Overall, MotoBlur doesn't seem to hamper the overall performance of the phone but that could also be because of the dual-core CPU. The UI does seem sluggish in some areas but seem to be software animation issues, which should be improved with updates.

Unfortunately one thing the Tegra 2 could not overcome is very poor high resolution flash content. Qualcomm recently put out a promo video for their Snapdragon line of CPUs and this demo included a demo of flash lagging on a Tegra device while playing flawlessly on a Snapdragon device. I personally found it hard to believe but now see the credibility in the video.

All in all MotoBlur is not the worse custom UI, but it isn't really what a lot of people are looking for. To take a bit of a history lesson, MotoBlur was developed at a time when social integration into Android was really just starting. The native Facebook and Twitter apps had very limited functionality so it made sense for manufacturers to step in and fill the void. But now that stock Android social integration is vastly improved and the native apps being far more useful the need for MotoBlur has really diminished. Unfortunately Motorola hasn't added too much more with this iteration over the older versions of Blur, making it less desirable than Stock Android.

The phone is bundled with several pre-loaded apps, many of which cannot be uninstalled. Some apps are redundant, like the Telnav GPS Navigation app. Others are actually quite useful like the Bell TV & Radio app as well as the Bell PVR app.

Gaming Performance
One clear advantage of having an SoC manufactured by Nvidia is that you will get world class graphical performance and this is obviously the case with the Atrix. Gaming on this device was a dream, with solid frame rates on all games across the board. From the good old Angry Birds to the graphically demanding Dungeon Defenders the gaming performance was flawless.


Lapdock - Webtop
I won't get too much into the Lapdock as I didn't want it to affect the review of the phone on it's own. In the end this was a good decision, because after a week and a half of carrying it with me to class and using it as my main portable computer, I can say with certainty that the Webtop environment is certainly a great idea with a ton of potential but really isn't executed well enough for mass consumption.

The hardware itself is fantastic, being light, compact and built solidly with great materials. The touchpad is nice and large, I really liked the chiclet keyboard and the added battery is great to have. Also present when in the Webtop environment is a window with a portal to your phone allowing you to still be able to access your apps, place calls and send SMS/MMS on the phone. But unfortunately that's where the good ends.

Probably the most annoying thing about the the Lapdock itself it that the touchpad while being nice and large does not support multitouch gestures or even any singletouch scrolling gestures. This forced users to use the arrow keys or the software scrollbar to scroll through pages.

Once docked the Atrix boots up into a custom Linux environment that includes a file explorer, Mozilla Firefox and a few shortcuts including but not limited to a link to the Entertainment Center environment and a link to Facebook. The choice of Firefox over Chrome is a bit puzzling since, you know, Chrome and Android are ... Google products? The version of Firefox included in the Webtop environment seems to be pre-4.0 so we can only assume it to be more taxing than Chrome would be.

The Linux environment runs well and is visually appealing but seems just a tad too much for the Tegra 2 to handle because overall performance is lackluster.

The last knock on the Webtop dock is that it is priced at $329.95. At this price it's hard to recommend this dock over a basic netbook at the same price.

As mentioned earlier the idea is quite innovative, just not as well executed to justify the price tag.

HD Multimedia Dock
As with the Lapdock, I did not want to let it affect the overall ratings of the phone so I will try to keep this section brief. But unlike the Lapdock the HD Multimedia Dock is actually quite nice. This is mostly because it isn't supposed to do much other than hookup to your HD TV and really it does it well.

When you dock the Atrix into the HD Dock you get into the Multimedia environment where you can view movies and pictures stored on the device using the included IR remote.

You can also get into the Webtop environment if you wish to do so and use the USB ports to attach a keyboard and mouse.

This dock is much better executed than the Lapdock but unfortunately is also priced a tad high at $129.95.

The Motorola Atrix 4G is easily the most powerful phone available in Canada and until the LG Optimus 2X hits WIND/Videotron shelves it will obviously stay that way. Does it mean that this is the the best Android phone in Canada? That's a bit harder to say, since the Atrix obviously has its share of problems like any other smartphone.

Anyone familiar with Android phones will have probably already heard a lot about this phone, but to anyone who isn't the most well versed in Android phone and interested in this phone there are two possible outcomes. If you are a tech savvy and want the best of the best hardware, this is the phone for you but if you're somewhat new to smartphones and are not tech wizards but find certain aspects of the Android OS appealing, there are other phones that will probably fit your needs better than the Atrix.

A lot of hype surrounded the dock accessories, when the Atrix was first announced at CES but unfortunately they both miss the mark. But I am personally excited to see a second more refined iteration of the Lapdock and HD Multimedia Dock and perhaps at a more affordable price point. In the end my recommendation would be to skip on the docks for now and stick with the phone, our desktops, laptops and netbooks are safe for now.

In the end the Atrix is not only one of the top Android smartphone available in Canada but in the world.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 8/10
- Solid Motorola construction despite plastic construction

Screen: 8/10
- The qHD resolution, good colors, good black levels were great but loses a few marks because of the use of PenTile Matrix.

Buttons: 9/10
- Responsive Capacitive buttons, excellent volume rocker but odd power button placement and orientation.

Internal Hardware: 10/10
- Top notch hardware, nothing really else to say. Great battery life

Speaker and Microphone: 10/10
- Classic Motorola delivering in the sound department

Camera: 9/10
- Excellent substitute for a regular Point and Shoot camera

UI Changes: 7/10
- Blur is a bit behind the times. Some redeeming qualities but mostly redundant features

Additional Enhancements: 8/10
- Multitouch keyboard is fantastic, widget resizing is great and camera/camcorder software is excellent

Included Apps/Bloatware: 8/10
- Mixed bag as far as bloatware is concerned some really useful apps, some bad

Final Score: 8.5/10

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