Motorola's Atrix 4G: A Phone Thinks It's a Laptop

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Steve Marcus / Reuters

An Android-based Motorola Atrix smartphone is shown in a laptop dock during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

Not so long ago, cell phones and computers had almost nothing in common. Back in the middle of the last decade, for instance, the hottest handset on the market was Motorola's Razr. Its profoundly basic Web browser and other rudimentary Internet capabilities mostly served as reminders that it was wholly incapable of replacing a laptop.

How times have changed. Today's smart phones have potent, PC-like components, such as fast processors and high-resolution screens. They pack enough storage to hold massive quantities of video, music, photos, and other data. They run an array of PC-style applications, from word processors to 3D games., and even sport features absent on most PCs, such as built-in high-speed networking, GPS navigation, and not one but two cameras.

The only two PC prerequisites missing from modern smart phones are truly large displays and full-blown, touch-typable QWERTY keyboards. And nobody expects to find those on gadgets which pretty much by definition are designed to fit in a pocket.

Enter Motorola's newest flagship phone, the Atrix 4G. Available for preorder from AT&T starting on February 13th and scheduled to hit stores by March 6th, this Android smart phone doesn't just boast PC like specs and features. Thanks to its optional laptop dock—a notebook-like shell that relies on the handset for its computational guts—it can become a PC, with a roomy display, a traditional keyboard, and a touchpad. AT&T may be losing exclusive bragging rights to the iPhone this week, but the Atrix gives the company a genuinely unique new phone to crow about. I borrowed one from AT&T for review and found it to be an impressive phone and an intriguing-but-imperfect experiment in blurring the distinction between phone and computer.

Even without any accouterments, the Atrix ($199.99 with a two-year service agreement) is a formidable handset. Motorola calls it "the world's most powerful smartphone;" the claim is subject to debate, but it isn't mere PR puffery. The phone is among the first to use a dual-core 1-GHz processor, a high-speed chip that helps make the user interface particularly responsive and allows the phone to output true 720p HD video to an HDTV via the bundled HDMI cable. The display is a reasonably spacious 4" touchscreen, and cameras on both the back (for taking snapshots) and front (for making video calls). The "4G" in its name indicates that it supports the zippy, not-yet-pervasive form of AT&T wireless data otherwise euphoniously known as "HSPA+ with enhanced backhaul" as well as 3G. The power button doubles as a fingerprint scanner, letting you lock up your phone without futzing with passwords. And while I didn't attempt to gauge how long the Atrix will run on a charge, Motorola says that the unusually capacious 1930-MaH battery is good for up to nine hours of talk time.

The one part of the handset that isn't cutting-edge, sadly, is its software. It packs Android 2.2 Froyo, which is only the next-to-most-recent version of the operating system. How about Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which debuted on the Nexus S late last year? Motorola vaguely says it has the "expectation" that it'll provide Gingerbread as an upgrade at an unspecified date, putting the phone in the same strange software limbo as most Android smart phones.

The $499.99 laptop dock is what makes the Atrix a potential landmark rather than just another well-equipped Android phone. (You can also get both the phone and the dock for a total price of $499.99, after a $100 rebate, if you're willing to commit to two years' worth of AT&T's Data Pro smart-phone data plan.) All in all, the dock looks like a stylish cousin of Apple's new pint-sized MacBook Air—it has an 11.6" display, is just three-eighth of an inch thick, and weighs only 2.4 pounds. But it's a brainless beast that lacks a processor, storage, or networking capabilities of its own. In fact, you can't even turn it on until you flip open a connector behind the screen and stick in the Atrix.

Once you do, the end result looks a tad peculiar—as if the phone is hitching a ride in the dock's rumble seat—but works quite well. You don't need to turn off the Atrix or tell the dock that it's there: The "laptop" automatically springs to life in a few seconds, connected to the Internet and ready to go. And if a call comes in while the Atrix is docked, the dock acts like a speakerphone.

The dock includes its own battery (rated at up to eight hours per charge and capable of charging the phone) and two USB ports for hooking up accessories such as a mouse and an external hard disk. If you want the Atrix to mimic a desktop PC rather than a notebook, you can spring for a $189.99 HD Multimedia Dock, which comes with a wireless keyboard, mouse, and remote control and lets you plug the phone into a TV or computer display over an HDMI connection. (I wasn't able to test this device.)

When the Atrix is ensconced in the laptop dock or multimedia dock, you get big-screen, full-keyboard access to to all the apps on the phone—built-in ones like Gmail and Google Maps as well as ones you've install yourself, such as Kindle and Angry Birds. You also get a full-blown copy of Mozilla's Firefox 3.6 browser, that behaves just like the PC and Mac versions, right down to the ability to add new features by installing add-ons.

In my tests of the Atrix and laptop dock, the combination mostly worked as advertised: I watched Hulu, played games, managed my calendar, and otherwise stayed busy and entertained. I also wrote much of this column on it in Google Docs, a feat I'd never attempt on a smart phone's tiny on-screen keyboard.

This pseudo-laptop did, however, have an unrefined, version-1.0 feel—the first thing I saw after I docked the phone for the first time was an superfluous error message informing me that Firefox wasn't ready. The dual-core processor that gives the Atrix plenty of oomph in its unadorned smart-phone mode seems to be on the skimpy side when it's playing PC: The cursor occasionally froze, and when I pressed to shuffle through open windows, there was a lag of several seconds before they popped up. One clever feature lets you start browsing sites in the dock's copy of Firefox, then yank out the Atrix and continue perusing the same pages on the phone. When I removed the handset from the dock while a YouTube video was playing, however, the audio continued but I couldn't find any way to see it, or to turn off the soundtrack without resetting the phone.

I also missed the ability to scroll by dragging on the touchpad with two fingers, a handy capability of all Macs and many Windows PCs. Virtually all notebooks also have Webcams, another feature missing on the laptop dock. (The dock's display obstructs the Atrix's own front-facing camera, rendering it unusable.)

Then there's the pricetag for the dock, which places it well out of impulse-purchase range. The $500 you'd pay for a no-commitment Atrix laptop dock will buy you quite a lot of plain old laptop these days. Dell's $430 Inspiron M101z, for instance, has the same 11.6" screen size and includes Windows 7, and a hard drive with more than five times the Atrix's maximum storage. The Inspiron is a less sleek, less inventive piece of technology than the Atrix and its dock—but for many folks, it'll be a more practical choice. (You could even use it with an Atrix for Internet access, courtesy of the phone's Wi-Fi hotspot feature.)

Philosophically, the Atrix-plus-laptop-dock's closest rivals aren't Windows PCs or Macs so much as notebooks built around Google's minimalist Chrome OS operating system. (The first commercial models aren't due until later this year; I reviewed Google's test unit, the Cr-48, in December.) Like Chrome OS machines, the Atrix laptop dock combo assumes that there's a market for portable computers that dump the versatility and complexity of Windows and Apple's OS X for a meaner, leaner, largely browser-based experience. It's not yet clear that a critical mass of consumers are clamoring for such a device just yet—and Apple's iPad has hogged most of the spotlight for PC alternatives.

Still, I'm glad that Motorola and AT&T are giving this idea a try. I hope they stick with it, too: The Atrix phone itself is appealing, and the laptop-dock concept is strong enough that it deserves to be expressed in a cheaper, less quirky second-generation version.

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist. His column for, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday.