Motorola Atrix review

The Motorola Atrix was one of the first high-end Android devices announced for 2011, making its debut at CES in January alongside its larger-screened cousin, the Xoom tablet PC.

It was out in the US shortly thereafter, but only came to our shores some months later, eventually going on sale in September 2011.

Needless to say, much of the hype around the device had died down by then as the HTC Sensation and Samsung Galaxy S2 had already been launched.

Despite being late to the party in South Africa, on the spec sheet the Motorola Atrix still stands toe-to-toe with the so-called “superphones” and brings a number of unique features to the table.

These include the less exciting “MotoBlur” (Motorola’s custom UI for Android), as well as the more exciting “WebTop” and various docks that transform the device into a kind of portable computer.

Built-in apps: From alarms to widgets

One expects a certain level of functionality in an Android smartphone, especially if the device competes at the high-end, and the Atrix doesn’t disappoint. The only contentious point is the MotoBlur flavour given to the majority of the stock applications, but this kind of customisation isn’t unique to Motorola’s devices.

Touch response is good, the stock keyboard is functional, and the basic apps (clock, calendar, camera, dialler, e-mail, messaging, gallery) get the job done.

So rather than focusing on the mundane, let’s look at where the Atrix excels, or drops the ball.

Motorola Atrix front left
Motorola Atrix

For one, the Motorola Atrix has a bunch of extra apps you won’t find on every other Android device.

This includes a built-in file browser, task manager, and an alternative keyboard called Swype. For those unfamiliar with Swype, it’s a keyboard that lets you gesture across the keys to compose words rather than just tapping on them.

These apps (or ones very similar to them) are readily available for download, of course, but some might enjoy having them available out-the-box. There is also an argument for less pre-installed apps, as it allows the user to choose what they want to use their phone’s app space for.

A fairly standard app worth singling out is the Atrix’s music player, which has SoundHound song identification and TuneWiki built right in. Being based on TuneWiki means the player automagically looks up lyrics for songs and sports “Music Maps” – which shows you where people have listened to songs.

The music player also has a special widget that is placed on the second home screen by default. Most widgets on the Atrix are resizable by long pressing on them and then dragging a corner. If you’re making a widget bigger and there isn’t enough space on the home screen, other widgets are be pushed to neighbouring screens with room.

Motorola Atrix screenshots - file manager, music player
Motorola Atrix screenshots - file manager, music player

Hardware: all the bells and whistles

Motorola Atrix technical specifications
Maker Motorola
Display 4.0” qHD (540×960)
Camera, primary 5MP
Camera, secondary VGA
Storage (Internal) 16GB
Storage (Expandable) microSD (32GB)
RAM 1GB
Processor 1GHz dual core (Tegra 2 AP20H)
Graphics ULP GeForce 300MHz
Cellular data 14.4Mbps HSPA+

As can be seen from the table above, the Motorola Atrix holds its own spec-wise despite being one of this year’s earliest Android releases.

Its qHD display is not the 720p monster of the recently announced Galaxy Nexus, but it is still above average and delivers crisp graphics and good touch response.

The internal storage of 16GB is partitioned into “application” and “internal phone” storage, as with other Android devices we’ve reviewed with a large internal flash memory.

Without any third party applications installed or files copied onto the internal storage, the device reported that it had just over 1.5GB free for applications and 10.71GB available on the second partition.

Motorola Atrix camera test
Motorola Atrix camera test: Outdoor (left) and low-light (right)

Camera

Although 5 megapixels isn’t a number that impresses when you talk about a smartphone camera, the Atrix’s will take you far.

In both outdoor and low-light testing the camera performed admirably. Colours were a little washed out and there was a bit of graininess when the environment got too dark, but if you’re close enough to the subject for the flash to be effective (1-3 metres) low-light won’t be a problem.

Fingerprint reader, HDMI

Two notable hardware features that weren’t listed in the table are the fingerprint reader on the back of the device and the micro-HDMI port.

The fingerprint reader has one major purpose: It lets your replace the PIN and gesture lock security features supported by the system software with fingerprint verification.

You enrol both your left and right index fingers, which theoretically should allow you to unlock your phone or access other protected features such as factory reset with either digit.

However, I found that one finger (the right, in my case) worked more consistently than the other.

Authenticating with a fingerprint requires that you not swipe your finger across the sensor too fast, and there is a wait of a second or two if the print wasn’t recognised.

Motorola did build in a fail-safe in case the Atrix refuses to accept your fingerprint for whatever reason: You have to specify a PIN along with the fingerprint enrolment. Whenever you’re presented with a prompt to scan your fingerprint there is always a way for you to type the PIN instead should you need to.

The second notable hardware feature you don’t often see in a comparison table is a micro-HDMI port. The Motorola Atrix also comes with a micro-HDMI to HDMI cable so you can connect it to a monitor or TV.

While HDMI-out on a smartphone is a great novelty, what makes it shine on the Atrix are the hardware docks available for the device and the Webtop operating system (OS) running alongside Android.

Motorola Atrix docked user interface choices
Motorola Atrix docked user interface choices

Webtop and dock

The Motorola Atrix has two dock accessories available to it: The HD multimedia dock, and the “Lapdock.”

As the names indicate, the multimedia dock is geared for connecting the Atrix to some kind of home entertainment system for video and music playback, while the Lapdock turns your phone into a netbook.

If you connect a keyboard and mouse to the multimedia dock, however, it behaves much the same as when you connect it to the Lapdock: your normal Android user interface (and apps) disappear and are replaced by Webtop – a Linux-based OS that runs parallel to Android.

Motorola Atrix - Webtop without keyboard and mouse
Motorola Atrix - Webtop without keyboard and mouse

Though the default browser in smartphone mode is the Android browser while the Webtop uses a version of Firefox, you can share the pages you have open and bookmarks between Webtop and Android.

One benefit to doing this review so long after the release of the Atrix, is that Motorola has since announced the Razr – their next high-end smartphone.

Though its launch doesn’t necessarily make the Atrix obsolete, it was revealed that the docks released with the Atrix won’t work on future Motorola products. The Razr will unfortunately get its own set of docks, but they will be compatible with future devices, Motorola promised.

Motorola Atrix - Entertainment Centre controls
Motorola Atrix - Entertainment Centre controls
Motorola Atrix - Entertainment Centre user interface
Motorola Atrix - Entertainment Centre user interface
Motorola Atrix - Widget Clock
Motorola Atrix - Widget Clock

Bundle and price

In South Africa the Atrix comes bundled with an HD dock, which can connect up to 3 USB devices to the smartphone.

It had a recommended retail price of R5,500 at launch, and the Lapdock was set to retail for between R2,000 and R2,500.

Motorola Atrix disassembled
Motorola Atrix disassembled

Final impressions

The Motorola Atrix is a fantastic Android device available at fairly reasonable prices.

By no stretch is it perfect, and it did reboot spontaneously once or twice after experiencing dramatic slowdowns. These types of issues aren’t unique to the Atrix, however, and weren’t frequent enough to be a major problem.

The biggest drawbacks to the Atrix are its update schedule and the lack of forward compatibility of its docks with future Motorola devices.

What’s more, in South Africa the Atrix still hasn’t received the update to Gingerbread (Android 2.3), with Motorola saying that it is in for testing with the operators, and it’s unclear when or if it will be receiving the latest iteration of Android (version 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich) in South Africa.

Docks and bleeding-edge Android versions aside, the Atrix is a well balanced device that would meet and exceed the expectations of most users.

Motorola Atrix hands-on

Motorola Xoom and Atrix launched in SA

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Motorola Atrix review