Atrix 4G

The Motorola Atrix 4G is the latest high-end Android phone on AT&T's HSPA+ network, bringing a dual-core Tegra 2 powerhouse and Moto's unique WebTop experience along for the ride.  Since its announcement at CES in January, people have been excited to see what Motorola can bring to the table, and I was just as excited to have some time with the Atrix and the laptop dock.

That's not to say the experience was perfect -- they never are.  I'll share what I learned during my time with the Atrix, and hopefully it will give you a fair idea of what to expect with this one.  Join me after the break.

As we always try to do here at Android Central, as soon as we get the gear we turn it on to make sure it works, then fire up the camera.  This allows you to see our first impressions as we stumble our way through a new device.  The Atrix is no exception, so have a look at the video of my initial reaction to the phone and the laptop dock.


YouTube link for mobile viewing

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video can really tell a story.  I admit I was a little disappointed with WebTop mode through the laptop dock when I first tried it.  Not that it was unbearble, but I had such high expectations.  We'll talk more about that a little later. 

The Hardware

overview

The hardware on the Atrix is the real star of the show.  It's packing a dual-core Tegra 2 processor, a full gigabyte of RAM, front facing camera, and everything else people on AT&T have been waiting for.  The full specifications are:

  • NVIDIA's dual-core Tegra 2 processor, clocked in at 1 GHz
  • 1024 MB of system RAM
  • 16382 MB (16GB) internal storage
  • microSD card slot (up to 32 GB size card)
  • 4-inch capacitive touchscreen at 540x960 (qHD) resolution
  • 5 MP rear camera with 720p video capture and dual LED flash, VGA (0.3 MP) front-facing camera
  • Android 2.2.1
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, AGPS, 802.11 b/g/n WiFi
  • 1930 mAh battery
  • GSM 850, 900, 1800, 1900, UMTS 850, 1900, 2100 and 14.4 Mbit/s HSDPA / 2.0 Mbit/s HSUPA * radios

*Technically the Atrix 4G's hardware supports full HSDPA/HSUPA, but this is currently disabled by AT&T.  Look here for more detail.

So the hardware is nothing to sneeze at.  It's by far the most powerful smartphone hardware we've ever seen.  But exactly how is it packaged up?  The phone is a mixture of plastic with a Gorilla Glass screen.  The screen is glossy plastic with no coating, but the way the battery door wraps around it feels very solid.  You'll see what I mean in the pictures that follow.  It is a total fingerprint magnet though -- front and back. 

The front of the phone is your standard black slab, with capacitive buttons and a cutout for the earpiece.  The buttons are silkscreened and have the same order as the Droid X and Droid 2 models -- menu-home-back-search.  It looks like Motorola has decided on a button order, let's hope they stick to it.  At the very bottom edge is a microphone, and beside the earpiece is the VGA front-facing camera, tucked safely away under the same sheet of Gorilla glass that covers the entire face of the phone.

Atrix 4G - 03  Atrix 4G -04

Atrix 4G - 05  Atrix 4G - 06

On the rear of the phone is the 5 MP camera with its dual flash setup, a small (but surprisingly loud and clear) external speaker grill, a second noise-canceling microphone, and the power button/fingerprint scanner combo.  The power button placement and arrangement takes some getting used to, but in the end it works great.  Now that I'm back to my personal phone, I find myself missing it.  On top next to the power switch is a 3.5 mm headphone jack, which is good and solid without being too deep.  You'll appreciate that if you use wired headphones, either by choice or because you broke your Bluetooth MotoRokr set.  I fall into the later category.

On the phone's left edge are the USB and HDMI port.  Shout out to Motorola here -- the connectors are rock solid, with little to no wiggle on either.  I wouldn't be afraid that things are going to break, as both the included cables (yes, Moto gives you a HDMI cable to call your own) and the dock connectors fit snugly and just right.  On the right side the volume rocker switch sits alone, being in a good position for easy use, but entirely too small and aggravating as all get out.  If you frequently use the volume switch, you'll probably get used to it, but I sure didn't.  Yes, nit-picky, but important to many -- including myself.

Atrix 4G -- power switch  Headphone jack

volume rocker  connection ports

Under the battery door everything fits nicely, is easy to get to, and feels very well made.  We shouldn't be surprised here -- Motorola makes quality phones, and the Atrix is no exception.  The only gripe I can find is the battery door itself.  The material is thin, flexible plastic.  The way the battery door wraps around the corners of the phone you don't notice this while it's on, but I was a little worried the first time I removed it that I would break it.  I didn't, and maybe I am worried over nothing, but it seems out of place on an otherwise rugged feeling piece of hardware.

battery door  SIM card

battery 1  battery 2

How does all this perform?  Let's start with the benchmarks. 

YouTube link for mobile viewing

A few things here.  While Android can run on dual-core hardware, things are far from optimized.  Other than the multitouch test (which we'll discuss in a moment) everything you see is subject to change.  I was very impressed with the display and motion during all the graphics tests.  An enjoyable experience doesn't always translate into numbers, and the video from both the Nenamark tests and the graphics portions of the Quadrant test is by far the best I've ever seen.  It's fluid, there is no stutter or choppiness, and frankly there's no way to explain it other than to say it makes you feel that you're not looking at a smartphone while it's running.  It's desktop computer quality graphics performance on a four inch screen.  The PowerVR chips may give you better numbers, but on Android they don't look nearly as nice.  Sign me up for the first SAMOLED+/Tegra 2 smartphone right now.

Now let's talk about the multitouch test.  The touch input sensor on the Atrix 4G only accepts two input points.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  One finger, two fingers.

Other than a few games, this isn't going to make much of a difference -- for now.  The way things change so fast in Android I worry that more than two input points may soon become the norm for gestures and on-screen controls.  If so, the Atrix will never be able to use them.  It seems strange to me to use this hardware on a phone so future proof.  I'm sure Motorola has a reason to use the digitizer hardware they did, and I hate to second guess them, but it seems like an odd omission.

As with most Motorola products, the radios all work great.  WiFi and Bluetooth connect quickly and have a solid signal, and my headset was able to access the phonebook without issue.  The cellular radios work well, aside from the AT&T "4G" issues.  Calls sound very good, and for voice services the noise canceling microphone set-up does it's job.  GPS and navigation worked without a hitch.  The external speaker, both for playing media and using as a speakerphone is second to none.  Hello Moto.

Battery life, on the other hand, was pretty abysmal.  Even with the beefy 1930 mAh battery I could not make it through the day without running to a charger -- and a Motorola-branded charger at that.  Yes, Motorola once again is forcing you to use their battery charger and USB cable to charge the phone, despite it being microUSB. Whatever little tweaks that made have nullified the standard. Bad, Moto. Bad.

The processor also runs hot.  While downloading the SD card content for Dungeon Defenders First Wave, or the initial sync of my Google and Blur accounts, the bottom half of the phone got uncomfortably warm.  I think there is a correlation here, and am hoping that once updated to a version of Android that properly supports the Tegra 2 hardware both these will become a non-issue.

The hardware really shines when you enter the Tegra Zone.  Load an optimized Tegra 2 game from NVIDIA's area of the Market, and have a blast.  Luckily, my favorite game has a great Tegra 2 version -- Fruit Ninja THD.  It's a noticeable upgrade from the "normal" version, features very intense graphics and textures, has at least a million more pieces of fruit on the screen at once, more and better visuals, and pulls it off with nary a stutter -- until the OS gets involved.  If a notification comes in while playing, things stop for a second or two, you hear the sound, then go right back where you left off at full speed.  Again, I blame Android itself for this -- the OS just doesn't fully use the power under the hood. 

Tegra Zone

Dungeon Defenders

Fruit Ninja THD

The Software

The Homescreens

The Atrix 4G comes chock full 'o Blur.  We're not going to spend too much time talking about Blur -- you either like it, or you don't.  I'm in the latter camp since I used it.  I signed up and created a Blur account with my real information, using my Google contacts, Facebook and Twitter account, and wish I hadn't.  Contacts get duplicated, contact notes get corrupted, and a total mess that takes the best part of a day to repair is the result.  The widgets in Blur are very nice, and I happened to like the color scheme and layout, but the performance hit and the general mess makes me understand all the Blur hate a little better.  Of course you can use a third party launcher, but all that really does is hide what's going on behind the scenes.  Blur's tentacles reach deep, and it's going to take a while to get rid of most of it.  When we see a dual-core optimized version of Blur, we may all fall in love with it, and in the meantime we can be happy that it's not Bing.

ADW Launcher  About

There are a few things I like about the software as well.  The battery manager and data delivery settings are a nice touch, and work as advertised.  It's a bit confusing if you forget and reach for your phone during the "off" hours, but once you have it set up to suit your needs, both are a welcome addition.  And the fingerprint scanner may be a gimmick more than anything, but it's very cool and really is a handy way to unlock your phone once you remember that it's there.  I tried a few tricks to bypass it, and none worked, so I'll call it secure enough for the average user.

Battery manager  Data delivery

Fingerprint scanner

HDMI out and the Motorola Entertainment Center software work very well, and the images and video scale well to a television.  Motorola even includes an HDMI cable, which is a nice touch. Unfortunately there is no HDMI mirroring, so no big screen gaming is on the horizon anytime soon.

HDMI 1  HDMI 2

HDMI 3

AT&T has had their way with the software as well, and there are more than a few applications pre-loaded in your app drawer.  Nothing too invasive, but chances are there's something pre-loaded that you wish wasn't.  Here's the app drawer full monty from an unmodified Atrix, fresh out of the box.

app drawer 1  app drawer 2

If any of the above is just too much to handle, root the darn thing and be done with it.

The Camera

The camera gets its own section not because it's very bad or very good, but because such a fuss has been made across the Internet about it. In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with the camera on the Atrix.  It's not going to replace a good point-and-shoot setup, and it's certainly not the best camera we've ever seen on a cell phone, but it takes decent pictures and is easy to use.  For quick shots when carrying a camera isn't convenient, the Atrix will suit most needs.  The dual flash setup does wash out a little bit, but that's to be expected.  Warning -- these images open full size.

Atrix Camera 1  Atrix camera 2

Atrix camera 3  Atrix camera 5

I happened to be out on a very windy pre-Spring day, and was able to capture a few moments of footage in an empty, windy parking lot.  Yes, the microphone caught every gust.

 

YouTube link for mobile viewing

I also revisited my little office aquarium, to see how the camera handles bright vivid color and flashy movement.

YouTube link for mobile viewing

It's not award-winning, but you're not Ansel Adams or Steven Spielberg.  I don't buy into all the hate on the Atrix 4G's camera, and in my opinion, neither should you.

The Laptop Dock

Laptop dock

We were also sent a laptop dock for review purposes, and that's the part that got me a bit giddy inside.  Until I used it that is.  It's constructed very well, is light and portable at 2.4 pounds, is an absolutely awesome idea, but it's lacking in the performance department.  The unit features an 11.5-inch display, has a large battery that will even recharge your Atrix while docked, a big trackpad with two buttons, and two USB ports that support USB mice and flashdrives.

trackpad  USB ports

phone dock closed  phone dock open

docked  side view

To use the laptop dock, you place the phone in the cradle behind the screen of the laptop, and open it.  Webtop mode will automatically start (sometimes), and if not connected to WiFi will verify that you have a tethering account with AT&T.

The software is well thought out for the most part.  You have a file browser, built in media player, access to your phone functions and screen, and of course Firefox 3.6 for Linux.  You're able to install plugins for the browser, and Adobe Flash 10.1 is pre-loaded and works as advertised. 

windowed  Web browsing full screen

Extensions  Flash

browser version

All of this runs as an app inside Android, and even the Tegra 2 and gigabyte of RAM can't make up for that.  The interface gets sluggish, the media player won't (or can't) play in the background, and an incoming call renders everything just about unusable more than half the time.  Something also affects Android itself while it's running, and quite a few times I was forced to pull the battery because the phone wouldn't wake up when removed from the dock.

The good news is I'm pretty certain all this is software-related.  The hardware is done right, the premise is great on paper, but the Webtop application just isn't there yet.  I can envision a great future for this, and if you have geek juice instead of human blood in your veins it's really fun to explore and play with it.  But right now, you're better off spending your $300 to $500 on a standalone netbook and tether that to your phone.  And, yes, I'm bummed about that.

Hackability

The Atrix 4G has a locked and encrypted bootloader.  Motorola differentiates between what they consider developer devices like the OG Droid and the Xoom, and what they feel are consumer products.  Nothing we can say or do is going to change that, and chances are that the bootloader protection will never be broken.  Hello there Motorola Milestone.  I make no bones about the fact that I despise this policy, but it is not my decision to make.  Nor is it yours.

What is our decision is if we are going to let this affect our purchase of the Atrix.  Getting root access to the Atrix (as well as a root shell in Webtop) isn't hard, but your options are still limited without access to a custom recovery.  A quick look at the Droid X hacking forums will tell you that hacks and custom ROMs will come, but the pace will be slower and complete from-scratch builds of Android like MIUI or CyanogenMod may never happen.  Armed with that knowledge, make your choice and be happy with it.

Conclusion

Android isn't quite ready for the stellar hardware in the Atrix 4G.  It will be soon if what we're hearing about the "I" version of Android is true, but until then you'll have to be willing to put up with some random slowdowns and general weirdness every once in a while if you pick up the Atrix.  Only you can decide if that's worth it.  Then there's the bootloader issue to come to grips with if you're the hackery type. 

Applications that have been built to take advantage of the hardware, like my favorite Fruit Ninja THD, show what the hardware is capable of, and the Atrix handles them with ease.  I'm not blowing smoke here -- The Atrix runs the beefed-up versions of Dungeon Defenders and Fruit Ninja much better than the Nexus S runs the "lesser" versions in side-by-side tests.  For most people, that is enough to justify the wait for Motorola and AT&T to update to an improved version of Android that takes better advantage of the hardware -- we have already seen that with the Xoom, so it's coming.  Just know what you're getting yourself into from the start.