I’ll start the review with what might come as a shocker to those that know me -- I love the Motorola Atrix HD. I love the way it feels, the way it runs, the changes Motorola has done with Ice Cream Sandwich in the non-Blur OS, and the overall design of the phone clicks with me. It’s not perfect, but then again, what phone ever released is? There's also the initial feel of the phone, which isn't a great experience because of the materials chosen. When the pros are weighed against the cons though, I’m left with a device I would not be afraid to recommend to anyone.
With the release of the RAZR and RAZR MAXX late last year, Motorola let everyone know that they think the age of thick and bulky Android smartphones is over. The Atrix2 and Bionic were the last of a dying breed, to be replaced with sleek devices made with exotic materials like Kevlar, weighing in at next to nothing. It’s a trend we’ve seen all the major Android OEMs follow, and while there’s something to be said for the sturdy feel of half-inch thick phone in your hands, we’re all pretty much on-board with the new thin styling. Click through the break, and see what I think about the Atrix HD.
The hardware inside the phone is top notch, and on par with most of the high-end phones in the U.S. today. Motorola decided to go with a great display, and use their "Colorboost" technology to make the colors rich and bright. The price is right -- you'll get great mileage out of your $99.
It feels, and looks oddly cheap. For all the work Motorola put into the software and the screen, they seem to have skimped on the materials this time. If the way your phone looks is important to you, you might not like this one.
Inside this review
As always, we like to start with a hands-on first look at the phone. We do it so you guys can have an early look while we put the device through its paces, and so we can go back and see how time spent with a phone can change our initial impressions. Have a look, then join us as we dissect the Atrix HD a little bit.
When you first see the Atrix HD (especially the whitish two-tone version), you likely won’t be saying “wow”. The phone is, well, its fairly ugly. We can say that, because we love it. But it’s not much of a looker. Image the RAZR, with softer, more rounded edges, and in the case of the “white” version, a opalescent antique white plastic outer shell and backing. Throw in a Kevlar insert, and a black external speaker/camera face assembly, and things look pretty different than anything we’ve seen before. But, it will grow on you. At least it did for me, and now instead of thinking the Atrix HD is ugly, I think of it as homely -- like a shaggy mutt who is so ugly you have to love it. But next to a phone like the One X or the Galaxy S III, it won’t win any beauty contests. The black version likely isn’t quite as bad, but then again you won’t have that homely charm.
The front of the Atrix is a 4.5-inch LCD, covered in Corning’s Gorilla Glass, and featureless minus the tiny earpiece. There are no buttons of the capacitive or physical variety, and everything is handled with on-screen software buttons like the Galaxy Nexus. You also have a 1.3MP camera and notification LED up top under the glass, and the bottom of the bezel has the AT&T
trackball logo, that I constantly found myself trying to press for the first few days with the phone. No matter how hard, or how many times you press it, nothing happens.
The back of the Atrix has the aforementioned Kevlar inset, an 8MP/1080p HD camera and LED flash, and an external speaker grill. Down at the bottom is a secondary noise-canceling mic, which faces the rear of the phone rather than pointing down.
The right side has the customary volume rocker and power switch, while the left has a small plastic door that covers the microSD card and SIM card slots. That door isn’t very well designed and looks loose when closed, even though it isn’t. We would have liked to see a bit more engineering here.
Up top you have a standard 3.5mm headset jack, the microUSB connector, and a microHDMI connector. No MHL or other silly games to provide video out here, just an old-fashioned, but tested and true, HDMI connector. Score one for the old ways.
Overall, the hardware isn’t screaming quality. Not that it’s bad, or even bad feeling, but you won’t get the same thoughts looking at the Atrix HD that you might have had about the Motorola phones of yore. I think you could jack up a car with the OG Droid -- at least it looks like you could. The Atrix HD looks like what it is -- a $100 smartphone. But when you get into the performance, it begins to shine.
Performance and specs
- 4.5-inch 720p LCD display with ColorBoost
- Android 4.0.4 with Motorola’s Blur-not-Blur customizations
- 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon MSM8960 processor
- 1GB of RAM
- 8GB of internal storage
- microSD card slot
- 8MP rear camera, 1.3MP front-facing camera
- Quad-band GSM with LTE functionality (AT&T)
- $99 bucks with a new contract
The Atrix HD did a great job at all the things Motorola phones have done well for years. Calls were very clear, radios and signal strength was strong, and the “phone” part of the phone was one of the best I’ve used. We expect Motorola phones to work well with calls and signal, and the Atrix in my testing exceeded expectations. If you’re looking for a phone you need to rely on for business calls, you need to look at the Atrix HD.
On the Android side, the phone performs just as well. The Qualcomm S4 is a screamer, easily matching the CPU performance of the quad-core offerings on the market. Whether you’re playing games, or watching video, or web browsing, the Atrix HD delivers. It’s amazing that Motorola can put out a phone with this kind of performance, and that AT&T will sell it for just a hundred bucks.
The whole thing's powered by a 1780 mAh battery. So, no, it's not a MAXX-type smartphone with double that capacity. But we've had decent battery life. LTE data sucks down more, of course, but we haven't seen any serious leakage.
Motorola has put a damn nice 720p LCD on the Atrix HD, and they’re topping it off with what they’re calling “ColorBoost” technology. The display is clear, crisp, and the best we’ve ever seen from Motorola. There is no Pentile matrix, no screen-door effect, or fuzzy text like you’ll see on the RAZR. In fact, the screen holds its own against the HTC One X, which is generally regarded as the best display on any smartphone. Pictures and reviews don’t do it justice, so be sure to visit an AT&T store and have a look for yourself -- you’ll be impressed.
ColorBoost takes the “pop” of AMOLED and applies it to the LCD display. Moto isn’t sharing the secret, but on the surface it looks like the saturation and brightness have been cranked to 11, and the effect isn’t lost on an AMOLED junkie like myself. Is it realistic color? No, but many of us don’t care, and it delivers when looking at images or video. You might care, and might not like it as much as a more subdued traditional LCD display, so you’ll need to spend some time looking at the screen to decide on this one for yourself. To me, even though the display isn’t quite as clear or crisp as the One X’s panel, I prefer it because it’s so blue and pretty. I’m shallow like that, I guess.
Blur, or whatever Motorola is calling it now, keeps getting better with each iteration. Much like HTC Sense, it’s been stripped and simplified to let the good parts of Ice Cream Sandwich shine through. It’s easy to see it’s not stock Android, but the additions are tasteful and well done. I like the direction Motorola is going here, and they have found a way to differentiate themselves without ruining Android.
Besides the things you expect to see from a high-end Motorola device, like SmartActions and Moto print services, there’s a few surprises in the software that I think you’ll love. The first is the Circles widget, which provides time, weather, and settings information in a pleasant way on your home screen. Each of the circles react to a swipe, so you can switch from the current time in analog format to a digital time and date style, cycle through your cities for weather, and swipe between battery level, a data usage tracker, and a setting shortcut. We’ve see that sort of functionality from independent developers in Google Play, but Motorola has incorporated it well into their new OS.
The next, and admittedly innovative feature, comes with the mini-widgets you get from the default Email, Phone, People, Messaging, and Browser apps. Drop a shortcut to any of them on your home screen, and a swipe up expands a notification window with pertinent information -- like your bookmarks for the Browser app or your unread messages in the Messaging app or Email. I’m already used to having them, and I know I’m going to miss them when i send the Atrix HD back to AT&T. Google, please steal this for stock Android.
The one thing I didn’t care for about the new Motorola OS is the way new home screens are added or removed. Swipe through the included screens, and when you reach the end you’re faced with a sort of “options” screen where you can add a new home panel or manage existing ones. The method to add or manage them isn’t bad, but the way to get to that screen certainly is. I want it to either cycle through to the first panel, or preferably just flash to let me know I’m at the end. I know it’s there, but still end up swiping over to it even though I don’t want or need to see it. It’s not a deal breaker, and the good Moto has done to Android certainly outweighs the bad, but I would rather see this done with a long press on the home button or even the screen itself. Hackers, you have your first project.
Things don't look as good here. The 8MP camera on the Atrix HD is fair at best. Feed it good light and you'll get decent pictures, but any type of complex lighting, like you would find indoors, sends things downhill fast. Motorola has come a long way in the software department with Blur, but they are still behind the pack in quality of lens and sensors it seems.
The video camera fares a bit better. There's no actual shutter on the camera, so I'm not sure why the camcorder handles focus and changes in light so much better than the still camera does. If it's a software issue, it's something Motorola hopefully addresses soon. See what I mean below.
The bottom line
The Atrix HD is a damn fine phone. In fact, it's probably the best phone we've seen come in at $99 on a contract. There will be phones coming soon with better hardware specs, and phones that look sexy when compared to the Atrix HD, but this is a really good, solid device. It's definitely worth the $99 it would cost you on a contract, and I think it's worth the price unlocked (the usual places have it listed for about $380) if the Galaxy Nexus doesn't tickle your fancy for one reason or another. It showed up at time when folks were interested in Nexus devices and Jelly Bean so it was a bit overshadowed, but it really deserves your attention.