How does the Motorola Atrix 4G Lapdock compare with a laptop?

Can a smartphone effortlessly convert into a laptop? We take a look at whether Motorola's futuristic idea holds up.

One of the most eye-opening, attention-grabbing pieces of future tech to hit CES 2011 was the Motorola Atrix 4G--not so much because of the phone itself, but because of its bold laptop dock, which promises a seamless transformation of smartphone into Netbook. Who needs a laptop, after all, when your phone can be both? Well, you've read Bonnie Cha's review of the phone. I'm interested, as a laptop reviewer, in how the Atrix functions as...well, a laptop.

The idea remains bold, and to Motorola's credit, the experiment has resulted in a product a mere month after CES. This laptop dock isn't vaporware. On the other hand, it isn't exactly a laptop, either.

The rear USB ports work with mice, or with flash drives.
The rear USB ports work with mice or with flash drives. Sarah Tew/CNET

A laptop, without the laptop
What the laptop dock--or, Lapdock--is, in effect, is an extremely well-constructed dock for the Atrix phone, adding a long-life battery, a keyboard, a large touch pad, two USB ports, and a pair of stereo speakers. It looks like the Cr-48 Chrome OS laptop , and or even a sleek thin-and-light. At 2.4 pounds it's easy to tote, and has a sturdy feel when the lid is closed.

But it's not a standalone machine: The Atrix needs to be plugged in for the laptop dock to work. The good news is that the transformation is seamless and hot-swappable: Plug it in and the dock boots up. Unplug and the phone's back in your hand, ready to go.

The Motorola operating environment once the dock is running feels a lot like the Splashtop "quick-start" OS environments found on some laptops and Netbooks: a pared-down launchpad for a few key applications and a Web browser. The actual phone screen is replicated in the dock's 11.5-inch display, as a pixel-perfect window. Buttons can be virtually pressed using the touch pad's mouse cursor, but since the laptop dock's screen doesn't have touch capability, you can't use the same multitouch gestures as you would on the phone. The screen can be flipped horizontally or vertically with the click of a software button, or even blown up to near full screen, in much the same way that the iPad pixel-doubles iPhone apps for large-screen viewing.

A separate set of launch-button hot keys will bring up contacts or the Atrix phone dialer, and, yes, you can make phone calls while the Atrix is docked, even over Bluetooth. Of course, on a laptop you can do the same with Skype, VoIP, or Google Voice, and on an iPad there are solutions, too.

The Motorola Atrix 4G laptop dock, stacked with a ThinkPad X120e and an HP Mini 1103.
The Motorola Atrix 4G laptop dock, stacked with a ThinkPad X120e and an HP Mini 1103. Sarah Tew/CNET

No Chrome
Here's the funny part, at least to me: even though this is an Android phone, the baked-in browser on the Motorola dock is Firefox. Herein lies the sense of disconnect. In a future world where devices seamlessly sync and transform function, the top-to-bottom OS functionality here should remain Google-based. If this dock were able to run Chrome OS and Chrome apps, or at the very least a Chrome browser, and even seamlessly integrate Android and Chrome functionality, we'd really be touching the future. Instead, the dock's Motorola OS feels clever but tacked on. Firefox is capable of playing Flash-based sites and videos, and did a decent but not great job of full-screen Hulu playback--comparable with what you'd get on a Netbook. It's also, based on anecdotal office use over our standard Wi-Fi, considerably slower than other laptops. Writing in Google Docs became a sluggish affair, and after a while it felt like we'd be more productive simply undocking the phone.

One notable advantage to Firefox is its included Citrix application, enabling account holders to hop on their virtual desktops using the Lapdock. That's a nice touch and a boon for certain users, but it doesn't help people relying on the Lapdock with no remote PC to connect to.

The laptop dock does have a few neat tricks up its sleeve. A built-in HD media playback app works a bit like an Apple TV interface, playing full-screen movies, photos, and music. An HD video shot on the Atrix looked great on the 11.5-inch screen, accompanied by crisp audio from the side-mounted built-in stereo speakers on the back of the dock. Unfortunately, this media player doesn't play files in the background. Play some music and exit the player, and the program hard exits and leaves you tuneless.

There's also a native PDF reader for opening files while in Firefox, but for editing word or office docs, attachments are opened on the emulation of the phone's window. That window is mighty small on a big screen, but blowing up the window results in a slightly low-res, but workable environment for editing word documents. It's not a perfect solution, but it does do the job while offering both a keyboard and a larger screen.

The rear USB ports are compatible with mice or USB flash drives, both of which add some nice functionality and make the dock feel even more laptoplike. The dock does have a file browser and the ability to add additional Web apps, but these basically amount to nothing more than Web bookmarks.

While I work, I can't see my phone.
While I work, I can't see my phone. Sarah Tew/CNET

Crouching laptop, hidden phone
While the Atrix is plugged into the back of the dock, it recharges off the dock's integrated battery. This is a nice touch, but the Atrix remains out of sight while the laptop dock is open. A more sensible idea, to me, would have been to dock the Atrix in the bottom of the keyboard deck, flat, so that you could still operate the touch screen like a second screen.

Price concerns
The biggest problem with the Atrix dock is its price: $500 alone, or $300 as part of a subsidized bundle with the Atrix itself and a $20-a-month tethering plan. At $300, you could get a 10-inch Atom Netbook instead. At $500, you could buy an iPad--or an 11.6-inch full-fledged mini laptop, like the HP Pavilion dm1.

So, who is this laptop dock for? It's unclear right now, but probably no one you know. It's undoubtedly fascinating technology and an eye-catching demonstration, but app support, a faster browsing experience, and a more competitive price are where phone/laptop hybrids need to go next. It's a compelling concept, and one we're certain to see revived in future smartphones. For now, I'd say skip the dock, but definitely check out the Atrix phone.

The above impressions were based on the limited time we've had with the Motorola Atrix 4G laptop dock. Do you have any other features you'd like us to check out? Let us know in the comments.

 

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