The Motorola designers behind the Atrix certainly don't seem to be the flamboyant bunch behind Motorola's golden oldies, like the actually golden Motorola Razr2 V8 Luxury Edition. The Atrix, like the Defy before it, is a straight-up-and-down glossy black touchscreen slate. Its stiff plastic battery cover has an attractive herringbone-like design, but this doesn't do enough to give the handset the premium feel we think it deserves.
Its 4-inch LCD sports a silky smooth-looking qHD pixel resolution (540x960), which helps make text and images look fantastic. It also makes text and icons look tiny, and there's no way to magnify the standard elements on the home screens or in the app drawer. Keen-eyed youngsters should be fine with this, but those with reading glasses might struggle. This higher resolution also plays havoc with Android Market apps that are designed for the lower but far more prevalent WVGA resolution (480x800), leaving an ugly black band around the edge of quite a few tools and games that we installed during this review.
A fingerprint scanner on the Atrix is a stroke of genius.
On the back of the Atrix you'll find its 5-megapixel camera lens with dual-LED flash, a large external speaker towards the bottom and a fingerprint-scanner-cum-power-button on the top. Aimed at business users, this unique feature can be used to replace a PIN code on the handset, and it works surprisingly well.
While the phone's physical design is cautious yet stylish, the user interface is drab. Motorola's team has redesigned most of the icons of the core experience, and each looks like a boring shortcut link that you'd find on an old Windows PC. But worse than the appearance of these shortcuts is the system they exist within. Motorola Android phones are not stock Android OS with a Motorola layer, but, rather, a unique system called MotoBlur. At its core, MotoBlur aggregates your various account information onto a central Motorola server. You log in once with Facebook, Twitter, Picasa, etc, and MotoBlur stores all of this info and connects your device to the various services.
We've used MotoBlur before, having created an account back when we reviewed the Motorola Dext, and have never liked how all-pervasive it is. There is no opt-out for MotoBlur, you cannot set up a new Atrix handset without an account and it blocks some of the key functionality from the dedicated Facebook and Twitter apps. For example, MotoBlur flat out refused to connect to Facebook during this review, so we downloaded Facebook for Android to sync our contact images with our address book, only to find that MotoBlur controlled images and preferred to leave them blank. It's one thing to offer us a service and to let us choose whether it suits our purpose; it's another to force one down our throats.
Plug in, play
Pushing past the phone's aesthetics, users will discover a handset that offers more connectivity options than we've ever seen before. Beyond Telstra Next G network compatibility, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS, the Atrix also offers HDMI-out — but unlike other phones with this port, the Atrix delivers a unique big-screen experience.
If you connect the Atrix to a TV using the included HDMI cable, the phone will launch its HD Multimedia Centre — a full HD app connecting to your image and video gallery and your music collection. This experience is slick and works flawlessly. Connecting the Atrix to either its Laptop Dock or the Standard Dock, the phone will launch an app called WebTop, which simulates a basic PC-like interface. For more on WebTop, check out our full Laptop Dock review.
If connecting cables or plugging in docks seems like too much fuss, you can also connect to your phone using any PC browser after launching the pre-installed Phone Portal app on the Atrix. Using Phone Portal, you can read and send text messages, edit your contacts and view the photos saved on your phone's memory.
Following on from the decent camera in the Defy, the 5-megapixel camera in the Atrix is also better than average. A combination of a fast auto-focus and a swift shutter produce more in-focus photos than otherwise, and the camera's colour reproduction is good without being needlessly over-saturated. It also has an effective macro shooting mode for capturing close-ups. Interestingly, the Atrix includes an option in the camera settings to turn off the capture sound effect; however, un-checking this box doesn't silence the shutter (or do anything at all). Sorry to get your hopes up ... perverts.
The 5-megapixel camera performs well in low light.
We liked the macro shooting mode in the camera settings.
Multimedia and the web
As far as we can tell, Motorola has left the stock Android web browsing untouched in this release, and if it has modified some part of it, the changes are so subtle as to go unnoticed. This is fine by us; the stock Android web experience is first class. Motorola has paid much more attention to its multimedia offering, with cute usability tweaks across the gallery and music player. You navigate images saved on the phone's memory using a funky 3D photo parade, with full pinch-to-zoom present.
The music player is even better. When you choose an artist or an album to play, the Atrix uses TuneWiki to source cover art and lyrics for every track that it can recognise. If you feel as though your music needs some visuals, you can choose to search YouTube for all videos of the artist performing the track that you're listening to.
If you know anything about this phone already, then you're probably aware that the Atrix has not one, but two 1GHz processors under the hood. Motorola has chosen the Nvidia Tegra 2 chipset, which includes a GeForce graphics processing component and 1GB RAM. This just about doubles the power and memory of most of the phones we saw last year, but, strangely, it doesn't seem to actually double performance. We saw a huge increase in the results of Android benchmark tests, but everyday tasks seem to be just as fast as on systems running single 1GHz processors. One of the exceptions to this observation, along with HD video playback mentioned earlier, is when the Atrix accesses apps, drawing information from a database — like opening your address book, for example. The Atrix does seem especially quick at compiling these long lists.
But the speed of app execution of the fluidity of video playback seems irrelevant when the phone's software crashes or becomes unresponsive during an extended lag spike. This occurred several times during this review, sometimes when we attempted to power the phone on after standby, and other times when we exited applications. After a week of these issues, we performed a factory reset to clear out any apps or processes upsetting the core system, and while this cleared up 90 per cent of the problems, we still saw a few performance bottlenecks. That said, we shouldn't have to wipe the phone to restore performance after just a week. All of the apps that we cleared off the Atrix were downloaded through the Android Market, and an Android phone that struggles with these apps obviously needs a bit more time with the bug fixing team.
Also, one of the key promises of the Nvidia Tegra 2 chipset was that a dual-core system should use less power by sharing the workload over two processors, and that battery life is increased as a result. This certainly isn't the case with the Atrix. Even with Motorola slipping an enormous 1930mAh capacity battery into the mix, we've struggled to get through a working day with this handset. With our standard mix of usage — an hour of calls, two hours of web use and constant push-email — we barely got the Atrix back to a charger before the end of the day. We've also noticed that the battery can get quite warm during use. We don't think that this is indicative of something going wrong, but it can get uncomfortable on long calls.
Perhaps we set the bar too high when we approached the Atrix, or perhaps Motorola should have jumped a little higher. The Atrix is Moto's best attempt at an Android, but for the same price there are better, more stable options to choose from. Atrix brings some unique new features to the smartphone world, with its fingerprint scanner and docking solutions, but our praise of these innovations has be dampened by our experience with the Atrix as our everyday phone. Lag spikes were noticeable, and we resorted to pulling the battery out on more than one occasion — something that we never have to do with phones we review from other major Android phone makers. Its short battery life is also a concern for a product so obviously geared towards business use.
When it works — and this is the vast majority of the time — the Atrix is a good smartphone, but there are niggling issues with its software that need to be ironed out before we could call it a great smartphone.