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Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

Motorola’s “two devices in one” Atrix a good idea poorly executed

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2011 First published in Business in Vancouver May 3-9, 2011 issue #1123 High Tech Office column

Do you remember an ad campaign for Certs featuring a pair of twins arguing, “Certs is a breath mint”; “No, Certs is a candy mint”? Their conclusion: “It’s two mints in one.”

Motorola’s new Atrix is a lot like that. “Atrix is a smartphone”; “No, Atrix is a netbook”; “No, it’s two devices in one.”

Available from Bell, the Atrix (the smartphone) runs Google’s Android 2.2 smartphone operating system and offers some of the best hardware specs on that platform: fast dual-core processor, one gigabyte of memory, bright four-inch high resolution (960 x 540 pixel) display.

The result: unlike some earlier Android models, Atrix has responsive scrolling and resizing and overall snappy performance. Flash is pre-installed and feels smoother than on most Android systems (though as Apple contends, viewing Flash pages drains batteries faster).

Overall, it’s a nice modern smartphone, though as with other Android phones, plan on recharging pretty much every day.

But there are lots of Android smartphones from a variety of manufacturers on all the various mobile networks. With the Atrix, though, Motorola had a bright idea: it realized that a smartphone is a pocket-sized computer, often with a faster processor and more memory and storage than typical desktop computers a decade ago.

It’s convenient having that power in our pockets and always being connected. But viewing media and entering text on a pocket-sized device is inevitably compromised.

Motorola’s idea: let the Atrix lead a double life powering a larger computer, giving you a more usable keyboard, pointing device and screen. The result is the optional Atrix Lapdock.

The Lapdock looks like a sleek black netbook, but minus an Atrix all you can do is charge its battery. It has no built-in processor, memory or storage. Plug in your Atrix and it boots (running a stripped-down version of Ubuntu Linux) to what Motorola calls the Webtop. You get a full version of the Firefox web browser plus access to all the data and apps on the smartphone.

Nicely, the Lapdock – with a hefty eight hours of useful time – will charge the Atrix even when it’s running off its battery. Also nice: you can plug or unplug the Atrix at any time. No special shutdown/eject actions to forget to use. When you plug it in later, it remembers where it was last time. USB ports let you plug in a mouse or access files on a memory stick.

Sadly, though, the implementation isn’t as usable as I’d like. You can run your smartphone apps on the Lapdock’s 11.6-inch screen, but the apps – typically designed for vertical orientation – don’t take up the whole screen. You can switch to full-screen, but that’s a magnified view of half the smartphone screen, perhaps less useful.

Moreover, the touchpad lacks the smartphone’s multi-touch gestures; scrolling and zooming are awkward. There’s a trick to scrolling: press down the left-click button while dragging another finger on the trackpad.

And while there’s the full version of Firefox, if you want to edit a document you’ll have to use the smartphone’s apps – a copy of Quickoffice is included, which is pretty good but nowhere near as usable as a “real” netbook’s word processor.

Flash-based video content looks especially jerky on the larger 11.6-inch display. With the Atrix plugged in, you can use the Lapdock as a speaker phone, but it lacks a built-in mic and speaker. Since the Atrix’s are hidden behind the screen, sound qualify suffers.

Finally, the $329 cost of the Lapdock makes it a high-priced addition to the $169 cost of the Atrix (with a three-year term). You could buy a real netbook and a pretty good smartphone for the same money and arguably be better off.

Give Motorola credit for a good idea – making the data and apps on your smartphone accessible on a notebook-like device. Too bad it’s a clumsy (and pricey) implementation. Nice smartphone, though. 

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