Motorola Atrix 2 for AT&T Review (Video)

When Motorola had proudly showcased the Atrix 4G earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show, the Motorola Atrix received accolades for the features that it packs. Being among the first 4G (HSPA+) devices with a high resolution 960 X 640 qHD display, the Atrix was deemed the most powerful smartphone in the world thanks to its innovative Webtop OS that is stored on the phone alongside Android and instant comes to life when the device is plugged into a dock, like the company’s Lapdock that converts the phone into a laptop form factor. Now, just barely 9 months later, and the Atrix has a worthy new successor in the form of the Atrix 2, a device that promises to be better, bolder, and faster while retaining all the original DNA of the Atrix 4G that made the original device so lovable. The Motorola Atrix 2 for AT&T, announced this Fall at CTIA 2011 in San Diego, is in some ways a bigger brother to the original Atrix 4G released some 9 months ago on AT&T’s emerging HSPA+ network. However, the new handset does offer refinements and improvements that a successor model brings.

Hardware:

Atrix 2 on left; ATrix 4G on right

With the Atrix 2, Motorola giveth some and taketh some away from the smartphone. Gone are the biometric fingerprint reader, which keeps the phone secure while negating the need to enter in a PIN or passcode, of the original along with the more compact 4-inch PenTile-based qHD display. Users will be happy to know, however, that the new and larger 4.3-inch display on the Atrix 2 is of the non-Pentile variety, leading to crispy images and text being rendered on the display thanks to a more standard sub-pixel arrangement. We’ll go into the display in more details in the following section.

Measuring 4.96 x 2.59 x 0.40, the Atrix 2 is a two-tone phone with a dark gunmetal chrome finish on the sides coupled with a matte black rubberized finish on the rear. The phone doesn’t win any thin competition, but it is comfortable to hold in the hands and can slide into any pocket comfortably. The device weighs in at 5.18 ounces, which is about average for a phone of this size.

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The front of the Atrix 2 is dominated by the large 4.3-inch capacitive touchscreen, and like many standard Android handsets of today, four capacitive Android navigation buttons rest just below the display. On the top of the screen, you’ll see from left to right a front-facing camera, speaker grill, proximity and ambient light sensor, and a notification LED light.

The good news here is that the notification LED light indicator blinks at a faster pace than that found on the Droid Bionic, giving it more utility as you can quickly glance down and not have to hold your gaze too long to know if there’s an incoming notification or message waiting for you; on the Bionic, the time between blinks was too long and the usefulness of the indicator was diminished.

Up top, you have a 3.55 mm headphone jack, noise cancellation microphone, and a power button. Unlike the original Atrix 4G, a biometric fingerprint reader is no longer integrated into the power button this time around.

The left hand side of the device is clean, save for the micro USB and HDMI ports, the latter can either mirror the device’s display onto a larger HDTV or bigger monitor or when combined with a dock accessory with the micro USB port, the device can enter into the innovative Webtop environment allowing you to have a full Firefox browser and Flash support.

On the right hand side of the device, you have volumes up and down buttons along with a dedicated single-stage camera shutter button.

On the back side of the device, gone is the faux carbon fiber glossy plastic back. Instead, Motorola opted for a plastic backing with a textured rubber coating that feels good in the hands and helps to add some grip to the device when holding it, preventing the Atrix 2 from accidentally slipping away.

To remove the textured rubberized battery cover, there’s a small slit on the bottom of the phone, and users will need to insert a fingernail and pry the cover off. The cover wraps around the sides of the device and gives an illusion of a unibody plastic construction. Under the battery cover, you’ll find the same 1735 mAh battery that’s employed in the Droid Bionic on rival Verizon’s network. There’s a 2 GB micro SD memory card pre-installed in the slot, and users can swap out the card to a micro SDHC card up to 32 GB in capacity. Thankfully, memory cards are hot swappable and the battery doesn’t need to be removed to do so, unlike on some other phones. Underneath the battery, users will have access to the SIM card.

On the rear, you also have an 8-megapixel autofocus camera with single LED flash–Motorola’s Photon 4G on Sprint’s Now Network has a dual-LED flash module–and a camera that’s capable of recording in 1080p full HD videos, similar to the module inside the Droid Bionic.

Display:

In one word, the display on the Atrix 2 is simply stunning. Thankfully, Motorola has done away with the PenTile-based subpixel arrangement on this display, which leads to images and text appearing more sharp and crisp. However, the PenTile arrangement was fine on most other phones, including the Photon 4G. The problem for me–though most users probably wouldn’t even notice–existed primarily on the Droid Bionic where the display flickers quickly. The problem becomes more apparent on the Bionic when videos are playing, leading to a quick, and often times indiscernible quick flickers, similar in experience to CRT monitors and old televisions. On the Atrix, that problem is gone and you have vibrant and deep colors, sharp texts, and fluid videos with no flickering.

The display is bright and vivid and performs fine outdoors even under direct sunlight. The device’s display appears to be sharp and full of details, but falls short of the crispness offered on the Retina Display of the iPhone 4 as Apple’s smartphone has a 960 X 540 (compared with a 960 X 640 qHD screen on the Atrix 2) distributed on a smaller surface area–the iPhone has a 3.5-inch display versus the larger 4.3-inch of the Atrix 2. Websites like the New York Times, when the desktop site is loaded, shows pixelation with the smallest of text on the qHD screen compared to the iPhone 4/4S’s Retina Display. In normal usage, though, many power users will still be happy with the display size and resolution offered by the Atrix 2. That said, colors appear more natural, though vivid, than when compared with Samsung’s Galaxy S II’s Super AMOLED Plus display.

A small gripe with the display is that colors tended to skew a little towards the yellow or brown hue, giving images and videos a sepia tint to them making them appear bright, as if a filter has been applied, but also lending them an antique feel. All in all, the color tint isn’t bad, but can be noticeable in playing videos, especially those through AT&T’s built in AT&T U-Verse TV application.

Earpiece speaker cut out from glass looks more elegant on Atrix 4G (top) compared to edge placement of Atrix 2 (bottom)

The glass screen on the Atrix 2 has a beveled edge that’s sunken into the metal frame in a design language that’s consistent with newer Motorola handsets, including the Motorola Droid Bionic, the Motorola Photon 4G, and the Motorola Droid 3. The design does add dimension and elegance to the screen, mimicking elegant watch designs, but the sunken in nature of the screen means that it’s easier for lint to catch between the glass and the metal frame. However, the benefit of a sunken in screen, rather than a display that curves outwards, is that it would be more resistant to scratching, especially if you placed the phone face down on a rough surface.

Another design aesthetic comment that I have is that the mesh earpiece speaker grill ends at the edge of the glass. On other flagship Motorola phones for other carriers, such as the Photon 4G for Sprint or the Droid Bionic for Verizon, the speaker grill is cut into the glass so that it is surrounded by a sea of glass, lending to a more elegant and premium look similar to the iPhone 4’s speaker grill, which seems to float in glass.

Processor, Storage, Memory, RAM:

Eschewing NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 dual-core 1 GHz chipset, Motorola is returning to its roots with a processor made by Texas Instruments, a history of collaboration between the two firms which began with the original Motorola Droid for Verizon. The Atrix 2 utilizes a TI OMAP ARM-based processor that boasts dual-core computing power clocked at the same speed as NVIDIA’s CPU. However, the TI chip utilizes a PowerVR graphics engine, rather than NVIDIA’s custom GeForce GPU.

In use, I find that the TI chipset offers better and more robust performance than the NVIDIA CPU in some tasks, though in many tasks, performance was zippy and opening and closing apps, switching between tasks, and streaming videos and music, was comparable between the Atrix 2 (TI chipset) and the Photon 4G, the latter of which utilizes a Tegra 2 CPU.

I haven’t played with the original Atrix 4G since the device initially debuted on AT&T, but when it launched, the Tegra 2 chipset didn’t really perform up to standards. Since then, Motorola has improved performance, but at launch the Atrix 4G suffered from a delay of a few seconds from when a user launches an app until when the app finally opens. That problem has since been rectified on the Photon 4G, which utilizes the same chipset, and is not apparent on the Atrix 2’s TI chip.

The TI chipset performs more superior than the Tegra 2 in streaming non-mobile optimized Flash videos. With Adobe Flash 11 support on Android, the TI chipset can stream videos made for desktop better than the Tegra 2 chipset. Switching the Photon 4G and the Atrix 2 to the same home WiFi network to eliminate any differences with network speeds, I streamed ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ a comedy on the CBS network, through the CBS website. On the Atrix 2 utilizing the Texas Instruments processor, videos was smooth and performance was fine. On the Photon 4G with the Tegra 2 chipset, the audio rendered fine but video was a chooppy slideshow that updated to a new scene once every five or ten seconds.

For most users, in normal day-to-day tasks, both the Tegra 2 and TI OMAP chips will offer great performance, thanks to a dual-core engine. However, if you stream heavy, non-mobile optimized videos, the new Atrix 2 will outperform the original Atrix 4G’s NVIDIA implementation.

The Atrix 2 now has 8 GB of on-board storage, but users will likely see significantly less than this quoted amount because the Webtop OS is partitioned into this on-board memory. The 8 GB is a downgrade from the quoted 16 GB of the Atrix 4G, but the Atrix 2’s more than reasonable $99 asking price on a two-year service agreement likely has a role in the downgraded storage capacity. A 2 GB micro SD card is included to augment storage, and users can add up to a 32 GB micro SDHC card to further increase storage capacity, netting a total of 40 GB combined.

The device has 1 GB of RAM, which will be great for multitasking and running heavy applications. While 1 GB of RAM may appear to be a lot on a smartphone, the Atrix 2 can be converted to a mini computer or light netbook when docked in one of many optional Motorola accessories. For instance, in the Lapdock 100, once connected, the phone enters the Webtop environment giving users more power like they’re on a light netbook. In this environment, you can really feel the demanding power of Webtop and sometimes, when loading webpages, it feels like the phone is struggling to keep up.

UI:

Though Motorola has abandoned the MOTO BLUR branding for the company’s proprietary and custom UI, the Motorola BLUR-inspired interface on the Atrix 2 is borrowed from the company’s most recent lineup of Android 2.3 Gingerbread smartphone. The Atrix 2 utilizes Gingerbread and Motorola’s enhancements help to make the phone a little easier and friendly to use, though the experience isn’t as deeply integrated as HTC’s custom HTC Sense user interface.

Like the Droid 3, Droid Bionic, and Photon 4G, the Atrix 2 has a four-icon dock bar at the bottom of the screen that can be visible on all home screens–save for the app drawer–that is user customizable and allows for quick access to the phone, email, and browser app, for example. Widgets can adorn the home screen, and the pre-bundled widgets can be customized and re-sized accordingly thanks to Motorola’s customizations. This allows users to make a widget more prominent or conserve screen real estate by shrinking down widgets when needed.

When it comes to creating shortcuts on the homescreen, Motorola’s custom UI makes it a little bit more complicated than on the native Android experience by adding an extra step. When the app drawer is opened, to add a shortcut to the homescreen on a stock Android build, users just need to long tap on the icon and be taken to the homescreen to create the shortcut. On Motorola’s UI, it’s a two-step process, requiring users to click on the option to add to home screen to perform the task.

And speaking of the app drawer, Motorola now has horizontally sliding pages, similar to the Honeycomb UI, rather than vertically oriented lists of icons. This helps to make the company’s smartphones more consistent with its tablets.

Though Motorola’s UI isn’t as refined as HTC’s, the ability to resize widgets is a marked improvement.

Apps:

AT&T and Motorola had pre-bundled a number of apps on the device to help to add value, and performs drive data usage and consumption. Some of the apps included include AT&T Music, a storefront for purchasing music, and AT&T Navigator for a subscription-based turn by turn voice guided GPS navigation solution. Fortunately, though, these apps can be uninstalled by the user if they don’t need them, or be re-downloaded from the Android Market app store. Additionally, non-Android Market purchased apps, such as those from rival Amazon Appstore for Android, can now be installed on AT&T handsets, signifying a reversal of policy on behalf of the carrier and opening up choice for consumers.

Like the Droid Bionic, Motorola also bundles the Motorola ZumoCast app, which allows users to turn their home computers into servers and negating the need for cloud-based storage. Documents, images, music, and videos can be downloaded onto the Atrix 2, and the Atrix 2 can also stream–without needing to download–many multimedia files from the computer. ZumoCast also supports many different file formats. The app’s ease of use in accessing files and streaming multimedia content is beneficial to consumers who may want some of the enterprise functionality without having to deal with costs or time, much like how Gmail brings push emails to consumers without the need for costly Exchange ActiveSync servers.

Music:

Lyrics shown at the bottom of the display

The Motorola Music application is a welcomed improvement over the native Music app for most stock Android handsets. The Music app on the Atrix 2 combines social, news, and other enhancements.

The app can tap into Shoutcast Internet Radio for music streaming. The FM radio functionality that’s built into the Music app will allow users to listen to local radio programming, though earphones must be plugged in as the wires for the earphones will serve as the antenna. Additionally, while playing songs, the Motorola Music app will also display song lyrics on the Atrix 2, line by line, allowing listeners to have an impromptu karaoke session. Along with news from your favorite artists, concert and ticket information, and the ability to share your music over a DLNA connection, the Music app delivers added value that most users will find useful.

Camera:

Camera quality on the Atrix 2 falls in line with the Motorola Droid Bionic as both units share the same camera and video sensors with the ability to capture images in 8-megapixel resolution and 1080p HD video content. Additionally, camera prowess on the smartphone is highlighted by a single-stage hardware button that can activate the camera shutter.

The camera itself stays in focus automatically whenever you move the camera, which always keeps the camera in focus for quick photos. Users can also choose to focus on an object themselves with tap to focus. As the camera is always in focus, it allows users to use a single-stage shutter button efficiently without much delay in between shots.

Performance of the camera itself is great in bright environments, but pictures sometimes turned out darker than on competing smartphones with similar cameras. Additionally, performance in low light environments were fine with the flash, but in a darken room, the camera had a hard time focusing and resulted in blurry shots.

Videos shot with the 1080p HD video camera at ~30 frames per second appear smooth and detailed.

Sample camera images:

 

Network and Call Quality:

The biggest network improvement here worth noting is AT&T’s 4G HSPA+ network. When I had played with the original Atrix 4G at launch, that smartphone barely squeeze out 1 Mbps on the download side and upload speeds were in the neighborhood of just 0.3 Mbps. Out of the box, the Atrix 2, which supports a theoretical maximum of 21 Mbps on AT&T’s 4G network, saw average download speeds between 2-6 Mbps and upload speeds between 0.5-1.5 Mbps, roughly 3-4 times the performance of the original’s at launch. However, through subsequent software updates, the Atrix 4G now also performs at roughly comparable download and upload speeds. Though the new phone boasts support for 21 Mbps with the old model supporting 14 Mbps networks, you won’t see much speed difference between the two models on today’s optimized network.

As AT&T continues to optimize its network, speeds should improve, though this phone won’t be forward compatible with AT&T’s newer next-generation 4G LTE network, which promises to deliver even faster real world speeds. Verizon’s 4G LTE performance hovers in the neighborhood of 5-10 Mbps, though with 2-6 Mbps users will be able to stream, download, and browse at excellent speeds that rivals most home DSL networks.

Calls on the phone sound good both through the earpiece speaker and on the loud speaker on the rear. The phone picked up on reception easily and voice quality sounded good on both ends of the call. Thanks to a secondary noise cancellation microphone, background noise is often muted, allowing for a clearer phone call to the other party.

When the phone is placed on its back on a flat surface, the rear speaker is obstructed and sound comes out muffled. When playing music through the loud speaker, or taking a rear speakerphone call, we suggest propping the phone up to allow sound to come through, or placing the phone on its front surface allowing the speaker to project outwards.

Battery Life:

Battery life is adequate on the phone. With constant push emails, taking a few calls, and web surfing, I was able to squeeze in about 10 hours of use on AT&T’s HSPA+ 4G network with moderate to good reception. If you’re using the phone heavily, you’ll definitely need to carry around an extra battery, charger, or extended battery. AT&T sells an extended battery for the Atrix 2 as well, allowing users to go even longer between charges.

Unfortunately, though using the phone in the new Lapdock 100 will no longer charge the phone at the same time unless the Lapdock 100 is plugged into a power source itself. This will definitely limit the utility of the Lapdock 100 for mobile users who find themselves away from power plugs.

Webtop and Tethering:

A number of docks are available to activate the innovative Webtop OS on the phone and allow the phone to be more functional on a larger display. The most notable dock is the Lapdock 100, an accessory that essentially converts the phone into a laptop with a near-full sized keyboard, multi-touch trackpad, and larger 10-inch screen. The Lapdock 100, unlike the Lapdock for the Atrix 4G, is cross-compatible with various newer models of Motorola smartphone as it connects to the Atrix 2 via a cable connector rather than through a molded hardware dock specific to fit the phone.

The Lapdock 100 does increase the utility of the phone by mirroring the phone’s UI and screen onto a larger netbook-like display, as well as give users a full Firefox browser that has access to a number of web apps. With Google’s acquisition of Motorola, we’re wondering if Firefox and Webtop will get replaced in the future by Chrome OS and the Chrome browser.

The problem that limits the Lapdock on AT&T’s network is that AT&T is the only carrier that forces customers to have a tethering plan enabled with Lapdock usage, like on the Atrix 4G. That means that rather than sliding by with a $15 or $25 data plan, users will now be forced to pay for a 4 GB monthly plan for $45. On the positive side, with Lapdock, your Internet consumption will increase so this will help to avoid unexpected overages. It should be noted, however, that Verizon Wireless does not require a tethering plan for its Droid Bionic and accompanying optional Lapdock accessory, which is the way things should be as Webtop is part of the phone and the Lapdock itself is just ‘dumb’ hardware that displays content from the phone.

Conclusion:

At $99, the Atrix can be seen as the more affordable iteration of Verizon’s Motorola and is an excellent value proposition. With improved network performance, a redesigned form factor, gorgeous and vibrant display, the Atrix 2 brings dual-core 4G performance to a new affordable price point and will help AT&T reach out to customers who may want performance but don’t want to pay the price.

Additionally, as Motorola has corrected some of the early problems with the original Atrix 4G, the Atrix 2 lands out of the box with a much better user experience and is a more polished handset.

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The versatility of the Lapdock and Webtop OS is somewhat hindered by AT&T’s stiff policy of requiring a data tethering plan costing users a total of $45 a month for the privilege of turning their phones into a laptop, but the $99 on-contract pricing will give most phones a run for their money, including Verizon’s Droid Bionic, Droid RAZR, and Sprint’s Photon 4G. By pricing the phone modestly, AT&T and Motorola will be able to target both high-end users as well as mid-range customers. With the speeds and performance of the Atrix 2, we yearn for the day when AT&T once offered unlimited data plans, but the phone does come with a WiFi radio so you can offload some traffic to a WiFi or home network when you’re not out and about. At $99, the feature-packed Atrix 2 demonstrates that AT&T is ‘Rethinking Possible.’

Comments

  1. Alexander Garcia says

    Very nicely written review Mister Nguyen. This device is delightfully awesome at a VERY competitive price. Kudos to Motorola and at&t for rolling this gem out.  :-)

  2. Bunna Tang says

    look like mobile internet speed there is poor, in Cambodia internet speedtest is 6.5mbps download and 1.97mbps upload. just on any hspda 7.2mbps and hsupa 2.1mbps mobile phones.

    • Chuong Nguyen says

      Yes it can; the model that I reviewed is SIM-locked to AT&T so you’d either have to unlock the phone to use with a local SIM when traveling, or you’d have to pay roaming rates. It is a quad-band GSM phone and a tri-band HSPA device for global 3G connectivity. 

  3. Motorola Atrix says

    Looks pretty slick to me… Decent battery life…. No
    Pentile(not that it matters)… I think this is a solid choice for ATT
    users. Especially at $100

  4. Jamie2283 says

    Love the Atrix 2, however the extended battery does not fit the navigation dock.  Am I missing something??

  5. Lionsnwings says

    Picked one up for my wife…in many ways it’s better than my skyrocket. For 50 bucks you can’t beat it.  The only drawback is the limited Motorola UI.  Pull down device control is missing, and the built in task manager is the worst.  Put Advanced task killer on the home screen to make it usable.  Otherwise this is great hardware, with these aspects besting my Skyrocket: quick charging battery, low light photography, screen resolution (makes a big difference with reading text on the web), and video playback on youtube is smoother.  Nice phone for the money. 

  6. LED Bulbs says

    Motorola phone has great features and application support and the exciting thing is that that is dual-LED flash module and a camera that’s capable of recording in 1080p full HD videos. That’s great.

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