Editors' note: In addition to the review below, we also have an in-depth look at the Atrix's laptop accessory.
The review has also been updated with a clarification on third-party apps and more information about the slow upload speeds.
To say that AT&T's Android lineup was lacking would be an understatement, but fortunately, it looks like the company has finally gotten the memo. The carrier introduced three new Android handsets at CES 2011, but the one that impressed us the most was the Motorola Atrix 4G. The Android 2.2 smartphone boasts a dual-core processor (Nvidia's Tegra 2 chipset), 4G support, a 4-inch quarter HD display, and a front-facing camera that enables video calls over a cellular or Wi-Fi network. But wait, there's more.
Motorola designed a laptop dock and software to work with the Atrix that would allow you to still access the contents of your smartphone but provide you with a more PC-like experience. It's why we awarded the Atrix 4G our Best of CES Award in the cell phones and smartphones category, and it's why we were so thrilled when we finally received the devices to check out.
In this review, we'll focus on the Motorola Atrix 4G as a smartphone. (We've made some general observations about the laptop dock here, but CNET's laptops and Netbooks editor, Scott Stein, has delivered a closer look at the accessory to see if it's worth its steep price tag.) We can say that the Atrix excels as a smartphone. The dual-core processor delivers, and the Atrix finally brings some of the higher-end features that AT&T customers have been missing out on, such as video calls. Certainly, the laptop dock is a big selling point for the Atrix, but whether you decide to get the dock or not, you're still getting one of AT&T's best Android smartphones to date.
The Motorola Atrix 4G is expected to ship March 6 or sooner. The price for the phone alone is $199.99 with a two-year contract. AT&T will also offer a bundled package that includes the phone and laptop dock for $499.99 with a two-year contract and tethering add-on and after a $100 mail-in rebate. If you'd rather not sign up for the tethering plan, you can buy the dock separately (and use a Wi-Fi connection) from the phone for $499.99.
Touch-screen smartphones are a dime a dozen, and it may seem like if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all, but that's not necessarily true. Each design has its highs and lows, and the same holds true for the Motorola Atrix 4G. Thankfully, there's much more to like than dislike here. The Atrix is sleek and lightweight at 4.6 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.4 inch thick and 4.8 ounces. The handset's slim profile makes it easy to slip into a pants pocket, and the rounded corners and tapered edges make it comfortable to hold.
However, compared with the company's other recent handsets, such as the Motorola Droid X and the Motorola Cliq 2, the Atrix doesn't quite have the same premium feel to it. It's still very much a solid device but just lacks some of the finer details like a soft-touch finish on back.
On the front, you've got a 4-inch qHD (quarter high definition) capacitive touch screen with a 960x540-pixel resolution. It's comparable to the iPhone 4's 940x640-pixel Retina Display, but since the Atrix has a slightly bigger screen, the pixel density isn't as great, so text and images don't look quite as smooth as they do on the iPhone. Still, the display is sharp and vibrant. As is typical, the screen washed out a bit in bright sunlight, but we were still able to see what was on the screen.
The touch screen is very responsive, both in terms of registering our touches and switching between portrait and landscape mode. And thanks to the dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 chipset, general navigation felt zippier compared with any smartphone we've tested recently. Even a simple task, such as pulling up the app menu, was noticeably faster than on the HTC Inspire 4G, which uses a 1GHz Snapdragon processor.
Below the display are the standard Android shortcuts: menu, home, back, and search. There's a volume rocker on the right side, and a Micro-USB port and an HDMI port on the left side. The camera and dual-LED flash are on the back, as well as the power/lock button, which sits at the top center. It's a bit of an awkward location, but the button can double as a fingerprint scanner for extra security (to use, go to Settings > Set up screen lock).
AT&T packages the Motorola Atrix 4G with an AC adapter, a USB cable, an HDMI cable, and reference material. Aside from the laptop dock bundle, which we'll talk about a bit later, AT&T also offers an Entertainment Access Kit for $189.99, which includes the Motorola HD Multimedia Dock and remote control, a Bluetooth keyboard, and a wireless mouse.
The Motorola Atrix 4G runs Android 2.2 with Motoblur. Though we weren't huge fans of Motorola's custom user interface when it first launched, the company has toned down the UI quite a bit and enhanced the customization abilities, so that it's much more useful and reduces the information overload aspect of the previous version. One thing that does irk us is that you have to sign up for a Motoblur account when you first set up the device. Afterward, you can sign in to all your other e-mail and social network accounts to import your contacts, messages, and calendar appointments.
You get seven home screens that you can personalize with various widgets and shortcuts, such as a social network feed, weather widget, and mini media player. Interestingly, Motoblur now has a function very similar to HTC's Leap screen feature where you can view all of your home screens in thumbnail view--not that we mind, since it allows you to easily switch between the screens.
For more about Motoblur, you can check out our review of the Motorola Cliq 2.
Obviously, one of the big draws of the Motorola Atrix 4G is the dual-core processor. The smartphone is equipped with Nvidia's Tegra 2 chipset, and if you want to get technical, this includes dual ARM Cortex A9 cores clocked at 1GHz and an ultralow-power GeForce GPU graphics processor--all this backed with 1GB of RAM. What this means for you is that you should experience snappier performance, faster browsing, and better gaming graphics, among other things.
Though we've only had the device for a short amount of time, we've certainly been impressed with what we've seen so far. In comparing the Atrix 4G with the HTC Inspire 4G, the difference in overall performance isn't significant but it is noticeable. The Atrix was always just a tick faster than the Inspire when loading apps, menus, and tasks. Games were also snappier to load, and the gameplay was quicker-paced and smoother as well.
The Atrix also handled Flash content well. Though the Atrix and Inspire loaded the media--in this case, a CNET TV video on the phone's WebKit browser--in roughly the same amount of time, the Atrix went on to play the video playlist without problem, whereas the Inspire couldn't play it at all. We'll continue to do more in-depth performance testing, but we wanted to give you an idea of what we've experienced so far.
Another feature supported by the Nvidia's Tegra 2 processor is full HD 1080p video recording and playback via HDMI. Unfortunately, this feature will not be available at launch; instead, it will come at a later time through a software update, so for now, the Atrix can only handle 720p HD video capture and playback through HDMI.
Aside from 720p HD video recording, the Atrix's 5-megapixel camera also offers a dual-LED flash, autofocus, and digital zoom. Editing options in the camera app are rather limited compared with competing products. You can select from one of five picture resolutions and a variety of scene modes and effects, but there are no white-balance controls, ISO settings, or the like. The options are pretty much the same in camcorder mode.