Review of the Motorola Atrix


The Motorola Atrix is one of the first smartphones on the market with a dual-core processor. That qualifies it as the most powerful smartphone on the market at the time of this review. It also comes with a whopping 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of internal Flash storage. You can add an additional 32 GB of Flash via a MicroSD card.

Last Updated: 19-Mar-2011

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

Another feature that sets it apart from all other smartphones is a dock that provides a full laptop-style keyboard and laptop-sized screen. I didnít get a chance to test this hardware, and so it is not part of this review.

Most of my comparisons to other hardware will be to the Samsung Galaxy S Captivate. In part this is because I actually own one and am familiar with it, but also because the Galaxy S is a high-end phone that is well suited to making such comparisons.

The model I tested came from AT&T and it included a number of boneheaded restrictions that were placed on it by AT&T. With any luck the Bell Mobility Atrix (and any other models that come out in the Canadian market) wonít be saddled with those restrictions. For instance, the AT&T model cannot be reflashed, nor can you install APK files outside of the Android Market.

RF Performance

Click on this link for a full description of RF Performance, and how to interpret it.

RF Sensitivity: I performed tests of the RF sensitive over at Square One using the Bell Mobility/Telus HSPA network (because itís now damned near impossible to find anywhere in the mall where Rogers is weak enough to make such comparisons). Performance was compared to the Samsung Galaxy S. After quite a bit of testing I came to the conclusion that the Atrix may have been slightly more sensitive, but not by much. Otherwise both phones produced near-identical results, which is not necessarily great news, because both canít really match the RF sensitivity of my old Nokia N95.

I next tested for what has become widely known as the death grip. This term (and peopleís fascination with it) began with the iPhone 4, which suffered from massive signal losses if the device was gripped in a certain way. Since then many other smartphones have been tested and it has been discovered that most suffer from this to some extent or another. In the case of the Atrix, the phenomenon is there, but it doesnít appear to be all that much of an issue. Although I can see the incoming signal drop 4 to 5 dB when the phone is held near the bottom, I couldnít get a call to drop (or worsen noticeably) in an extremely weak-signal area of the mall.

Audio Performance

Click on this link for a full description of Audio Performance, and how to interpret it.

Tonal Balance: Motorola has a well-earned reputation for building phones with excellent sound quality, though over the years theyíve come out with a few stinkers. While the Atrix doesnít have the phenomenally rich tonal quality of the old Motorola P280, it does come close. Overall the tonal balance is very good, with no harshness, peakiness, or hollowness to be found. It would be absolutely perfect if it had the deep bass of the old P280, but otherwise itís as damned near perfect as Iíve heard on any phone in the past few years.

Sound Reproduction: This aspect is also very good, with excellent reproduction of the nuances of speech and virtually no background hiss. There is a little more noise in the background than on my Samsung Galaxy S Captivate, but not a heck of a lot more. It also makes funny noises when certain sounds are present, but I never noticed them during actual conversations.

Earpiece Volume: Also fabulous. At full volume the earpiece on the Atrix pumps out globs of clean volume that make it one of the loudest phones Iíd tested of late. Yes, the Samsung Galaxy S with the volume fix applied is almost as loud, but to achieve that loudness you need to root the Galaxy S in order to run the application that adjusts the volume setting. No such fix is necessary with the Atrix, which is loud right out of the box.

Speakerphone: In keeping with the incredible sound quality of the earpiece, Motorola keeps dead on track with the design of the speakerphone. It can produce markedly more clean volume than virtually any phone this side of Motorolaís own iDEN models. It handily beats the Samsung Galaxy S because not only does it produce a bit more volume, but it does so with far less sympathetic vibrations inside the speaker.

When it comes to playing high-quality audio however (such as music or the soundtrack of a video) the built-in speaker demonstrates that it was designed to be a speakerphone first and a multimedia speaker second (which is exactly the opposite of most phones). Donít get me wrong, the sound quality is still good, but it sounds less natural than the speaker on the Galaxy S.

Outgoing Audio: Given the fantastic incoming audio I expected nothing less from the outgoing sound. In my first test I recorded a message to my voicemail using the Atrix in a quiet room, followed by a recording made from my Galaxy S in the same quiet room. I was shocked at just how poor the audio sounded. It was shallow and muffled compared to the Samsung phone, which sounded pretty darned good.

Following that disappointing test I checked the setting for noise cancellation and I found it set to normal (which seems to be the default). I turned it off and I repeated the test, finding that the audio quality improved, but not enough to match the much better tonal quality of the Samsung. However, the test clearly demonstrated how much damage the noise cancellation can do to outgoing audio. Just for fun I set noise cancellation to high and I tried again. It sounded pretty much the same as it had with the feature set to normal.

Tests in a moving car revealed that while the noise cancellation did its thing, it did so at the expense of voice quality (which isnít exactly stellar to begin with). With noise cancellation turned off however, there was noticeable background noise, but the voice quality did not suffer as a result. This is a compromise you will have make when setting up your Atrix.

Over at Square One the phone was tested near the noisy food court. Once again, the noise cancellation feature did its job, but surprisingly there was less damage to the outgoing audio under those specific conditions.

However, because the Atrix canít produce outgoing audio that is anywhere near as good as the Galaxy S, I have to rate it as mediocre, because if you check my review of the Galaxy S youíll find that I didnít exactly give that phone high praise for outgoing sound.

Support Features

Ringer Volume: As Iíve often noted in recent reviews, the volume of the ringer is directly tied to the volume and quality of the speakerphone. Because the Atrix has an excellent speakerphone, it also has very loud and very clear ringtones.

Keypad Design: The Atrix doesnít have a keyboard, and so all input is via the virtual keypad provided on the touchscreen. I donít know if the one provided with the Atrix is just stock Android, or one thrown together by Motorola, but it lacks many of the useful features found on other customized implementations (particularly the one Samsung provides). However, this is Android after all and you can put in any keyboard you like, in which case you arenít limited to the pedestrian implementation provided by Motorola, and you can always use Swype, which is installed on the Atrix by default.

Display: The Atrix has a 4-inch display boasting a resolution of 960 x 540, which is an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Thatís slightly different from the norm, which is 1.67:1 (usually in the form of 800 x 480). The extra pixels mean that the Atrix can display more on the screen than a typical high-end Android phone, but there are a few gotchas.

Some applications, especially games, assume 800 x 480 and as a result they donít fill the entire Atrix screen. That wouldnít be so bad if the touch areas scaled equally, but they donít. When playing Asphalt 5 on the Atrix I found that I had to touch the buttons above where they appeared on the screen. Iím sure this will be fixed in future releases of the apps, and many use stock display elements that correctly scale anyway. This isnít huge issue, but you may find that some apps look funny.

Trying to judge the LCD display of the Atrix after being spoiled rotten by the incredible Super AMOLED display of the Galaxy S is difficult. I compared the displays side-by-side and the Atrix looks washed-out and old-fashioned by comparison. Both screens generate the same maximum brightness, but the Super AMOLED display has richer more saturated color and its blacks are jet black (rather than gray as they look on the Atrix). The response speed of the LCD screen on the Atrix is markedly inferior to the Super AMOLED display on the Galaxy S and that really shows during fast scrolling.

However, if youíve never had the opportunity to be spoiled by a Super AMOLED display, then the LCD screen of the Atrix will actually impress you. Its higher resolution and reasonable color clarity make look almost as good as an iPhone 4 (but not quite).

Icing on the Cake

Dual-core Processor: The big claim-to-fame of the Atrix is that it has one of the first dual-core processors ever put in a smartphone. Essentially, dual-core means the same thing here as it does on your desktop or laptop computer. It means that the processor is actually two independent processors that can work on different things at the same time without bogging each other down. However, it does not mean that any single application will run twice as fast. Most applications will run exactly the same on a 1 GHz dual-core processor as they do on a 1 GHz single-core processor.

In theory however, having two cores should result in a more responsive UI, because even when thereís some heavy processing going on in the background, the UI can operate on one core while the background thread uses the other. As far as I could tell, this does seem to be the case in the Atrix. The UI remained smooth and responsive, even when I had something processor-intensive (such as installing an app) running in the background. I also noticed that embedded video (via Flash 10.1) ran more smoothly on the Atrix than it did on the Galaxy S, which might have been the result of Flash making good use of both cores.

Beyond that however, I couldnít find anything that made the Atrix seem any faster than the single-core Galaxy S. This may change over time as more apps are written to take advantage of the dual cores. As has been the case with Windows software though, donít expect a very high percentage of the apps to be written any differently just because the device they are targeting has a dual-core processor. It didnít happen in Windows, and will likely not happen with smartphones.

The bottom line is that the Atrix provides a smoother user experience as a result of having the dual-core processor, but because the speed of the cores is the same as the current high-end single-core phones on the market, it doesnít really offer much else in terms of faster performance.

HSPA+: The Atrix is billed as a 4G phone (at least by AT&T) because it supports 14.4 megabit HSPA+, rather than usual 7.2 megabit HSPA of most other high-end smartphones. Unfortunately the model that I tested was from AT&T and they cap upload speeds at just 350 kilobits per second (as does Rogers on most of their phones, including the Galaxy S) and so in that regard the Atrix was no better than a CRIPPLED HSPA phone.

Where I did expect to see some improvement was in the download speeds, but I rarely managed to get transfer rates much higher than those I usually saw on my Galaxy S. Typically speeds were between 2 and 3 megabits, though I did see a high of 5.8 megabits at around 2 in the morning. I have seen speeds as high as 6.0 megabits using my Galaxy S, and so this doesnít seem like an improvement. I also did not see any improvement in ping times. Typically I see between 95 and 180 milliseconds on the Galaxy S. Surprisingly the Atrix averaged between 130 and 250 milliseconds, which is poor.

Only when the phone was in very close proximity to a site was the signal ever clean enough to render transfer rates that were high enough to prove that the HSPA+ feature was actually working. When sitting inside of Square One near one of the indoor site antennas I did once see a transfer rate in excess of 8 megabits per second. Most of the time however, the speed was between 1 and 3 megabits, which is about par for a standard HSPA device. These latter speed tests were performed on the Bell Mobility/Telus HSPA network.

Camera: The Atrix comes with a 5 megapixel camera that can also shoot 720p video at 30 frames per second. This spec is identical to most high-end Samsung phones, including the Galaxy S, but thatís where the similarity ends. Compared to the Samsung camera, the Motorola model is sub-standard. It starts with the lackluster camera app that ships with the Atrix. It has far less flexibility than the camera app in the Galaxy S and that limits how creative you can be.

The quality of the photos is well below that of the Samsung. Pictures lack crispness, which might be because the Atrix doesnít include image stabilization, which the Galaxy S does. The photos all seem to have odd color casts in the shadows that make pictures look weird to say the least. I took various pictures out my back window and the trunk of the maple tree in the backyard looks decidedly red, whereas it looks its natural brown in shots taken with the Samsung. Note that all comparisons were performed on a computer after the pictures had been transferred there.

When it comes to video, the Atrix does even worse. While neither the Atrix nor the Galaxy S is going to supplant a dedicated camcorder, the quality of the videos made with the Samsung blow the Atrix out of the water. The Atrix videos look decidedly smeary when the image is panned and the auto exposure goes totally nuts as the lighting changes during the pan. This produces odd color casts to the entire image that change as the scene pans.

The camera does however have a fairly powerful dual-LED flash, which actually works quite well. Unfortunately you are required to use the flash when doing macro photography, which isnít always the best way to light-up something that close to the lens.

GPS: Like most high-end Android phones the Atrix includes built-in GPS. It seems to have good sensitivity and can lock onto a lot of satellites under problematic conditions, but I discovered a rather annoying issue with the results returned by the GPS receiver. Motorola seems to believe their GPS is way more accurate than most, because it Iíve seen it report an accuracy of 2 meters (roughly 6 feet). That would be an achievement to cheer for if it werenít for the fact that it placed me inside a house two doors down. Thatís hardly 2 meters accuracy. Also, even while reporting this astounding accuracy my position would suddenly shift at least 10 or 15 meters away, stay there for 5 or 10 seconds, and then shift back.

However, Iíll give the Atrix a good rating for the GPS because of its receiver sensitivity, which should allow it to lock onto the satellites in places where other phones just canít do a thing.

Battery Life: The Atrix comes with a fairly hefty 1930 mAh battery, which helps to offset the heavier drain caused by the dual-core processor. In heavy use the battery seems to drain at about the same rate as the 1500 mAh battery on my Galaxy S. Subsequently I would estimate about 4 to 6 hours of solid use, depending upon how much 3G data you transfer. One interesting limitation of the Atrix is that its hardware only reports the batteryís charge status in 10% increments. I donít know what the norm is, but my Galaxy S reports the batteryís charge in 1% increments.

App Incompatibility: Once again, I donít know how much of this can be blamed on AT&T and how much is the result of poor design on Motorolaís part, but hereís what I noticed. In the video game Asphalt 5 I observed strange polygons appearing in the rendered images from time to time. One of the best places to see this is while looking at the blue Austin Mini rotating on the platform at the beginning of the game. On the Galaxy S the paintwork on the car looks natural, but on the Atrix strange triangles appear and disappear in the carís painted surfaces.

I also installed the program called Hi-Q MP3 Recorder, which I used frequently on my Galaxy S. The program records your voice with exceptional clarity when set to create 128 kilobit MP3 files. When I made a recording on the Atrix I noticed the sound meter was pinned. When I played it back I could just barely hear my own voice under a sea of noise. I uninstalled and reinstalled the app, but that didnít help.

As previously noted, the new-and-unusual screen size and aspect ratio doesnít work well on some apps. Generally these are games, but I saw oddball stuff in other apps as well. For example, in the highly popular SPEEDTEST.NET app the speedometer is correctly centered, but the ďBegin TestĒ and ďTest AgainĒ buttons are skewed to the left. There doesnít appear to be a problem with the touch areas, such as I found with Asphalt 5. Most apps run without any issues however, and so this problem may or may not bother you much.

Conclusions

From the point-of-view of a phone, the Atrix is among the best out there with exceptional incoming audio and a terrific speakerphone implementation. Only the less-than-perfect outgoing audio spoils the otherwise excellent phone. As a smartphone, the dual-core processor makes the devices at least seem speedier, even if it doesnít actually result in any meaningful increase in the execution time of most apps. The high-res screen is a welcome addition, even if it doesnít match the astounding quality of Samsung Super AMOLED displays.

So the bottom line: this is a good smartphone, but itís hardly perfect. It excels in some areas and lags in others, so my recommendation is to take stock of whatís important to you and see if the Atrix excels at those aspects.

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