Living with a Motorola Atrix – The Good and Bad

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I am an avid smartphone user. For years, my primary platform was RIM’s Blackberry and I appreciated the phone’s highly functional physical keyboard. When I changed jobs, my new company did not support Blackberry and so I was issued a Palm Pre Plus which I blogged about here. However, I also maintained a personal phone and back in March decided to upgrade to a Motorola Atrix 4G which is an Android based device. (I did not get the laptop dock.) Having lived with the phone for about 3 months, I wanted to share my thoughts.

Good: Speed

I will not go through the Atrix specs in detail, but one point of note is that the phone includes the new dual-core Tegra processor. Having never owned a single core Android phone, I cannot compare it directly, but can say that it is very fast. It virtually never slows down and runs everything application flawlessly. One of the areas where this is most visible is in Google Navigation. The route re-calculation functionality is instantaneous and I barely know when it happens. This is in sharp contrast to my Tom Tom navigator which takes a good 5 – 10 seconds to recalculate during which time you are driving blind. This phone is in sharp contrast to my Palm Pre Plus and previous Blackbery Bold 9000 both of which slowed down frequently.

Bad: Cut and Paste

I find the entire cut and paste process on the phone frustrating. Theoretically, you should be able to cut and paste from any document or page, but I find it difficult to do so. I believe that the problem is a combination of how Android manages the feature and the relatively small screen. To be fair, my Palm has the same problem and I imagine that the iPhone is not much different. Ironically, this is an area where the Blackberry excelled. While many people complained about the trackball in those devices, it did a much better job of fine grained text selection and the cut and paste functionality was robust.

I am hoping that there will be some enhancements in this feature in the future and am waiting patiently for the next version Gingerbread (aka 2.3) to be released for the Atrix.

Good: Flexibility

I love the flexibility of Android. The platform can be almost infinitely customized to meet the needs of every user. This is a very different design paradigm than the iPhone where Apple maintains strict control over the device. I love the idea of having multiple launcher, email and keyboard options. A recently example reminded me of the importance of flexibility. My typing on the Atrix’s on-screen keyboard has improved, but I still struggle with accuracy and speed. One of my recent goals was to find a better keyboard to improve the experience and I was thrilled to see that there were something like 10 different in the Android store. (I will publish a complete post on this search later) Any of these alternatives could be installed transparently and they offered a range of features and designs. It was great to have the choice. With Apple, you have one keyboard, the stock one, and if you don’t like it then too bad.

The only downside of the flexibility is that it can be daunting for new users. I believe that it is worth the trade-off. Ironically, I did get the Mrs an iPhone because she thought Android was too confusing and so there is a case to be made for sticking with the simplicity (and relative lack of flexibility) of the iPhone.

Bad: Battery Life

The Atrix packs a serious technological punch when you look at the large high resolution display, dual core processor, large amounts of memory and 4G radio. All these elements add-up to a great user experience, but poor battery life. You typically need to charge the phone at least nightly or else you will run out of juice on day two. It is frustrating that the battery is so short-lived and I wish that it lasted longer. Ironically, my Palm Pre Plus’s battery is not much better and so this is not a condition of the Atrix only. It is funny, when I went from the Blackberry 8700 to the Bold 9000, I was extremely frustrated with the reduction in battery life and thought that the 9000 had the worst battery life of any phone. Well, its title of poor battery life champion has been transferred and both the Palm and Atrix are worse.

Reviews suggest that many of today’s newer smartphones suffer the same battery life woes as the Atrix and Pre Plus, and so it may not be fair to single out these devices. However, I still think that battery longevity is only marginally acceptable on these devices(and by extension most similar smartphones.). There has to be a better way and I look forward to the time when we can return to the multiple day phone usage models of past Blackberries.

Good: Android Market

Clearly, Apple was the first mover in the smartphone application market and has done an admirable job with their App Store. However, I have been extremely impressed with the Android Market. The breadth of applications and flexibility of the platform make a compelling value proposition. I find that just about every app I need is available. Some of my favorite apps include:

  1. FlightTrack Pro – Fantastic for tracking flights, arrivals and gates
  2. gReader – Great RSS reader that syncs with Google Reader
  3. Seesmic – My favorite Twitter client
  4. KeePassDroid – Great for storing passwords securely

I also appreciate that many service providers I use have applications there including AT&T, Comcast and Bank of America.

Bad: Locked Boot Loader

At heart, I am a tinkerer. I love playing with the new software and applications to see if I can find something better or more efficient. As previously mentioned, the Android platform is highly flexible, but the ultimate flexibility would be to allow the installation of custom-built versions of Android. Unfortunately, Motorola, in their infinite wisdom, prevented the installation of custom ROMs by locking the boot loader. This limits my ability to tinker with the platform. Obviously, they made a business choice, but I believe that it is one that hinders the platform for techies like me. On the bright side, Motorola has announced that they may reconsider this in the future, but it is not clear if that choice applies to the Atrix or only to future models.

Update (6/27): Android Central indicates that the bootloader is likely to be unlocked with the upcoming Gingerbread update.  The same site also indicates someone has already unlocked the bootloader.

Good: Browser

The browser on the Atrix is the most PC-like I have ever used. In general, it does an admirable job rendering pages of all types. It also includes native flash support which works well. I sometimes encounter Flash glitches, but these errors are a worthwhile trade-off versus having no flash at all. I also believe that the dual core CPU in the Atrix helps since it has more computing power than other handheld devices.

The browser is so reliable that my view of the mobile web has changed. With my BB (and to a lesser extent the Palm), I was just happy when a web page loaded and was viewable. It was a further bonus if it actually looked right and you could input data. My expectations have changed with the Atrix; I now expect every page to load properly and be viewable and in this category, the Atrix does not disappointment. Every once in a while, I do encounter a rogue page, but it happens infrequently enough that it is not bothersome.

Summary:

I have emerged from my Android experience feeling very enthusiastic about the platform. While it has its shortcomings – what platform doesn’t? – my Atrix has become a daily companion. I use it all the time for tasks that I previously would have relied on a laptop for, and to me, that is a very meaningful change. The Atrix has opened new possibilities of accessing the Internet and web-based content, and that is something that I cannot say about any other platform I have owned.

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2 thoughts on “Living with a Motorola Atrix – The Good and Bad”

  1. I also have the atrix and it is great. It does not use the dual-core if you never use webtop (lapdock/mediadock). It also has only half the ram usable. The bootloader is unlockable now. I would suggest unlocking it and trying cyanogenmod 7 for the Atrix. It is currently in beta. It is MUCH faster than the stock ROM.

  2. Thank you for the comment. I continue to enjoy the Atrix and have been thinking about trying CM7. Now that the Ice Cream Sandwich source code is available, I may wait for that.

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