This morning I arrived at work in poor form. Tired, exhausted, emotionally drained, after a long and tiring weekend. We had a loss in our family (not entirely unexpectedly, but it hurts the same) and my partner Rachel and I have spent all weekend keeping the family fed and watered so they can deal with a difficult time.

So, what a relief it was to come to work this morning, and find a FedEx parcel sitting on my desk. Inside the nondescript brown box was a Motorola Atrix 4G from our very good friends at MobiCity. I can’t think of a better way to recuperate than to review a phone that I’ve been hotly awaiting for quite some time.

The Atrix (I refuse to use the 4G moniker any further) is one powerhouse of a phone. Not only is it built for AT&T (and thus, compatible with Telstra which is a prerequisite for me), but it rocks a dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2 System-on-a-Chip, 1GB of RAM (yes, 1GB in a mobile device), has 16GB internal storage, without adding a micro-SD card, and all that in a phone barely larger than an iPhone 4 – it’s a little wider, but same thickness and same height.

I couldn’t wait to put this monster through its paces, and let me tell you, it runs rings around the competition. I’ve been quite the fan of HTC hardware, until recently.. except for the fact that this phone will probably never be as ‘mod-able’ as HTC phones, Motorola are on to an absolute rocker of a phone here.

Let’s get into the review after the break.

Pros:

  • 136 grams. It’s a good weight.
  • 4″ screen. It’s big, it’s beautiful. It’s an odd resolution, though – 540 x 960 pixels.
  • It’s tough as nails – Gorilla Glass screen.
  • It has naff features – like a fingerprint reader.
  • You don’t need a micro-SD card – it has 16GB on board.
  • This thing has an HDMI-out port – you can watch your movies on the big screen at your mate’s place.
  • The battery is a whale – 1930 mAh (a good 700 mAh more than the Desire HD, for example).

Cons:

  • The fingerprint reader is cool, but having to use it every time to unlock the screen gets old.
  • AT&T’s built in crap-ware is annoying, though it can be removed. The Motoblur stuff can’t be.

Hardware

The Atrix is a good sized phone – the comparison with the iPhone 4 is rather illustrative as they’re very close in size. It’s about 7mm slimmer than the Desire HD in each dimension. It fits well in the pocket and doesn’t look like you’re carrying a gun (or a banana) in your pants. It’s a nice weight – not too heavy, and not too flimsy and light, and it’s easily held and balanced in one hand for on-the-go Twitter or SMS usage.

Unlike some other Androids, the Atrix has no hardware buttons on the front face, nor any directional pad, track ball or pointing device. It has four capacitive buttons – menu, home, back and search – which are annoyingly in an odd order. I prefer buttons like the Desire HD – home, menu, back and search – but Androids do like to mix these up a bit, so it’s not that much of a worry. It’s quick to get used to a different layout. The other thing on the front face – besides a front-facing camera (we’ll get to that) – is a notification LED. Those who like blinking lights, in particular lights that blink different colours to tell them different things, will be very pleased. You can have one colour for SMS notifications, one for email, one for missed calls.. the possibilities are endless.

The edge of the phone is rather bare – there’s a typical volume rocker on the right side, and two ports on the left – one micro USB for charging / tethering / whatnot, and one mini HDMI port which (when used with the included cable) can get your phone output on the big screen (though, not having an HDMI monitor to test with, I haven’t explored this feature).

Atop the phone is a combined power button and finger print reader. It’s a little recessed, so while it’s not easily activated accidentally, it’s also a bit of a prick to access if you’re not holding the phone properly. The finger print reader itself is rather cool – as you’d expect, you can secure the Atrix via normal methods – pin code or pass code to unlock the phone, but an added option is to use a finger print instead. In our testing, this worked rather well, and resulted in no false positives (i.e. unlock by unauthorised users), though occasionally it misread my fingerprint and refused to unlock. Fortunately, there’s a PIN backup.

Setting up the fingerprint reader

Lockscreen showing the finger print option

Software

The Atrix runs a modified version of Android 2.2.1 (FroYo) which has a front-end called MotoBlur. Those familiar with MotoBlur will remember former Motorola devices ‘featuring’ this software and tell you how awful it was. To me, it’s not all that bad. I won’t go into detail about what MotoBlur is, and isn’t – to me, it’s very unobtrusive and is hardly the dinosaur that is HTC Sense (which I despise).

MotoBlur gives your phone the following features on top of the normal Android experience:

  • Built-in social networking features, keeping all your email, social feeds, and other things at your fingertips.
  • Automagically import all your social contacts and other things into one place to sync down to your phone.
  • A battery life manager to help you tweak your phone’s performance to best use the available battery power.

The most obvious part is the customised home screen launcher, but here’s the best part – if you don’t like it, download a replacement launcher from the Android Market (such as ADW Launcher) and you can remove 90% of the MotoBlur experience.

The default home screen on the Atrix

A selection of default apps

The MotoBlur battery manager

The phone runs like a greased pig – in other words, it’s very VERY fast. The screen transitions are almost instantaneous, apps install in mere fractions of a second, and uninstall just as quickly. Apps load very quickly and are fast and smooth to use. We installed Quadrant to see just how fast the phone was, and as you’ll see from the results below, the answer is very fast – a quadrant score of over 2500, compared to the average Nexus One coming in at around 1300. This phone is a hare amongst turtles.

A Quadrant score of 2519? Yeah, we can do that.

On the downside, the Atrix comes installed with what I’ll affectionately call a large pile of crap. On the plus side, this stuff is NOT installed on the system partition, meaning you can delete it using the Application Manager function built into Android. Things like AT&T Code Scanner, AT&T Family Map, Blockbuster and Live TV (none of which work very well in Australia, or have better alternatives on the Market) can be easily removed.

Things that can’t be removed include some MotoBlur related apps, but lets face it, these things are fairly unobtrusive and don’t really affect the phone much. They’re nothing like the bloat you’ll see on (for example) a Telstra-branded HTC Desire, and unlike the Desire, you can delete the bloat-ware – with the Desire, you’re stuck with it.

Aside from these, there’s minimal software supplied with the phone, though a few good inclusions are QuickOffice (productivity suite) and NFS Shift (a game) which would otherwise set you back a few dollars on the market. Android being Android, you can easily download what you want from the Market anyway, so it’s rather pointless bundling much software with Android handsets, which is why we at the office despise included bloat-ware all the more – it’s not just ugly, it’s completely unnecessary.

Telephony

One of the most important features of any phone – Android or not – is its functionality as a phone. If the phone looks pretty, but can’t make decent phone calls, then to me, it won’t last. The HTC Desire HD unfortunately fell in this category. Its ringtones were quiet, the in-call volume was quiet, and generally as a phone it was awful. I likened it to a small, crippled tablet rather than a phone.

The Atrix is the polar opposite. The ring tones are loud. The in-call volume is loud – I could make a call on a busy Sydney street and still hear the other party, something even the iPhone 4 struggles with sometimes (and it’s generally considered quite loud).

Battery life

Something that has consistently disappointed me with Android phones has been battery life. They have many, many desirable features, but lack the battery life to make them work. The Desire HD really epitomised this – it had a massive, beautiful screen, many bells and whistles, and yet a dismally small battery and large power consumption – this added up to a phone that could easily lose 10% charge in a few minutes, or almost 50% on a train trip listening to some music and reading the news. All in all, disappointing.

Out of the box, the Atrix came with a half charge, as most phones do. After installing apps and playing most of the morning, it’s down to 20%, as you’d expect.

On the factory charge, I listened to ten minutes streaming audio, installed a pile of apps, made a ten minute telephone call, sent a few messages and taken a few photos, and we’re only down somewhere around 20% on what it was out of the box. Not bad.

After a charge to 80% (removed from the charger around 3.30pm), I’ve squeezed the following out of the battery:

  • An hour of streaming 64kbps AAC audio courtesy of Digitally Imported
  • Sending a few emails
  • Sending a dozen SMS or so
  • Taking a ten minute phone call
  • Playing Words with Friends over the course of an hour or so
  • Updating twitter for a couple of hours
  • Taking a few photos
  • Browsing the web for an hour or so

There are probably a few other things I’ve done, but even still, the battery has only now (at 9pm) hit 30%. If you ask me, 50% drop over six hours, with the usage it’s had, is pretty good. I’m looking forward to draining it completely, charging it overnight, and running it tomorrow to see how long it takes to drain to 0%. My money is going to be somewhere around ten hours.

I’ll update right here when I’m done with tomorrow’s testing.

Camera

The Atrix camera is nothing spectacular in this day – it’s a 5MP shooter (2592 c 1944 pixels) with auto focus and an LED flash. I took a few photos around my pod at the Ausdroid Sydney office, and while the camera certainly takes a decent photo, to me they seemed a little washed out. I’ll let you be the judge.

The Ausdroid potted plant.

Ausdroid-approved hair styling apparatus.

Toothpaste, toothbrush and a permanent marker. Good mix.

The official Ausdroid Macbook Pro. It works pretty well, despite being an Apple product.

We haven’t yet tried the video capture, simply because we don’t have anything fun to film, and we don’t wish to be accused of being boring. We’ll update the post with a fun video when we find something to make our subject.

Lockdown

The only thing which lets the Atrix down, and for me (as a real enthusiast) this is a bit of a downer, is Motorola’s approach to the Android community. HTC devices are (for the most part) fairly easily modified. Rooting the Desire HD was a painful experience, but rooting the Desire or Nexus One is a fairly simple task. Custom ROMs are plentiful for HTC hardware, and increasingly hardware from other manufacturers is modifiable without too much effort as well.

Not so the Atrix.

While rooting the Atrix isn’t too hard (the instructions over at XDA have basically reduced it to a download this, click that, sit back and wait process), that’s where the modifying stops. The bootloader is locked down, making (for now) custom ROMs look like an unreachable dream.

All is not lost. The main reason many people customise their Androids is to speed them up, remove unnecessary cruft, and to have access to root-only apps which make the phone more useful, such as backup apps, or those which tweak processor performance or battery usage. In my (humble) opinion, the Atrix performs well out of the box, it’s fast and lean, and once rooted (fairly easily done) you can get 90% of the experience without having to install any custom ROMs whatsoever.

Conclusions

I really like it.

The Atrix is unlike a lot of Android phones I’ve reviewed lately. It’s not got curious proportions. It’s not heavy, and it doesn’t feel cheap and nasty. The case is plastic – yes – but it doesn’t feel plastic and nasty, unlike some other plastic-backed phones which just feel tacky (Hi, Samsung Galaxy S!).

MotoBlur doesn’t get in the way of the Android experience like HTC Sense does, rather it stays out of the way for the most part unless you want to use it. The Atrix experience out of the box is fun, fast and powerful – web browsing is quick and smooth, data moves quickly through the device, and everything just works. It’s not an iDevice – it’s far more flexible – and dare I say it, more fun.

It has a nice, crisp display, easily visible in sunlight, and the touchscreen is fast and responsive.

I haven’t, yet, found anything to dislike about the phone beyond what I’ve stated above, and these are really minor points.

All in all, I reckon you should buy this phone. If you’d like to do that, it’s available for $899 over at MobiCity.

MobiCity

MobiCity | Your Mobile Destination | Unlocked Mobile Phones

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=609357198 Nathan Elcoate

    The phone runs like a greased pig – in other words, it’s very VERY fast.

    I really like it.

    All in all, I reckon you should buy this phone.

    Good points.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jakson0900 jakson robert

    Have been waiting for this phone for a while now, only will have to settle using it in a 2G market, thanks to At&t’s weak 3G network. If only At&t would recognize they truly need to beef up/expand their 3G network infrastructure before trying to roll out a new LTE network I believe this would be of great importance. Considering how small their 3G network is compared to Verizon, it’s pathetic and I’m stuck with them (work related contract). No doubt they have overall better coverage, yet when it comes to 3G service for the most part if you’re not in a metro area you’re stuck w/ 2G or less. Now that they’ve lost iPhone exclusivity they’re going to have to do something or no doubt as we all know many will be jumping ship.
    http://www.motorolaatrixforum.com/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=609357198 Nathan Elcoate

    I don’t understand why you bag out HTC so much. Sense is the most beautiful phone OS I have ever used. The Widgets are well made, work, and look beautiful. HTC would be just any other Android phone maker without Sense.

  • edBoy

    What did the battery life end up like once you’d fully charged and discharged?

    Also, is this phone just for Telstra? I.e. there’s no point going and buying it from Mobicity if I’m not on Telstra’s network?

  • http://twitter.com/punyweakling Lemon

    Can you load non-market apps from the SD with this version?

  • ronybeck

    A good review. I very much like the writing style here. It speaks to the average Aussie punter. I am really glad Ausdroid don’t do those crap “unboxing” videos which are extremely pointless. I don’t give a nun’s cunt what it looks like coming out of a box. The device is what I am interested in. And this review delivered. Great job!

    • http://ausdroid.net Chris Rowland

      Thanks for the kind words. We try to give useful reviews which aren’t full of the self righteous fluff that you find on some of the more widely read blogs. We want to help you to decide whether to buy the phone or not, and we hope our reviews meet that goal.

  • http://twitter.com/aaronmcauley Aaron McAuley

    I’m not too concerned about the locked down bootloader. The Milestone had the same thing, which was a headache for a year, and now I’m running MIUI. No doubt with that experience the Atrix won’t take nearly as long.

    …Now if only there was a Vodafone version (and LTE in Aus)

  • http://ian.testers.homelinux.net/ Ian Tester

    Also:
    The display pixel dimensions are not so odd when you realise that it’s a 16:9 screen. And it is exactly 16:9, unlike 854×480, which is two thirds of a pixel too wide.

    As to rooting the phone and installing custom firmware – I’m not sure how necessary it is to have the latest kernel for getting the latest version of Android up and running properly. I gather there’s some dependencies though. But I have Gingerbread (2.3) running on my Milestone using a leaked kernel from Motorola made for their upcoming (or just released?) Froyo release. Apart from the occasional hang or even restart (a known kernel bug), everything is running quite well.

    • http://ausdroid.net Chris Rowland

      There are a few, yeah. Atrix development on XDA is really only getting started (given it’s only recently been released) but we may well see custom kernels and ROMs in the not too distant future.. I hope.

  • http://ian.testers.homelinux.net/ Ian Tester

    Sorry to be pedantic when you’re in mourning, but the Tegra 2 is most definitely not a “chipset”. It’s a “System on a Chip” or Soc, perhaps even a “Package on Package” (PoP), meaning multiple chips (usually RAM) are stacked in the one package. Mobile phone motherboards don’t have room for more than a few large chips.

    • http://ausdroid.net Chris Rowland

      Thanks Ian, I’ll correct that ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/SilentInfidel Luke Dunstan

    This phone seems great but I have heard of a few other worrying limitations. Maybe you could confirm whether these are true or not of the AT&T-branded Atrix:

    1. Has HDMI mirroring been deliberately crippled such that it doesn’t work unless you have the laptop dock?

    2. Are you prohibited from installing non-market applications?

    3. Is tethering disabled?

    • http://ausdroid.net Chris Rowland

      1. Don’t know – I don’t have a HDMI monitor / TV to test it with.

      2. Yes, but the phone is easily rooted and this prohibition removed. It took me about 5 minutes (but that’s because I was typing the commands with one hand while on the phone to someone).

      3. As above.

  • Brendan

    Only downfall i’ve read so far with the AT&T branded Atrix is the capped upload speed. Hopefully this will be fixed soon. I’m still going to be ordering one from Mobicity however.

    • Ballzingski

      I have been getting 400kbs max uploads on telstra with my atrix same as my other phones. Nothing like the 100kbs the sepos have been crying about

      • Brendan

        Ah that’s good to hear, from what i’ve read even at 300 it’s still quite usable.

  • Cameron

    $900 is too much for this phone IMO. If it had an unlocked bootloader, maybe, but I feel odd having to go against what appears to be the manufacturers best wishes to get a phone that works properly…….. I think I’ll wait and see how it compares with the Optimus 2X.

    Oh and is there a 900Mhz version at all?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Anderton/504726871 David Anderton

    whats funny is depending on which Ausdroid reviewer writes the review you get a completely different opinion on the UI. Most like myself like sense and hate Motoblur, Chris is the opposite.

    • http://ausdroid.net Chris Rowland

      I don’t like nor dislike it. The beauty of it is, once you load up a different launcher, you barely see any MotoBlur at all. I suppose the same is true of HTC’s Sense.. though it’s a little harder to hide.

  • Ttravelman

    So it looks like it will be released by Telstra.. Anyone have an idea of when???

    I am sick of technology taking so long to be released here.

  • Ballzingski

    Ive had this phone since Thursday last week and this review mirrors my thoughts almost exactly. Great phone all u need do is root it clear off some bloat and install ur launcher of choice. The phone trashes my captivate in performance. working gps helps to

  • http://twitter.com/agrei8 Adrian Greig

    With my HTC Dream finally (if not just) coming to the end of the contract I am eagerly trying to decide which phone is next for me. I’m wanting to move over to Telstra for work reasons and this may just be the thing! Battery, Gorilla Glass screen and extra storage are big pluses for me. I assume your test calls were was on Telstra?? Thanks for the review. Cheers!

    • http://ausdroid.net Chris Rowland

      Yes Adrian the calls were made on Telstra also – I’ve made a few calls now since the start of the review and the call quality is great.

  • dawdle

    Will this be officially released in Australia under a local carrier?