Motorola Atrix HD Review

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Getting to know the youngest member of a family is a lot easier if you know what their siblings are like. Similarly, understanding the Motorola Atrix HD requires an understanding of what the Atrix brand represents. That’s not all that easy.

The first device in the Atrix family, the buzzworthy Atrix 4G, launched in February of 2011. This Atrix was a headliner device, a feature-loaded differentiator that brought a lot of firsts to the table. Among these: it was one of the first smartphones to ship with NVIDIA’s then-new Tegra 2 1GHz CPU, the first Motorola smartphone with a fingerprint scanner, and it was the device that first introduced us to Motorola’s “Webtop” suite of feature-expanding accessories like the laptop and desktop docks. Those weren’t cheap, either; one needed only to look at the accessory pricing for the various docks to know that the Atrix 4G was being positioned as a flagship-class device. Motorola did everything it could to preserve and enhance that perception, and Engadget called the Atrix 4G the “best smartphone at CES 2011.”

Less than a year after this groundbreaking flagship device launched, though, Motorola began pushing its successor onto retail shelves. The uninspired moniker “Atrix 2” belied the new device’s unexciting feature set; sure, there was a newer CPU, improved camera, bigger display, faster data capability, and more minor spec bumps throughout, but the aspirational quality was absent. Visually, the device was essentially the same phone, just with an added dose of boring. It even cut corners in a few areas, removing the unique fingerprint scanner, including a smaller battery, and reducing the amount of onboard memory. A formerly high-end brand was being watered down. The Atrix was being “economized.”

With the Atrix HD, it looks as though Motorola is continuing that trend. It’s a curious little device, blending some lower-tier elements with other, high-end touches. Does this approach of “mixing a scoop of real coffee in with the decaf” result in a best-of-both-worlds sleeper hit, or an unsatisfying budget-phone compromise? Read on to find out.

Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me

Video Review

 

Specs

The Atrix HD is powered by a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor clocked at 1.5GHz and backed up by 1GB of RAM. It’s tempting to point to the lack of a quad-core CPU in this device as further evidence of the watering-down of the Atrix brand, but remember that this is an LTE-packing smartphone, a feature which limits available chipsets to two cores for now. For storage, we’re looking at 8GB of ROM, only 4.7GB of which is available to the user; fortunately, there’s MicroSD expansion available, up to an additional 32GB.

A smartphone is nothing without connectivity, and the Atrix HD offers plenty: on the radio side, there’s support for quad-band GSM, 850/1700/1900/2100 UMTS, and the phone connects to AT&T’s LTE network on bands 04 and 17. There’s Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi b/g/n, and DLNA connectivity as well, though NFC is curiously -and annoyingly- absent. No Google Wallet or NFC-tag fun for you.

Providing a window into all that functionality is the display panel that gives this newest Atrix its “HD” suffix. It’s a 4.5″ TFT LCD screen that renders images at 720p resolution, with “ColorBoost technology” that Motorola says provides -you guessed it- more vibrant colors. More interesting than that, though, is the screen’s pixel density: Motorola has packed 330 pixels into every inch, giving the Atrix HD a much higher pixel density than most phones on the market. That metric even bests the iPhone 4S’ vaunted “Retina Display,” an achievement not many smartphones can boast.

The power plant sitting underneath all that, just beneath the 8MP camera, is an embedded (marketing-speak for non-removable) Lithium-Polymer battery rated at 1780mAh. Motorola says that’ll power the phone for up to 11 hours of continuous “4G  talk time,” and up to 8.5 days of standby.

Hardware

We hinted at it in the unboxing video and we’ll say it outright here: we’ve really, really missed Motorola hardware.

Taking the Atrix HD out of the box immediately put us in mind of the old Motorola iDEN phones: a portfolio of well-built, rock-solid devices meant to take abuse. In a more modern sense, holding the Atrix HD feels much like holding a Droid X or Droid RAZR, but the confidence such build quality inspires is the same as it was on those older iDEN phones.

Part of that comes from the new Atrix’s beefy dimensions. It’s not a fat phone, by any means; at its thinnest point, it notches in at 8.4mm. That slimness doesn’t last the full length of the phone, however: unlike on the Droid RAZR, the camera hump doesn’t rise abruptly from the back cover but sits at the end of a very gradual up-slope that starts around the volume rocker. The result is that the top third of the device looks and feels much thicker – because it is. That’s not a bad thing; it doesn’t impact pocketability, and it actually makes cradling the phone much more comfortable.

The Atrix HD feels like it can take a beating, and the specs seem to bear that out: the phone’s display is protected by a layer of Corning Gorilla Glass, the back is covered in Kevlar micro-weave, and the whole unit is coated with Motorola’s “invisible nano-coating” for inside-and-out splash protection. Our unit was finished in “titanium” color, but a white version is available as well.

If all that seems like it was lifted right from the Droid RAZR’s book, that’s because it was- Motorola is unabashedly stealing from itself with this design. But that’s hardly a bad thing; design-wise, the Atrix 2 was a complete snooze-fest, and even the initial Atrix 4G was pretty bland. It’s not going out on a limb to say that this latest incarnation is the most interesting member of the Atrix family. Also, Motorola manages to deliver a RAZR-esque design here without succumbing to the “massive slab” mentality; though the Atrix HD’s screen is larger than the RAZR’s, the device’s added thickness and medium-radius corners combine somehow to make it feel smaller in the hand. It’s a very comfortable phone to hold.

There are a few pitfalls: the side keys are plastic masquerading as metal, and we constantly mistake AT&T logo below the screen for a home button. Also, we’re not convinced the mottled texturing on the “midplate” bisecting the phone was the best way to go. But really, these are trivial concerns. The Atrix HD’s casing design is top-notch.

Display aficionados will also find much to like here: the HD panel’s high pixel density really renders text and images beautifully, and Motorola’s ColorBoost magic does a good job of keeping the colors lively. It’s no S-AMOLED panel, though, so blacks still display the same washed-out gray look common to all backlit LCDs. We miss the deep blacks and saturated colors from S-AMOLED equipped phones, but we don’t miss the PenTile sub-pixel arrangement compromise those screens demand in return. Your personal preferences will dictate how enthused you are about the Atrix HD’s screen, but generally speaking, it’s definitely one of the highlights of this device.

Black-level comparison with Samsung Galaxy S III in dim light. Photo brightness enhanced, but otherwise unaltered.

UI

In our Sprint Galaxy S III Review, we said that Samsung failed to live up to the expectations of the Galaxy S brand on the hardware design side, but compensated for that shortfall with excellent software performance. With the Motorola Atrix HD, unfortunately, we’ve found almost the exact opposite situation.

Let’s start with the good stuff, though. The unit we’re testing is running a close-to-stock version of Android 4.0.4. While that near-stock experience is good, including the ICS softkey row at the bottom and extremely minimal skinning, it’s not totally pure. Motorola has taken extreme steps to distance itself from its “Blur” skin of old, but ghosts of that heavy UI layer remain. Some system menus have been brightened up with colorful iconography reminiscent of Samsung’s earlier TouchWiz builds, and there’s a handy lock screen which provides quick-jump access to the phone, camera, or SMS inbox. Motorola has also built a feature called QuickView into some core apps, marked with an elevator-like up/down icon. Swiping up on any of these apps opens a preview window of activity inside the app, without actually opening it. It’s quite handy once you realize it’s there.

There are also a couple home screen widgets available out of the box. One of these, an infographic widget with three “data bubbles,” we find really useful: the largest bubble displays the time, the medium-sized one the weather, and the smallest one your current bill cycle’s data consumption. Flipping the bubbles vertically uncovers secondary functionality: the smallest one becomes a battery meter, the middle one shows weather for another city of your choosing, and the largest one flips from an analog to a digital clock. That largest pane also automatically displays the last-received text message. It’s a simple, but handy, addition to the stock Android experience, and we really appreciated this little touch.

Motorola has also thoughtfully included its suite of Smart Actions, the feature it popularized on the Droid RAZR. These customizable rules can be set to modify the Atrix HD’s behavior based on location, battery life remaining, time of day, etc. It won’t be a useful app for everyone, but it’s handy for those on a set schedule.

Unfortunately, not all of Motorola’s additions to the Android experience are as enjoyable. We have a feeling that some of its custom add-ons contribute to the device’s performance problems- more on this below. And we were unsurprised to find that Motorola couldn’t resist meddling with the stock ICS keyboard. While it’s not as bad as the Huawei Ascend P1‘s disastrous implementation, the Atrix HD’s keyboard isn’t good.

As on the P1 and the Galaxy S III, the keyboard strongly resembles the stock offering, but it isn’t; out of the box, the haptic vibration level was set so low as to be almost nonexistent, and keystroke audio was muted, so there was no meaningful feedback of any kind. Additionally, the user dictionary was just short of useless. Finding the keyboard settings helped a bit -we like that users can turn autocorrect from “off” to “modest,” “aggressive,” or “strong,” and set the haptic feedback duration by the millisecond if they want- but why weren’t these set to more usable levels at the factory?

And more importantly: why do OEMs continue feeling the need to fiddle with stock Android’s excellent keyboard? On our Atrix HD, once we disabled Motorola’s custom keyboard and replaced it with the stock ICS version, all of our problems with responsiveness, missed keystrokes, and autocorrect blunders evaporated. It was a night-and-day difference. Motorola’s not the worst offender in this regard, but this statement applies to them as much as to any other OEM: there are other ways for manufacturers to add their own flavor of value to Android. The keyboard shouldn’t be one of them.

Camera

Taking our first photo with the Atrix HD was a bit like taking the device out of the box for the first time, in that we instantly felt something powerful. In the case of the unboxing, that feeling was “wow, this is substantial and feels great in the hand!” Unfortunately, in the case of picture-taking, it was “oh no; not another Motorola phone with a disappointing camera.”

But it’s true. The Atrix HD’s camera performance is lackluster. Given enough light, it works well enough. Snap a photo of a vibrant subject like a flower outdoors on a sunny day and it’ll deliver an image that’s just fine. But in an even moderately dark room, the pictures it produces fill with noise, and the color reproduction goes totally out the window.

Test shot of lit foreground and background elements at night

A similar problem arises with shots featuring both bright and dim areas, like sunset photos: in standard shooting mode, the automatic white balance and exposure settings often make for extremely under- or over-exposed images. Worst of all, there’s no HDR mode in the software to help correct for this. Multi-shot and panorama mode are here, as are an array of not-terribly-useful “scenes” and toy-like “effects,” but none of it is noteworthy. The lens also offers a somewhat narrow field-of-view, so you’ll need to be farther away from your subject than you would with a higher-end camera to capture the entire scene.

 

Ultimately, it’s the automatic white-balance/exposure settings that really torpedo the Atrix HD’s camera performance. While it’ll be fine for those who constantly exist in conditions with perfect lighting, or those who don’t ever use their phone camera, we wouldn’t recommend it to anyone for whom camera quality is a top concern.

Performance

On paper, the Atrix HD looks like it should perform well; its processor is the same Qualcomm MSM8960 CPU that powers the U.S. versions of the HTC One X and the Samsung Galaxy S III, and 1GB of RAM is usually plenty, even for skinned versions of Android Ice Cream Sandwich. And -again, on paper- the Atrix HD turned out some perfectly fine performance.

Click to view full-size benchmark results

But this is a very good illustration of why benchmarks shouldn’t always be trusted to convey reliable real-world usage information. It didn’t take long at all for us to start seeing stutters and lags in the Atrix HD’s performance. Returning to the home screen from an app sometimes meant waiting several seconds for widgets to re-draw themselves. Opening the app launcher often resulted in stuttering and dropped frames. And calling up the multitasking screen almost always involved a delay, sometimes on the order of several seconds.

An even worse problem was scrolling. It worked fine in some apps like Email, but scrolling in the stock browser was anything but a 1:1 experience. The page routinely lagged well behind a finger, the lag occasionally so bad that the phone mistook scroll-swipes for taps. We thought our constant errant taps in the browser might be indicative of a bad review unit, until another member of our team confirmed the same problem on his Atrix HD. The misinterpreted-scrolling problem wasn’t reproducible in Chrome, but the scrolling lag seemed to persist across most applications.

Still, the phone didn’t completely fail our usability tests: app crashes were very rare, and the phone seemed fairly stable overall during our test period. While the user experience was unpleasant, it wasn’t the worst we’ve encountered.

Battery Life

Power management on Ice Cream Sandwich-based devices is significantly better than in earlier versions of Android. That in itself isn’t enough to provide good endurance figures, as anyone carrying a Galaxy Nexus LTE can attest to. But when combined with some hardware optimization and features like Smart Actions, it results in smartphones with battery life that’s at least passable.

As mentioned above, Motorola claims the Atrix HD will deliver 11 hours of “4G talk time” and 8.5 days of standby. We didn’t have 8.5 days to test the latter claim, and we couldn’t find anyone willing to talk with us for 11 hours to test the former, but we put the phone through our own “battery” of tests to get a feel for its staying power.

In all, we were generally pleased with the Atrix HD’s endurance, especially considering its rather puny 1780mAh battery pack. For our stress test, Bluetooth, GPS, and LTE were all enabled, but WiFi was turned off. Gmail was set to “as items arrive” and the stock email application was polling our Pocketnow account every 15 minutes. Facebook and Twitter were also periodically pulling data in the background. We used about an hour of mobile hotspot, an hour of Spotify, and a half hour of Google Navigation. We took many photos and a few videos, making heavy use of Instagram, Foursquare, and other social networking apps, and drifting in and out of coverage as we rode Boston’s T (subway). We’d taken the phone off charge at 4:30pm, and the Atrix HD survived until midnight before it gave up the ghost.

Endurance of seven and a half hours isn’t too bad, considering that kind of moderate-to-heavy usage. Keep in mind, though, that that battery is non-removable: as with most smartphones, we advise power users to keep a charging cord or portable battery pack handy.

Call Quality/Network Performance

We’ve been testing the Atrix HD in the Greater Boston area in the United States. On the transmit side, the device boasts 3-microphone audio input along with Motorola’s “CrystalTalk PLUS” noise-reduction technology. Far from being a mere marketing buzzword, CrystalTalk is nothing short of amazing. On one call, it was able to completely block out the noise of a passing motorcycle club just a few feet away, the caller on the other end of the line completely oblivious to their presence. Even under normal conditions, callers said we were coming through “loud and clear.”

On the listener end, callers sounded just fine through the device’s earpiece. As with most Motorola phones, sidetone is present; this controlled earpiece feedback hearkens back to landline telephones, and gives calls on the Atrix HD a “warmer” feeling than on devices without sidetone. It’s also very helpful in determining whether a call is still connected.

 

Unfortunately, despite its pronounced external grill, the speakerphone doesn’t deliver results that are nearly as pleasing. Though it’s plenty loud (if tinny) when playing audio, it’s incredibly soft -and still tinny- when activated during phone calls. In all but the quietest of rooms, this lackluster performance renders the speakerphone effectively unusable. That’s a shame, especially considering Motorola’s legendarily loud speakers on their iDEN products.

On the data side, though, the Atrix HD shines. throughput over AT&T’s LTE network in Boston was excellent, with download speeds consistently falling between 30-40Mbps and upload speeds between 20-25Mbps. That’s outstanding performance for a thickly-settled city such as Boston. Mobile hotspot performance was similarly excellent – a feature the device is smart enough to automatically shut down after prolonged dormancy.

Pros

Hearty build quality with splash protection
+ Ultra-high pixel density display
+ Useful UI enhancements
+ Very fast LTE speeds
+ Better-than-expected battery life
+ Good call quality

Cons

 Inconsistently laggy, buggy software
 Disappointing camera
 Non-removable battery
 Poor speakerphone
 Poor stock keyboard

Pricing and Availability

The Atrix HD is widely available and can be had for $99.99 on AT&T’s website – with a 2-year contract, of course. Oddly, that’s the same cost as its older sibling, the Atrix 2. The new Atrix also shares that price point with the Samsung Galaxy S II (Skyrocket and non-). The full retail price is a fairly standard $449.99.

Conclusion

There’s a lot to like about the Motorola Atrix HD – especially for the price. Unfortunately, most of that likability only goes skin-deep. This isn’t the phone to get if you’re allergic to lag, because this phone’s software gets mired in molasses more often than it should. One of our team members put it rather succinctly when he said “I really want to love this phone, because I love everything else about the build, but the software is killing me. It really needs a bug-fix upgrade. ”

At the moment, that’s the most important, and most disappointing, chapter of the Atrix HD’s story: its build quality is excellent, the LTE performance very nice, and the display staggeringly sharp. It’s the software that suffers. The OS performance isn’t bad, necessarily; it’s just not good, especially considering that other phones offer a much smoother user experience using the same guts. And while it would be nice to recommend this phone based on the hope of a future bug-fix update, experience has taught us that’s a foolhardy endeavor.

Saving $100 versus some of AT&T’s higher-end options sounds appealing, but it likely won’t be worth the frustration of dealing with the Atrix HD’s bugs if they persist for the entirety of a two year contract. That said, if you’re comfortable rolling the dice on a future software update -or if you just don’t care about the occasional lag or stutter- give the Atrix HD a look. It’s one of the few Android phones on AT&T that can withstand rough treatment and the occasional rain shower, and for an attractive up-front contract price. But don’t mistake this phone for AT&T’s direct answer to Verizon’s Droid RAZR or RAZR MAXX; it doesn’t enjoy the flagship status or front-row treatment of either … and it shows.


Scored For Me

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!