By Michael Fisher | August 27, 2012 1:47 PM
I’ve learned that there are two things about being a mobile-phone reviewer.
The first thing: you get to handle awesome gadgetry days or weeks ahead of its official release date, and you’re not just allowed to use the heck out of it; you need to, in order to do your job. That’s the awesome thing.
The other, less-awesome thing: you eventually have to give it all back.
“Empty Nest” is a recurring column discussing what I miss -and what I don’t- about the devices I’ve had to return.
In the last edition of Empty Nest, I talked about “the agony and the ecstasy” of giving up a third-iteration sequel to a notable smartphone legacy. A device that amplified its predecessors’ positives, while minimizing their shortcomings. One which carried the brand forward proudly, if not spectacularly.
That device was the HTC Droid Incredible 4G LTE, which we reviewed several weeks back. This being a summer of sequels, though, the new Incredible wasn’t the only third-generation smartphone to cross our review desk. Not content to sit by the sidelines, Motorola used this season to blast out the latest device in its formerly groundbreaking Atrix line, the Atrix HD. If you’ve read our full review of that phone, you know that some of its features blew us away, while other aspects left us wanting. That’s not too different from any other smartphone review, really, and our conclusions haven’t changed much in the intervening weeks.
But absence, besides making the heart grow fonder, also lends it some important perspective. The time that’s passed since shipping the Atrix back to the good people at Motorola has reinforced some of our convictions, and softened others. Let’s revisit the good and the bad from those sleeveless days of July.
It’s Good To See You
The minute I took the Atrix HD out of its box, I felt the familiar rush of relief that Motorola hardware brings to my smartphone-loving soul. I’ve always had a soft spot for Motorola’s physical designs, and not just for nostalgic reasons. In short, the company knows how to build hardware that feels durable, substantial, and reliable. While other manufacturers can be hit-or-miss in this department, and others reject robust build quality in favor of lower weight, Motorola almost always brings a very high-end feel to its hardware.
The Atrix HD was no exception. From its display glass, which curved smoothly -almost imperceptibly- down into the bezel, to its Kevlar microweave-covered backplate, the unit screamed “premium.” Its 140 grams gave it a hefty (but not overly heavy) feel in the hand, and the gradual slope of the casing to accommodate the camera module made it sit quite nicely against the fingers, especially when talking on the phone.
Speaking of which, though I often find them inconvenient, voice calls on the Atrix HD were a dream. I told the tale in the full review of walking down a sidewalk while talking on the phone, and being suddenly overrun by a horde of motorcyclists. After they’d passed, I apologized to my father on the other end of the line; when he seemed befuddled at my apology, I asked him if he’d heard the biker gang pass by, only a few feet from my head. His reply: “What motorcycles? No, I didn’t hear a thing.”
Finally, the Atrix HD marked my first experience with an Android skin so light I almost forgot it was there. Returning to on-screen ICS buttons after Samsung’s curséd home key and HTC’s persistent capacitive buttons was welcome, as was the general look and feel of almost-stock Android on a new, non-Nexus device. And the few elements of the skin that stood out were genuinely useful, like the homescreen “bubbles” widget and battery-saving Smart Actions integration.
The positives didn’t end there, either; there was quite a lot to like about the newest Atrix. But, as they say, “they can’t all be winners.” The Atrix came to our doorstep with its share of frustrations in tow.
It’s Good To See You Go
Chiefly, these were software deficiencies. Though the Atrix HD performed quite well in our benchmark tests and packed hardware I’d had good experiences with in the past, I couldn’t seem to escape a lag that pervaded the entire OS. Animations stuttered, returning to the home screen involved significant re-draw delay, and calling up the multitasking menu was often a multi-second endeavor. Even scrolling through web pages in the stock browser was difficult, as the system lag would sometimes cause swipes to be interpreted as link taps.
Atrix HD-owning commenters weren’t shy about leaping to its defense when they read my review, and after wading through many “I’ve never seen problems like that” posts, I began to wonder if I’d reviewed a defective unit. But then I flipped through some of my days-old correspondence with another Pocketnow team member, who was carrying his own Atrix HD during our review period, and our chats confirmed that yes, I am more responsible than to bash software without good reason. He’d sent me an email containing his own list of pros and cons, the latter of which were all software-based. The email included the line (with no prompting from me):
Does the screen at times do things you don’t intend? Like if you’re trying to scroll and end up selecting something. Mine is also laggy at times, no justice to that S4.
The only hardware component that didn’t impress me during my time with the Atrix HD was the camera. While the viewfinder UI itself was clean and logical, I wasn’t impressed with the unit’s optics, and the washed out colors, problems with white-balance indecision, and lack of HDR all conspired to make the Atrix HD’s shooter completely forgettable.
Mediocrity in HD
After such a promising start in the unboxing hardware tour, and after being thrilled with such a light Android skin on first power-up, the UI responsiveness problems I encountered were a real let-down. Coupled with the lackluster camera and a finicky stock keyboard, it made for a pretty disappointing experience. To be honest, I wasn’t too heartbroken to part ways with the Atrix HD.
But that’s not a nail in the coffin for the device, not by a long shot. As the bulk of my problems were on the software side, there’s nothing stopping Motorola from releasing OTA updates that tighten up the unit’s responsiveness and squash some of those bugs. It’s much easier to update software than hardware, so the Atrix HD could easily mature as it ages, assuming Motorola supports it with a modicum of enthusiasm. And even if it doesn’t, Atrix-owning commenters and some other reviewers haven’t been bothered by the UI issues that plagued us here at Pocketnow, so there’s obviously no small amount of support for the newest in Motorola’s premium-phone-at-a-bargain-price Atrix line.
So until a software update comes down the tubes, I’ll continue appreciating the Atrix HD’s stalwart hardware and crystal-clear voice calls … but I’ll be appreciating those aspects from afar.