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Posted at 3:04 PM ET, 02/22/2011

Motorola Atrix 'LapDock': smartphone plus laptop minus design smarts

By Rob Pegoraro

The Android phone AT&T began selling this morning doesn't look that different from many other new and upcoming smartphones running Google's mobile operating system. But one add-on to Motorola's Atrix 4G decisively sets this apart from other smartphones.

moto_atrix_in_dock.jpg

The Atrix's "LapDock" allows this phone to transform itself into a netbook replacement by adding the dock's keyboard and 11.6-in. display to the Atrix's Android software, dual-core processor, up to 16 gigabytes of internal storage, and "HSPA+" mobile-broadband connection.

The idea behind this hybrid of two kinds of mobile gadget (introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January to much anticipation) is to eliminate the need to buy both.

But the combination of an Atrix and a LapDock costs more than you could pay for separate netbooks and smartphones--while working worse than that alternative.

AT&T charges $599.99 before a $100 mail-in rebate for this duo (the phone itself goes for $199.99, while Motorola sells the LapDock separately for $399.99), after which you have to sign up for that carrier's tethering-allowed mobile-broadband option: $45 a month for 4 gigabytes of use.

You can easily pick up an Android phone for $100 and spend just $300 on a netbook that functions away from your phone, even if it might weigh a little more than the LapDock's 2.4 lbs. Other carriers charge about the same for tethering-enabled broadband plans but don't impose bandwidth caps.

As a laptop substitute, the Atrix makes for a terrific demo... at first. Pop the phone into the dock behind the screen, and in about nine seconds the dock awakes and shows you the contents of the phone's screen in a window on its own display. You can also run the dock's own copy of the Mozilla Firefox browser, plus an "Entertainment Center" interface to the phone's music, photo and video collection.

But the Atrix keyboard shows some of the same careless design as many netbook keyboards; its wider-than-normal keys and key spacing invite typos. And having to use a function-key combination to adjust the volume is just asinine on a device that doubles as a speakerphone (calls to the Atrix ring through to the LapDock).

The dock's touchpad has a distracting "tap to click" option enabled, with no way to turn that off. And if you accidentally double-tap the top left corner of the touchpad, the entire thing shuts off--with no advisory of what happened besides the dimming of an unlabeled LED in that spot.

The LapDock also runs pitiably slowly. With 11 tabs open in Firefox, it popped up an alert: "Low Memory: Please close windows or tabs." Then it stopped keeping up with my typing; each character appeared on the display a second or two after my corresponding keystroke, as if the data had to squirm through spackle to get to the screen.

atrix_lapdock_battery_gauge.jpg

The LapDock delivers good battery life--even while continuing to power a docked Atrix, ensuring its battery will be fresh when you unplug it. The dock needed about four hours of Web-radio playback with the screen illuminated constantly to go from a full charge to empty.

But the LapDock's battery interface displays an almost malicious level of ineptitude. A battery icon in its onscreen menu only shows the phone's battery (an irrelevant data point when the phone doesn't drain when docked); clicking the "Laptop Dock Battery" item in that icon's drop-down menu only brings up a dialog telling you to press a tiny button in front of the touchpad.

That, in turn, wanly illuminates an array of tiny LEDs at the front edge of the dock (pictured above) for about five seconds--assuming you see them at all, which you won't if the LapDock is in your lap. If all five are dimly lit, you should have a full charge; if none are lit and a red low-battery warning indicator has come on below the screen, you should plug in; in between, who knows how long this thing will run?

Motorola did get one thing right with the Atrix and its LapDock: This flawed duo effectively demonstrates how our smartphones could upgrade the intelligence of other gadgets--not just laptops but cameras, cars, TVs and more--if they could just find a way to communicate.

Sunday's column will probably discuss that theme, and you can help me write it: Tell me what other jobs you'd like to see your phone do for your other devices.

By Rob Pegoraro  | February 22, 2011; 3:04 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets, Mobile  
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Comments

Rob, nice article. I am a veteran of the portable computers field, having sold licenses to several of my patents to multinationals like Casio and H-P. One of my key innovation, called the Docking Display, relates to 'processor-less' display units onto which a smaller host unit docks as its processor. Besides a netbook form-factor the concept can be applied to e-book readers, tablets, and automobile displays. you can check out our website at www.khyber.com. Please feel free to contact me via email and I can give you my phone number if you so desire.

Posted by: rajkumar47 | February 22, 2011 6:25 PM | Report abuse

Rob, thanks for this article. I think this is the first of many applications of a dockable smartphone that holds great promise, but simply falls short (according to your review). For me, personally, the holy grail is for my smartphone to be an accessible computer in my car. Obviously, not the MAIN computer for various reasons, but at least have it be something more accessible. Dock it in the dash (or relay data via bluetooth), and everything I need from my smartphone displays in the touchscreen/voice-controlled dash of my car. Phone functions, navigation, music, videos, etc. all would be accessed through the display of the car. I realize that the music aspect of this already happens in many cars today, but even deeper integration as described above would be nice so that duplicate systems (such as navigation systems) built into cars would be unnecessary.

Posted by: rhythmic_one | February 23, 2011 10:46 AM | Report abuse

GREAT concept, but not well executed as new ideas often seem to be. Along with full functionality in a car as suggested by rhythmic_one, a smart-phone-to-netbook conversion is bound to come. The netbook screen should be reversible and touch-capable, though, for use either with the keyboard, or as a tablet.

Posted by: genen | February 25, 2011 4:57 PM | Report abuse

The only limitation to the posibilities is tethering costs and data plan costs. If phones are ever truely to become the hubs of our lives phone companies must stop charging us for access to our information on a per megabyte basis. This will enable data to exist in the cloud and phones to become, simpler and therefore cheaper.

That being said, phones are the next best thing to embeded RFID tags. Basically, in reality phones need two things graphics processing power and high speed communications. Any heavy number crunching could really be done in the cloud.

However, that being the future and not the present, then the best we can hope for is ad hoc local networks and plugable screens everywhere. The list of screens in our lives is almost infinite. Replace the guts of your TV with your phone, your Hi-Fi system is your phone. Your computer is your phone. Your e-book reader is your phone. Your car's entertainment system is your phone and perhaps your phone is your key. Your smart-home is your phone. Your electronic whiteboard is your phone.

The key to any of these possible devices is data. Both your information and your personal settings travel with you, in your pocket. All you need is access to a bigger screen or a specialized interface to get access to it.

When you walk into your home, drop the phone into the charger or on a charging pad, and your house links to the phone. The sound system plays your favorite music, the TV screen can play your downloaded movies or stream video from your phone. Perhaps light and ambient temperature are adjusted to your liking automatically. Maybe even controlled through voice commands.

At work plug in your phone into a terminal and now you can access your compute power through screens and a traditional keyboard and mouse. The white board in your office is just another touch screen, perhaps made of ePaper. The key is that everthying in your office is just an interface into your phone. When you leave for the day you take it with you.

Having a meeting? Making a presentation? Send the file(s) to eveveryone instantly. Network with the projector, using your phone. Use the phone as a remote to advance through the slides or play a video. Need a file? It's on your phone.

Want to order a latte at your local coffee shop? Pay for it with your phone, using a CreditCard App or a Debit App from your bank.

Google is right. The Internet is the computer. That's the future. For now the cell phone is the computer. Everything else is just a dumb terminal...or a toaster.

Posted by: ArtDodger69 | February 28, 2011 7:55 PM | Report abuse

This is a real nice idea but the problem? Speed. If you factor into the equation educators who would love for their students to have access to a device like this, the student would opt for the iPad or some other device be it a laptop or netbook simply because it moves faster.

You could even think of the traveling merchant. They need the power and speed for databases and streaming info.

If Motorola can figure a way to give this device a better processor without crossing over into the laptopnetbook domain, then they have a winner!

I'd even try this because who doesn't want the mix of power and portability?

Posted by: cbmuzik | March 1, 2011 10:07 AM | Report abuse

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