Motorola Atrix 'LapDock': smartphone plus laptop minus design smarts
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.
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.
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.
| February 22, 2011; 3:04 PM ET
Categories: Gadgets, Mobile
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