We've seen a lot of game-changing devices this year, haven't we? 2011 has already witnessed the first Honeycomb tablets, the influx of LTE and the introduction of a boatload of smartphones with dual-core processors. One of those groundbreaking devices was the Motorola Atrix 4G, which we called the best smartphone at CES 2011 because of its powerful Tegra 2 SoC and simply innovative Webtop operating system with an accompanying Lapdock. It was new, and it was powerful.

Not even ten months after the Atrix's February 22nd launch, we're already seeing its successor, aptly named the Atrix 2. At the risk of sounding blunt, it's not a groundbreaking device -- aside from a few bumps in specs, larger display and a fresh redesign, it doesn't offer the same level of showmanship or innovation so eagerly demonstrated in the first iteration. But does the sequel compensate for the lack of sizzle? How much does this improve over the original? Does the newest version of the Lapdock satisfy? We'll answer these questions and so much more after the break.
Gallery | 59 Photos

Motorola Atrix 2 gallery

Motorola

Motorola Atrix 2

Pros

  • High performance for its price range
  • Beautiful non-PenTile qHD display
  • Elegant design
  • Good call and speaker quality

Cons

  • LapDock and Webtop still need work
  • Camera experiences some shutter lag
Summary

If you're looking for a high-end handset at a midrange cost, the Atrix 2 is a solid choice with plenty of goodies.


Hardware


Its last few flagships, such as the Photon 4G, Droid Bionic and Droid RAZR, lead us to believe that Motorola likes to think outside the box every now and then. These phones are designed to be fresh and surprising -- sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't -- and we give kudos to the company for trying to be different. The Atrix 2 isn't one of those handsets. It's graced with smooth and elegant curves, rather than rough angles. Not only did Moto soften the corners; it smoothed out the sides and back as well. We admit that we're suckers for new and exciting design -- it can be difficult to come up with new ways to reinvent the wheel, so it's nice to see folks try -- but there's definitely room in our book for handsets that look exquisite, regardless of how crazy it looks.

We shouldn't be terribly surprised to see this handset bearing the same moniker as the original Atrix 4G that was released in February -- the two have a close family resemblance to each other, even if they both have a few major differences. The most noticeable variations? No fingerprint sensor and a larger display, for starters, but there are plenty more feature changes lurking about the phone.

Moto Atrix 4G Moto Atrix 2
Display size 4.0 inches 4.3 inches
Display resolution / type qHD (960 x 540), PenTile qHD (960 x 540), non-PenTile
CPU 1GHz Dual-core Tegra 2 1GHz dual-core TI OMAP4430
RAM 1GB DDR2 1GB DDR2
GPU ULP GeForce (300MHz) PowerVR SGX 540 (304MHz)
Network speeds HSPA+ 14.4Mbps HSPA+ 21Mbps
Battery 1,930mAh 1,785mAh
Camera / video 5MP / 720p HD 8MP / 1080p HD
Front-facing camera VGA VGA

The Atrix 2 is wider, no doubt a negative side effect of having a 4.3-inch display, but it's just as comfortable to hold as the 4-inch original. At 4.96 x 2.59 x 0.40 inches (126 x 66 x 10 mm), it's slightly taller and wider than the first iteration, which measured 4.64 x 2.50 x 0.43 inches (117.75 x 63.5 x 10.95 mm). As you may have noticed, it's also thinner by nearly a full millimeter, but 10mm is still beefy in comparison to many of the latest slate phones. The new version's easy to grip, thanks to its curved sides and textured battery cover; it's no Kevlar cover, of course, and shouldn't be treated as such, but the soft touch plastic at least turns out to be easy on the eyes. That's a stark (and pleasant) departure in design from Atrix numero uno's back and its occasionally blinding holographic pattern.

We also enjoyed using the screen on the Atrix 2. First, while both Atrix devices (Atrices?) take advantage of qHD displays with 960 x 540 resolution, the newer one looks better despite having a larger display to hold the same number of pixels in. This is mainly because HelloMoto opted not to use the Pentile matrix scheme, which is something that the company has elected to do on most of its qHD screens -- including the first Atrix and the Droid Bionic. The argument of PenTile versus non-PenTile will rage on for years; regardless of how polarizing that discussion has become, though, there's still a noticeable difference in quality when both phones' displays are pitted side by side. The sequel seems to do a much more manageable job against the glare of direct sunlight, and the Gorilla Glass stretches out from one edge to the other, indenting roughly a millimeter or so away from the side to let your finger brush right off the phone when you're using gestures.

Rounding out the front face of the phone is the same standard set of four capacitive touchscreen buttons near the bottom -- menu, home, back and search -- and the VGA camera that doubles as video chat and vanity mirror. Skipping over to the right you'll see a volume rocker along with a wonderful addition to the new Atrix: a physical camera button. The one teeny little catch is that it's only single-stage (more on that in the camera section). Featured on the top is the 3.5mm headphone jack and standard power button / screen lock -- a likely indication that the fingerprint sensor in its predecessor wasn't as popular as Motorola might have hoped.

At first glance the left side of the phone appears to have the same exact micro-USB and HDMI combo as the first Atrix, though we'd be remiss not to leave out one glaring variation: the ports are flipped upside-down to utilize the same Webtop accessories as the Droid Bionic and Photon 4G. Remember CEO Sanjay Jha's promise that every high-end smartphone will have Webtop capability? Rejoice, for his word is now being fulfilled.


Let's not forget the back of the device. It's got its fair share of goodies too, after all -- packing an 8 megapixel camera with LED flash and 1080p HD video capture is no trivial matter, especially on a phone with a $100 price point. The backside of the Atrix 2 doesn't offer much in the way of decor otherwise, unless you count the textured cover and speaker grille -- which, by the way, sounds great... until you put the phone on its back, causing the sound to get severely muffled.

Underneath the cover, you'll find a 2GB microSD card hiding just above the 1,785mAh battery (a decrease from the original Atrix's 1,930), which means that, when coupled with 8GB of internal storage space, it's still been trimmed by 6GB total -- and keep in mind that only 4.5GB of the built-in memory is user-accessible, which doesn't help matters at all. The microSD card can be swapped out with a full 32GB model, but the first iteration of the series still has the highest amount of storage capacity.

The Atrix 2 also raises the bar in terms of network performance, getting a lift to 21.1Mbps HSPA+ over the original's 14.4Mbps. The higher speed vaults the device into the top tier of speed that AT&T currently offers, placing it into the same 4G echelon as the Samsung Galaxy S II. We're intrigued as to why the usual "4G" moniker was left out of the phone's name this time, especially given that it's faster, but by no means do we miss its presence. Sadly, the area we reviewed the device in isn't within the scope of Ma Bell's fastest network class, so we were unable to offer a proper comparison test between the two models.

Software

First off, let's give credit where it's due: AT&T came incredibly close to making its entire collection of preinstalled apps uninstallable, and only came up short on Mobile Hotspot and Music Store. It's true, folks: bloatware is one step closer to being completely optional, rather than a required piece of real estate to clutter up your screen. We're not saying it's a perfect system yet, but Motorola's latest UI -- the non-MotoBlur variety -- at least allows for customized categories within the app menu as a type of olive branch. We still prefer the method employed on TouchWiz 4.0, which simply lets you add actual folders as their own icon in the app menu, but this is at least a workable solution.

Since Music Store's on there for good, it's best to at least know a little about it. Frankly, the name gives away the description: it's an easy-to-access hub that allows you to purchase songs, albums and ringtones. On the hub's front page you'll see the top releases, but you can perform a search for whatever tunes you're in the mood for. Speaking of the beats, Motorola's thrown in an FM radio that can be accessed through the device's built-in music player, which is nice to see amongst other options like direct access to Shoutcast internet radio and podcasts.

Moto's not-Blur UI comes with a few preinstalled apps of its own (not uninstallable, unfortunately). Social Location lets you view local businesses to not only see details, Yelp scores and hours, it will also check Facebook to see if any of your friends have checked in recently. Sticking with the social theme, Social Networking functions as a all-in-one feed for Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and the other usual suspects. On our particular unit, however, navigating and interacting through this hub was an incredibly sluggish experience, no matter how many times we gave it our best shot. ZumoCast is a syncing application that lets you check out pictures, movies and music (among other files) from your desktop directly on your Atrix. Lastly, Motorola also offers its own Phone Portal, which connects with the app of the same name on your computer and lets you manage those files you need to transfer between your handset and desktop.

Much like the Atrix 4G, the new model also supports in-pocket detection. It's meant to lock the phone automatically when it senses that it's been placed in your pocket, but it doesn't seem to like our loose jeans; it works great when placing our phone in our breast pocket, going into sleep mode within three seconds, but that's the only place we've found a lot of success in. In short, results may vary depending on your pocket preference.

Camera

The Atrix 2 definitely took a page out of the Droid Bionic's book here, using not only the same 8MP sensor and 1080p HD video capture but the same camera UI as well. It's easy enough to use, proffering most standard settings we've come to expect on a decent phone camera: scene modes, macro focus, panorama mode, brightness adjust, and geotag are all there. Missing are the exposure / contrast adjust and ISO, both settings that we use regularly on a DSLR.

We're glad to see a hardware camera button, though we were put out to find that it's single-stage. Rather than having the option to hold down the button to lock focus prior to taking the shot, it sometimes took a few extra seconds to focus after depressing the shutter before actually taking the shot. Happily, this wasn't as annoying as it usually is. The camera was smart enough to know when it didn't need to refocus, so fortunately we were able to take several pictures with virtually no shutter lag for this reason. Furthermore, we discovered that the camera would automatically focus --and lock it again -- whenever we shuffled around, which helped our shutter lag time stay down a bit.

Gallery | 47 Photos

Motorola Atrix 2 sample shots


Our experience with the camera was a mixed bag. Pictures taken in overcast conditions turned out perfectly fine, and low-light shots turned out well as long as we weren't trying to capture a sunset. However, our images in direct sunlight were a wild card; we were able to take some great pictures with decent white balance, but we found occasions in which the image turned out much darker than we'd expect, without us changing locales or camera settings. It seemed as though the camera were trying to overcompensate its exposure, and while it made for some cool artsy images, we weren't quite satisfied to see such varying results.


The video capture has been bumped up to a max resolution of 1080p HD, and we found little to hate here. We couldn't see any lag or choppy effects when trying to capture moving objects besides our own shaky hands, though there was the occasional attempts to readjust the focus when filming closer objects. Aside from that, this camcorder will more than suffice for your home videos.

Performance and battery life

They just don't make phone sequels like they used to, eh? The Atrix's 1GHz dual-core Tegra 2 CPU was considered top of the line at its launch, but ten months in an incredibly fluid and dynamic industry is enough time to dethrone any state-of-the-art component. Motorola Atrix the Second, choosing to trade in the NVIDIA chip for a TI OMAP 4430 with the same clock speed, appears to be more interested in settling into a midrange price point than trying to break new ground -- it's totally fine if that's the initial intent, but it also means that you shouldn't expect any massive performance boosts over the first edition. Considering its Droid RAZR cousin will be packing a 1.2GHz OMAP 4430 CPU, we would've preferred to see the Atrix 2 match wits.

As you'd likely expect, the difference in the phone's performance isn't night-and-day here. Here's what we found whilst running the usual gauntlet of benchmarks:

Benchmark Moto Atrix 4G Moto Atrix 2
Quadrant (higher is better) 2,588 2,548
Linpack (MFLOPS, higher is better) 40.2 (single), 65.6 (multi) 40.7 (single), 63.6 (multi)
Nenamark (fps, higher is better) 46.2 50.1
Neocore (fps, higher is better) 54.4 58.4
SunSpider 9.1 (ms) 3,803 4,026
Vellamo (higher is better) 670 698

As you can see, there's no cut-and-dry champion in the performance battle between the Atrix 4G and its younger brother. We couldn't see a clear winner in real-life scenarios, either -- the Atrix 2 may be slightly affected because it's using a different chipset and offering a larger screen, but the two devices were still nearly neck and neck to us. We're not harping on the sequel's performance, mind you: the phone was still incredibly responsive, could handle most heavy tasks with ease, and never crashed, so it was definitely acceptable (especially for a phone at its price point). But we're still curious why the second version didn't make any attempt to raise the bar besides switching to OMAP, especially when it has to take up the task of being the LapDock 100's entire brain, which requires a healthy chunk of processing power to work smoothly.

Battery life was noticeably better on the newest Atrix, despite the smaller juicepack powering it. Lasting for five hours and ten minutes in our standard video rundown test, it survived a full hour longer than the Atrix 4G. Of course, most of us use our phones for more than just watching videos all day, and the battery will make it through the course of a full day with moderate use. If you end up playing graphics-intensive games or doing some heavy multitasking, you might make it through the business day, but we'd recommend having some sort of charger with you just to play it safe.

Motorola also offers several power management options in the settings to help reduce the amount of battery getting gobbled up; it can conserve power overnight as you sleep, set it on maximum savings mode, or you can even set up your own custom profile to tweak the power as you see fit.

Need your phone to actually, you know, make calls? The Atrix 2 gave us little to worry about here, with above-average call quality and well-crafted speakerphone that we could hear loud and clear. Audio playback for music and videos was wonderful -- as long as we didn't muffle up the speaker grille on the back. We also found no issue with the device's GPS tracking abilities.

LapDock 100 and other accessories

Remember how crazy the idea of Webtop and laptop docks were when we first heard about them (for a refresher course, check out our review of the Atrix 4G)? It wasn't the first time we'd heard of such a concept before, but it had a fair amount of potential -- as long as it could work across the board and was offered at a friendly price point, we could see it being successful. But the state of Webtop at the Atrix 4G's launch made us think twice. The LapDock, as beautiful as it was, came in at a cost that eclipsed most netbooks; it was available for only one Motorola phone, despite Sanjay Jha's assurances that it wouldn't always stay that way; and it wasn't fast enough for us to welcome it with open arms. Now, the price has gone down, more laptop docks are available and they're no longer a proprietary accessory.

If nothing else, the LapDock 100 ($200) is a significant improvement over the previous version for one simple fact: it's a universal solution. Since it uses a cord-like dock instead of something built into the LapDock itself, it's designed to work with almost every Webtop-capable smartphone already made (the original Atrix 4G excepting) and any new high-end Webtop phone going forward. The value of such a device is much higher now that it's not exclusive to just one handset -- imagine how beneficial it could be to a customer looking to upgrade from one Motorola Android device to another, and being able to keep the same Dock across the board.

Gallery | 44 Photos

Motorola Atrix 2 accessories


Motorola's design team had some definite hits and misses with the new model. When we first laid eyes upon the LapDock 100, we were instantly reminded of an old-school electric typewriter. And no, that's not a good thing. We enjoyed the sleek, flat and modern look of the original LapDock, and were disappointed to see the "new and improved" version end up marginally thicker and not as aesthetically pleasing (read: ugly). Rather than staying flat all the way back, it arches up the first two-thirds and abruptly angles down the final third. But it wasn't designed this way for kicks and giggles; it's actually done this way to offer a better viewing angle. Since the original was flat, its screen wasn't able to go back far enough, making it rather hard to achieve an optimal viewing angle whilst on the user's lap. If the LapDock doesn't work well on the user's lap, the purpose is miserably defeated. Version 100 does much better at hitting the preferred angle.

Cosmetically, there are a few other enhancements to consider. The new iteration is smaller, using a 10.1-inch display (compared to the elder's 11.5-inch screen); it's roughly 0.2 pounds lighter, too, weighing in at a lean 2.2 pounds (less than 1kg). It has a smaller touchpad, but Motorola made sure to add in two-finger scrolling gesture support this time around, a very welcome addition. Much like its older brother, this LapDock offers the same twin USB ports and power socket in the back, but throws in a battery status indicator for good measure. Lastly, the keyboard has been completely reworked, morphing from a modern look with chiclet-style keys to a more standard netbook 'board, the keys smaller and scrunched together.


If the Webtop software has any additional functionality, we have a hard time finding it. Just as before, the screen lights up just seconds after you pop the phone into the flexible jack, bringing up the familiar phone view on the left, app menu on bottom, and your browser on the right. Familiar is the key word here: aside from slight changes in some of the icons and Firefox getting an upgrade to version 5.0 (up from 4.0 previously), everything has stayed largely the same. Unfortunately, that also includes the same sluggish performance we've seen in the Webtop environment ever since we first played with it in February. Ultimately, this is where we really would've liked to see a faster CPU powering the brains of the operation. We still love the idea of a laptop dock -- the option of plugging your phone into a portable keyboard / screen and letting it run the show -- and now that the cost is reasonable, all that's left to catch up is the actual Webtop experience itself.

Love the idea of a Laptop dock but think the 100 is just too small? Perhaps it looked at you the wrong way? Fortunately it's not the only option for your Atrix 2. You'll also be able to grab the LapDock 500 ($300), which is sized more like a an actual laptop and offers a 14-inch screen, front-facing camera and ethernet support. We haven't received a unit to play with (a video hands-on can be found here), so we'll withhold casting a firm yea or nay vote on it for now, but it's at least worth mentioning that Team LapDock is expanding with more variety.

As Motorola likes to do with its high-end smartphones, there are a few other accessories that you can grab to either enhance your Webtop experience or make your life convenient outside of the house. We discussed the HD Station and vehicle navigation dock in good detail in our review of the Droid Bionic, so head on over in your extra-curricular activities; the other accessory not covered already, however, is the Motorola P793 Portable Power Pack. We received it in our shipment alongside the Atrix 2, but it's actually universal. Devices can get powered up via its microUSB charger or standard USB port, and we imagine that almost every single gadget can get juiced up using one of these two methods.

Wrap-up

So here's the lowdown on the Motorola Atrix 2: it's the Atrix 4G with a slight redesign and a few refreshed specs. That's all there is to it. We enjoyed our time with the sequel and it fits the $100 price tag (with a two-year commitment, of course) wonderfully, but anyone looking to purchase the device shouldn't be expecting the groundbreaking smartphone its predecessor was when it first launched. Thing is, it doesn't have to play the role of game changer to be a high-performing device that can do just about anything you need it to do. Absolutely have to have that fingerprint sensor? Stick with the Atrix 4G. Otherwise, the Atrix 2 will be a solid performer that takes the good things from its predecessor and improves upon it. You can't go wrong with that for a Benjamin, right?