Motorola Atrix HD review

When it comes to storied products, the Motorola Atrix has already mushroomed into one prolific line of devices, even in its short, 18-month life. It began as the Atrix 4G, entering the market with a splashy press conference at CES 2011, earning our respect as a game-changer, with its fingerprint sensor and innovative Webtop system. Less than a year later we were treated to the sequel, which offered some incremental improvements in specs and design, but failed to dazzle techies the way the original did.

Enter the third installment of the Atrix saga: the Atrix HD. True to its name, Motorola's latest device is the company's first US-bound smartphone to take advantage of a 720p display. It's also the outfit's first handset to ship with Ice Cream Sandwich already installed, and it sweetens the pot with other goodies such as LTE and an 8-megapixel rear camera. The spec sheet looks promising, and at $99 with a two-year agreement, so does the price. So is it worth your hard-earned Benjamin and two more years with AT&T? Let's find out.

Gallery | 72 Photos

Motorola Atrix HD review

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AT&T

Motorola Atrix HD

Pros

  • Krait processor brings solid performance
  • Great specs for the money
  • Nice build quality

Cons

  • Dismal battery life
  • Slightly oversaturated display
  • Camera falls short of the competition
Summary

The Atrix HD is the best AT&T Android device you can get for under $100, though it doesn't match the One X and Galaxy S III despite having similar specs.

Hardware

As far as industrial design goes, the newest rendition of the Atrix might best be described as the lovechild between its predecessor and the Droid RAZR. The front is all Atrix, with the same round corners and dearth of capacitive buttons (it instead opts for virtual navigation keys on the display, just like on the Galaxy Nexus). Instead of the flat plastic back, though, the HD brandishes its hindquarters in RAZR fashion, complete with kevlar, a non-removable battery and a hump at the top where the camera module and LED flash live. The sides also resemble the RAZR, with the power button and volume rocker on the right; a plastic flap protecting the micro-SIM and microSD ports on the left; and the 3.5mm headphone jack next to a LapDock-friendly micro-USB and HDMI setup.

On the back you'll find Moto took a similar tack as it did with the RAZR series: there's minimal clutter here, with the exception of the typical legalspeak and model information near the bottom. In fact, the only components showing up on the 14.7mm-thick hump are that 8MP rear camera and flash, along with a three-holed speaker grille. Flip it over to the front and you'll notice an even simpler layout: the top is studded with an earpiece, front-facing camera and Motorola logo on the top of the display. A large bezel with only the AT&T globe sits underneath. The Atrix comes in black and white, as seen below.

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After playing with the phone for a few minutes we realized that we've actually seen the Atrix HD body before: it has the same chassis and design as the Motorola MT917, a Chinese variant of the RAZR. It even offers the same screen size and nearly the same dimensions, but adds LTE and brings the camera res down to 8MP (from 13MP). And now you know.

We've actually seen the Atrix HD body before: it has the same design as a Chinese RAZR variant.

At 133.5 x 69.9 x 8.4 mm (5.26 x 2.75 x 0.33 inches) and 4.94 ounces (140g), the new Atrix is thinner, wider, longer and lighter than the Atrix 2 (although it's heavier than the OG). Due to the display's large bezel, it's also just as wide as the HTC One X, which is a bit unfortunate given this device's smaller screen size. The two phones are about equally thick, too, but the Atrix's edges are squared where the One X's are tapered and curved inward. This makes a difference when you're holding it in-hand, as the Atrix ultimately feels bulkier. Still, the comfort level is comparable to the RAZR Maxx, which is only a little thicker but features the same squared edges. In other words, it's easy enough to keep hold of, but it's still a tad awkward in a way that the One X and Galaxy S III aren't.

We have mixed feelings about the buttons lining the right side of the device. Located directly on the strip nestled between the top and bottom plastic pieces, the power button and volume rocker are set incredibly close to the body of the phone, which makes it more difficult to press. It's even less fun when you're trying to capture screenshots this way (read: by holding down the power and volume down buttons for a few seconds).

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The Atrix HD is packed with more radios than you can throw a stick at -- to be fair, we're not sure why you would want to lob thin wooden objects at a set of antenna anyway. The most important inclusion here is LTE, which comes in both of AT&T's current bands (700MHz and AWS), and is also backward-compatible with HSPA+ 21Mbps (850 / AWS / 1900 / 2100), UMTS and quadband GSM / EDGE. To support this litany of connection options, the device is powered by a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 -- an MSM8960 clocked at 1.5GHz, to be specific. This is a welcome departure from past Atrix devices which took advantage of Tegra 2 and TI OMAP -- we much prefer the overall performance on Krait chipsets (more on this later).

We were disappointed to discover that even though the Atrix HD supports WiFi Direct, NFC is nowhere to be found. Thus, you won't be able to take advantage of Android Beam, nor can you use your phone for mobile payments once ISIS, AT&T's collaborative effort with Verizon and T-Mobile, is ready for primetime.

The non-removable battery is of the lithium polymer (Li-poly) variety, as opposed to the more frequently used lithium ion. This isn't a new development, especially with Motorola, since the Droid RAZR appears to use the same 1,780mAh Li-poly power pack. Still, it's an important point to bring up. Using Li-poly instead of Li-ion is a strategic move: these batteries are more resistant to overcharging and offer a lower likelihood of leakage. They're lighter, thinner and can even be molded into non-rectangular shapes (this could be helpful as design choices evolve in the coming years). Sounds great, but there are sacrifices to be made: Li-poly batteries are more expensive, offer less energy density and fewer charge cycles.

Display

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Over the last two years, several manufacturers have started branding their own specific displays: Apple has the Retina display, Sony has its Reality screens, Nokia uses ClearBlack and the list goes on. Motorola's trying its hand at the name game as well by offering a ColorBoost display on the Atrix HD. It's a fancy name, but essentially it's a 4.5-inch, 1,280 x 720, TFT, non-PenTile panel that translates into a pixel density of 326ppi.

Having used the RAZR in the past, this display is a fine sight for sore, PenTile-riddled eyes: in fact, it's the most gorgeous we've seen on a Motorola device. The whites are brighter than on the Galaxy S III and One X, the darks are a little lighter and the text looks just as sharp. There's just one area in which the display falls short of our expectations: as arresting as it is when you power on the phone for the first time, colors appear slightly oversaturated, particularly when you're viewing pictures and watching movies. Still, you can't go wrong with a non-PenTile screen that has this many pixels packed in -- there isn't a hint of pixelation here, no matter how much you try to find it. Viewing angles are better than the GS III because they extend all the way to the edge, but the One X does just a smidgen better because its screen drapes smoothly over the side while the Atrix HD's comes to an abrupt halt at the edge where it meets the plastic.

The display pops out at you when you first turn on the screen, but colors are slightly oversaturated.

While nearly everything about the display is excellent, we were a bit disappointed Motorola decided not to make the screen even larger than 4.5 inches, which it could have done without widening the device. Bordering the panel is a wide bezel occupied only by a single AT&T logo. That's wasted real estate, especially given the fact that the Atrix's virtual keys take up some precious screen space already. The bezel above and to the sides of the display could have been streamlined to make for more screen. As it is, the device feels unnecessarily gargantuan.

Software

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Motorola's celebrating an important milestone with the Atrix HD: it's the company's first smartphone to ship with Ice Cream Sandwich already on board. The question is, will it be roughly the same user experience as we've already seen on the Droid RAZR and RAZR Maxx? How much of an impact did AT&T have on the firmware this time around? One major difference you'll see right off the bat is that the Atrix HD uses three virtual navigation keys on the bottom of the display, rather than capacitive buttons on previous Motorola devices. You'll be able to choose from the standard keys: back, home and multitasking. Indeed, there are no search or menu buttons on the front this time around -- those are integrated directly into the UI itself, much like we've seen with Samsung's Galaxy Nexus.

We booted the device up for the first time without needing to set anything up. Instead, we were greeted with the standard Motorola ICS lock screen, followed by a single home panel. This is a pretty interesting move, no doubt, but even more intriguing is the method by which you add more panels to your home: swipe to the left and you're greeted with an "add a page" panel. Here you have the option to set up a blank page or start with a template (you can also manage your existing pages at the bottom). The templates are a modern twist on the old "Scenes" from past models, but with single panels rather than a full suite of them. If you choose to go the template route, you can add pages that are geared toward social networking, AT&T apps, entertainment or getting you places. Each one offers a widget on the top that is related to your area of interest, as well as a row of apps with the same goal on the bottom.

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Motorola Atrix HD screenshots

As for the rest of the UI, the app dock and navigation pull-down menu are the same as what we've seen on the legacy phones. The app menu itself retains the same stock look, though it sheds the pull-down menu used in the RAZR's app tab. Swiping through the panels will still bring you to your widgets. No menu is offered here, but long-pressing an app gets it to your home panel, and at that time you can slide it up to the top for more options if you require them.

The carrier's thrown in a grand total of 12 pre-installed apps, which is par for the course. The programs added to the app menu are: AT&T Code Scanner, FamilyMap, Navigator, Ready2Go, Messages, Smart WiFi, Live TV, Kindle, myAT&T, Real Racing 2, Vehicle Mode and YPmobile. Fortunately, all of them can be disabled or uninstalled.

As we've seen on the RAZR series, the Atrix also brings SmartActions into the fold. The feature is Moto's simplified take on automation apps like Tasker, in which you can set rules for your phone to follow in certain situations. For instance, if your battery's getting low, you can have the device automatically tweak various settings to ensure your handset won't give up the electronic ghost before you've made it back to a charger. All told, the list of scenarios where you can exert some control is fairly wide: going into meetings, sleeping, plugging in headphones for a workout, connecting a Bluetooth headset when you get in the car or even arriving home after the work day is done. If that's too limiting, you can make up your own rules for whatever miscellaneous situation you think you'll find yourself in. The depth of the service is far-reaching and there are plenty of possible usage scenarios that you can dream up.

Performance and battery life

Interestingly enough, Motorola's keeping quiet on which specific chipset is used in the Atrix HD -- a company rep only told us that it's a Qualcomm Snapdragon. No matter: we ran multiple apps that dig deeper into the silicon, and there's absolutely no doubt: it is, as we suspected, an MSM8960. This is the same chipset powering the Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One X (LTE), and it's primarily due to the LTE modem found on the same die. The dual-core Krait chip is clocked at 1.5GHz and comes with 1GB RAM and an Adreno 225 GPU.

Given the processor inside, we expected the performance to be on par with other phones using it -- and we were right. Transitions, animations, multitasking and web surfing were all very smooth, although we did encounter the occasional "burp" when loading apps. But how did it fare when we pit it against its Krait-packing competitors? Let's see.

AT&T phones compared Motorola Atrix HD Samsung Galaxy S III (SGH-I747) HTC One X (LTE)
Quadrant 4,996 5,084 4,784
Vellamo 2,189 2,153 2,259
AnTuTu 6,241 6,713 6,956
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,325 1,926 1,453
GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps) 55 54 56
CF-Bench 9,217 9,439 9,479
Battery life 5:30 9:10 8:55
SunSpider: lower scores are better

For a phone with a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, the Atrix HD's results aren't mind-blowing, but they're at least consistent with similar devices. One area that left us particularly impressed is the SunSpider test, which yielded a score of 1,325ms -- these are the best results we've ever seen pop up on a phone to date. Indeed, we didn't see any sort of tiling or struggling when perusing the web.

One glaring flaw that left us disappointed was the short battery life. In our standard rundown test, it lasted only five and a half hours before shutting down, which is nowhere close to what we've enjoyed on AT&T's Samsung Galaxy S III and One X. In terms of average everyday use (listening to music, taking a few pictures, writing and checking emails, a couple phone calls and a steady dose of social networking are just a few examples of our activities) the Atrix HD eked out 11 hours of runtime. This ultimately means that most days, you'll be scrambling for your charger just around the time you get home from a standard day at the office.

Our standard video rundown test lasted only five and a half hours before the phone died.

We were satisfied with the audio quality when listening to music and watching movies. The sound was definitely crisp and clear, especially when taking advantage of an equalizer, and we could pick out plenty of tiny details in some of our favorite songs. The external speaker is also quite loud, though it naturally doesn't offer the same level of clarity you'd enjoy with headphones.

Happily, the call quality is pretty satisfying. We didn't encounter any static, tinny sounds or warped voices on either end. The noise-cancelling mic also worked well -- when standing in a noisy room, our friends on the other end of the line could barely tell we were next to anyone at all.

We're much obliged to AT&T for not adding the term "4G LTE" to the phone's official name -- one acronym is enough, if you ask us. Whatever you call it, that connectivity is ever-present and reliable. We had no problem connecting to AT&T's next-gen network in New York, with the phone pulling down roughly 25Mbps on average (and delivering 15Mbps up).

By offering both GPS and GLONASS support, the Atrix HD has the best of both global positioning worlds, and it performed flawlessly during our travels. It got a lock on our location within a few seconds and followed us as we drove around.

Camera

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With a few exceptions (the ZN5 and XT720 come to mind) Motorola's handsets aren't usually remembered for their cameras. The Atrix HD continues this trend; there's nothing terribly wrong with this 8-megapixel shooter, but it's hardly a bellwether for newer devices either. Stills are generally decent, though they suffer from some over-sharpening and paintbrush-like artifacts in complex textures. While colors can be balanced given optimal lighting, the camera struggles with proper exposure in high-contrast conditions. There's room for improvement with low-light performance, too, especially when it comes to noise and white balance. We experienced some issues with the single LED flash, which often fires with the wrong intensity. On the plus side, shutter lag is virtually absent thanks to the fast autofocus and the shooter does a better-than-average job with indoor pictures. Video recording is handled at up to 1080p and 30fps with continuous autofocus and stereo audio. Quality is reasonable, with the same caveats we mentioned for photos. Despite a healthy 15Mbps bitrate, we experienced a series of dropped frames during capture, along with a lower frame rate in low-light -- down to 20fps indoors.

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Motorola Atrix HD sample shots

In terms of camera UI, the Atrix HD is almost a dead ringer for the Droid RAZR, meaning it shares many of the same limitations. Some controls obscure parts of the viewfinder, making it difficult to properly frame shots. Combine this with a display that washes out in direct sunlight and tends to over-saturate colors, and it's a recipe for frustration. While the camera features panorama and burst modes, there's no HDR option -- in fact, a lot of standard settings like image size, white balance and ISO are nowhere to be found. We also found a niggle with the flash setting, which returns to automatic each time the camera app is started. Thankfully, the on-screen shutter button locks focus (but not exposure) when tapped and held, allowing you to reframe and then release your finger to take the shot. Color filters and touch-to-focus are also on the menu, and video recording offers several helpful microphone settings, including one for noise reduction and another for loud environments. In the end, this shooter gets the job done -- it's not perfect, but most users will be able to coax some worthy pictures out of it.

Pricing and comparison

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Throwing down $200 on-contract for top-tier phones is the norm these days, so we were pleasantly surprised to see the Atrix HD hit AT&T's lineup at half that price. A quick perusal of the specs (shown below) suggests that Moto's new flagship isn't too far off from what the Samsung Galaxy S III and the HTC One X are offering at a premium. It's also a clear winner against some of other $100 Android contenders, including the Sony Xperia ion, which runs Gingerbread and a Snapdragon S3 processor, and last year's Galaxy S II. Below, you'll see exactly how the Atrix sizes up to its higher-priced S4 buddies in particular.

Atrix HD Samsung Galaxy S III (SGH-I747) HTC One X (LTE)
Pricing $100 $200 $200
Dimensions 5.26 x 2.75 x 0.33 inches (133.5 x 69.9 x 8.4 mm) 5.38 x 2.78 x 0.34 inches (136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6 mm) 5.31 x 2.75 x 0.35 inches (134.8 x 69.9 x 8.9 mm)
Weight 4.94 oz (140g) 4.73 oz (134 g) 4.55 oz (129 g)
Screen size 4.5 inches 4.8 inches 4.7 inches
Screen resolution 1,280 x 720 pixels (326ppi) 1,280 x 720 pixels (306ppi) 1,280 x 720 pixels (312ppi)
Screen type TFT Super AMOLED HD S-LCD2
Battery 1,780mAh Li-Polymer 2,100mAh Li-Ion

1,800mAh Li-Polymer

Internal storage 8GB 16GB 16GB
External storage MicroSD / MicroSDHC, none included MicroSD / MicroSDXC, none included None offered
Rear camera 8MP, AF, LED flash, f/2.4 8MP, AF, LED, f/2.6 8MP, AF, LED, f/2.0
Front-facing cam 1.3MP (720p video) 2MP (720p video) 1.3MP (720p video)
Video capture 1080p (30fps), H.264 / MPEG4 1080p (30fps) 1080p
NFC No Yes Yes
Radios LTE 700 / AWS; HSPA+ 21Mbps / UMTS 850 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100; GSM / EDGE quadband LTE 700 / AWS; HSPA+ 21.1Mbps, 850 / 1900 / 2100MHz; GSM / EDGE quadband
LTE 700 / AWS; HSPA+ 21.1Mbps, 850 / 1900 / 2100MHz; GSM / EDGE quadband
Bluetooth v4.0 v4.0 v4.0
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960
CPU 1.5GHz dual-core 1.5GHz dual-core 1.5GHz dual-core
GPU Adreno 225 Adreno 225 Adreno 225
RAM 1GB 2GB 1GB
WiFi 802.11 b/g/n/a 802.11 b/g/n/a 802.11 b/g/n/a
Operating system Android 4.0.4, Motorola UI Android 4.0.4, TouchWiz UI Android 4.0.3, Sense 4 UI

Wrap-up

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What can we say? We love the Atrix HD as a sub-$100 offering on AT&T, and can't help but marvel at what Motorola was able to deliver at that price point. If you've always wanted a RAZR on AT&T, the Atrix HD is your best bet -- and it offers a more impressive resume of specs, too. Even if you're turned off by the terrible battery life, this device could still be awfully tempting. If money is no object, we'd still recommend the HTC One X or Samsung Galaxy S III over this, but this is nonetheless Motorola's most compelling AT&T device in a long time, and it's worth a long, hard look.

Myriam Joire contributed to this review.

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