Along with the introduction of the Motorola Atrix 4G came the debut of the Lapdock, a docking station that promises to turn your smartphone into a fully-featured laptop. The company is also offering the HD Multimedia Dock, which turns your Atrix 4G into a desktop computer.
BUILD & DESIGN
First and foremost, it cannot be denied that Motorola knows how to build attractive hardware. A few years ago it built the RAZR, a super-slim phone whose popularity has yet to be matched by the iPhone; after an extended period of irrelevance, it came back to launch one of the best-selling Android smartphones, the Droid.
The Lapdock is no different, and as a design philosophy, is both more daring and more striking than its partner, the Atrix 4G. Compared to traditional laptops, the Motorola Lapdock is extremely thin — we’re talking closer to the Macbook Air in size, not the netbrick one might expect. In addition to being sleek, the device is well-built, too — the exterior of the Lapdock is clad in a matte charcoal grey metal. It’s cool to the touch and, since there is no actual processor inside of the docking station, it stays that way.
Since the Lapdock is so thin, there is insufficient room for the USB ports or the dock mechanism on the sides. Motorola stuck these onto the rear of the machine and covered it all in a black rubbery plastic. It feels a lot like the soft finish on the back of the HTC EVO 4G.
The docking station itself was a contentious design choice. Rather than bolting on a slide-in dock to the back of the display, Motorola chose to go with a flip-out bay that easily pops up. On the up side, it provides for a slimmer device overall, as putting the dock on the display would have required Motorola to add thicker supports. On the down side, it makes the Lapdock substantially longer than it might have been otherwise. It’s not really a good or bad decision, just different.
The phone slides into the dock easily, but take care — it’s very easy to scratch the side of the phone trying to slot the phone into the sculpted insert. Next to the swivelling dock area are two USB ports, suitable for connecting either USB flash drives, or an external mouse and keyboard when using the webtop application. There’s also an input for the AC adapter.
Opening the Lapdock presents you with a big keyboard as well as a huge trackpad. Two physical buttons sit below the trackpad, and an LED in the pad’s upper left corner shows its status — lit means the trackpad is turned on, off means that it isn’t. A quick double-tap switches it on and off. Astonishingly, despite the size and apparent quality, the trackpad is merely single touch. It’s 2011, and this was a terrible decision. Scrolling with a single-touch trackpad is difficult, a difficulty compounded by the fact that there isn’t an option to use the side of the trackpad as a scrolling mechanism. Still, at least it’s responsive.
On the surface, the keyboard is very good. The chiclet-style layout is generally easy to type on, and there is little flex. While the width of the keyboard is almost full-size, the height of the keyboard isn’t — it’s a little bit squished. This is apparent after typing for just a few minutes, and the decision is a little mind-boggling: given the leftover size of the device, there’s really no reason for it.
The screen is clear and bright. The 11.6-inch display is glossy (very glossy), with a resolution of 1366 x 768. Like most TN panels these days, viewing the screen head-on is a solid experience: the horizontal viewing angles are decent, though the vertical viewing angles are lacking.
HD Multimedia Dock
The HD Multimedia dock is built to the same high standards as the Lapdock and the Atrix 4G itself. It has a solid and weighty heft, with the same docking shape as the dock on the Lapdock. The HD Multimedia dock is pricier than the regular media dock, but as part of the upsell, users get a Bluetooth Keyboard and mouse desktop set.
The mouse and keyboard that ship with the dock are relatively cheap, but very serviceable devices. While the mouse could be successfully paired with a regular computer, the keyboard proved difficult since it’s engineered to be easy to pair to the phone. That’s not really a complaint, merely an observation. In fact, the only real downside is that the AC adapter used for the Multimedia Dock is different from the one used for the Lapdock.
Obviously, since the brains of the Lapdock and Multimedia Dock are contained entirely within the Motorola Atrix 4G, there are no benchmarks to be run or tests to conduct. Instead, let’s take a look at the general performance of the unit. The webtop environment — Motorola’s term for the virtualized custom Linux distribution that runs on top of Android — takes about 30 seconds to boot up the first time. After that, plugging in the phone to either dock gets you going in just a few. seconds Anytime you reboot the phone, though, whether the battery dies or you turn it off before getting on a flight, will result in the 30-second wait time again.
Inside of the desktop environment — and this is accessible by using the Lapdock, the HD Multimedia dock, or the low-end dock, all available from Motorola and AT&T — is an easy-to-navigate UI. At the bottom of the screen is a dock similar to the one you might find inside of OS X. There are ten icons by default. The left five deal with the Atrix OS: Mobile View, Dialer, Contacts, Messaging and Entertainment Center.
Mobile View is the most innovative feature of the whole webtop environment. It brings the exact phone display onto the larger screen, and users can use a mouse, keyboard or trackpad to navigate the Android OS. It’s not just a bare-bones version, it’s the actual display — you can make and answer calls, play games, check your email and contacts, and more. The next few icons — Dialer, Contacts and Messaging — are all just shortcuts to screens within the Mobile View.
Entertainment Center brings up the same list of options you get if you plug the Atrix into the HD dock or simply plug in an HDMI cable to the phone and your television. Inside are icons for Music, Pictures, Videos, Settings (and, in the webtop environment, Exit).
The Entertainment Center is sleek and basic; its almost spartan appearance is reminiscent of the same sort of experience you might get with a unit like the WD TV. If you purchase the HD Multimedia Dock, you also get a handy little remote control – it’s similar in size and shape to the old style Apple remote controls. If you just plug the phone into the TV, the remote control’s interface appears on its screen.
The rest of the webtop environment is where things start to bring down. As said, there are ten icons on the dock; the other five bring up File Manager, Webtop Zone, Firefox (the real selling point of the whole shebang), Facebook and AT&T U-Verse. The Zone, Facebook and U-Verse are all just shortcuts to webapps.
That’s the problem: the webtop environment is extremely limited. The file manager just brings up a typical Linux file manager window, but it’s of limited use: you can’t install any extra Linux programs or really expand the webtop’s functionality in any meaningful way.
Motorola’s real selling point is the desktop version of Mozilla’s Firefox web browser. It’s curious that they chose to use Firefox instead of Chrome, or a custom Linux desktop instead of Google’s Chrome OS. Firefox does offer a substantial number of browser extensions that can do a lot to bring extra features — from debugging environments to IRC clients. That might be why Motorola chose to go with Firefox over other alternatives — if you want to add functionality, install a browser extension. Or heck, go write one.
All of this means is that, by and large, all the webtop environment does is provide stronger web browsing. Adobe Flash Player is installed, which means that almost any common website will display without any issues. Unfortunately, all of this is running on top of Android, on top of the phone functionality, on top of the two 1GHz Tegra 2 cores beating at the heart of it all.
If you want to type up a big story, the webtop environment is great. Mostly text-based websites, like forums or articles, load reasonably quickly. Anything involving Flash, however, starts to fall down a bit. Hulu and YouTube will play, sure, but they definitely drop frames, stuttering slightly even on the lowest quality settings. So while the webtop has its uses, playing streaming video from the Web is not one of them (instead, play pre-downloaded videos via the Entertainment Center – that experience, at least, is pretty great).
Just so we’re clear, all of the software used with the HD Multimedia dock is the same as the software for the Laptop Dock. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at the webtop envorinment on the lsptop’s screen or an external monitor via an HDMI cable.
Motorola has stated that its new webtop environment technologies will be built into all of their high-end phones from this point forward, which is a good thing. It’s painfully obvious that this idea, this paradigm of having a personal computer that goes with you everywhere and becomes the brains of whatever display is near…this is the future. In ten years, every single phone will do this.
Now, however, it might be charitably said that the idea of the webtop tech is just a bit ahead of its time. Motorola did a great job, but the underlying hardware is just not sufficient to provide the same experience that even a netbook can.
Compound this with ludicrously unreasonable carrier restrictions (AT&T requires the purchase of a $45 data plan that supports tethering, instead of the regular $25 data plan if you wish to use Firefox within webtop) and you have what might be the most innovative mobile technology of 2011 (I’m looking at you, iPad 2) taken down to a level where it simply isn’t worth it — not quite yet.
I’m bullish about the underlying idea, though. It’s frankly just neat. Motorola has taken a few steps toward bringing us into the future of the notebook computer – we might not be there yet, but it’s close enough to taste.
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