AT&T launched the Motorola Atrix 2 with very little fanfare, slotting it in with a set of low-end Android smartphones on October 11th. However, the Atrix 2 is the successor to the venerable Atrix 4G and as such at least bears the name of a top-of-the-line Android phone. That name is belied by middle-of-the-road specs and a price point — $99 on-contract — that implies that neither Motorola nor AT&T think of the phone as a hero device. Still, just because a phone isn't the recipient of a huge marketing blitz doesn't mean that it can't fit your needs and the Atrix 2 has quiet, business-like demeanor that could appeal to people who aren't concerned with whiz-bang features.
Is the Atrix 2 just another forgettable Android smartphone or does it rise above its pedestrian appearance to become a sleeper hit? Read on to find out!
Hardware / design
I'll take an unassuming phone over an ostentatious one any day
Although I'm tempted to use the word "utilitarian" to describe the Atrix 2, a better term would be "business-like." Motorola has given the phone virtually no design flourishes, opting instead to hone the original Atrix's design into an elegant, if somewhat staid slab. The 4.3-inch screen sits beneath an all-glass front that sports a very small, cut bezel all the way around the device. The chrome ring that encircles the rim of the device is similarly thoughtful, as it's a dark shade of silver that does a fine job of hiding fingerprints and is a nice change from the bright chrome I've seen on too many phones over the years. The materials don't feel especially high-end, this being a $99 phone, but neither does the phone pretend to be something it's not.
Motorola has kept the same Menu / Home / Back / Search button layout from the original, but more importantly it has also kept the status indicator light on the upper right, which by default blinks when there are pending notifications and no doubt acts as a soothing balm for any BlackBerry switchers. Next to that is a metal speaker grille which puts out decently loud and clear sound and a VGA front-facing camera.
The rear panel is a soft-touch, matte black plastic with a subtle, grippable texture that makes it easy to pull out of the suit pocket it seems so clearly designed for. It surrounds the 8-megapixel camera and LED flash up top and single speaker port on bottom. Unfortunately, that grille is moved inwards from the edge of the device when compared to the original Atrix, which means that the volume is noticeably dampened when it's set on a soft surface. Up top we see that Motorola has jettisoned the combination fingerprint scanner / power button in favor of a simple power button and a centered headphone jack. Although I know the fingerprint scanner mounted on the power button was not popular on the Atrix 4G, I did find myself missing it just a little.
The Micro USB and HDMI ports are in the same spot as before, but their positions are swapped so as to be compatible with the new Lapdock 100. On the other side, I found the volume buttons somewhat difficult to find and press but not so much that it was a real problem. There's also a new addition on this side, a dedicated camera button that I would be happier about if it was a proper, 2-stage button.
Measuring 4.95 x 2.59 x .41 inches, the Atrix 2 finds itself in the middle of today's crop of jumbo-sized Android phones. I never found it particularly bulky or, at around 5.2 ounces, particularly heavy for its size. Instead, the Atrix 2 is a clean, simple phone without the design aspirations of the RAZR or even the Galaxy S II. Boring? Maybe, but I'll take an unassuming phone over an ostentatious one any day.
I find the LCD display to be bright and crisp
The Atrix 2's 4.3-inch screen maintains the same 960 x 540 qHD resolution as the Atrix 4G. But even though pixel density is arguably lower here as the screen is .3 inches bigger, I have no complaints. In fact, I find the LCD display here to be bright and crisp with sharp, readable text even at tiny font sizes. Without getting too deep into the Great PenTile Debate, I will just say that if you're skeptical of that method of arranging pixels you will have no problems here — the Atrix 2 doesn't use it.
I also find that the Atrix 2 has truer color fidelity than on the original Atrix. The screen has more of a yellow tinge, but the tradeoff is that photos seem much less washed out and more true-to-life. Viewing angles on the Atrix 2 aren't stellar but are adequate for a phone, as is visibility in bright sunlight. If you go for the Atrix 2, you'll be sacrificing a chance at the first run of 720p displays to hit the US, but in exchange you're getting a qHD display that is as quietly functional and effective as the rest of the hardware.
I can achieve nice shots in bright, natural light — but that is small praise
Although you'd like to think that Motorola has gotten more serious about the camera on the Atrix 2 because it put a dedicated camera button on the side, you'd be wrong. First off, it does not act as a two-stage button, instead it's simply one click for immediate focus and snap. Secondly, and more importantly, there's simply nothing that stands out with this 8-megapixel lens. The camera software is an improvement over the stock Android camera experience, but that's not saying much. As for the images themselves, I found that I can achieve nice shots in bright, natural light — again, small praise. Low light images are quite poor, while overall focus and shutter speed leave a lot to be desired.
Low light images are quite poor
While I don't believe that Motorola intends the camera to be a leading feature for what otherwise feels like a strictly-business phone, I do feel like the company's baseline here is falling behind the likes of HTC and Samsung. It's also worth noting that the camera defaults to 6-megapixel images and 720p video instead of the camera's top range of 8-megapixels and 1080p video, perhaps a nod to the fact that the Atrix 2 only comes with a 2GB microSD card.
Performance / battery
With my standard heavy usage I was still looking at northwards of 30 percent battery remaining by the end of the day
Motorola has opted for a TI OMAP 4430 dual-core processor clocked at 1GHz paired to 1GB of RAM and 8GB of onboard storage. Those specs aren't top of the line for late 2011 Android phones, but Motorola appears to have done a decent job optimizing for what's on board. I didn't experience much in the way of stutter or lag with the core navigation or apps, though the browser did occasionally take longer to render than I would have liked.
To go on the record for benchmark hounds, my Quadrant scores were consistently in the mid 2200 range while a SunSpider test in the browser returned 4102.7ms — not as good as the RAZR with its 1.2GHz clock speed, but still respectable for a $99 Android phone.
Motorola also seems to have done some work optimizing for battery life. Although the Atrix 2 has a 1725mAh compared to its predecessor's 1930mAh and also has a larger screen to power, I found I had better battery life overall. Part of that may be due to better efficiency on the TI OMAP processor, but the bottom line is that with my standard heavy usage I was still looking at northwards of 30 percent battery life by the end of the day.
Another improvement on the Atrix 2 is support for AT&T's 21Mbps HSPA+ network, but of course I never saw speeds anywhere near that in either New York City or the San Francisco area. Perhaps I'm cursed be in areas with poor backhaul, but I consistently maxed out at 2.2Mbps down and 800Kbps up. To add insult to injury, AT&T has added a rather large "4G" indicator to the status bar with bouncing signal lines to indicate incoming and outgoing data. It's not enough to be distracting in normal use, but when you're waiting for a download to finish and you look up to see if you have signal, seeing that active 4G icon definitely feels false.
Call quality was quite good by AT&T's standards and in particular the Atrix 2 seems to have excellent reception, keeping calls and pulling down data in spots where I've seen other AT&T phones go dead.
Software / Webtop
We are looking at a fairly standard implementation of Motorola's skin on top of Android 2.3.5 here, which in general works well without getting in the way too much. Motorola has included its stock set of widgets, one of which I love: Quick Contacts. It offers a 1 by 4 row of your favorites that can be swiped down to reveal all of them in a simple widget that's easier to reorder and manage than virtually anything else I've tried.
As far as "bloatware" goes, there's actually not too much and you can uninstall most of the apps, though of course they're still lurking about deep in the ROM to be reinstalled after a reset. Still, the ability to uninstall most of these apps means you'll be less likely to want to resort to a task manager to make sure they're not taking up RAM, which is a solid benefit.
Motorola's skin still offers integration with lots of different types of accounts. I find it mind-bogglingly infuriating that Motorola still names its own integration with Facebook and Twitter simply "Facebook" and "Twitter," so that if you install the actual apps from those third parties you see those options duplicated on the account screen with no obvious indication which comes from Motorola and which comes from the actual social network apps. You also cannot remove the default "AT&T Address Book" account, but you can at least partially manage it from within the settings of the contact app — which is to say you can disable it from syncing to AT&T's servers.
There are a few other tweaks and customizations. You can set a custom launch app when double-tapping the home button, use Motorola's custom settings to automatically account for a low battery, and manage some data options as well. Motorola offers a stock Multi-touch keyboard or Swype version 3.2 on-deck. There also an option for "In-Pocket detection" that attempts to auto-lock the phone when you place it in your pocket, a feature that I could never get to work consistently. Finally, the days of AT&T disabling non-market apps appear to be truly behind us, as the "Unknown Sources" option under Application Settings is available.
Last and certainly least, there's the Webtop functionality. You can plug the Atrix 2 into the Lapdock 100 to get a full screen, keyboard, and Firefox 5.0 browser. Hardware-wise, I don't want to dwell too long on the Lapdock 100 itself as I found the keyboard cramped and the 10.1-inch screen underwhelming. Motorola's system of plugging a cable into the phone and then literally wedging it into a rubberized slot on the back of the Lapdock is inelegant to say the least.
On the software side, performance was sluggish at best. Speaking as somebody who was fully ready to purchase a Palm Foleo and who occassionally plays devil's advocate for BlackBerry Connect on the PlayBook, I want to believe that the idea of a smartphone companion can be done well. Speaking as somebody who has used Motorola's Lapdock with the Atrix 2, I can tell you that Motorola hasn't achieved that dream.
The phrase "it just works" doesn't typically apply to Android phones, but with the Atrix 2 it just might
Unlike the original Atrix 4G, Motorola's Atrix 2 wasn't exactly launched with a bang. That might lead you to believe that the Atrix 2 is a forgettable smartphone and in some ways it definitely is: there are no real standout features here. The Atrix 2 isn't flashy, in fact it's exactly the opposite. Yet while the Atrix 2 might be unassuming, it's also very capable if you set aside the Webtop and the middling camera performance. The Atrix 2 might be designed as a business user's phone, but at $99 it could have a straightforward appeal to the budget-minded consumer. The phrase "it just works" doesn't typically apply to Android phones, but with the Atrix 2 it just might. This phone won't turn any heads, but it also won't fall down on the job.