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Motorola Atrix HD review

AT&T's take on the Droid RAZR quietly impresses

I was pleasantly surprised with Motorola's Atrix 2 last November, but eight months is pretty much an eternity in the Android world, so the Atrix line was in need of a refresh. Motorola and AT&T have teamed up to bring us the Atrix HD, a smartphone that's essentially AT&T's take on Verizon's Droid RAZR. There are a lot of similarities here, including LTE and Kevlar fiber backing, but this is more than just a rehash of the RAZR.

The Atrix has become AT&T's line for an Android phone that attempts to balance price and performance. At $99.99 on-contract, the Atrix HD looks to repeat its predecessor's overachieving ways by upping the screen resolution to 720p, improving the software with Android 4.0, and increasing the data speed to 4G LTE. Looking at the Atrix HD on paper, there's not a lot to complain about. How does it hold up after actual use? Read on.

Video Review

Video Review

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

The Atrix HD essentially takes the distinctive RAZR and runs it through a blandification machine

If you found Verizon's Droid RAZR too angular, then AT&T's take on it with the Atrix HD could soothe your aesthetic sensibilities. It essentially looks like a slightly rounded version of the same — right on down to the Kevlar back, large battery hump at the top, and slightly over-sized bezel around the screen.

To get down to details, it's a simple slab of a phone with power and volume buttons on the right; Micro USB, Micro HDMI, and headphone up top; a door on the lower-left for Micro SIM and microSD cards; and no physical or capacitive buttons at all on the front. The back consists of a large swath of dark, patterned Kevlar curving up to the 8-megapixel camera, flash, and loudspeaker. Internally, there's 1GB of RAM and only 8GB of storage, but you can expand via the microSD card slot if you need to. No NFC here, unfortunately, but that's not entirely surprising for a $99.99 device.

The bezel around the 4.5-inch screen is large by today's standards and overall the phone feels quite substantial in the hand. It's set behind Gorilla Glass, which alongside the Kevlar makes the phone sturdy and flex-free. At 8.4mm, Atrix HD is very thin over most of the phone, but the large hump at the top takes away from that. It also is quite boxy when compared to other phones, which doesn't really help. I actually wouldn't have complained if Motorola and AT&T had gone the RAZR MAXX route and made it a little thicker, especially since the 1,780mAh battery behind the Kevlar is non-removable.

There's really no getting around saying that the Atrix HD isn't a very pretty phone. That's not to say I find it ugly per se, but I don't really find it to be especially interesting. The Atrix HD also comes with white plastic (with black Kevlar), which I'm told looks worse than the black version I reviewed. Still, there are a few positive notes to the design. I do like the feel of the back, the buttons are sturdy, and the power button in particular has a nice ridged feel. Similarly, the plastic ring around the edge of the phone is slightly textured for easier grip. Where the Atrix 2 had a businesslike charm, the Atrix HD essentially takes the distinctive RAZR and runs it through a blandification machine.

Compare the Atrix HD to the Galaxy S III and One X

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Display

Display

The Atrix HD one-ups the RAZR's screen
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One area where the Atrix HD one-ups the RAZR is the screen. It's a 4.5-inch, 720p LCD display — which works out to around 326 ppi. The display isn't quite up to the quality on the HTC One X, but I would argue that no phones are. However, the relatively high pixel density combined with the fact that this is an LCD display instead of AMOLED means text is sharp and readable.

Motorola has also included something it calls "ColorBoost," whose purpose so far as I can tell is to, well, boost the vibrancy of colors. The net effect is to make things a little too vibrant and over-saturated for my tastes, but not so much that I think it's a reason to reject the phone.

Honestly, my only real complaint about the display is the rather large bezel that surrounds it. The Atrix HD has a footprint that's on par with the oversized Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One X, but without those phones' larger screens. The display also doesn't appear to sit very close to the surface of the glass, but we're talking about a $99.99 on-contract phone, so compromises needed to be made somewhere, I suppose. The fact that this RAZR clone doesn't have the RAZR's terrible PenTile screen is reason enough for me to endorse it.

Software

Software

The Atrix HD is running Android 4.0.4 with a Motorola skin on top — but unlike Samsung's TouchWiz UI or HTC's Sense UI, the term "skin" actually applies quite well here. It's not the same thing as stock Ice Cream Sandwich, but it's a darn sight closer than any other phone I've ever tested.


The similarities start with the button layout, which is the same on-screen Back / Home / Multitasking found on the Galaxy Nexus — albeit with a slightly more angular look. You might disagree about whether on-screen buttons are worth the cost in screen real-estate, but I prefer it to the other Android 4.0 button layouts I've used.

The Home Screen layout is also quite similar to stock, although instead of setting your home page in the center, it puts it at the far left. You can then add more pages to the right (up to seven), and when you do AT&T has created a few stock templates to choose from if you like. You can also easily rearrange or remove pages and when you add widgets, the icons will move out of the way a la Android 4.1. It's a bit of differentiation for differentiation's sake, in my opinion. On most launchers, you're no more than three swipes away from up to seven pages, on the Atrix HD it takes six to get to that last page. Otherwise the launcher layout and behavior is nearly identical to stock, including the app / widget drawer and permanent search bar up top.

Motorola has also done something I find really clever: some stock icons have two small arrows next to them on the home screen, which indicates that you can swipe up or down on them to launch an associated widget in a pop-up window. Phone, People, Text, Calendar, and Email all support it and it's a great way to get quick access to a widget without sacrificing real estate.

There's also a new widget called "Circles" that combines a clock, weather, and a neat little informational widget that can be toggled between battery life and data usage. Incoming text messages also appear here and though it's a rather large 4 x 2 affair, it's useful enough that I've let it keep its spot on my home page.

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Smartactions

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The oft (and rightfully) derided "MotoBlur" functionality in accounts is gone — and good riddance. The Facebook and Twitter apps handle contact integration just fine with Android 4.0 and so I'm glad to see Motorola decide not to try to make any interventions there. In fact, other than some colorful icons, Settings on the Atrix HD are pretty much stock. Motorola has even included the stock Android keyboard in addition to Swype — it's called "Motorola Input" but I've yet to see any noticeable difference.

Motorola has kept the excellent Smart Actions app, which lets you automate your phone based on contexts like time and location. The phone ships with a Driving smart action widget right on the main page alongside a fairly basic Vehicle Mode application that serves as a fat-finger launcher for apps you might want to use in your car. It also has a custom Maps mode that's also fat-finger-friendly — combine it with Smart Actions for auto-responding to callers and texters and you have a relatively good phone for drivers.

Finally, AT&T said that the Atrix HD doesn't support Webtop mode for accessories like the LapDock. I personally don't find that to be much of a loss. Actually, the Atrix HD can be plugged into the LapDock 100 — albeit awkwardly — and it will simply put itself in HDMI mirroring mode. You can then use the trackpad and keyboard to navigate and use the Atrix HD on the LapDock's bigger screen. I still dont' recommend the solution to anybody, but if you happen to be some kind of Atrix fanatic and have one lying around, then you can still squeeze a little bit of life out of it.

Yes, there's the standard AT&T bloatware and no, you can't uninstall all of it. The worst of it is AT&T Smart Wi-Fi, which optionally adds a layer on top of Wi-Fi access giving you the option to automatically connect to open networks (no thanks) as well as keeping a map of them for you. AT&T is also continuing its tradition of aggressively inserting its own contact sync solution and YPMobile into the People app, but a hit cancel a few times and you're fairly close to a stock Contacts experience.

If you haven't caught on to my slightly euphoric tone by now, let me lay it out for you: for the most part, the software is good. Motorola has gone much further than the competition in stepping back its Android customizations, opting instead to intervene in small ways that are usually useful. The phone dialer, for example, includes proper smart dialing but otherwise stays out of the way. Calendar looks, feels, and behaves like stock Ice Cream Sandwich. I'm willing to admit that both Samsung and HTC have some nice elements in their ports of Android, but I very much prefer Motorola's light touch on the Atrix HD.

Performance / battery life

Performance / battery life

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The Atrix HD is powered by the same dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor that's found in other high-end LTE phones. It's clocked at 1.5GHz and backed by 1GB of RAM, all of which is awfully impressive for a $99.99 phone. With specs like that you'd expect it to be snappy and responsive, and on the main it is. The benchmarks for the Atrix HD also impress, stacking up quite decently against the competition on AT&T.

Quadrant Vellamo GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p) GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p) AnTuTu
Atrix HD 4,673 2,252 56fps 28fps 6,703
Galaxy S III (AT&T LTE) 5,039 2,352 56fps 28fps 6,746
HTC One X (AT&T LTE) 4,925 2,346 57fps 29fps 6,681
Galaxy Nexus 2,002 1,065 28fps 14fps 6,079
If (and sadly it's a big "if") Motorola can find a way to quickly push out the "buttery" improvements in Android 4.1 to this device, it could be a stunner
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In actual usage, I found the Atrix HD to be nearly as fast as the above benchmarks imply. With one sole exception, everything is as responsive and fast as I've seen on an Android 4.0 phone. That exception is the Chrome browser, which seemed to hang and stutter on scrolling more than usual. I know I just got done praising Motorola for not overdoing its customizations on top of Android 4.0, but there are still a few spots where it seems the company hasn't spent quite as much time optimizing performance as HTC and Samsung.

That said, I really don't have significant complaints about the speed and performance on the Atrix HD. Multitasking, in particular, is a highlight on the Atrix HD, especially when compared to the app-reloading experience many have complained about on the HTC One X. If (and sadly it's a big "if") Motorola can find a way to quickly push out the "buttery" speed improvements in Android 4.1 to this device, it could be a stunner.

As has been typical in my experience with Motorola phones, both reception and call quality were excellent. AT&T's LTE network continues to be a great combination of speed and underutilization. I regularly saw download speeds approaching 20 Mbps in San Francisco.

On the battery life front, the Atrix HD managed to last 4 hours, 56 minutes on a YouTube rundown test at 65 percent brightness. That's actually fairly decent, but I'm finding that heavy LTE usage tends to draw down power more than I'd like. Again, the 1,780mAh battery on the Atrix HD is non-removable, so if you're expecting to be mobile and using the phone for a full day you might have a tough situation on your hands when the sun sets. I definitely saw better battery life on both the One X and the Galaxy S III, though not by an order of magnitude.

Cameras

Cameras

The camera is disappointingly inconsistent
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The Atrix HD comes with an 8-megapixel rear camera that's also capable of shooting 1080p video. I'd say that the camera is disappointingly inconsistent. Some shots come out flat, lacking both contrast and vividness. Others come out over-exposed, and low light shots are usually noisy. It looks like Motorola hasn't given a lot of love and attention to the camera's post-processing, which could be a blessing or a curse depending on your philosophy on smartphone cameras. I would prefer that it work a little harder to improve my shots. The 1080p video, on the other hand, is surprisingly sharp given the quality of my still shots. There's a front-facing 720p camera that, as with all front-facing cameras, is eminently forgettable.

As far as the camera software is concerned, it's pretty bare bones. Motorola strangely decided to default to a widescreen, 6-megapixel crop in lieu of the full 8-megapixel option. One nice touch is the option to set the volume key to the shutter instead of zoom. You can set some default scenes, adjust exposure, and shoot in panorama — but it's a far cry of the full-featured controls I've seen on other recent smartphones. Motorola doesn't seem very focused on the camera, if you'll pardon the pun, and it shows.


Usually a $99.99 on-contract "mid-range" Android phone ends up making so many compromises it essentially ruins the phone — but that's not at all the case with the Atrix HD. Its a homely device and the camera disappoints, but Motorola didn't spend time making the Atrix HD pretty — it spent time making it work. It's still an Android 4.0 phone with LTE, a 720p LCD display, and fast performance.

More importantly, the Atrix HD runs a version of Android 4.0 that's as close to stock as I've ever seen on a non-Nexus device. For most people, I would still recommend spending the extra hundred bucks and getting the Galaxy S III or the One X, but for AT&T customers who want something close to stock Android and need LTE, the Atrix HD overachieves compared to its asking price.

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