Mobile Deathmatch: Motorola Atrix 4G vs. Apple iPhone 4

Email management. Both devices support multiple accounts and universal inboxes, but the Atrix approach is a real mess of inconsistency and competing options. The iPhone, by contrast, lets you access all your emails from one app, in a consistent way. It has a universal inbox, plus an inbox for each active account. Below the inboxes are a list of accounts that if opened show all the associated folders in a nice hierarchical display. I don't think the iPhone needs the two lists; the universal inbox followed by the individual accounts would be just as easy and less cluttered.

The Atrix's email handling perpetuates an Android flaw: using separate apps for each email account. Yes, it does provide the Messaging app from which you can access all your accounts, but it's really just a folder containing one app for each account, so switching among accounts is a pain. (Google Gmail isn't available via that app; you have to use the separate Gmail app.)

But the Atrix's MotoBlur interface worsens that Android flaw: The universal inbox account in the Messaging app shows you all your inboxes in one big list of messages, but it doesn't use color or any other mechanism to differentiate which account each email came from, as the iPhone and the standard Android UI do. Also, when you long-tap the account name in your email list, the Atrix displays the folders for that account -- except for Exchange email, for which you tap an arrow button instead. (The standard Android UI has no such long-tap option to see folders; you have to use the Menu button instead, so the MotoBlur UI does help a bit in this area.)

This mix of nice additions to the standard Android UI and idiotic UI misfires is emblematic of the MotoBlur interface's frustrating design. Based on these inconsistencies and contradictions, you'd think that the people working on various aspects of MotoBlur never talked to each other or used the final product.

The iPhone 4 has a message-threading capability, which organizes your emails based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicking to go through messages, but it also removes the effort of finding the messages in the first place. (The iPhone's iOS 4 lets you disable threading if you don't like it.) The Atrix has no equivalent.

The Atrix has an out-of-the-office setting and an autoforwarding capability that doesn't require the smartphone to first download the messages (which saves on data usage). The iPhone has no equivalent.

I was annoyed that Atrix doesn't support PDF files out of the box; you have to download the Adobe Reader app from the Android Marketplace. The Atrix opens images and Office files, though, using the basic version of the Quickoffice app that comes installed on the Atrix. The iPhone's native QuickLook viewer handles a nice range of formats, and it opens attachments with one tap (downloading them if needed at the same time). Of course, to edit those files rather than just view them, you'll need an office app such as Quickoffice Mobile Connect Suite or Documents to Go Premium. The iPhone doesn't open Zip files unless you get a third-party app such as the $2 ZipBox-Pro. The Atrix, like all Android smartphones, handles Zip files natively.

Both the iPhone and Atrix remember the email addresses of senders you reply to, adding them to a database of contacts that it looks up automatically as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields. Both devices let you add email addresses to your contacts list, either by tapping them (on the iPhone) or long-tapping them (on the Atrix).

Contacts and calendars. Both the iPhone and Atrix offer three of the same calendar views: list (agenda), day, and month. But only the Atrix supports the week view. Moving among months is easy on both (as is moving among weeks on the Atrix), and both can display multiple calendars simultaneously. The iPhone makes it slightly easier to change which calendars are displayed or to change views, thanks to on-screen buttons -- but this is a minor advantage that doesn't overcome the lack of a week view. The two devices also have comparable recurring-event capabilities. But the Atrix cannot send invitations to others as you add appointments; the iPhone can.

On the iPhone, your invitations for Exchange accounts show up in your calendar so that you can accept them there with the full context of your other appointments. For other email accounts, you open the .ics invitation files in Mail, from which you can add them to the calendar of your choice. On the Atrix, the Calendar app doesn't display invitations. You can open Exchange invitations in the Email or Messaging app to add them to your calendar, but you can't open .ics invitations sent to POP or IMAP accounts.

Both the iPhone and the Atrix have capable Contacts apps, but it's easier to navigate through your entries on the iPhone. You can jump easily to names by tapping a letter, such as "T" to get to people whose last names begin with "T," or search quickly for a contact in the Search field by tapping part of the name. On the Atrix (which uses the standard Android Contacts app), a gray box appears as you begin scrolling your contacts list; if you drag it, you can scroll through the letters of the alphabet that appear in the box to move to names beginning with that letter. It's not as simple as the iPhone approach, and its "secret handshake" nature means many users won't know it exists.

On the iPhone, to search your contacts, drag up above the first contact to reveal the Search box. On the Atrix, you can search your contacts if you click the Search button (or if you click the Menu button and then tap the Search icon). You can also designate users as favorites, to put them in a shorter Favorites list. The iPhone has a similar favorites capability, but it's available only in the Phone app, not in the Contacts app.

The Atrix lets you create groups in the Contacts app, and you can then email to everyone in that group by choosing the group in the address field. The iPhone supports email groups, but you can't create them on the iPhone; they must be synced from your computer's contacts application. And you can't pick a group in the iPhone's Mail address fields -- instead, you select a group and open it up to specify just one member, repeating this step to add more members. It's a really dumb approach to groups.

The winner: The iPhone, thanks to its more intelligently designed email and calendar capabilities -- especially the fact that it works with IMAP and POP accounts sabotaged by the Atrix's MotoBlur interface. However, the Atrix wins for contacts. Still, if the Atrix supports your email accounts and you stick with its Messaging app to handle your email, you'll find it's perfectly good for business use.

Deathmatch: Applications The native apps are comparable on the two devices, providing email, contacts, calendar, maps and navigation, browser, a music player, a YouTube player, and SMS messaging. One strange exception: the Atrix has no native notepad app, while iOS 4 does. That's a very odd omission for a smartphone. As noted previously, the Atrix doesn't support PDF viewing out of the box; you have to download the free Adobe Reader app from the Android Market to view PDF files.

But the Atrix includes the standard Android Navigation app, which speaks directions as you navigate, as well as provides an on-screen live map and written step-by-step directions. The iPhone's Maps app has comparable on-screen navigation capabilities but does not speak them as you drive. The Atrix comes with several apps the iPhone does not, including the Social Networking app that consolidates updates from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social services you configure it to monitor. And if Flash video display is important to you, you can download Flash Player from the Android Market; there is no Flash Player for the iPhone due to Apple's prohibition against it.

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