Can the Atrix 4G Really Become Your Next PC?

The PC as we've long known is dead -- or it will be soon. As mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets become more capable, few people will need a full-blown PC or Mac. Instead, a mobile device that connects to external resources as needed -- keyboards, mice, monitors, storage, and perhaps even processors -- can be the computer you always have with you, using its own screen and hardware when you're on the go.

I believe that evolution is well under way. Last fall, Apple CEO Steve Jobs all but said that's where the Mac OS and iOS are headed, with the forthcoming Mac OS X 10.7 Lion marking the next step in the journey. But the Motorola Mobility Atrix 4G is here today with a more tangible version of the future ready to try.

[ See how the Atrix 4G matches up against the iPhone 4 as a smartphone in InfoWorld's deathmatch comparison. | Stay up on the key mobile trends with InfoWorld's Mobilize newsletter and Mobile Edge blog. ]

The Atrix is an Android smartphone based on Citrix Systems' Nirvana phone technology that can dock to external peripherals, using them to provide a more PC-like working experience. When docked, Atrix runs the desktop version of the Firefox 3.6 browser (in Linux), so you can run most cloud services available for your PC or Mac. (Note: Not all browser plug-ins, such as Microsoft Silverlight, work in the Linux version of Firefox.) And any Android apps you run on the Atrix can take advantage of the larger screen, keyboard, and mouse docked to the Atrix.

To see how well the Atrix delivered on this promise, I spent the weekend using it in its "lite" PC guise.

The cost of the "lite" PC transformation
The Atrix -- which costs $199 with a two-year contract from AT&T Wireless in the United States -- comes with the Webtop Connector app that makes docking possible, but you'll need extra hardware to actually turn the Atrix into a "lite" PC. There are two hardware paths you can take: a laptoplike device you can carry with you, or a dock you use with external input devices to connect to a TV or monitor.

That hardware is not cheap. For the laptop option, Motorola Mobility's Lapdock costs $400, providing an LCD screen, keyboard, trackpad, and battery in its laptop shell. If you want to use the laptop dock over a 3G connection, rather than just Wi-Fi, you need to subscribe to AT&T's $45 DataPro plan.

Mobile Management Deep Dive

For the other option, you'll need the $100 Atrix Multimedia Dock and a keyboard (USB or Bluetooth), mouse (USB or Bluetooth), and an HDMI-equipped TV or monitor (newer monitors in the $200-plus price range usually have HDMI ports), as well as a Mini HDMI-to-HDMI cable ($10 to $20 online). Motorola offers a $200 kit composed of its $100 dock, a $70 Bluetooth keyboard, and a Bluetooth mouse it doesn't sell separately.

Getting the Atrix connected as a "lite" PC
Motorola Mobility didn't provide a review loan unit of the Lapdock, just the Multimedia Dock and the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. The dock has three USB ports and one Mini HDMI port. Getting the Atrix into the dock was a little tricky, as you have to align both the Mini HDMI and Micro USB ports on the Atrix to the connectors on the dock. Because the ports are on the far side of the Atrix, the dock's connectors tend to act as a pivot for the Atrix as you press on it; there's nothing to keep the portless left side from falling other than your grip.

You enable Bluetooth and manage the pairing in the Settings app on the Atrix. I suggest you do so before you dock it, as the Atrix is hard to use once docked, given the odd angle at which it sits -- it's definitely the wrong position and height for using touch gestures. (I recommend you also launch the Webtop Connector app on the Atrix before you dock it.)

In Video: We Demo the Motorola Atrix

Connecting the Bluetooth devices was not simple. The keyboard connected and paired easily, but it took a half-dozen attempts to get the mouse to do so. The first five times, it would connect but not pair, even if I turned Bluetooth off and then back on -- or the Atrix itself off and on. Bluetooth is a wonky standard, so that connection issue may just come with the territory. I tried using an Apple Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, but neither would connect, though both were seen by the Atrix. My iPad likewise saw the Motorola keyboard but wouldn't pair with it; in this regard, I guess they're even.

If you're working at a desk, you may find using USB devices simpler than dealing with Bluetooth, but if you're using the dock in a living room with your HDMI-equipped TV, adding USB cables in the mix could be awkward. Further, using a USB keyboard means you'll lack the special Android keys (Menu, Home, Search, and Back) and will need to rely on the mouse to access their on-screen equivalents. Fortunately, the dock's output screen is very well designed and easy to navigate with mouse or keyboard.

Once you've made all the connections, the Atrix should appear on your screen in a few moments -- but it didn't always. I sometimes had to unplug and replug the HDMI cable, and occasionally undock and redock the Atrix itself.

Next page: More hardware glitches

Other hardware glitches surfaced in the monitor display. The Atrix dock's screen -- which has one window that mirrors the Atrix's display and a second that runs Firefox -- stretched to the entire width of my flat-screen TV, distorting its width. That meant the mouse location didn't match the actual locations of onscreen elements. It took a while to get to the onscreen menu that resizes the display to 1:1 pixel ratio (no stretching), which solved the problem. Once set, the dock remembered that setting in subsequent usage, and my initial setup hassles didn't recur.

Using the Atrix as a "lite" PC
Once I finally completed the setup, I was able to actually use the Atrix in its "lite" PC mode. It quickly became clear the the Atrix doesn't quite fit the "post-PC" vision of a mobile device being your core computer. When you dock the Atrix, the Firefox browser and other dock-provided services aren't running from the Atrix but instead from a stripped-down Linux PC inside the dock. A real post-PC device would run everything from the smartphone or tablet, and it would use the dock to add more processing or take advantage of peripherals.

The Firefox browser worked reasonably well. Cloud services such as Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365 that don't operate well in mobile browsers functioned perfectly fine via the dock's Linux Firefox browser. As mentioned earlier, some Web plug-ins such as Microsoft Silverlight and its open source counterpart Moonlight don't work in Linux Firefox, and neither does Java, so it's not quite the same as using Firefox on a Windows PC or Mac. However, I had no issues with the common Adobe plug-ins.

I could even download files from the Web onto the Android's local storage via the dock's Firefox, as well as access data from and store data on attached USB hard drives and flash memory sticks. Even better, I could print from Firefox via the dock to my wireless printer.

Running the Atrix's native Android apps on the big screen proved disappointing. All you get is a blown-up version of the Atrix's screen in a window. Android apps such as Quickoffice don't adjust to take advantage of the bigger screen as you would expect -- unlike many iOS apps when run on an iPad instead of an iPhone. For the "lite" PC concept to work, native Android apps will have to take advantage of the larger screen, keyboard, and mouse. Otherwise, you're paying essentially just to have a desktop browser run off your smartphone.

Apple has shown the way in how to do these contextually savvy apps. With the tablet-oriented Android 3.0 now shipping on the Motorola Xoom and soon to ship on other tablets, Google needs to provide a mechanism for Android developers to easily cover both smartphone and tablet displays.

Beyond running Firefox and blown-up versions of your Android apps, as well as playing media from your Atrix smartphone, there's little else you can do with the docked Atrix.

Next page: How badly do you need the Atrix?

You can control your AT&T U-verse video service if you subscribe to that, but it makes more sense to do so from your iPhone, iPad, or Android device using the U-verse app. More usefully, you can run a Facebook window on the Atrix. It seems silly to have Facebook as a separate app as you can access Facebook via Firefox or your Atrix's Social Networking app.

But you can't install Linux apps on the dock or on the Atrix, so you can't treat the Atrix dock as a companion Linux PC. (Fortunately, the universe of Android apps continues to grow.)

It's true that nothing else can do what the Atrix can do. The iPad comes closest, with its support of Bluetooth keyboards and ability to connect to VGA-equipped TVs, monitors, and projectors -- but you can't mirror the iPad to the presentation device, only show the screens of apps that have implemented Apple's display-out protocol. The iPhone too can output to VGA for such apps, but it doesn't support Bluetooth keyboards. Additionally, no iOS device offers a full desktop browser as the Atrix dock does.

The question is whether having a full desktop browser available through your Atrix is sufficient reason to invest in the docking hardware. If your computing needs are light -- if you're the kind of person for whom Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365 are all you need beyond email and the Web -- maybe the docked Atrix is really your one-stop device.

The cost of making your Atrix into a docked PC for such usage is actually not bad: At $400, the Lapdock is less than a netbook, and the $200 Multimedia Dock is even cheaper if you already have the other peripherals and don't need to travel. Any company or agency that is considering moving its staff from Microsoft Office to Google Docs should look into the Atrix with a dock, at least for those employees to whom it issues or supports smartphones. (Perhaps the forthcoming Chrome OS laptops will fit the bill for the others.)

If your computing needs are greater than that, the Atrix is not enough. Still, the Atrix's dockability is a step in the direction of lightweight mobile devices becoming the new PC. The idea is great, and at some point we'll see a device that fully delivers on the "lite" PC concept. Perhaps it will be a future version of the Atrix or a future iPad or iPhone. Whatever the final product, you can be confident: It will happen.

This article, "Can the Atrix 4G really become your next PC?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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