Today's Hottest Phones: They're All Android

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Best AT&T Phone: Motorola Atrix 4G

AT&T's Motorola Atrix 4G
AT&T's Motorola Atrix 4G.
A lot of excitement surrounded the debut of the Motorola Atrix 4G at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year. It appeared to be not just another phone, but a new concept that might combine the mobility of a smartphone and the superior usability of a laptop in a single, well-designed product.

The Atrix ($200 with a two-year AT&T contract) can dock to a laptoplike base (sold separately) that gives you a full-size keyboard for editing documents or using certain apps. The dock is essentially a shell containing a screen, a keyboard, speakers, and a touchpad. When docked in its slot at the rear of the laptop, the Atrix automatically launches a Webtop app that provides a larger, more functional presentation of its content and features for the laptop's bigger screen. For instance, it can run a full-size Mozilla Firefox browser or display rich content such as Flash graphics on the larger screen. Meanwhile, conveniently, the powered laptop charges the phone's battery.

We were certainly impressed with the handset--especially the power of its processor, the clarity of its display, its rounded design, and its compact shape. But the Atrix's laptop dock is poorly executed and seems more like a gimmick than a useful accessory. We found navigating (via the touchpad) through the various windows and views on the Webtop interface to be awkward and unwieldy.

AT&T's Motorola Atrix 4G (back)
Back view of AT&T's Motorola Atrix 4G.
The Atrix is surprisingly svelte at 0.4 inch thick, 2.5 inches wide, and 4.6 inches tall, and it weighs roughly 4.8 ounces. The front has a 4-inch qHD touchscreen display, with physical buttons beneath for menu, home, return, and search. At the top are the proximity sensor and a front-facing camera. On the right edge of the phone, you'll find only the volume rocker; on the left bottom edge are the HDMI and USB ports. A standard 3.5mm headphone jack occupies the top edge.

The Atrix is the first phone we've encountered that has a fingerprint-recognition pad built into its back. Like many laptops, the phone lets you set it up to remain locked until it recognizes your unique fingerprint slide. The surface also serves as an on/off and sleep/wake button (you press down on it). A 5-megapixel camera and flash are on the back as well, and a small speaker port is at the bottom.

Like other Motorola smartphones, the Atrix has a proprietary interface, Motoblur social media overlay software, running on top of Android 2.2 ("Froyo"). The software is designed to create an orderly presentation of your social media feeds (such as Facebook updates and new tweets), along with your Gmail messages and contacts. I found this part of the interface useful for keeping me up-to-date with my circle of friends, and it didn't get in the way of Android's crucial functions.

AT&T's Motorola Atrix 4G (lanscape).
AT&T's Motorola Atrix 4G in landscape orientation.
The Atrix's dual-core processor can achieve speeds of up to 2GHz. That extra power was apparent in the smartphone's muscle as I used it for various tasks. The Web browser moved smoothly and speedily through graphics-rich Web pages, and streaming video ran cleanly over Wi-Fi at all times. I could see the dual-core power in action while multitasking, too; even with several apps running, the Atrix functioned smoothly.

The Atrix 4G runs on AT&T's 3G HSPA+ network. AT&T op­­timistically brands the network and related devices as "4G" because--the company says--the network pumps out "4G-like" speeds, including download speeds of up to 6 mbps. With the FCC-approved Ookla tool installed on the Atrix, we tested the phone's network connection at several locations around San Francisco; in those tests we found that the phone's download speeds were consistently in the neighborhood of 2.7 mbps.

AT&T's Motorola Atrix 4G (in laptop dock)
AT&T's Motorola Atrix 4G parked in the accompanying laptop dock.
Upload speeds across our five testing locations averaged 0.3 mbps (300 kbps), a very 3G-like result. Even more dismaying were the latency times we saw: The Ookla tool consistently measured network latency--the time it takes for a packet to move from the device to an online server--at about 300 milliseconds. That's roughly six times the latency we saw in Verizon's LTE network and about a third higher than the latency in Sprint's WiMax network. The high latency number combined with the mediocre upload speed could hamper the smooth operation of apps like video chat and mobile gaming.

I was impressed with the Atrix's microphone, voice speaker, and voice software. Motorola clearly selected a high-quality microphone for the Atrix. I suspect, too, that some excellent noise-cancellation software is at work inside the phone.
This dual-core smartphone is fast, it boasts solid data transfer speeds, and the qHD display is excellent; however, the Atrix-powered laptop accessory is a good idea poorly executed.

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