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

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InfoWorld has been putting the major contenders up against Apple's iPhone for several years, and the iPhone handily has won each time. But with Motorola Mobility's new Atrix 4G smartphone, the iPhone's reign may be coming to a close.

The Atrix is in several key ways superior to the iPhone, though it has some idiotic flaws that cost it major points in the competition. When all is said and done, the Atrix and iPhone essentially tie, and the choice between them comes down to the unique capabilities of each and how they matter to your work needs, as well as your preferences regarding the devices' different user interfaces.

[ Find out how well the Atrix performs as a "lite" PC when docked to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. | See all of InfoWorld's mobile deathmatch comparisons and personalize the scores to your needs. | Compare the security and management capabilities of iOS, Windows Phone 7, Android, and more in InfoWorld's Mobile Management Deep Dive PDF report. ]

When you add optional equipment to the Atrix, it transforms from a smartphone into a "lite" PC, becoming the first phone that can act as a PC. As I explain in my article "Can the Atrix 4G really become your next PC?," this first example of a mobile computer that adjusts as you dock it to peripherals is just the first step in that evolution -- but it's an important development and will be attractive to many users.

As "just" a smartphone, the Atrix is pretty amazing as well.

Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contacts For testing, I used a personal IMAP account, a personal POP account, a personal Gmail account, and a work Exchange 2007 account. Both devices work directly with IMAP and Gmail, as well as with POP; my email, email folders, calendars, and contacts all flowed effortlessly among the smartphones, my laptop, and the server.

Both devices try to autodetect your settings wherever possible, but the Atrix was typically unsuccessful. In manual mode, I spent hours trying to get it to send emails from my POP and IMAP accounts, logging failure after failure. After comparing the Atrix's settings to a standard-UI Google Nexus One device, I found the cause: Motorola Mobility's MotoBlur kept overriding my manual settings to add a user name to the SMTP settings, even though neither my POP nor IMAP Internet service providers use one for authentication. That unwanted information essentially caused both servers to reject the mail being sent from the Atrix.

The Nexus One, which uses the plain-vanilla Google Android OS (both the Atrix and Nexus One run the Froyo 2.21 version), lets you disable such authentication, and it had no trouble sending email from both accounts. For the record, neither did Motorola Mobility's own Xoom tablet, reviewed here. The iPhone (I tested the Verizon Wireless version running iOS 4.26) also handles these accounts without issue. This "I know better than you do" override is a major problem -- and emblematic of flaws throughout the MotoBlur interface, which cannot be removed or disabled -- that will make the Atrix unusable for many people's email accounts.

Setting up Exchange access on both devices was also simple. Unlike most Android smartphones, the Atrix supports on-device encryption, so it easily connected to our corporate server and met the Exchange ActiveSync policy requirements. My contacts and calendars flowed into the Atrix's apps, and the email was available through the Arix's Messaging app and, after some delay, in the Email app.

But it took me quite a while to realize the Messaging app housed my Exchange email. First, I looked for an app called Corporate Mail, which other Motorola Mobility Android devices use to access Exchange (though it only works with unsecured Exchange accounts). There was no such app, so I sought out Corporate Sync, the name of the service you complete when you first configure the Atrix to get Exchange email -- no luck there either. I also tried the Messaging app on the home screen, but it showed just text messages.

I finally saw both a Messaging and a Text Messaging app in the apps page, so I tried that Messaging app -- voilà! I finally got my Exchange email. I added the Messaging app to the home screen to get easy access to my Exchange email. An hour or so later, I saw an option in the Email app to switch the email it displayed (it can display just one account at a time, unlike the Messaging app); one of the options was my Exchange email.

Talk about a confusing mess! Welcome to MotoBlur.

Email messages. Working with emails is a bit easier on the iPhone than on the Atrix -- it keeps all the options right in front of you on the screen and it better integrates multiple email accounts. And the white-on-black text of the Android UI is harder to read, especially in daylight.

In both devices, you can reply, forward, mark as unread, delete, and move messages while reading them. You can also delete and move emails to folders from the message lists. On the iPhone, you can easily delete individual messages from the email list: Swipe to the left and tap Delete on the iPhone. On the Atrix, you long-tap (that is, tap and hold) the message to get a menu of options such as Delete and Open.

Both the iPhone and Atrix let you search emails. You scroll up on the iPhone to reveal the search box; on the Atrix you tap the Search button and begin typing (no search box appears, but don't let that stop you). In both cases, messages that match your results appear. The iPhone lets you constrain your search to the To, From, or Subject fields; the Atrix has no such control.

Getting to the top of your email list isn't so obvious in on the iPhone, though it is easy: Tap the top of the screen. On the Atrix, use the standard Android method of scrolling the list and then pulling the slider tab that appears to the top. You can use the slider to move to the bottom or to move quickly to specific letters (which appear as you scroll). The iPhone has no such navigation aids.

In general, Android devices favor small text that is hard to read for my middle-aged eyes, and they offer few controls to ameliorate their youth-oriented design. The iPhone lets you specify the text size in its Settings app, and its Retina high-res display is so much clearer than the Atrix's display that small type is easier to read on the iPhone. The Atrix does provide text-size controls for its email apps, but with a limited range of options that are still on the small side.

Next page: How they manage email

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