Motorola Atrix HD Review: Dazzling Display, Low Price

Although the Motorola Atrix HD; is the first Android phone that Motorola has released as a Google subsidiary, it isn’t remarkably different from Motorola phones released preacquisition. That isn’t a bad thing, however: The Atrix HD is sort of a mashup of the best features from other Motorola phones.

Like the Droid Razr and Droid Razr Maxx (both on Verizon), the Atrix HD is partially constructed from Kevlar with a water-repellent nano-coating. That means the Atrix HD is especially tough: According to Motorola, Kevlar–a material found in high-end speedboats, bulletproof jackets, and bicycle tires–is five times stronger than steel. Using Kevlar on a phone seems a bit, well, weird, but I like its soft-touch surface. The rest of the phone is plastic, which is a slight downgrade from the Droid Razr’s high-quality feel.

The Atrix measures 5.26 inches tall by 2.75 inches wide; at only 0.43 inch thick, it fits easily into a pocket or handbag. It comes in either black or white–the white version being much more attractive, in my opinion. In typical Ice Cream Sandwich fashion, no physical buttons reside on the face of the phone. Instead, you get three familiar “virtual” buttons, for back, home, and recent apps.

The Atrix HD’s name comes from its screen, a 4.5-inch, 720-by-1280-pixel “HD” display. The screen also has “Color Boost” technology, which, according to Motorola, has “50 percent more pixels than the leading smartphone.” Hm, what smartphone could Motorola be talking about? I examined the Atrix HD in a quick, side-by-side comparison with the iPhone 4S and the Samsung Galaxy S III. Of the three phones, the Galaxy S III looked the most oversaturated. The Atrix HD was less so, but its colors still seemed a little off. I loaded the same picture of a group of people on each phone; on both the Atrix HD and the Galaxy S III, skin tones looked quite ruddy next to the iPhone 4S.

When it came to sharpness and clarity of detail, the Atrix HD held its own against the Galaxy S III and the iPhone 4S. Text was easy to read, and didn’t look pixelated or fuzzy. I’m not sure which “leading smartphone” Motorola is comparing the Atrix HD to in its marketing, but the phone’s display definitely earns that “HD” label.

Despite the Google relationship, this Motorola phone does not ship with Android 4.1, also known as Jelly Bean. Instead you get Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, with a Motorola-made overlay.

Like them or not, phone-manufacturer Android overlays are here to stay. The Motorola one on the Atrix HD isn’t bad, however. You can customize the unlock screen so that you can go straight to an app, such as the camera–you simply drag the unlock circle over the icon on the screen. I really like the clean look of the unlock screen, with its big, clear text and icons. You start out with two home pages for your app shortcuts and widgets, but you can add five more screens. If you want to add a page to your home screen, you have the choice of either a blank page or a page “template.”

The Atrix HD is the first Motorola phone on AT&T to ship with SmartActions, an app that can help you conserve battery life. For example, you can set a reminder to notify you when you should recharge the phone (for example, when you go to bed). If you forget to plug the phone in, you can set a Smart Action called “Nighttime Battery Saver,” which adjusts the phone’s network and screen settings to make the battery last longer the next day.

Smart Actions aren’t just about saving battery life, though. You can create different profiles (Work, Home, Workout, and so on) and set rules for each scenario. If you don’t want your phone to ring out loud when you’re at work, for instance, you can set a rule called Quiet Location to make your phone enter silent mode automatically during work hours. Overall, Smart Actions is an easy-to-use, clever app. Although you’ll have to spend a bit of time setting up the rules for each profile, Smart Actions will make all the adjustments for you once you’re finished.

A 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor powers the Atrix HD. That’s the same processor we’ve seen in the HTC One X and the Samsung Galaxy S III, both of which achieved high scores in our benchmarks. I ran Qualcomm’s Vellamo app to assess the speed of the Atrix HD; on Vellamo, the Atrix HD earned an impressive score of 2289, landing just above the HTC One X. We’ll be posting more benchmarks as soon as the Atrix HD completes testing. However, the real test of a phone’s performance is how it handles apps and video. I tried a few graphics-heavy games, including World of Goo and Osmos HD. The games ran smoothly, and looked great on the Atrix HD’s display. I never encountered any stuttering or freezing with the Atrix HD, but one native app, the camera, crashed once: When I tried to switch from still to video, the app froze up and then closed. What if I had been trying to capture a once-in-a-lifetime moment, and that happened? Not good–let’s hope that this incident was just a fluke.

Call quality in San Francisco over AT&T’s network was very good. My friends sounded clear on the other end of the line. When I stood on a bustling corner of the city, my contacts reported that they couldn’t hear any of the chatter and noise around me. The Atrix HD hooks into AT&T’s top-performing 4G LTE network. I got data speeds all over the map here in San Francisco, but in general the Atrix HD was quite fast. Using the FCC Mobile Broadband test, I recorded an average upload speed of 6.97 megabits per second and an average download speed of 0.86 mbps. These speeds are actually pretty low, however, compared with the speeds we saw from the Galaxy S III (also on AT&T), which posted an average of 23.28 mbps for uploads and 8.66 mbps for downloads. We haven’t yet completed our formal battery tests; during my hands-on time, though, the Atrix HD didn’t have the best battery life. I watched the battery drain rapidly while I played an HD video over AT&T’s 4G network, and I had to plug the phone in after about 5 hours of moderate to heavy use. We’ll update this article once our testing is complete.

I’ve never been impressed with the cameras on Motorola Android phones, and unfortunately the Atrix HD failed to change my opinion. My indoor photos looked murky and blurry, with a dark color cast. Details that appear in other smartphone photos, such as the fur of plush toys (see the example image), were obscured in the Atrix HD’s shots. My outdoor photos were a bit better, but their colors still appeared slightly muted and dark. Details weren’t sharp, either.

It is too bad that the images didn’t turn out well, because I really like the Atrix HD’s camera interface. All of the shooting modes and options are easy to find, and you have a lot of different choices for your photos. The camera has virtually no shutter lag, either, which is always ideal for a smartphone camera.

Bottom Line

If you can tolerate the not-so-great camera and the quick-draining battery, the Motorola Atrix HD is an excellent deal. Essentially, you get the high-end specs found in phones sold at double the price of the Atrix HD (for comparison, on Verizon the Motorola Droid Razr is $200, while the Razr Maxx is $300). It is refreshing to see a phone that doesn’t compromise on specs and design in pursuit of a low price. These days, “budget” doesn’t have to be synonymous with “inferior.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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