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funkyfresh mobile

Motorola ATRIX Review: A Real World Switch to Android on AT&T

Bottom line: Conflicted.  I want to return the phone. In fact, I may do so this weekend. But in the end I may stay with it because of 4G and hotspot.

Why I switched from the iPhone
My old iPhone 3GS was old, cracked, and the radios where failing. I have owned an iPhone 3GS since its release in June of 2009 (and the iPhone 3 for 12 months before that). Setting aside the fact that a 20-month-old smartphone seems as ancient and outmoded as 1967 SS Chevelle, my old dear friend, the iPhone, just wasn’t cutting it.

I started to have feature envy. But my biggest gripe? I just wanted to reliably hold an old school hour-long phone conversation without dropping the call.
Why I chose the Motorola ATRIX

First it was the network.
I am a long-time customer of AT&T. I have read the engineering reports about AT&T’s superior network quality, and I believe droves of iPhone users sick of their iPhones performance will switch to Verizon. Ultimately, I just think a shift in market-share from AT&T to Verizon will enable AT&T customers to see better performance. After deciding what network I would use, I took a look at the smartphone offering.

Second, it was about 4G and hotspot
I needed a hotspot capability. See I have an iPad but it doesn’t have the 3G cellular data feature. I noticed my iPad changed the way I used my smartphone. I found myself using my iPad around the house, A-LOT! I was checking my calendar, my email, and updating my facebook on the iPad instead of on the phone. I was reading the news, and checking the weather on my iPad. I was using my iPad when I went out to eat (solo). I was watching movies and reading books. All things I used to do regularly on the smartphone. But I was limited, in that my iPhone didn’t have its own data capability. I had to find a WiFi hotspot, or I wasn’t connected. I needed to have a hotspot capability and I wanted to be surging at decent speeds. Oh, did I mention the ATRIX is 4G?

Third, it was about features
Like people used to look at my smartphone with envy, I noticed that I was looking at my friends and colleagues android phones with envy. I saw the high quality cameras. I saw how responsive the user interface was. I heard how configurable the android’s audible notifications where. I saw how large the screens where. I read the statistics and trends about how many people where moving to android. I was feeling that the iPhone was a little stale. How little they have evolved in my 3 years with them.

ATRIX Phone quality

Fit and finish
The phone itself isn’t ugly. It’s ok. The device feels a little sloppy. It’s like the difference between a child’s fake plastic bowling ball and a real bowling ball. You know the ole density thing. It’s not that things rattle around, it just feels a little, ah, “plastic” a little less “solid” than my old iPhone. Where I loathed covering my old iPhone up because I enjoyed its “industrial art” factor. I actually think the ATRIX’s look and feel improves with the “body glove” cover I have been using.

Battery life
Battery life with the ATRIX is horrible. Our funkyFresh editor and I have been at odds about the merits of a dual-core processor in a handheld smartphone for a few months. However, having lived with the dual core ATRIX for a while now and testing other modern Android devices, I just don’t feel or see the improved performance. However, I do see that my battery life sucks just as bad on the ATRIX as it did on my iPhone.

I like that I can swap the battery out without a visit to the surgical ward (as is required with an iPhone). But I don’t like that I can barely make to evening off an overnight charge. In my humble opinion, dual core in a phone is feature bloat. While on the subject of battery don’t get me started about the few times I have woken to an inexplicably un-charged phone that has been plugged in all night, is still plugged in, yet the phone indicates very little charge and that its not currently charging. WTF?

Radios

Voice calling and dropped calls
During phone conversations, people generally have noticed an improvement in sound quality over what they had been used to off my iPhone, reporting fairly frequently that my voice sounds “clear” and “close”. Background and wind noise have generally not been an issue. Echo’s and matrix style digital distortion have diminished some. But calls go silent for periods of time and drop too much. When the calls drop, they do so abruptly, and do so without any audible alert. So its tough to know when the silence you hear is because the connection has dropped (a hard failure) or when the connection exists but is temporarily unusable (a soft failure).

I do seem to get about 1 more “bar” of signal strength on average than what I used to get on my iPhone. However, this hasn’t translated into more reliable phone calls. In fact, I think I have had more frequent call drops (both hard and soft)on the ATRIX than I had on the iPhone. Note: my major gripe with the iPhone was dropped calls. Maybe those engineering studies just miss the mark. Are we simply asking too much to have wireless service that at least approaches POTS quality given that many of us don’t even have land lines any more? How about by 2015? 2020? What’s reasonable?

4g VS. 3g EDGE
WOW. 4G data is awesome. I regularly experience real world 2.5Mbps down. It does feel like there is some lag between when I click and when I begin to receive my data. But once the stream starts coming in, it comes fast. My downstream data speeds tend to be better with my 4G phone than my WIFI hotspot in the garage. (Note: this is because my WAP is in my garage on the far side of my house from family room and bedroom where I usually use the WIFI connection. This is NOT the case when I am near the WAP in my office or my garage)

Although 4G generally feels like a low quality WIFI experience it far exceeded my expectations. The old “EDGE” was pretty much worthless and I can’t got back. 4G is now a requirement for me.

Bluetooth
Bluetooth sound quality is better on my ATRIX than it was on my iPhone. The Bluetooth data connection (my car has a feature that syncs with my smartphone when I start it) is about 20% faster. However the Bluetooth feature set on the ATRIX connection itself is buggy. I have lost pairings, and sometimes changing pairings caused the phone to crash. Sometimes I have missed calls I have tried to control off the attached Bluetooth device (my car and my headset).

Android OS

User experience is scattered
For me, behind the radios and the network, the next important thing on a smartphone is the user interface. It’s partially aesthetic and driven by art, colors, themes and wallpapers. But the most important thing is fast and intuitive access to everything.

I want what I want with as little work as possible. I don’t want to go through 3-4-5 levels of menus to get an answer. I don’t want to have to go to a hard key, to bring up a menu, to press a soft menu button to bring up some other menu, to choose another menu item, and then find a page that lets me do something.

Android has to be configured, a lot, to work
On the iPhone my calendar icon showed the date. I pressed the calendar icon to manage my calendar. On the Android, I have a calendar icon, but the date is static, it’s always set to “31”. If I want the date at a glance, I can run a widget that has the date in it, I can run live wallpaper that displays the date, I can open the calendar to see the date. But the iPhone solution was elegant, simple, effective, and best of all, I didn’t have to solve the problem. The UI gurus at Apple solved it for me. With Apple it just works. Now you might think that this is a very nitpicky thing to write about, and you would be correct. But multiply this gripe by 50 and the sum of those gripes leads me to conclude, that Android will continue to lag far behind Apple when it comes to user interface design.

Open OS
On the other hand, there is a lot to like about the openness of the Android OS. If you want that level of openness with an iPhone, you have to jailbreak and that’s just a plain old hack. With Android, you get built in freedom and openness. Plug your Android into your computer with a USB cord and your computer mounts the file system and gives you freedom tweak. I like this. I like the openness. I think it’s good. But I can’t stop eeling that this openness is the root cause of the sloppy and haphazard UI.

So Verizon how’s that 4G iPhone coming along?

-- Jeff Brock 
Jeff is an enterprise architect for  jetBLue and funkyfresh contributor.

Visit Motorola for more information.

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