Revisited: the Motorola Atrix

Daniel Bader

December 11, 2011 5:23 pm

It’s been nearly a year since the Motorola Atrix was announced at CES, and ten months since it was released in Canada. At the time it was running Motoblur on top of Android 2.2 Froyo, and while the hardware blew us away, the software definitely did not.

Since then, three things have happened: 1) It received an upgrade to Gingerbread, which completely overhauled its software and gave it a huge performance boost. 2) Its bootloader was unlocked, allowing for custom ROMs, kernels and recoveries. 3) It’s been surpassed time and time again by its competitors, including some more recent Motorola devices.

But to its credit the Atrix, with its 4″ qHD display, 1Ghz dual-core Tegra 2 processor, 1GB RAM, 16GB internal storage and huge 1930mAh battery, has survived the onslaught of time pretty well.

First, let’s go over what has held up well. Since its launch every major ARM-based manufacturer, from Qualcomm to Texas Instruments to Samsung, has released a dual-core solution. And even NVIDIA’s own Tegra 2, with which the Atrix was the first to launch in phone form, is about to be supplanted by the quad-core Tegra 3. But dual-core 1Ghz still feels fast, and using the Atrix now is not a significant step down from the latest Snapdragon or OMAP.

This is aided by the fact that the Atrix included 1GB of RAM when the rest of the industry was pumping out phones with half that number. Multitasking still feels effortless and fluid. The included 16GB storage has also aged well: there isn’t a single Android phone on the market that ships with more than that.

The Atrix’s speed practically doubled overnight when Bell released the Gingerbread update in August. In truth, though, I installed Android 2.3 long before that, when enterprising hackers unlocked the device’s bootloader and discovered, hidden in plain sight on Motorola’s servers, early builds of the eventual upgrade. Not only was it a big aesthetic change — they did away with most of Froyo’s ugly, blocky design choices — but Motorola injected some magic into the kernel, as the device just flew.

Then came CyanogenMOD7. From being one of the most locked-down devices on the market emerged a piece of versatile hardware that now has a vibrant development community. CM7 changed the way I used the Atrix, giving it the same enormous feature set as the other 50+ handsets supported by the custom ROM.

And, whether you’re running a custom stock-based ROM or CM7, various kernel improvements have helped developers push the capabilities of the 1930mAh battery to unbelievable levels. The Atrix is still, by far, the longest-lasting Android device I’ve ever used. I can easily get two days of use from it.

Physically, the Atrix hasn’t aged so well. Stout even at its release, it feels practically bloated now. We know now the extra girth was needed to accomodate the huge battery, but its plastic body and flimsy battery cover have since been condemned to the “2010 design faux pas” category.

I still think that its 4″ screen size makes for a very comfortable experience —  far better than the 4.3″ – 4.6″ variety. The qHD screen is a slim 16:9 ratio, so the Atrix is easy to hold between two fingers. The quality of the screen, however, leaves a LOT to be desired. This is the area in which Motorola has fallen the farthest behind — even on their latest handset — and after using the Galaxy Nexus and Optimus LTE extensively, the PenTile-inclined Atrix looks practically terrible. With inaccurate colours and poor viewing angles, not to mention practically unreadable text at its furthest zoom, we’re happy these days are behind us.

Moving on, the Atrix is a great phone. No, I mean an actual phone: sound quality from the earpiece and speaker is still best-in-class. Fundamentally, this makes it a mean business phone. It’s got all those great Motorola business features such as built-in certificates and extensive vendor VPN support. And remember, it has that unique fingerprint scanner that has yet to make it, for better or worse, to any other smartphone.

The camera on the Atrix still sucks. That won’t change, and as other manufacturers make improvements to their optics the Atrix will begin looking even worse in comparison. Focus is slow, low-light quality atrocious and photos overall lack detail and colour.

But with the Gingerbread update came a nice bonus: 1080p video recording. Though it took a third-party app to actually capture video at such a high resolution, today we have a phone that captures decent true HD at 24fps.

The Atrix was one of the first Android handsets to come with an HDMI-out port, capable of transmitting a 1080p signal to your home theatre system. And while it came with a Webtop and HDMI dock, sold separately, its built-in HDMI mirroring feature was enough for most people.

The Atrix, nearly a year later, is still going strong. Countless Android handsets have been released since March, boasting improved internal specs, sharper screens and better build quality. But then, as now, Bell’s first superphone still retains many of the qualities that made it such a compelling device to begin with.

  • Sean

    Cool to see this article on the phone a year later. With the long contracts we have it’s good to get a phone that can stand the test of time. Hope to see more of these in the future =D

  • Dizz

    It’s now 0$ on a 2 YEAR contract. Great price. I hate those damn Canadian 3-year contacts

  • Reterp

    Got mine on release day and been hacking and slashing at it and the thing is still going strong, CM7 with faux 1.45GHZ kernel, a full day and a half of battery under heavy use. The atrix is a tank.

  • Anish Chari

    I was one of the early adopters. I have to agree with just about everything in the article.

    Gingerbread was nice, but CM7 has been even better. Yes the camera still sucks however.
    I use the Car Dock, and it is one of the best parts about the Atrix since you don’t have to plug anything in, just drop the phone into the cradle.
    I’ve never used the Lapdock or the multimedia dock, which seem to be a complete waste of money. I have pre-ordered a Transformer Prime which will be far better for my mobile needs I think.

    I don’t mind the screen at all, but I don’t have much to compare it too. I am happy with my purchase at the time (June 2011), the SGII had yet to come out and would have been my preferred phone. Let’s hope CM9 will support the Atrix.

  • Sam P

    I’m currently using an atrix running the latest nightly of cm7 and I love it. My only gripe is the screen. Not only does it have sub par viewing angles and pixelation issues it gets scratched easily. Carrying my atrix in my pocket with nothing else in it has the screen covered in scratches. I thought most manufacturers uses Gorilla glass by now.

    Still, all in all it’s a great phone made MUCH better by cm7.

  • RedArmada

    While this review is well written and I love seeing these “revisited” articles I have to say my experience with the Atrix has been nothing short of terrible. I am currently on my fourth Atrix. Bell has replaced it three times so far (after the lengthy 4-6week wait) while they diagnose the problem only to decide its unfixable and send me a new one. Beyond that even after the gingerbread update the UI lags far more than something with a dual core and 1GB of RAM should. As for battery life I have never been able to get more than 9 hours of light to moderate use from any of the 4 models I have owned. Perhaps I have had terrible luck with this phone, but I just wanted to share my experience.

    • cybik

      Might I suggest modding it to kingdom come?

  • SG

    I have to agree with last post. I find my ATRIX laggy at times, too. Battery is wonky with the charge/discharge cycle in terms of consistent read of remaining available power. But in terms of use, if it is light to moderate with GPS and BT off, I can go from 07:00 to 22:00 without trouble, with still some reserve. I don’t mind the screen either; I had a HTC Sensation prior to the ATRIX, and although I know they use the same/similar technology, I find the quality and sharpness of the Atrix night-n-day better.

  • Mathieu

    Nice article.

    My Nexus One is still a really good phone when you spend time to customize it.
    It’s not a Galaxy Nexus but it’s hard to let it go after nearly 2 years of loyal service.

  • Slype

    Okay, so MobSyr is a great site for reviews and now they’ve been running these “X days later” articles which give a true view into the phones. I was so tempted by the Atrix back then but I’m with different carrier so it was not meant to be. Great article!

  • MrMarvelous

    Love revisited articles. Doing very well Mobile Syrup, keep it up!

  • MrMarvelous

    Just need an edit function in the comments lol.

    I am not familiar with the fingerprint scanner, I mean I heard of it, but how does it fare in practice?

    • Studystand

      works great assuming you stay away from custom ROMs

  • Tatperson

    The fingerprint scanner works very well for me, even when my hands are wet!

    • MrMarvelous

      Appreciate the response. I wish more mobiles incorporated this feauture. I just watched a demo of it on YouTube, and I gotta say it seems equal parts cool and functional!

  • Studystand

    I really like the ‘Revisited’ articles you guys write. I’ve had my fair share of experiences with the Atrix and have only just recently left it for an iPhone. Before CM7 development I found that I was enjoying much more of the features that the Atrix had to offer (HDMI, webtop over HDMI mod, fingerprint scanner) but found that it functioned poorly as a cellphone. After installing CM7 (as an early adopter, all the way up to ‘CM7 ba2tf’) the phone aspect functioned beautifully but lost its extra features (fingerprint scanner & webtop was not supported). I hated the qHD screen and it’s Gorilla Glass coating made it *extremely* fingerprint friendly. Battery life was average, which is surprising with its 1930mAH battery but I assume the Tegra 2 processor isn’t the greatest when it comes down to power consumption. I disagree with the “great phone” bit, I found that the microphone quality was poor and after online research noticed I was not the only one with this issue. Camera quality (front & back) was absolute crap, as you mentioned especially at a time when it was competing with the iPhone. Still, the specifications and features of this phone did not go unnoticed and truly future proofed the device. If only the development community was larger I think this phone would have been near perfect. MIUI was recently released & hopefully CM9 development will go smoothly. I’ll probably be either on the Galaxy Nexus or SGSII. This phone was/is truly a beast and to this day competes spec-wise with recent phones.

  • jj harshness

    I love my motorola atrix, i got it when it first came out and i still use it today. although i do own a sensation and i am soon to be picking up the galaxy nexus, i still will keep that atrix beside me. there is just something about it that i cant put down!

  • Deli

    now that atrix got the GB update and unlocked BL, it’s a great budget choice for sure. the 1930mah battery takes the cake. I chose this phone for my mom for its above avg screen, great performance, relatively compact size, and a strong battery!

  • planetmike

    I liked this phone very much when it came out. Too bad these and other Motorola phones never made it to US T-Mobile network. Any chance this phone will get ICS?

  • Daddy-Chicken

    I loved my Atrix. It has served me very well. I had tried the Sensation, the Samsung GS2, and neither were right for me. The custom ROMs for this phone are fantastic. I enjoy Aura with the overclocked kernel. Great device, that is still relevant today. Yes, the camera is not a great attribute of this device. But the 4″ screen despite the Pentile Matrix is pretty good.

  • joe ferreira

    i have been involved in the bootloader locking project, and am a proud member of the atrix dev team on xda that brings cyanogenmod to the atrix. thanks for this great article. hopefully cm9 will be a reality soon that everyone can enjoy.

  • Tyler

    “built-in HDMI mirroring”

    How do I enable HDMI mirroring? When I plug in via HDMI I can launch the Motorola entertainment Center and thats it. With the docks I can launch web top or entertainment center or widget clock. Mirroring would be great! how do you do it?