Friday, February 18, 2011

Phone as the brains of a laptop

From David Pogue.
The Motorola Atrix 4G ($200 with a two-year AT&T contract) is a beautiful, loaded, screamingly fast Android phone. The companion laptop — sleek, light, superthin, black aluminum — has no processor, memory or storage of its own. Instead, you insert the phone into a slot behind the screen hinge. The phone becomes the laptop’s brains.

That’s a powerful idea. It means, first of all, that you don’t have to sync anything. Everything lives on the phone; the laptop is simply a more convenient viewer.

It also means that when you’re sitting on a plane or at your desk, you can work with a trackpad, full screen and traditional keyboard.

And it means that your laptop is always online, thanks to the phone’s Internet connection.

Finally, it means that you have to reverse your usual thinking about battery life. The laptop is basically a giant battery. With the phone inserted, you can happily work away for eight or 10 hours on a single charge. In fact, the laptop actually charges the phone while you work. Yes, that’s correct: you’ll get off the plane with a more fully charged phone than when you got on.

Both the phone and the laptop are gorgeous. The phone has the usual Android goodies, like front and back cameras and hi-def video recording, and it uses Motorola’s MotoBlur software, which can unify the address books and messages from your various online accounts (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and e-mail).

But to make it powerful enough to drive a laptop, Motorola had to give it far more oomph than a typical phone. It has a dual-core processor, which, in English, means “faster than any phone you’ve ever used.” We are talking slick, responsive, satisfying.
All of this is so thoughtfully executed, so beautifully designed, that recommending it might seem like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, it’s ultimately a some-brainer, because there are a few flies in the Atrix ointment.

First, scrolling is a serious problem. On the phone, you scroll things with a quick swipe of your finger on the touch screen: your e-mail Inbox, your Twitter feed, your Applications list and so on. But when the phone’s in the laptop, swiping is far more difficult. While pressing down the recalcitrant clicker button, you drag one finger on the trackpad. It’s spectacularly awkward, especially because the phone frequently misinterprets the initial click as an “I want to open this app” gesture. There are Page Up/Page Down keystrokes, but they don’t function in phone apps — only in Firefox.

Second, remember that this is an Android laptop, not a Mac or Windows laptop. You can edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files very comfortably, using the built-in Quickoffice software. But you won’t be running the kinds of programs you could run on a real laptop — games, Photoshop, whatever.

Because the phone runs Flash video, you ought to be able to enjoy TV shows at But maybe because it’s phone Flash, it’s so jerky that it’s unwatchable, even on a fast Wi-Fi connection.

Third, the Internet speed isn’t what it should be. If you’re in one of the cities where AT&T has finished upgrading its network to 4G (fourth-generation equipment), you’re supposed to get superfast Internet service. In practice, though, the 4G adds nothing. Even when you test it in a 4G town like New York (as Engadget did) or Boston (as I did), the Atrix has an even slower Internet connection than a non-4G phone. (AT&T’s explanation: the 4G indicator may appear on the phone even when the area’s 4G network upgrade isn’t yet complete.)

Fourth, the phone and the laptop together cost $500 (after $100 rebate). Now, for that money, you could get a nice phone and a full-blown Windows netbook that runs faster and does it all. Of course, you lose most of the perks — a single storage gadget, eternal battery life and so on. And the netbook you buy won’t be anywhere near as beautiful as the Atrix laptop.

But it’s not just the price of the hardware. To use the browser on the laptop, you’re required to pay AT&T an additional $20 a month — a “tethering plan.”

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