BLADE ILLUSTRATION/TOM FISHER EnlargeSAN FRANCISCO — I wrote part of this column on a telephone. No, really. Well, sort of.
The phone in question is the new Atrix 4G from Motorola Mobility Holdings. To be honest, I didn’t actually do any writing on the Atrix’s four-inch touchscreen. Instead, I used the new Motorola Laptop Dock, which converts the phone, Transformers- style, into the brain of a netbook computer.
These are challenging times for AT&T, which has lost its role as the exclusive U.S. source for Apple’s iPhone and needs to generate some buzz to counter the iPhone’s arrival on archrival Verizon Wireless’s network.
While the Atrix is no iPhone-killer, it does deserve a little buzz. Yes, it’s on the costly side, it’s kind of geeky and its audience may be a bit narrow — after all, how many people really need a new phone and a new computer at exactly the same time? — but it’s also innovative and, with a few exceptions, well-designed.
What makes the Atrix plausible as a netbook replacement is the growing power being packed into smartphones. Many of the phone’s specifications, including a dual-core processor and a gigabyte of memory, aren’t out of place in an inexpensive laptop.
The Atrix, which costs $199.99 with a two-year AT&T contract, is of a piece with the quality handsets Motorola has been producing since it bet its future on Google’s Android operating system two years ago. It includes a 5-megapixel rear camera with dual LED flash that’s also capable of shooting high- resolution video, a front-facing camera to allow video calling, and even a fingerprint reader. Unlike the iPhone, it will display content that uses Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash technology.
The Atrix is, in other words, a very nice smartphone. But there are lots of very nice smartphones these days. What sets this one apart is the laptop dock. AT&T is selling it in a bundle including the phone for $499.99 after a $100 rebate; it requires an extra $20-a-month data-tethering plan that also lets the phone share its Internet connection via Wi-Fi with other nearby devices.
The dock consists of an 11.6-inch screen, a near-full-sized keyboard, a large trackpad, two mouse buttons and two USB ports. It weighs less than three pounds with the phone and is quite useless without it.
To activate the dock, you plug the Atrix into a cradle that folds out from behind the screen. Immediately, the laptop comes to life. A replica of the phone’s screen gives you access to all its functions and apps. You can also surf the Web with Mozilla’s Firefox browser, while a rudimentary file manager lets you locate and navigate through information on the phone as if it were a PC.
The dock provides you with a number of productivity options. The phone itself comes preloaded with QuickOffice, an app that lets you create or open Microsoft Office-compatible files. You can also use Firefox to access Google Docs or Microsoft’s Office Web Apps, which offer word processing, spreadsheet and other software that runs in the cloud -- on distant Internet servers -- rather than locally on your own device.
In practice, you probably won’t want to write the Great American Novel on the Atrix dock. Among other things, printing from it is easiest if you have a wireless printer, which not everyone does. Still, it works very well for tweaking a presentation or memo, surfing the Web or updating your Facebook status.
The dock has its own battery and will recharge the Atrix even if it isn’t plugged into the wall. So if you manage to exhaust the phone’s battery -- Motorola claims nine hours of talk time -- you can pop it in for an emergency jolt.
The principal drawbacks I encountered centered around how you can, or can’t, use the phone while it’s docked. Making or receiving calls automatically puts the Atrix into speaker-phone mode, with the sound coming out of the dock’s stereo speakers. While incoming calls were clear, they were also quiet, even with the volume turned up as high as it would go.
Moreover, callers consistently complained that I sounded muffled and distant unless I closed the laptop. In addition, because the screen blocks the phone and the dock has no camera, you can’t use it for video calls.
Besides the laptop dock, Motorola is also offering a $189.99 entertainment kit that provides a wireless keyboard and mouse, remote control and multimedia dock that lets you toss the phone’s contents onto your big-screen TV.
Some people, I suspect, won’t see much advantage in all this expandability. In particular, the $500 price on the laptop dock if you buy it separately from the phone makes little sense when the same amount of money can net you a more-than-adequate laptop that comes with its own brain and doesn’t have to borrow your phone’s.
Still, as smartphones grow ever more powerful and ubiquitous, expect to see more blurring of distinctions among mobile devices. The Atrix is clearly at the forefront of the trend.