Motorola Atrix HD Review: The Mid-Range Gets Good

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Jared Newman /

Six months ago, Motorola’s Atrix HD could have been the cream of the crop among AT&T Android phones. The fact that it’s not is a testament to how quickly the smartphone market moves.

Although the Atrix HD has many of the hallmarks of a high-end phone, including a 1.5 GHz dual-core processor, 720p display and 8-megapixel camera, AT&T is selling the Atrix HD for a mere $100 with a two-year contract, which is half the price of HTC’s One X and Samsung’s Galaxy S III.

(MORE: HTC One S Review: A Winning Android Phone for Shutterbugs and T-Mobile Customers)

While the Atrix HD may look like a steal at first glance, lower price comes with a few big trade-offs.

In similar fashion to Motorola’s Droid Razr on Verizon, the Atrix is mostly covered in plastic, with splash protection inside and out, and tapers from a reasonably thin 0.33 inches into a massive bulge where the camera resides. It’s also a wide phone, due to the large bezel on either side of the display.

The whole package feels bulkier than its 4.5-inch screen suggests. Also, the Kevlar strip on the back of the Atrix HD may be a clever marketing gimmick, but it’s terrible in practice. The material becomes scuffed much too easily, and my attempt to remove a sticker that was inexplicably appended to the Kevlar resulted in permanent tearing. (UPDATE: Silly me. As reader Cody points out below, that’s a plastic coating. Much better now.)

A couple things about the design offset those frustrations: Just like Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus, the Atrix HD’s software navigation buttons are part of the screen. This is the way Android phones are supposed to be, yet Samsung and HTC have stuck with capacitive buttons below the screen for their flagship phones. When you factor the on-screen buttons into the Atrix’s 4.5-inch display, you get a workable area that’s much smaller than the Galaxy S III and One X, and is easier to operate with one hand. And yet, the smaller screen maintains a gorgeous 720p resolution, just like its larger rivals.

The software feels just as breezy to use as the hardware. Like most other phone makers, Motorola puts its own tweaks on top the Android operating system, but the changes feel less burdensome than any Moto phone to date, suggesting that the company has already learned some lessons from its new overlords at Google.

Android 4.0 is quite smooth on the Atrix HD, and one of my pet peeves with earlier Motorola phones is gone: When you hold a finger down on the home screen and drag it left or right, the phone now continues to track your finger movement, instead of automatically flipping the page and ignoring where your finger goes next. Even AT&T’s bloatware is minimally intrusive, relegated to a single folder on the home screen by default.

Motorola’s software adds some nice touches, such as the bubbly home screen widget that shows time, date, weather and either battery life or data usage. Motorola’s “Smart Actions” are also on board, letting you change the phone’s behavior under certain conditions. For instance, you can automatically silence the phone at night (or accept calls from VIPs only), launch a special driving mode when you connect to your car via Bluetooth or use different ring tones and call settings at home and at work.

The experience feels rather polished until you start using the Atrix HD’s camera. Although outdoor photos came out fine, indoor shots had a grainy, yellow tint with flash turned off, and a blue tint with flash on. The shutter is at times sluggish compared to Samsung’s and HTC’s flagship phones, and the camera lacks helpful bells and whistles such as face detection and HDR photography. It’s proof that megapixels aren’t everything.

Battery life was also a letdown. With moderate use, it’s enough to get through the day, but after three hours of solid web browsing on a cellular connection, the Atrix HD’s battery was toast. On another occasion, 90 minutes of turn-by-turn directions consumed more than 60 percent of the battery. It’s a shame that Motorola didn’t bring the monster battery life of the Razr Maxx over to the Atrix HD, especially considering that it’s being pitched as a phone for business users. (Motorola primarily makes that claim due to government-grade encryption for e-mail, contacts and calendar, and a mirror mode via HDMI output for presentations.)

One final downside is the phone’s meager 8 GB of built-in storage, which is actually only 5 GB once you factor in the operating system. The good news is there are no restrictions on app storage space, as found in some earlier Android phones, and you can throw in a MicroSD card for more storage if needed.

If you don’t care about the Atrix HD’s middling camera and battery life, or its design flaws, go ahead and pocket this phone, along with the $100 extra you would have spent on AT&T’s higher-priced offerings. If camera and design are more important to you than display sharpness and software smoothness, and you can’t spend the extra dough, consider Samsung’s Galaxy S II (or the 4G LTE Skyrocket version) as an alternative. It’s not a bad time to shop in the mid-range.

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