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Double Feature: Motorola’s Phone-Laptop Combo Is a Mixed Bag

All the high-end phones coming out these days match up pretty closely on features. So how about something totally different — a phone that doubles as the guts for a full-sized laptop?

The Motorola Atrix is a 4G Android phone for AT&T that performs well enough on its own, but it’s also available with one crazy-unique accessory: a laptop-shaped dock. There’s no additional processing power in the laptop, but with the phone piggybacking on the laptop’s rear hinge, your tiny device instantly gains a much more human-sized interface: a big keyboard and a big screen.

It turns out this is better in concept than in execution, and the dock is a bit too expensive for most, but we give Motorola points for going against the grain.

First, the phone. The Atrix is one of the nicest Android phones I’ve used. As a piece of hardware, it’s marvelous. The back is thin plastic, which may turn some off, but I found the weight and feel to be just about perfect. The screen could be bigger, but at 4 inches, it’s certainly big enough. The image is bright and sharp. And it’s Gorilla Glass, so it has a pleasing feel. Perhaps most importantly, the Atrix passes the pocket test — it’s comfortable in my front pocket and my keys couldn’t scratch it up.

There are two cameras, of course, with a 5-megapixel sensor and an LED flash on the back. The quality of photos and HD videos is only OK, not spectacular but about as nice as others in this generation of smartphones.

The sleep/wake button is at the very top-center of the phone, and — this is very cool — it doubles as a fingerprint sensor. To my surprise, it actually works quite well. You can set it up to unlock the screen with a swipe of your left or right index finger, and most of the time, it recognized me on the first swipe. I passed it around to friends every change I got, and nobody else could unlock it.

Inside, there’s a 1 GHz dual core processor, which supplies some serious brawn. Scrolling through apps and web pages is very fast, and with very few exceptions, the response time for the pinch-to-zoom and double-tap-to-zoom interactions is the fastest I’ve seen on an Android phone. I installed mobile Firefox, and even though the pre-release browser is sluggish on other phones, it was snappy on the Atrix. Video playback is flawless. It’s only running Froyo (Android 2.2), so you’ll have to wait for that Gingerbread update.

Motorola has loaded its Motoblur skin on top of Android, and it adds some nice customizable conveniences like the ability to see recent messages and social updates inside little widgets on the phone’s desktop. You can also set up one-tap tweeting, automated photo publishing, quick access to media playlists and a stack of favorite contacts. Motoblur does bake the social experience into the phone on a deep level, so you can kill the widgets if the social web isn’t your bag.

Now, about that HSPA+ 4G radio: Your results will obviously vary depending on where you live and the availability of 4G in your neck of the woods, but even here in San Francisco where our AT&T network is notoriously sucktastic, I got data speeds noticeably faster than my iPhone 4. It also held calls better — no drops! — and calls connected in just a few seconds. I took it with me on a trip north into the wilds of Marin county, and even in places where the iPhone 4 and other AT&T 3G phones couldn’t get a signal, the Atrix showed two bars and had no problem completing calls or sending and receiving data.

The Atrix can also be used as a mobile hotspot, which works exactly as advertised, though AT&T tacks on an additional $20 monthly fee to your data plan. To access a piece of functionality that’s built into the phone, that’s super weak.

We did our standard battery run-down test — playing a video on a loop with the brightness cranked and all the radios on — and the Atrix lasted a little over six hours. It was the same when slaved to an HDTV via the phone’s HDMI port. Just making calls, browsing the web, using apps and talking to some Bluetooth speakers, it lasts well into the second day without needing a recharge.

So here you have a solid phone that’s well worth the price: $200 with a 2-year contract, $600 on its own.

There are a few docks available — a multimedia dock, the big laptop dock and an automotive dock (which we didn’t test).

The multimedia dock seems superfluous. It has an HDMI port and USB ports for a keyboard, but you get an HDMI cable with the phone, and you can just as easily use a Bluetooth keyboard, so really, the dock mostly just props your phone up while it charges. It does come with a remote you can use to browse your multimedia when you have the Atrix connected to an HDTV, but you can also use the phone’s touchscreen. The dock costs $130, or you can buy a version that comes with a wireless keyboard and mouse — both of which are quite nice — for $190.

The laptop dock is more exciting, but it’s $600 — or $500 if you take advantage of the Atrix’s launch promotion, which requires you to buy the phone and the dock together and sign up for the top-tier $45 monthly data plan.

Whether or not that’s a good deal depends on how you work, what sort of software you require, and what you like to carry when you travel.

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