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More powerful than iPhone: It’s the Atrix

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / February 10, 2011

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I’m watching a YouTube video as I type this, with an occasional glance at my Facebook page for the latest updates. I just squeezed in a quick phone call to my wife.

Just a typical day at the office, except I’m doing all of this on one of the most anticipated smartphones to be released this year. It’s the Atrix 4G, just lent to me by Motorola Mobility Inc.

I will hate to give it back.

The Atrix, which runs Google Inc.’s popular Android operating system, is surely the most muscular multitasking platform that ever fit into a shirt pocket. Attach it to the optional docking station, with its keyboard and 11.6-inch screen, and the Atrix 4G becomes a capable, light-duty computer that also makes phone calls.

Remember the netbook craze of a couple years back? Well, here we go again, only this time it has speed dial.

Only AT&T Inc. will sell the Atrix 4G in the United States, a nice consolation for having to share its formerly exclusive Apple iPhone franchise with Verizon Wireless. The Atrix is priced the same as the iPhone 4 — $199.99 with a two-year service contract — and AT&T says it will start selling it sometime before March 6.

It is a far more powerful phone than Apple’s iPhone 4. The Atrix features a dual-core processor chip. In effect, you get two processors in one, just the thing for running lots of apps simultaneously. It also has a full gigabyte of memory for running programs, on top of 16 gigs for storing documents, music, photos, and videos. And you can shove in 32 gigs more.

The Atrix calls itself a 4G device, meaning it is compatible with the latest upgrade to AT&T’s current 3G data network. The new service is supposed to haul data much faster than the 1.5 million bits per second you would expect from 3G. But here at the Globe, 3G speed was exactly what I got.

The Atrix also has an on-off button that can read your fingerprint, ensuring that only you can use the phone. Pretty flashy, but in most respects, the Atrix is a typical high-end Android.

So what is the reason for all the buzz? I’m typing on it right now: the docking station, a 2.4-pound device that resembles an unusually thin laptop. It is so sleek because it has just a video screen, keyboard, and battery. There’s no processor or memory — that stuff is in the Atrix phone, the brains of this outfit.

Snap the phone into the slot behind the docking station screen, and you have a slick little portable computer. Motorola will charge $499.99 for the Atrix and its laptop dock, a promotional price the company may raise.

When the phone is plugged in, its screen appears in a “mobile view’’ window. All your Android apps are easily controlled with keyboard and mouse. Dial a phone call, and the Atrix runs in speakerphone mode. You can also use a Bluetooth headset for privacy.

The rest of the screen’s real estate is given over to the webtop, a custom user interface developed by Motorola. There is a Firefox browser to run all sorts of Web-based applications. For example, I’m using the word processor in Google Docs to write this. Performance is a little sluggish at times but sufficient for most everyday tasks.

Motorola has done a good job of melding Android and the webtop. For instance, when I phoned my wife, the sound from the YouTube video was automatically muted, then resumed when I hung up. But just as the Apple iPad lacked apps that showed off its full power at first, Motorola has not given the Atrix enough to do. A company executive said they hope users will mainly use Web-based software, but they do plan to introduce webtop apps.

The laptop dock has some annoying quirks. The keyboard is a little cramped, and because the phone is placed right behind the screen, I could not tilt the screen back as far as I’d like. It is also hard to tell when the laptop dock’s battery is running dry; it died on me unexpectedly, giving me a nasty scare.

On the whole, the Atrix 4G is as irresistible as I’d hoped, the smartest new device so far this year.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.