Test-driving the Motorola Atrix's Lapdock

Move over, Chromebooks: This Android/Linux combo could be a better netbook -- or even tablet -- alternative

On Tuesday, I detailed my test-drive of the Motorola Mobility Atrix 4G smartphone in its mobile/desktop convergence mode, docked into a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. I found it to be a plausible, but still early-phase, "lite" PC approach for people whose work requires just a browser to access Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365, and the like, while maintaining access to their mobile apps such as email, media playback, and social networking. It could be many mobile workers' desktop PC.

But the Atrix add-on that has gotten the most buzz is the $400 Motorola Mobility Lapdock, a dumb laptop into which you plug the Atrix, acting as its brains. I've now had a couple days with the Lapdock, and I have to say it makes a lot more sense to me as a lightweight laptop or netbook replacement than Google's promised Chrome OS-based laptops. It will even prove more compelling to some users than a tablet such as the iPad or Xoom.

[ See how well the Atrix 4G fares as a "lite" PC, how the Atrix 4G stacks up against the iPhone 4, and how the Motorola Xoom tablet stacks up against the iPad in InfoWorld's tests. | Stay up on the key mobile trends with InfoWorld's Mobilize newsletter and Mobile Edge blog. ]

The Lapdock-Atrix duo in action
The Lapdock works like the Multimedia Dock in my earlier test-drive: You plug the Atrix into it, run the Webtop Connector app on the Atrix, and see two windows on the Lapdock's LCD screen, one a mirror of your Atrix's screen and the other a Firefox browser window. Two rows of on-screen buttons -- one similar to the Mac OS X Dock and one to the Mac OS X menu bar -- provide quick access to settings, peripherals, and the Lapdock's screens and apps.

The Lapdock provides access to the full Firefox 3.6 browser, so you don't get the limitations of a mobile browser when using it -- mostly. The Atrix runs a Linux instance (you can't install other apps to it), which means it runs the Linux version of Firefox. This Linux instance only runs when the Atrix is plugged into the Lapdock or the Motorola Atrix Multimedia Dock, so you can't access Firefox from the Atrix itself. Also, the Atrix' Linux environment doesn't support some Firefox plug-ins such as Oracle's Java and Oracle's Moonlight (the Linux version of Microsoft's Silverlight), so some Web and cloud services won't run in the Firefox window.

Although the Lapdock has a keyboard and trackpad, it also has two USB ports that you can use to plug in an external keyboard and mouse, or you can opt for Bluetooth devices paired with the Atrix's Bluetooth radio. The Lapdock's integrated keybpard is awkwardly placed, and the keys are scrunched (especially vertically), making for unpleasant typing. I used it to report live from the Apple iPad 2 announcement earlier this week and found myself making many more typos than usual; looser key spacing and keyboard backlighting would have helped. You should plan to hook up an external keyboard for any serious use. Note that the Lapdock's trackpad does not support gestures, so your interaction with Android apps is unfortunately limited to mouse-style clicks and movements.

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