Mobile deathmatch: Motorola Mobility Atrix 4G vs. Apple iPhone 4

Motorola's versatile new Android smartphone outshines the iPhone in some ways, but falls short overall

InfoWorld has been putting the major contenders up against Apple's iPhone for several years, and the iPhone handily has won each time. But with Motorola Mobility's new Atrix 4G smartphone, the iPhone's reign may be coming to a close.

The Atrix is in several key ways superior to the iPhone, though it has some idiotic flaws that cost it major points in the competition. When all is said and done, the Atrix and iPhone essentially tie, and the choice between them comes down to the unique capabilities of each and how they matter to your work needs, as well as your preferences regarding the devices' different user interfaces.

[ Find out how well the Atrix performs as a "lite" PC when docked to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. | See all of InfoWorld's mobile deathmatch comparisons and personalize the scores to your needs. | Compare the security and management capabilities of iOS, Windows Phone 7, Android, and more in InfoWorld's Mobile Management Deep Dive PDF report. ]

When you add optional equipment to the Atrix, it transforms from a smartphone into a "lite" PC, becoming the first phone that can act as a PC. As I explain in my article "Can the Atrix 4G really become your next PC?," this first example of a mobile computer that adjusts as you dock it to peripherals is just the first step in that evolution -- but it's an important development and will be attractive to many users.

As "just" a smartphone, the Atrix is pretty amazing as well.

Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contacts
For testing, I used a personal IMAP account, a personal POP account, a personal Gmail account, and a work Exchange 2007 account. Both devices work directly with IMAP and Gmail, as well as with POP; my email, email folders, calendars, and contacts all flowed effortlessly among the smartphones, my laptop, and the server.

Both devices try to autodetect your settings wherever possible, but the Atrix was typically unsuccessful. In manual mode, I spent hours trying to get it to send emails from my POP and IMAP accounts, logging failure after failure. After comparing the Atrix's settings to a standard-UI Google Nexus One device, I found the cause: Motorola Mobility's MotoBlur kept overriding my manual settings to add a user name to the SMTP settings, even though neither my POP nor IMAP Internet service providers use one for authentication. That unwanted information essentially caused both servers to reject the mail being sent from the Atrix.

The Nexus One, which uses the plain-vanilla Google Android OS (both the Atrix and Nexus One run the Froyo 2.21 version), lets you disable such authentication, and it had no trouble sending email from both accounts. For the record, neither did Motorola Mobility's own Xoom tablet, reviewed here. The iPhone (I tested the Verizon Wireless version running iOS 4.26) also handles these accounts without issue. This "I know better than you do" override is a major problem -- and emblematic of flaws throughout the MotoBlur interface, which cannot be removed or disabled -- that will make the Atrix unusable for many people's email accounts.

Setting up Exchange access on both devices was also simple. Unlike most Android smartphones, the Atrix supports on-device encryption, so it easily connected to our corporate server and met the Exchange ActiveSync policy requirements. My contacts and calendars flowed into the Atrix's apps, and the email was available through the Arix's Messaging app and, after some delay, in the Email app.

But it took me quite a while to realize the Messaging app housed my Exchange email. First, I looked for an app called Corporate Mail, which other Motorola Mobility Android devices use to access Exchange (though it only works with unsecured Exchange accounts). There was no such app, so I sought out Corporate Sync, the name of the service you complete when you first configure the Atrix to get Exchange email -- no luck there either. I also tried the Messaging app on the home screen, but it showed just text messages.

I finally saw both a Messaging and a Text Messaging app in the apps page, so I tried that Messaging app -- voilà! I finally got my Exchange email. I added the Messaging app to the home screen to get easy access to my Exchange email. An hour or so later, I saw an option in the Email app to switch the email it displayed (it can display just one account at a time, unlike the Messaging app); one of the options was my Exchange email.

Talk about a confusing mess! Welcome to MotoBlur.

Email messages. Working with emails is a bit easier on the iPhone than on the Atrix -- it keeps all the options right in front of you on the screen and it better integrates multiple email accounts. And the white-on-black text of the Android UI is harder to read, especially in daylight.

In both devices, you can reply, forward, mark as unread, delete, and move messages while reading them. You can also delete and move emails to folders from the message lists. On the iPhone, you can easily delete individual messages from the email list: Swipe to the left and tap Delete on the iPhone. On the Atrix, you long-tap (that is, tap and hold) the message to get a menu of options such as Delete and Open.

Both the iPhone and Atrix let you search emails. You scroll up on the iPhone to reveal the search box; on the Atrix you tap the Search button and begin typing (no search box appears, but don't let that stop you). In both cases, messages that match your results appear. The iPhone lets you constrain your search to the To, From, or Subject fields; the Atrix has no such control.

Getting to the top of your email list isn't so obvious in on the iPhone, though it is easy: Tap the top of the screen. On the Atrix, use the standard Android method of scrolling the list and then pulling the slider tab that appears to the top. You can use the slider to move to the bottom or to move quickly to specific letters (which appear as you scroll). The iPhone has no such navigation aids.

In general, Android devices favor small text that is hard to read for my middle-aged eyes, and they offer few controls to ameliorate their youth-oriented design. The iPhone lets you specify the text size in its Settings app, and its Retina high-res display is so much clearer than the Atrix's display that small type is easier to read on the iPhone. The Atrix does provide text-size controls for its email apps, but with a limited range of options that are still on the small side.

Email management. Both devices support multiple accounts and universal inboxes, but the Atrix approach is a real mess of inconsistency and competing options. The iPhone, by contrast, lets you access all your emails from one app, in a consistent way. It has a universal inbox, plus an inbox for each active account. Below the inboxes are a list of accounts that if opened show all the associated folders in a nice hierarchical display. I don't think the iPhone needs the two lists; the universal inbox followed by the individual accounts would be just as easy and less cluttered.

The Atrix's email handling perpetuates an Android flaw: using separate apps for each email account. Yes, it does provide the Messaging app from which you can access all your accounts, but it's really just a folder containing one app for each account, so switching among accounts is a pain. (Google Gmail isn't available via that app; you have to use the separate Gmail app.)

But the Atrix's MotoBlur interface worsens that Android flaw: The universal inbox account in the Messaging app shows you all your inboxes in one big list of messages, but it doesn't use color or any other mechanism to differentiate which account each email came from, as the iPhone and the standard Android UI do. Also, when you long-tap the account name in your email list, the Atrix displays the folders for that account -- except for Exchange email, for which you tap an arrow button instead. (The standard Android UI has no such long-tap option to see folders; you have to use the Menu button instead, so the MotoBlur UI does help a bit in this area.)

This mix of nice additions to the standard Android UI and idiotic UI misfires is emblematic of the MotoBlur interface's frustrating design. Based on these inconsistencies and contradictions, you'd think that the people working on various aspects of MotoBlur never talked to each other or used the final product.

The iPhone 4 has a message-threading capability, which organizes your emails based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicking to go through messages, but it also removes the effort of finding the messages in the first place. (The iPhone's iOS 4 lets you disable threading if you don't like it.) The Atrix has no equivalent.

The Atrix has an out-of-the-office setting and an autoforwarding capability that doesn't require the smartphone to first download the messages (which saves on data usage). The iPhone has no equivalent.

I was annoyed that Atrix doesn't support PDF files out of the box; you have to download the Adobe Reader app from the Android Marketplace. The Atrix opens images and Office files, though, using the basic version of the Quickoffice app that comes installed on the Atrix. The iPhone's native QuickLook viewer handles a nice range of formats, and it opens attachments with one tap (downloading them if needed at the same time). Of course, to edit those files rather than just view them, you'll need an office app such as Quickoffice Mobile Connect Suite or Documents to Go Premium. The iPhone doesn't open Zip files unless you get a third-party app such as the $2 ZipBox-Pro. The Atrix, like all Android smartphones, handles Zip files natively.

Both the iPhone and Atrix remember the email addresses of senders you reply to, adding them to a database of contacts that it looks up automatically as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields. Both devices let you add email addresses to your contacts list, either by tapping them (on the iPhone) or long-tapping them (on the Atrix).

Contacts and calendars. Both the iPhone and Atrix offer three of the same calendar views: list (agenda), day, and month. But only the Atrix supports the week view. Moving among months is easy on both (as is moving among weeks on the Atrix), and both can display multiple calendars simultaneously. The iPhone makes it slightly easier to change which calendars are displayed or to change views, thanks to on-screen buttons -- but this is a minor advantage that doesn't overcome the lack of a week view. The two devices also have comparable recurring-event capabilities. But the Atrix cannot send invitations to others as you add appointments; the iPhone can.

On the iPhone, your invitations for Exchange accounts show up in your calendar so that you can accept them there with the full context of your other appointments. For other email accounts, you open the .ics invitation files in Mail, from which you can add them to the calendar of your choice. On the Atrix, the Calendar app doesn't display invitations. You can open Exchange invitations in the Email or Messaging app to add them to your calendar, but you can't open .ics invitations sent to POP or IMAP accounts.

Both the iPhone and the Atrix have capable Contacts apps, but it's easier to navigate through your entries on the iPhone. You can jump easily to names by tapping a letter, such as "T" to get to people whose last names begin with "T," or search quickly for a contact in the Search field by tapping part of the name. On the Atrix (which uses the standard Android Contacts app), a gray box appears as you begin scrolling your contacts list; if you drag it, you can scroll through the letters of the alphabet that appear in the box to move to names beginning with that letter. It's not as simple as the iPhone approach, and its "secret handshake" nature means many users won't know it exists.

On the iPhone, to search your contacts, drag up above the first contact to reveal the Search box. On the Atrix, you can search your contacts if you click the Search button (or if you click the Menu button and then tap the Search icon). You can also designate users as favorites, to put them in a shorter Favorites list. The iPhone has a similar favorites capability, but it's available only in the Phone app, not in the Contacts app.

The Atrix lets you create groups in the Contacts app, and you can then email to everyone in that group by choosing the group in the address field. The iPhone supports email groups, but you can't create them on the iPhone; they must be synced from your computer's contacts application. And you can't pick a group in the iPhone's Mail address fields -- instead, you select a group and open it up to specify just one member, repeating this step to add more members. It's a really dumb approach to groups.

The winner: The iPhone, thanks to its more intelligently designed email and calendar capabilities -- especially the fact that it works with IMAP and POP accounts sabotaged by the Atrix's MotoBlur interface. However, the Atrix wins for contacts. Still, if the Atrix supports your email accounts and you stick with its Messaging app to handle your email, you'll find it's perfectly good for business use.

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