"Is it a smartphone or a laptop?" say the ads for the Motorola Atrix 4G. They answer their own question with "Both," and the intent is to make you think that the new smartphone from Motorola can transform into a laptop. But what the pictures show is a laptop with a smartphone plugged into the back.
Motorola may be betting the farm on that vision of the future. Motorola Mobility's CEO mentioned the "Webtop" device in its recent earnings call, and there have been persistent rumors of a Motorola "Web OS" being developed in tandem with its Android efforts. I think this is all well and good, but there are a couple of problems that Motorola's going to need to address if it wants to keep morphing Android phones into laptops.
This one may not be an issue for long, because we're already starting to see Android smartphones with dual core processors, that have gigahertz and megabytes (of memory) that're right up there with a low-end laptop.
The problem is you get a lot less "bang for your buck," since it's got to fit in a smaller chassis. When those processors are driving smartphone apps, they're lightning fast, but make a desktop or laptop computer out of them and they're suddenly slower than netbooks. As Engadget's reviewers found, "you'll be disappointed to discover" how slow the webtop experience is, "not even coming close to the performance seen on most modern netbooks or cheaper laptops."
Is a cheap laptop with an expensive smartphone plugged into its back your vision of the future? Because again, that's what the Atrix 4G and its "Webtop" dock amount to.
Admittedly, a phone that turned into a desktop computer would be kind of cool. I already use an external keyboard, mouse, and set of speakers with my laptop, and I wouldn't mind having a single device that I just plug into things as needed. Motorola offers a desktop dock for the Atrix 4G too, but it's constrained by two things: How slow it is, and how clumsy it is to use.
It doesn't give you a "real computer" experience, for better or for worse. What it gives you is the Firefox web browser in one window, and your phone's normal screen in another. Add in a Mac-style "dock" that you can click on to launch websites (and that takes up more of the screen), and that's basically all you get.
Do you like clicking on smartphone apps with a mouse? Browsing the web on a computer so slow it can barely watch YouTube? Well, that's all the Atrix's Webtop can do right now. And as long as it is, Motorola's transforming laptop-phones aren't going to be the future, so much as a strange gimmick.
The idea has potential, but it needs much better execution.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.