Feb. 16, 2011 at 5:34 PM ET
When I hold the Motorola Atrix phone in one hand, and its laptop dock in the other, and I gracefully merge them into one machine, I feel a faint tingling, like the future is coursing through my very fingers. Then I pop open the dock and the sensation is ruined by a clunky interface, a lack of power and functionality, and an overall sense that the product wasn't totally thought through.
If you've been following the gadget news, the Atrix 4G is a hot new $199 AT&T phone with a dual-core processor, a gorgeous 4-inch 960x540 LCD, and very long battery life — up to 9 hours of talk time.
Besides supporting Flash video, the phone has DLNA connectivity, which means that it can stream videos, photos and music from computers on your network, or even a network drive. Though there are apps that can do that (for both Android and iPhone), it's nice to have it pre-installed, with a decent interface.
As a phone, the Atrix is freakin' awesome. However, the main selling point of the Atrix was as the brains of a larger operation.
As I alluded earlier, it can be purchased with a laptop dock in a $499 combo. The phone slides into a cradle, and once the laptop's 11.6-inch screen is opened, the phone is out of sight. It's gone but not forgotten: The dock is using it for its dual-1GHz-core processor, its 16GB of internal storage and its Wi-Fi and 4G network connectivity. In return, the dock brings a larger screen, a pair of USB ports, stereo speakers and a full-blown Firefox browser. But not a lot else.
Sure, you can pull up Hulu and watch videos (though they tend to look a bit jerky). You can play Web games, access Web mail and calendars, Google docs and other Web apps. It's a lot like Google's Chrome netbook — and shares the similar problem of not supporting Netflix.
You never quite forget that you're running all of this off a phone, however. In fact, in laptop mode, you can see your phone's screen — make and receive calls! — and of course launch and fiddle with Android apps. This can be quite nice when apps scale up, but they ultimately serve as a reminder that this device is not going to get the next wave of Android apps, the ones intended for the 10-inch Honeycomb touchscreen tablets.
If it worked really well, I'd probably forgive the existential gripes. After all, it's a gorgeous piece of hardware, one you'd hope to be able to brag about. But it's just too clunky for me, far less fluid than Google's demo Chrome notebook.
The Atrix has another add-on, one that at first I thought might be even better: It's a $189 HD multimedia dock, with keyboard, mouse and remote control.
Plug in the phone, and run the HDMI cable to your TV. Your TV becomes the "webtop" experience I described above, complete with Firefox browser, or it becomes a media player which you control with the remote.
Although it works as billed when you load videos onto your phone, I was stunned that the dock didn't take advantage of the home-network DLNA feature. Here I am, in a home crawling with Wi-Fi, my whole DVD collection digitized on a hard drive in the basement. Yet this dock, allegedly built for multimedia entertainment, can't stream any of the files. The workaround is copying videos to the phone first — which takes minutes but seems like hours. Besides, can you imagine having to copy a 1GB video file every time you changed your mind about what to watch? We didn't move to the future to put up with that kind of nonsense!
Another gripe: Even though the dock is billed as "HD," the phone wouldn't take any 720p or 1080p files from my collection, so I was stuck viewing vids in standard def. Sure, the interface on the screen looks good, but if the video I am watching isn't HD, then the dock can't be called "HD."
So what's my verdict? If you're on AT&T and need a phone that isn't an iPhone, the Atrix is an all-around great consideration. Just don't plan on wowing your friends with your crazy transformer laptop or your brand new home media manager in the process, because their admiration will turn to pity in a New York jiffy.
More Android stories from msnbc.com's Technolog: