The World’s Most Significant New Smart Phone

January 13th, 2011

No, it’s not the Verizon version of the iPhone, which is, after all, just a CDMA version of the iPhone that will look very much like one of AT&T’s GSM iPhones to its users.

The most significant new smart phone is Motorola Mobility’s new Atrix 4G, and that’s true whether or not the phone is a commercial success. Although the Atrix did win the Best Smartphone Award last week at CES, the overwhelming attention given to new tablet PCs — including the Best of Show Award for Moto’s own Xoom tablet — threatens to overshadow the Atrix’s introduction, and it would be unfortunate if that caused us to undervalue a highly significant product that points the way to a new computing paradigm.

In our Display Daily columns, we usually view everything from a display point of view. If we ever did an article on Sarah Palin, it would be on whether she had an LCD or plasma TV on her living-room wall under the grizzly head. But, even though the Atrix has a unique display, I’m going to save that for last because, interesting as it is, the display is not the most important thing about the Atrix.

The Atrix is a 4G phone with 1 GB memory, front and rear HD cameras, up to 48 GB of storage, and, most important, an Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core 1GHz processor. This gives the Atrix netbook-like processing power. Motorola is making the most of the processing power by making several different docks available for the Atrix. One is a "laptop dock," which has a display, keyboard, and touch pad — essentially a dumb, lightweight, laptop PC that gets smart when you plug an Atrix into it.

Another option is a small multimedia dock that does pretty much what laptop PC docks have done for years. Plug in your Atrix, and you can be immediately connected to a keyboard, mouse, and desktop monitor. Webtop software, which resides on the Atrix, makes the conversion to full netbook/laptop functionality automatic. Just plug the matrix in to one of its docks and your are almost immediately interacting with your content with a full-sized display and keyboard, with access to a full-screen Firefox browser and document-creation software. There is also a full-sized Bluetooth keyboard. (Note: Information about the docks and other Atrix accessories is not very detailed at the moment.)

As powerful as the Atrix is in its own right, what is even more interesting is that it isn’t not too far away from being a mobile handset that is literally powerful enough to be a notebook PC replacement, just as notebooks became powerful enough several years ago to replace our desktops. That is a genuinely exciting direction. I always carry my phone with me. Soon, all I will have to do is slide the lightweight laptop dock in my briefcase, and I will have all the computing power I need for content creation as well as consumption, especially if most of my storage- and memory-hungry applications and content reside in the cloud. The media dock will sit on my desk, ready to provide desktop-style computing.

If the Atrix weren’t so exciting as a system, we would have written a whole DD about its display. The display is the world’s first Pentile LCD to be used in a consumer product. Motorola has previously used Pentile LCDs in few enterprise handset/computer products, said Joel Pollack, Senior VP at Nouvoyance, but this is the first LCD application in a consumer product. Of course, Pentile technology is not new. It is a key enabling technology for the many WVGA AMOLED displays up to about 4.1 inches that Samsung Mobile Display makes for cell phones.

The Atrix display is 4 inches on the diagonal, produces 24-bit color, and is the first quarter-HD (960×540) Pentile display to be used in a smart phone. In general, the purpose of using Pentile is to increase luminance or reduce power consumption, or to implement some combination of the two. The technology reduces the number of sub-pixels compared to those in a traditional display of the same resolution. That also reduces the number of drivers, so there is a potential cost saving.

The Atrix points the way to a new computing paradigm for many of us. "We took big risks and they paid off," said Motorola Mobility chief software engineer Seang Chau. "We didn’t know if people would get it; but obviously they got it."

And, as Phil Wright, a former Motorola employee and now Insight Media analyst said at CES: "Moto is back." Seems so.

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