Remembering the Motorola ATRIX 4G, the phone that was too ahead of its time

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Coming back from covering this most recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I've been reminiscing about past shows – about how mobile used to have stronger presence. In the last several years, however, that hasn't been the case at all! Nowadays, most companies reserve their major flagship announcements for Mobile World Congress, which makes perfect sense when you consider it's THE showcase event for mobile.

Going back to this most recent CES, checking out Razer's Project Linda concept made old memories rush back into my mind. For those of you that are unaware, Project Linda is basically a laptop dock designed to work with the company's latest gaming-centric smartphone, the Razer Phone. After docking the smartphone into position where the trackpad is normally situated, it becomes the brains behind the operation for the laptop 'shell.'

Frankly, there's nothing original about the concept, as many other devices have employed implementations that are very similar. In particular, I remember how the Motorola ATRIX 4G first wowed me with its interpretation back at CES 2011 all those years ago. And the more I began thinking about that smartphone, the more it began to dawn upon me that it was just one of those things that were too ahead of their time.

The first true high-end Android offering on AT&T

Exclusives were still all the rage during that period, but for AT&T, the arrival of the Motorola ATRIX 4G finally blessed the carrier's lineup with its first truly high-end Android smartphone. Prior to the ATRIX 4G, they had forgettable and quirky devices like the Bravo, Flipside, and Flipout – none of them were really powerhouse Android smartphones. The specs for the ATRIX 4G were undeniably drool worthy, featuring things like a 4-inch qHD display, dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 chipset, 1GB of RAM, and a 5-megapixel rear camera.

You know what else it managed to pack along? At a time when video chatting was still in its infancy, the ATRIX 4G did flaunt a 0.3-megapixel front-facing camera for the occasion. In addition, it was one of the first phones to offer HSPA+ connectivity, which was regarded as speedy for the time before LTE.

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Everything about the ATRIX 4G was favorable, but it was especially gratifying for AT&T to extend its Android lineup with a real high-end offering. Motorla already made headlines much earlier with the various Motorola DROIDs it released with Verizon, but all of that didn't take away from the thunder that was produced by the ATRIX 4G's arrival.

Fingerprint sensor before the iPhone 5s

While fingerprint sensors were found on a multitude of phones prior to the Motorola ATRIX 4G, it was nonetheless a pretty rare sighting – more so considering that the iPhone 5s was still 2 years away from launching. Yes, the implementation employed by the ATRIX wasn't as intuitive as today's fingerprint sensors, mainly because it utilized older technology that forced users to slowly swipe their finger in a downwards direction for it to work. It wasn't perfect or responsive at all times, but the ATRIX 4G was one of the few phones that added an extra layer of security.

Today we take fingerprint sensors for granted, but it was undoubtedly something seen as a luxury back in 2011. The Motorola ATRIX 4G to its credit was one of these rare phones that offered a fingerprint sensor, making it somewhat more advanced than its contemporaries.

It featured extended docks before anyone else

As I briefly mentioned earlier, Razer's Project Linda is a cool concept – and even more so when the laptop implemented there is fashioned like Razer's laptops – but the premise is nothing really new in the space. In fact, you could say that the Motorola ATRIX 4G was the first Android smartphone to offer this astounding feature! Along with a standard multimedia dock that connects to a display/monitor via its HDMI connection, there was also a laptop dock available that leveraged all of the ATRIX 4G's capabilities. These docks extended the typical functionality of a phone, showing us that it was possible for our smartphones to be the main source to power all of our mobile computing needs.

When the Motorola ATRIX 4G was docked, there was an option to run its unique 'Webtop' experience. Essentially, you gain this sort of faux-desktop environment with its Ubuntu-like interface. Not only do you get a virtual phone in this mode, complete with access to all of the phone's functions, but it even featured a handy Mozilla Firefox browser with Adobe Flash support.

Current phones like the Huawei Mate 10 Pro and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 both offer similar 'desktop' experiences when they're connected to displays or television sets. However, it's just mind-boggling to know that the Motorola ATRIX 4G was doing something very similar 7 years ago!

So what happened to this forward-thinking smartphone?

When the Motorola ATRIX 4G was first announced at CES 2011, I recall how enamored I was with the phone's vast capabilities – it really was a forward-thinking device at the time of its announcement. The features it packed were unheard of, but despite all of its advancements, the phone never reached the same kind of notoriety that followed other handsets – like the iPhone, Moto's own DROID line, Samsung's Galaxy line, or even Google's Nexus.

Taking into consideration its then-normal price point of $199.99 with a 2-year contract, you'd think that it would've sold like hot cakes. But in practice, except for the addition of the fingerprint sensor and support for HSPA+, the phone itself wasn't dramatically superior against the competition.

As for those 'useful' docks, the main issue with them was that they were overpriced – $190 for the multimedia dock and $500 for the laptop. Those prices are tough to swallow, more so when most people already did most of their computing on existing laptops and desktops. While Samsung's implementation with DeX still requires a separate dock, which retails for $150, it offers extended functionality over what we saw with the Motorola ATRIX 4G – like an actual, real desktop experience complete with Microsoft's Office suite and a versatile web browser.

Comparatively, Huawei's interpretation goes the extra step by eliminating the dock altogether, only requiring an HDMI connection to your display/monitor.

The ATRIX 4G won't be forgotten

So yeah, Project Linda is eerily similar to what the Motorola ATRIX 4G delivered back in 2011. Even though the smartphone has long been discontinued, it will be remembered as one of those gadgets that was cool and forward-thinking, but just too ahead of their time. Locking down all the basics we expect to find in any smartphone, combined with some features that were uncommon at the time, the Motorola ATRIX 4G was without a doubt one of the most advanced smartphones back then. We owe a lot to what it helped to establish.

Sometimes we take for granted the fingerprint sensors in our phones, the speedy data connections we have access to, and even the extended experiences that we get from these desktop-esque docks. The Motorola ATRIX 4G was truly a phone that was ahead of its time! When you try to fathom that it was released almost 7 years ago, it's a shame to see that very little has changed since then. Sure, phones have gotten better in terms of the hardware, but meaningful innovations have been tough to find. The ATRIX 4G's legacy is undeniable, but it's a shame that the ride lasted only two generations.

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