45 Days with the Motorola Atrix HD Multimedia Dock

In my last entry, I looked at the Motorola Atrix 4G Lapdock™. It couldn’t replace my laptop today, but with some technology improvements, the use case gets a lot more interesting.  This time, I’m looking at another accessory for the Atrix 4G, the Atrix HD Multimedia Dock. After using it for 45 days, I’ll take a look at the strengths and areas I’d like to see improved. I also provide suggestions on how I would improve the design to be more appealing as a desktop replacement and a living room digital media adapter (DMA).

HD Multimedia Dock

Atrix HD Multimedia Dock Specifications:

  • Display Support: 720p over HDMI
  • External ports: 3 USB ports, 1 micro HDMI, speaker
  • Keyboard Support: USB, USB RF, Bluetooth
  • Mouse support: USB, USB RF, Bluetooth
  • In the package: Dock, keyboard, mouse remote, HDMI cable, charger
  • Apps: Mozilla Firefox 3.6.13 supporting HTML5 and Flash; Entertainment Center

HD Multimedia Dock Introduction

The HD Multimedia dock is “dual mode”, designed to operate as a desktop replacement and as a living room DMA.  The user starts by plugging the phone into the  HD Multimedia Dock and choosing between “Webtop” and “Entertainment Center”.  The system will then “boot” into one of those environments.  In both “modes” the dock is connected to a display or TV via HDMI and uses the keyboard to do text entry.

Desktop Replacement

As a desktop replacement, the user would use the mouse and keyboard, but not the remote.  They could use Webtop mode or Entertainment Center mode.

As a living room DMA they would probably use the keyboard and remote control, but may use the mouse. They could use Webtop mode or Entertainment Center mode.

Webtop Mode

In Webtop mode the user can choose between a full-fledged Firefox browser and a blown up version of the phone screen.  They can use both the browser and the phone screen simultaneously.

 

Webtop

 

Like the Lapdock, the lower icons at the bottom of Webtop are Mobile View, Dialer, Contacts, Messaging, Entertainment Center, File Manager, Webtop Zone, Mozilla Firefox and Facebook. The user can choose to either click on of the icons or use the phone applications in the open phone window.  Phone applications can be expanded to take the entire 11.6″ screen.

Phone messages appear in the upper left hand corner of the Webtop screen.  It shows indicators for new emails, Tweets, Facebook messages, WeatherBug messages, etc.  In Webtop mode, a small message flashes for a few seconds.

The upper right corner has icons to show settings, Wi-Fi, GPS, signal type, signal strength, battery, speaker volume, and time.

Webtop Mode Experience Plusses

  • Display: On a 30” Dell display at 1280x720P@60Hz, using Firefox environment looked pretty good.
  • Keyboard, mouse, remote: I used a full size Microsoft 3000 keyboard and mouse and I experienced no lag at all. The stock Bluetooth keyboard was the size of a large notebook keyboard, or full size.  The stock mouse felt cheap, but worked fine.  I was happy I could use the remote in Webtop mode at all and used it for rudimentary actions like scrolling.

  • Robust browser: The HD Multimedia Dock has the same  functionality as the Lapdock with Mozilla Firefox for Ubuntu, the “continuous computing” browser handoff and speedy simple sites.
  • Productivity App Compatibility: I successfully used Touchdown Exchange, Microsoft Web Office, Google Docs, Documents to Go, QuickOffice, andOutlook Web Access.  I didn’t even need to be connected to the cloud to use QuickOffice or Documents.  I even connected through LogMeIn Ignition access MS Office productivity apps.  Not ideal speed, but it still worked.
  • Shared storage: Since there is only one set of storage on the phone, you will always have one set of local information. One place for documents, content, address book, etc.

Webtop Mode Experience Challenges

  • Two environments confusing: I found the dual modes as unappealing with Webtop as it was on the Lapdock. They were two completely different worlds with very little sinew between them.
  • Sluggish: Webtop with Firefox many times felt “sluggish”.  It was slow particularly when hitting a complex site like ESPN or CNN or when browsing in multiple tabs.  Hulu was very sluggish, even at full screen SD.  Even Twitter.com (new) was slow.
  • Task switching: As with the Lapdock, this was slow to pop up which makes multitasking very difficult.
Task Switching
  • Expanded Phone Apps: The problems of stretching 4” apps to the 11.6” screen of the Lapdock are only compounded when going to a 30” display.  Everything gets big and blurry.  Imagine taking a 320×240 video and expanding it to 1024×768.  You get the point.
  • Not as Productive: Apps like Docs To Go and QuickOffice and browser-based productivity sites worked but I felt myself working in slow motion.  I am used to working with many windows and tasking back and forth and I really had to stretch to get things done at the pace I expect.
  • Games: Android games suffered from the “stretch effect” of stretching the 4” 960×540 screen to 30” 1280x720P display. Games like NFS Shift looked pixelated and blocky beyond belief.  Web games were slow also but seemed better than the Android games.  I had a few Flash crashes too and I had to restart the web game.  Gaming was not an enjoyable experience on a large display.

HD Entertainment Center Mode

When the user inserts the phone into the dock and chooses “Entertainment Center”, they “boot” into a menu-driven entertainment mode.  The environment is really straight forward and simple.  They can watch videos and photos and play their music on the SD card.

HD Entertainment Center Mode Experience Plusses

  • Remote: The remote was very compact and straightforward with all the controls you would expect in a media-centric device.
  • Music: The phone correctly pulled screen art and was arranged into the all very familiar “Now Playing”, “Songs”, Artists”, and “Albums.”  When songs played a very enjoyable living background started moving to the beat of the music.

  • Pictures: Pictures were arranged in folders and interaction was snappy.

  • Videos: Those videos that could play loaded very quickly and appeared to play at 30 FPS.   1080p videos down-sampled to play on the 720p display.  For the most part, videos that wouldn’t play or were incompatible with the player didn’t show up in the play menu.
  • Content Location Simplicity: All of your content is in one place, one device, not two.

Entertainment Center Mode Experience Minuses

  • Playlists: There is no way to program or import a playlist.
  • Video Bitmaps: The dock didn’t display the bitmap images of the videos.  It is difficult at times to find the video you want based on the filename and not the picture.
  • Limited Video Formats: The Atrix HD dock in Entertainment Center mode appears to play even fewer video formats than the phone itself.  The only thing I can think of why this would be is that the Entertainment Center is a Linux application, not an Android application, and the designers have opted not to support the formats.
  • Lack of Services: Anything called an HD Entertainment Center should have some video services like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora and Amazon on Demand.
  • Image Improvement: There was no evidence of image or video improvement.  I didn’t experience any image stabilization, noise reduction, or sharpening.
  • Games: Gaming is entertainment, right?  The Entertainment Center has no games, not even Angry Birds, and that’s on everything. J

A Better Future HD Multimedia Dock

As with the Lapdock, most of the issues could be overcome with software and hardware technology and design, many of which either exist today or are in development.

Here are a few things I would consider in designing a better HD Multimedia Dock for the future:

  • More powerful processing: Like the Lapdock, adding dual or quad core processing, and better graphics could solve many if not all of the performance challenges. This could all be done with a single APU.  If power management and cooling issues arise, develop a way to turn off and turn on functionality depending on its docking state.  Maybe add some cooling functionality to the dock.  That adds cost, yes, but if it could replace a device then it would be a net savings.  In Webtop mode in a desktop environment, this would surely assist in true multitasking, not the fake task switching.
  • Bimodal apps: A single user interface would greatly improve the experience. Google appears to be on this track with their multimode APKs.
  • Decent Games: I don’t know completely why the game experience was so lousy.  What NVIDIA showed at CES 2011 seems different than what I experienced on a larger screen.  I think what is required is a native Android output at 1080p plus heavier duty 3D graphics. The lack of any games in the Entertainment Center is more a marketing than technical choice.
  • Improved Content: To be a credible living room DMA it needs to have services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon VOD.  Music services like Pandora and Amazon Cloud Music need to be available in the Entertainment Center.  Photo services like Picasa Web and Flickr need to look good at 10’ as a living room DMA.
  • Hardwire Network: I see no reason not to have 1Gb wired Ethernet as the HD Multimedia Dock is always at home in the study, kitchen or living room.
  • QWERTY Remote: For the living room DMA mode, the best remote for 10’ Webtop mode would be like today’s current Boxee Box remote.  It’s the size of the Apple TV remote and has three simple buttons on the front, but flip it over and it has a QWERTY keyboard.

  • 1080p Video Out: This is on everyone’s smartphone graphics roadmap, so it will be there, but I need to mention this.

HD Multimedia Conclusion

The Atrix HD Multimedia Dock extends the Atrix phone into two environments that were once reserved for the PC and the DMA: the desk “workspace” and the living room “play space”. The basic concept is to have only one device with content and apps, and extend the experience to different places where you would normally need multiple devices. It could also be a lot lower cost as well. With some improvements on the hardware and software side, this experience shows some promise, particularly if the rich client experience evolution slows.

Motorola Atrix 4G Dock Lapdock and HD Multimedia Dock Conclusion

While the promise of a single device for all my storage, applications, and wireless appeals to me, I didn’t find thateither of the docking solutions for the Motorola Atrix 4G provided the experience I want. With the price of the Motorola Lapdock at $499 and the inability to do many usages, I would opt for the better experience of a phone with a more powerful notebook like the HP DM1z starting at $449. The Motorola HD Multimedia Dock for $99 is much more appealing, and if it meets your requirements, is a much better value. It doesn’t replace my DMA or desktop today, but at the low price, it’s nice to know I have it if I need it.  Then there’s the future.  With a few of the enhancements I have suggested, I definitely see an opportunity for this usage. I believe that a powerful and energy efficient product like the AMD Fusion APU could truly shine in this environment.