One of the features touted for Motorola Android phones that were released between Fall 2011 and mid-2012–the Droid Bionic and the Droid Razr iterations–was Webtop, software which allowed for the phone to run in a barebones “Desktop” mode when connected to a television via a special dock connector. Motorola also crafted an actual laptop with a special hinged holster for your phone. In a pinch, you could plug your phone into this laptop shell, and all of a sudden you’d have a word-processin’, email-checkin’, web surfin’ machine at your fingertips. It retailed for $300.
I was mildly interested in the concept and technology for my Droid Bionic, but a combination of the price and lukewarm reception to the so-so performance of the OS running on the lapdock deterred me from doing anything more than admiring it from afar.
Almost a year later, Motorola–now known as Motorola Mobility (thanks to its new owners, Google)–is changing its strategy as a company and potentially shelving the webtop feature. A quick dive into the XDA Developers forum revealed that, since its inception, Webtop–now version 3.0–had changed from a barebones Linux OS with old, pokey Firefox 4 running as its default browser to a tabletized, high-res version of Ice Cream Sandwich… provided that your device ran Ice Cream Sandwich in the first place. Another quick dive into eBay showed that new Lapdocks were being sold for as little as $70.
One more dive, this time into my wallet. Admittedly, I wasn’t entirely sober at the moment, but in the name of morbid curiosity and geekery, I decided to jump on one for my Bionic, which in fact running a leaked Motorola build of Ice Cream Sandwich.
The Lapdock for Bionic seems exciting when you pull it out of the box. It’s barely longer and wider than a letter-sized sheet of paper, and certainly thin enough to qualify as smaller than ultrabook size. I travel out of town 50% of the time for work, so I found appealing the thought of taking this with me and keeping it as a dedicated blogging, emailing and browsing machine while I left my main work laptop locked in my desk at the office. Light-as-a-feather laptop? Check. Even when in the office, I could plug my phone in and instant-message with my friends and family, since the office blocks AIM and gChat, among others, and I hate using virtual keyboards or Swype heavily. Circumventing office productivity measures without abandoning my touch-type ways? Double-check.
Open it up and start playing with it, though, and the bad news sets in. Initially, the keys feel nice and punchy. But once you actually try typing out a sentence, the space bar is unresponsive unless you hit it in the right spots or with extra force. Avoidingsentenceslikethese is a major chore. The trackpad’s mouse buttons are a bit squishy, and while they’re not as bothersome as the space bar, they could stand to be quite a bit more responsive. The space bar is the more egregious problem–throwing in a travel mouse to mitigate the mouse-button issue is not much of a hassle and a pretty standard practice with laptops in general, but packing in a separate keyboard, too? Eh, no thanks.
Before I talk about the Webtop OS itself, please bear in mind: If you are still running Gingerbread on your phone, your experience will be completely different as Webtop on that OS is a barebones Ubuntu instance with Firefox 4. As I mentioned before, I tested this using Ice Cream Sandwich. (And if you’re still using a Bionic with Gingerbread, consider updating to one of the Ice Cream Sandwich leaks. It’ll breathe new life into your phone, and you don’t even need to root it.)
With that out of the way…
Once you hook your phone into your lapdock, the screen will… amble for a second… and then light up with one of those typical “welcome” messages. Click past that and you’ll be in a high-res, tablet UI version of Ice Cream Sandwich. Meaning, your Back-Home-Recents buttons will be on the lower left-hand corner, and your clock and notifications will appear on the lower right-hand corner. All of your apps are present, and you have access to all of your files with whatever file manager you have installed. In short, you are seeing everything on your phone as you would normally–only in landscape, tablet mode, and high resolution.
To me, this is a good thing. You don’t have to adapt to a new operating environment or feel like you don’t get full access to your apps. With a Gingerbread phone, running them in a window to the side may be adequate, but is that really what you wanted? Probably not. What if you wanted to play Final Fantasy, which only plays in landscape? Unless you can rotate that window, you’d have to turn your head to the side… or lay the lapdock on its side. (And if you’re using Webtop through a TV, um, good luck.)
Certainly there are caveats. The Gingerbread iteration’s Firefox browser came with Flash support. That’s one area you might be lacking here, because several users have reported trouble getting Flash to work with their Bionics on the Ice Cream Sandwich leaks–myself included. (Browsing in iPad mode should alleviate most, not all, concerns.) Amazon Instant Video might be unusable since there is no native Android app, but I’m happy to report that the Netflix app works just fine. Unfortunately I got grainy video, even when attached to my home Wi-Fi network, but it’s satisfactory enough in a pinch.
With only a mouse pointer to navigate with, you won’t be able to use pinch-to-zoom or any other multi-touch functionality. Using CTRL+mousewheel up or down doesn’t work either. This generally isn’t an issue with websites, though, since the screen is large enough (both physically and from a resolution standpoint) that you’ll rarely find yourself needing to zoom in or out.
But even forgetting about multi-touch, since Android was designed as a touch-UI platform, it feels awkward mousing through the environment. Swiping left and right to access your various homescreens feels chunky with a mouse: Click, hold, fling left or right, release. Sometimes you haven’t flung quite far enough, and so the screen begins to transition, but then bounces back into place. Similar quirks happen for pretty much any swiping behavior, like removing tasks from your Recents menu.
Also, because I’m so mentally tied to normal mouse operation when a trackpad or mouse becomes available to me, I found myself trying to click-and-drag to highlight words. Android doesn’t work that way. I had to re-train myself to click and hold on a single word, wait for the word-highlight pincers to appear, and then drag those left and right to highlight. Awkward. But not impossible.
If only the lapdock performed as zippily as an undocked ICS Bionic does. Right away you’ll notice a slight amount of mouselag, more with the trackpad than with a USB mouse. This already does not bode well, especially given the cognitive oddities noted above when trying to mouse through a touch-based UI.
Furthermore, apps lag when you open them. Pages seemed to stall when loading while using Chrome. Bringing up the Recents menu felt pokey, as well. Animations hitched more frequently than I was used to for the ICS leak (which is almost to say that they hitched at all, period).
The real killer, though, was trying to use Office apps. I tested with QuickOffice and OfficeSuite 6. Both apps lagged, with the former being more problematic than the latter. As I typed long strings of text, there would be a delay of at least several milliseconds that continued to grow as the sentence I was typing became longer and longer. It was normal to see the display spit out my last two or so words after I completely stopped typing. Not all is lost: Gmail, Google Docs and the WordPress Apps seemed to exhibit none of these issues. But it’s still a disheartening thing to see. Perhaps it’s the fault of the apps, and not the lapdock?
On a hunch, I used SetCPU to set the minimum CPU frequency of my phone to 1GHz (which is also the fastest, unless you somehow happen to be running a kernel or custom ROM that allows you to overclock). This did not help much except for apps opening up at a slightly speedier clip and the Recents menu being more a touch more responsive. The Office apps saw zero benefit. Stick to Google Docs, though, and I suspect you’ll be okay.
Battery life, on the other hand, won’t be an issue. The lapdock doesn’t just sap your phone’s juice–it actually augments total battery life with its own battery. Reviews report 8 hours of battery life. I had it on for a few hours unplugged using it for a few minutes at a time, with the screen going to sleep after a minute of inactivity, and never saw the battery meter shrink.
What’s the Use Case?
If you’re in an office environment whose wired and wireless LAN blocks things you’d like to have, such as personal email, instant messaging, or certain sites that you probably shouldn’t be visiting at work anyway if you care at all about being productive (such as, ahem, this one), having this thing around is handy.
It’s also decent if you want something lightweight to take with you to a coffee shop to write that great screenplay you’ve had bouncing around your noggin, and your local venue doesn’t provide Wi-Fi for free. You’d have to stay on Google Docs and avoid the two Office Apps mentioned above, of course.
I doubt you’d get any serious gaming out of this. I’m not sure what drivers are supported but I was unable to get my USB Logitech RumblePad 2 to work at all. Would something like Dead Trigger work with the mouse and keyboard? Forum posts I’m reading seem to indicate a big fat “no”. But you might be able to run Max Payne off of a wired Xbox 360 controller. (It worked for the Nexus 7.) I’m also concerned about the performance of the lapdock–getting an intense 3D game like Dead Trigger to run smoothly at all would be a challenge. I even got performance hitches just testing out Final Fantasy. But that may be a tale for another day, since there are issues with that port to begin with.
So it’s good for lightweight computing. Here’s the thing: tablets and ultrabooks already exist for lightweight computing, too. Where does this leave something like the lapdock?
If you think about it, tablets and ultrabooks themselves form this weird two-layered middle-ground between smartphones and traditional laptops. This lapdock seems to be occupying that tiny wedge of space–the middle-ground of the middle-grounds, if you will. It doesn’t perform as smoothly as an iPad, the top Android tablets, or even the phone that plugs into it, and certainly nowhere near the ultrabooks it seems to most emulate. And its future is uncertain–we don’t even know if Motorola will support it past today.
The only endorsement I can give it is that if you already own a Motorola phone that supports it, you could end up paying under $100 for a 2 pound “laptop” that lets you email, browse and use Google Docs with a real keyboard. Even if it performs at a somewhat pokey clip, that’s an intriguing price. Less so if you already have either a top tablet and don’t give a rat’s ass about a real keyboard, or an ultrabook of at least average speed.