Lapdock: From avant-garde to awful

Motorola's laptop dock for Android smartphones has terrible hardware -- and faces a new generation of post-PC competition

What a difference a year makes. A year ago, I was intrigued by Motorola Mobility's Lapdock, a laptop without a brain into which you plugged a Motorola Android smartphone to run it on a full-size screen, with full-size keyboard, trackpad, SD card slot, and USB and HDMI ports for access to USB peripherals and mirrored screen display to a TV or monitor. A year ago, I saw the Lapdock as a wonderful innovation that presaged an era in which a smartphone is your main -- and perhaps only -- computing device, plugging into resources when needed to scale up to a desktop PC.

A year later, after working with the latest version -- the $350 Lapdock 500 Pro -- I'm no longer impressed. In fact, I'm sorely disappointed in what Motorola has done. A year ago, the original Lapdock was rough around the edges, but those shortcomings could be overlooked, given it was the first of its kind. But the new version is inferior in many aspects, and the mobile world has shifted in ways that make the Lapdock concept less relevant, though I believe the smartphone-as-main-brain post-PC vision remains right.

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Clunky hardware in an era of sleek laptopsThe Lapdock 500 Pro boasts a 14-inch monitor, bigger than the original model's 12.4-inch LCD. The screen itself tilts further back in the 500 Pro than in the original, thanks to a different design for holding the Droid smartphone that powers the Lapdock. That's the only good news. The keyboard uses a nonstandard layout, which complicates touch-typing. Worse, the keys are hard to press and unpleasantly difficult to use -- to a masochistic degree.

The trackpad is also not very responsive, and it's hard to touch its button areas to get a regular click. Most of the surface brings up the contextual menu, which is supposed to be activated only when you click the right-hand side. There's a VGA port, but no longer an HDMI one.

Adding insult to injury, the Lapdock is bulky and heavy. Shockingly, it weighs 3.4 pounds -- a full half-pound more than a no-compromise MacBook Air, where the screen is just 1 inch smaller. Given that the Lapdock has no hard disk, optical drive, wireless or cellular radios, or CPU, as well as minimal flash storage, there's no excuse for its heft. At this stage of the game, the Lapdock should be as thin and light as a MacBook Air or similarly thin Windows laptop. More galling, the original Lapdock was not only thinner but a full pound lighter. I can't imagine why anyone at Motorola thought it was a bright idea to beef up the Lapdock.

The Lapdock 500 Pro's poor hardware simply ruins the experience, and there's no excuse for such a subpar build. Even bargain PCs have better keyboards and trackpads, and if you're accustomed to a MacBook or a pro-level Windows laptop, using the Lapdock feels like driving a big car without power steering. The unacceptably inadequate hardware in the Lapdock is also a startling contrast to the high quality of Motorola's recent Droids, such as the Droid 4 and Droid Razr Maxx.

I have mixed feelings about the new docking mechanism for the smartphone. Gone is the fixed riser in which you dock the Droid, and in its stead is a rubber cable you pull off the back, which covers a holding tray you extend to cradle the Droid. That new arrangement allows you to tilt the screen back further, which is a plus, but the cable is ungainly. I know I'll catch it on something and damage it some day.

Then there's network connectivity. Even when the Droid 4 I used for testing is connected to a Wi-Fi network, it runs on the 3G or 4G cellular network instead. In central San Francisco where I live, Verizon Wireless's 4G LTE network is often as slow as molasses, so working on files via the Lapdock is a painful chore. My various iOS and other Android devices run faster on Verizon's 3G network in the same area, and they automatically switch to Wi-Fi when available for even faster throughput. This seems to be an issue with the Droid 4 in my testing. There's an Ethernet jack for those times you're near a wired port.

All in all, it's simply bad hardware.

The software is a mixed bagThe Webtop application on the Droid that powers the Lapdock is better than the Lapdock hardware, but still rough. I had hoped for some significant refinement in the year since the original version.

A nice change: By default, the Droid window is next to the Linux-based Firefox 8 browser you run on the Lapdock to access Web services in a PC-like environment. It used to overlap Firefox, causing awkward pauses as you moved objects out of the way. (If you switch to horizontal view, the Droid window obscures the Firefox browser, but a quick press of the Change Orientation key fixes that.) You can also run Firefox in full-screen mode, hiding the Droid window. The row of icon buttons at the bottom of the screen offers easy accessibility to more capabilities.

But the Droid window is less useful than it should be. Yes, you can run Android smartphone apps in it, but they're awkward to use on the Lapdock 500 Pro's larger screen. If you enlarge the Droid window, you get even more clumsy magnified versions. A year ago, when there was no tablet version of Android and the Lapdock screen was smaller, I could accept the Droid apps' magnification. But with Android 3 out and the combined smartphone/tablet version of Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" promised this year for the Lapdock-compatible Droids, Motorola needs to make the smartphone apps run like tablet programs when plugged into the Lapdock. The experience needs to adapt, not just get magnified -- adaptation is endemic to the post-PC vision.

Then there's the Webtop Online front end to Google Docs; it lets you see your Droid's files and open them in either the Droid window or in the Lapdock's Firefox browser. But every time I double-clicked an Office file in the Webtop Online window and chose to open it via Webtop Online rather than in the Droid's included Quickoffice suite, I got an error message saying the file could not be opened. Yet if I opened the exact same files through the File menu in the very same Webtop Online, they worked just fine in Google Docs. That's clearly a bug -- and an inexcusable one.

The post-PC environment has evolved in the meantimeLet's say that Motorola came up with a thin, light, high-quality Lapdock tomorrow. Would it still feel so innovative? I'm less sure.

For example, we now have the iPad 2 and Android tablets, which significantly moved the bar when it comes to portable computing capability. They're quite capable as light desktop replacements, and they're much easier to carry around than a Lapdock. If you have an iPhone and an iPad, or an Android smartphone and an Android tablet, you have a lighter combination with big-screen-optimized native apps and in many cases good-enough browser experience for many Web apps. (The Lapdock's desktop Firefox browser does work better on many sites, such as Google Docs, and remains the best argument for a Lapdock.)

If you prefer a real keyboard to typing on-screen, you can use a Bluetooth keyboard with an iPad or Android tablet, such as Logitech's very nice Tablet Keyboard, which costs about $50 -- a lot less than a Lapdock. And many Android devices support Bluetooth mice. Oh, and the iPad 2 can mirror to an HDMI or VGA monitor or TV, as can some Android devices. These combinations aren't as capable as a well-designed Lapdock would be, but they're maybe three-quarters of the way there. They didn't exist when the original Lapdock was launched, but they exist now, and they're not only very capable in their own right, but they slip much more easily into a briefcase or backpack.

If you need a full laptop on the go, a MacBook Air gives you a lot more than the Lapdock, weighs less, and takes less space. The Apple iCloud service released last fall keeps a MacBook Air (and your desktop Mac) synced with your iPad or iPhone, and cloud storage does much of the same with other device mixes. Companies such as Lenovo continue to show concept designs of convertibles -- laptops with screens that detach to become an Android tablet or, in more recent prototypes, a Windows 8 tablet -- that one day may show up as real products and perhaps gain traction. As much as I believe in the post-PC vision, I recognize that -- at least for now -- if you need a computer, you need a computer.

In this context, the Lapdock's unique benefits are small, centering on the bigger screen and the desktop-grade browsing experience. Those pluses aren't enough to counter its limitations. Given the weight and size of the Lapdock 500 Pro, it should be more than a brainless laptop dock -- it should run that Firefox browser whether the Droid is docked to it or not. A traditional laptop -- or even a Chromebook-style browser-only laptop -- that a smartphone can dock with makes more sense than a laptop dock like the Lapdock, which is a useless brick unless a smartphone is attached.

Still, the notion behind the Lapdock remains appealing as a piece of the post-PC continuum possible today. It's too bad the Lapdock 500 Pro has none of the appeal of the concept it tries to serve.

This article, "Lapdock: From avant-garde to awful," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

Read more about mobile technology in InfoWorld's Mobile Technology Channel.

This story, "Lapdock: From avant-garde to awful" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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