Foldable Smartphone

Flexible Displays Take Center Stage at CES 2020

Perhaps the most exciting new development featured at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show is the introduction of foldable displays into a plethora of devices, which promises to revolutionize the way we interact with technology. 2019 saw the premiere of foldable screens in the form of the Samsung Galaxy Fold which, while far from a perfect device, demonstrated the potential that such a dynamic form factor has for expanding functionality in the consumer technology market. Though many of the devices with flexible displays presented at this year’s show are merely prototypes that illustrate a concept, they offer a glimpse into what may very well be the future of how we consume, create, and share digital content.

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One of the more striking innovations on display this year is the use of folding screens in laptop-sized devices, bringing the full experience of the Windows computing environment to the new form factor. Intel showed off their Horseshoe Bend concept at the event, allowing reporters to test the device which unfolds to reveal a continuous 17-inch touchscreen display. The unique device can be used in a number of orientations; it can be held sideways, partially bent, to resemble a large book, or it can be positioned like a traditional laptop with the bottom half of the screen functioning as a virtual keyboard, or it can be unfolded completely for consuming content on a relatively large portable display.

Many of the major tech manufacturers are getting in on the foldable display trend. Lenovo introduced the ThinkPad X1 Fold which, unlike Intel’s prototype, will go on sale within the next several months. Though Lenovo’s device is similar in design and function to Intel’s prototype, it is significantly smaller with a 13.3-inch screen. Unlike the Horseshoe Bend concept, however, Lenovo also offers the “Bluetooth Mini Fold keyboard” accessory, which adds a wireless physical keyboard to the experience which can either sit on top of the lower half of the screen or in front of the device to take advantage of all of the available screen real estate. When folded, the device has a gap in between the two halves of the screen, which makes for a convenient storage location for the bespoke wireless keyboard accessory. Even more impressively, the device wirelessly charges the keyboard when it is stored in this way, reducing the headache of managing the batteries of multiple wireless accessories. In a nice touch, the device’s leather exterior causes it to resemble a traditional Moleskine notebook when folded. The premium look is befitting of the device’s premium price tag, as it will cost $2,499 when it releases later this year.

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Dell, for their part, sought to emulate the functionality presented by a folding-screen laptop while relying on more traditional display technology in their Concept Ori and Concept Duet, two prototype devices which apparently draw inspiration from the Surface Neo and Surface Duo devices Microsoft announced last year. Like Microsoft’s devices, the Concept Duet features two screens connected by a 360-degree hinge which allows the device to be used in a number of different orientations. While Dell’s products appear to be less polished than the ones Microsoft showed off last year, the Concept Duet, if and when it releases in its final form, will likely offer a competitive experience to the Surface Duo at a reduced price. The Concept Ori, on the other hand, strongly resembles Lenovo’s Thinkpad X1 Fold with a folding display of its own, suggesting that manufacturers are thinking along similar lines when determining how best to incorporate the cutting-edge technology into their hardware offerings. If anything, the multitude of folding-screen devices shown at this year’s CES suggests that the future of consumer electronics will offer a plethora of competitive options for customers excited to take advantage of innovations made possible by cutting-edge flexible display technology.

Motorola RAZR

Motorola Joins the Foldable Phone Trend with its RAZR Refresh

Many of us who used cellphones in the early 2000’s remember the Motorola RAZR, a flip-phone that at the time functioned not only as a powerful telecommunications device but as a stylish status symbol in the era before the iPhone introduced smartphones to the masses. Now, nearly two decades after the launch of the original product, Motorola is banking on their customers’ nostalgia for this pre-iPhone era with a refresh of the original RAZR, featuring the same clamshell design with a folding screen, a similar technology as was included in the recently-released Samsung Galaxy Fold. After months of rumors, leaks, and speculation, Motorola has finally introduced their hotly-anticipated new flagship, simply called the “Motorola razr,” to the press. The media generally had a positive impression of the unique new device, despite only being able to spend a short amount of hands-on time with it. The razr is set to launch in January 2020 for $1,499, and only time will tell how reviewers react after being able to spend more time with the phone and use it in their day-to-day life.

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Fundamentally, the razr’s design is unlike any smartphone that’s been released as of yet. When closed, the phone resembles its years-old namesake, with the most notable difference being a larger, higher-resolution “quick view” display. The phone has a camera on its exterior, which functions both as a selfie camera and a rear-facing camera when the device is unfolded. For I/O, the phone has only a singly USB-C port with no headphone jack. The device is thin, even when folded, and features an attractive, simplistic design, with the Motorola logo adorning the back. In fact, Motorola says the device is exactly as thin as the original RAZR from 14 years ago. Members of the press praised the device’s hinge, which feels sturdy and allows the phone to fold completely flat when both opened and closed. The small “quick view” display present on the exterior is meant for simple tasks, like checking notifications and toggling settings as well as taking selfies.

There’s no denying that for most people the razr is a novelty device, with its most attractive characteristic being its immediate “wow” factor.

The device opens to reveal a 6.2” plastic OLED display, resembling a standard smartphone display with a slightly taller-than-average 21:9 aspect ratio. Otherwise, the device’s specifications are dissapointingly mid-range; the 16-megapixel camera isn’t going to win any photography awards, as it features only a single lens and a mediocre resolution, and journalists compared it to the cameras featured on flagship devices from several years ago. The front-facing camera, meant primarily for video calls, is even worse at just 5 megapixels. The phone’s processor is a nearly two-years-old Snapdragon 710, and while it is more than powerful enough to handle most ordinary smartphone tasks, it pales in comparison to devices released this year at half the price. The razr includes a reasonable 6 GB of LPDDR4 RAM, but its battery, at a capacity of just 2510 mAh, will likely struggle to provide a full day’s worth of use for power users. There’s no support for external storage, but the included 128 GB should be enough for most people. Motorola clearly needed to make some compromises to enable the device to be so thin, but these compromises are particularly hard to swallow given the phone’s hefty price tag, as it’s far pricier than nearly all other premium devices on the market.

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That being said, the razr is a fascinating device, and potentially represents the future of smartphone design. When folded, the phone is smaller than virtually every other smartphone on the market, making it ideal for people with limited pocket space. And as the RAZR is the most successful flip phone ever, consumer nostalgia is likely to drive sales, as the phone is undeniably cool. Though some journalists worried about the long-term durability of the device, as the similar Galaxy Fold had a number of devastating issues with reliability prior and even after its eventual release, engineers at the press event announcing the device were confident in the strength of the hinge’s complex design. The phone is water-resistant but not water- or dust-proof, and the device’s folding design may even help with its durability, as the phone’s main screen is protected when in its folded position, obviating the need for a case or screen protector. The main display’s crease is mostly invisible, whereas the Galaxy Fold’s crease is prominent, and folding displays generally are prone to damage from strong pressure or sharp objects.

There’s no denying that for most people the razr is a novelty device, with its most attractive characteristic being its immediate “wow” factor. Nonetheless, it is shaping up to be a perfectly usable and decent smartphone for those willing to pay up and for those looking to impress their friends with their unique and eye-catching device.

Foldable Smartphone

Folding Screens: The Next Smartphone Design Trend?

Today’s high-end smartphones are so sophisticated and pack so many features that it’s hard to imagine how phone manufacturers will be able to improve their offerings for the next generation of products. The just released Galaxy Note 10+, for instance, packs an impressive edge-to-edge, nearly bezel-less 6.8” display, a whopping 12 gigabytes of RAM, and four cameras on the back that work together to allow for professional-grade photography. But the ultra-competitive high-end phone market demands continual innovation and improvement, year after year, forcing manufacturers to explore increasingly exotic and radical designs for their flagship devices. Perhaps the most promising development in the phone design space is the introduction of folding-screen technology, allowing devices to double their screen real estate and enabling users to fit a tablet-sized display into their pockets.

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The most infamous example is the Samsung Galaxy Fold, which the company showcased in February alongside the Galaxy S10 and S10+, and was initially slated for an April release date before being delayed due to concerns about the device’s durability. While early reviewers praised the unique and innovative form factor of the phone, they brought to light some glaring design flaws: several outlets complained that the Fold’s design allowed dirt and other debris to get caught underneath the display, and that if the user attempted to remove what seemed like a removable screen protector, the device would be irreparably damaged. For a $1,980 device, these issues were considered by many to be unacceptable, and Samsung took the surprising step of indefinitely postponing the launch of the product in order to work on addressing these problems.

Now, several months later, Samsung has unveiled their newer, redesigned Galaxy Fold, which specifically addresses the concerns of early reviewers: the screen protector has been tucked underneath the folding screen’s plastic bezels, making it impossible to accidentally remove and preventing foreign objects from getting lodged underneath the screen. Also, Samsung has reinforced the hinge mechanism to improve the overall durability of the device. As of September 6th, 2019, the device has officially launched in South Korea, and a global launch is planned for the month of September. Reviewers have had the opportunity to handle the redesigned device, and while they praised Samsung’s improvements, some of their original complaints remained: when the device is opened, a distracting visible crease runs down the center of the display, and the phone’s mediocre battery life and small exterior display when the phone is in its folded form leave much to be desired, particularly in light of the hefty price tag.

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While Samsung’s Fold is not technically the first device with a folding screen to hit the global market — the “Royale FlexPai,” which feels more like a proof-of-concept device than a consumer product, has been available in China since January — it’s the first device of its kind to appeal to a general audience, albeit one willing to shell out nearly two grand for a phone with a relatively untested form factor. But it won’t be the last. Huawei has introduced the competing Mate X, a folding-screen phone that differs from the Galaxy Fold with a screen that works differently — whereas the Galaxy Fold opens like a book to reveal its display, the Mate X has a screen that wraps around the exterior of the device, allowing the same display to be used for both folded and unfolded operation. 

Like the Galaxy Fold, the Mate X is marketed as a premium device, carrying a substantial price tag of $2,600. Huawei’s phone features an even larger 8-inch display, and because the device folds outward, not inward, it promises compelling features, such as the ability to show both you and your subject the viewfinder when taking a photograph. A release date for the Mate X has not yet been announced, but Huawei says the phone should be available for purchase before the end of 2019.

Motorola is also rumored to be working on a phone with a folding screen, drawing inspiration from their once-ubiquitous RAZR line of phones to envision a device with a display matching the size of those found on more traditional phones, but which folds into a compact size ideal for portability. Though the underlying technology has existed in various forms for years, mainstream integration of folding displays in consumer electronics is still in its infancy, and as of yet it’s unclear which style of implementation the industry will favor.

What is certain, however, is the disruptive potential of smartphones with transforming form factors. The concept of a device that combines the portability of a smartphone with the usability of a tablet has the capacity to fundamentally alter the relationship we have with mobile computing. Reviewers of the Samsung Galaxy Fold have observed that using the device on a daily basis feels more deliberate and immersive than what is achievable with a standard smartphone, even ones of the high-end variety, as the screen real estate afforded by the Fold’s 7.3” display enables opportunities that are impractical on standard smartphones, such as easily working with multiple open applications simultaneously. As such, devices with folding screens have a good shot at replacing multiple devices used by technology enthusiasts; it’s not hard to imagine a future where one transforming device takes the place of a user’s phone, tablet, and laptop. Nobody knows for certain how the smartphone industry will evolve in the coming years and decades, but devices like the Galaxy Fold offer a glimpse into a future in which radically different mobile computer technology fundamentally changes our collective way of life.

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