Foldable phones are going to be the next big thing, looking at the direction handset makers are moving in. This week, Motorola announced their new folding phone, but what will users make of it?
Tucked away in what was once a down and dirty part of Los Angeles, a product launch was attended by hoards of reporters, influencers, and even DJ Diplo. They were there to see the newest product from the inventor of the mobile phone, Motorola; their first foldable phone called the Razr. Just as users turned away from Motorola handsets in favor of the shiny new offerings from Samsung and Apple, people for years have ventured to places other than downtown in LA. Aiming to make a comeback in the same way its host neighbourhood has, Motorola is hitting the phone scene with its iconic Razr brand.
Probably the last foldable you’ll hear about in 2019, the year has been rocky for the latest cellphone innovation. February this year saw Samsung, Huawei, and Xiaomi come out with their phones that could actually unfold and double in size, offering expansive screens and a more compact item for your pocket. As soon as these brands showed off their tech, every other hardware company and its subsidiary were said to be working on their own version. And then came the reports of defects and delays…
Review units of the Samsung Galaxy Fold had screen defects that were quickly picked up by journalists, forcing the $1,980 phone’s launch to be pushed back by five months. Blaming the lack of 5G rollout across China the Mate X from Huawei was pushed back too, with a new launch date of November 15. Xiaomi had a lot of chatter about their foldable device and are yet to pull out anything solid, whilst Microsoft went for the easier option of stitching two phones together with a hinge as a faster way to market.
What Motorola Did
The Razr flip phone was the handset to be seen with circa the 2000s, and their new foldable is a reboot of the brand. It’s priced at $1,500, which is comparatively cheap for a foldable, and is exclusively available on Verizon in the US. Presales start on December 26 with shipping scheduled for January in the States and the rest of the world getting their hands on it some time in 2020.
Aiming to ride the stream of nostalgia like My Chemical Romance, Motorola’s phone aims to cash in their brand recognition and have another trick up their sleeve – portability. When unfolded the Razr is still very much the size of a mobile phone, as opposed to the phone/tablet hybrid of others on the market. Folded, the Razr comes in at 2.8 by 3.4 inches with a 2.7-inch quick view display. Opened up, the screen stretches out to 6.2 inches of viewing space which is the same as what you’ll find on the 2018 Galaxy S9 Plus.
Internal market research told Motorola that “many consumers were looking for pocketability,” Buniac said. “Let’s fold inwards.” Has the trend for ever-bigger displays finally reversed?
The market folded in on itself
Things looked promising for folding phones as the year began, with Samsung’s version sporting 7.3 inches of screen space unfolded and 4.6 inches when halved over. They aimed to hit the market in April and were the first big player to harness the tech.
Things went quickly wrong when testers found bugs and defects in the folding screen, not a great start for your new flagship device. The problems were investigated and many months later the launch was set for September after glitches were ironed out.
The Mate X from Huawei approached their fold differently, their foldout only needed to be used when you needed the full display, unlike the book-like design of the Galaxy Fold. It was premiered at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February and was due to land in consumers’ hands by summer. Things got pushed back to November with execs saying the device needed refinement, with the slow rollout of 5G in China also taking some of the blame.
Worth the Hype?
Only able to be bought in China, it’s also not able to run Android and Google services due to the much-talked-about placing of Huawei onto a US watchlist due its ties with the Chinese government. When it becomes more available, there may still be lingering questions about the durability of this first-generation handset. Galaxy Fold screens are hidden between the fold of the screen, but even with the relative protection the plastic, the display got scratched up within about a week of use. Mate X has the folding screen on the outside of the phone, making it much more susceptible to the same issues.
Because the screen size veers away from the standards that developers have been working with for some time, everything needs to be tweaked to get them working smoothly for these new devices. Flipboard won’t work on your Galaxy Fold’s small screen and then open up on the main display. There are some apps that can work on new screens without optimization and work fine, too.
With these limitations in their sights, Motorola has come at foldables from a different angle. Rather than going for a phablet, it’s gone for a smartphone-as-flip phone combo. The compactness of the design is aiming to be more attractive and durable than the two big competitors in the current market.
There’s a “zero-gap hinge” that has been designed by Motorola that means the screen can lie perfectly flat when in the opened position and then close completely in on itself. The inwards bend makes the phone teardrop shaped instead of being a flat fold, and for reinforcement; one of the five-screen layers is made of stainless steel that’s just 360 microns thick. The shutting mechanism is a snapping movement, which the Galaxy Fold can’t aspire to since there’s a hefty gap around the mid-display hinge.
People in the tech world enthusiastically opined that the Fold was where the future was at, yet some still thought it a bit rough and ready and that it had a prototype feel to it. It doesn’t quite feel ready for consumers without some finesse and polish. The Razr, however, is definitely a finished product. Dolcourt called the Razr “the best designed, most completely thought-out foldable phone to date.”
A Motorola-inspired design has been mooted already by Samsung at the recent developer conference in October, whilst TCL was flashing about some foldable flip phones at Mobile World Congress a few months back too. Until these two come to fruition, Motorola has the folding flip phone marketplace all to itself.
“With most smartphones looking near-identical, this clamshell form factor provides a refreshing change and one that consumers looking to stand out from the crowd will welcome,” said Dominic Sunnebo, director of consumer insights at Kantar.
Things aren’t quite complete in the Motorola comeback, with sales figures and success yet to be decided.