June 19, 2024

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Rotatable phones look amazing. But don’t get too excited yet

Imagine if your phone or tablet could change the size of its screen depending on what you’re doing? This is the future envisioned by Motorola and Samsung, as the two companies showed off concept devices capable of extending or shrinking their screens with the press of a button.

Motorola showed off its concept at Mobile World Congress this week, while Samsung showed off a slew of variant prototypes at CES in January. Concepts like these prove that phone makers are thinking about the next evolution of personal devices beyond today’s fixed touch screens. They’re even looking beyond foldable phones, which have only been widely available for a little over three years.

But as eye-catching as these concepts are, it will likely be a long time before you conceive one of them. High prices, engineering challenges, durability, and a lack of compelling use cases likely mean these concepts won’t turn into real products anytime soon. And if they do, there are still good reasons why you should wait before buying one.

Rotatable phones are very eye catching

Small (left) and large (right) rollable Motorola phone.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

Concept devices with expandable screens have appeared before, but they grabbed attention again this week at Mobile World Congress thanks to Motorola and its parent company, Lenovo.

Motorola showed off its prototype palm-sized phone that extends with the double press of a button. Even better, the screen unlocks automatically when you use certain apps like YouTube, according to my colleague Andrew Lanxon, who saw the device at the conference. The phone may also switch between small and large mode depending on what you do within the app. For example, a phone might stay small when you’re scrolling through your inbox, but it can expand automatically as you compose an email, Lanxon writes.

When the device is in its compact form, the screen wraps around the bottom of the device to provide a secondary screen on the back of the phone. I can’t think of many other reasons to use that extra screen other than a viewfinder to take selfies with the rear camera, as Lanxon did during the demo. Regardless, it’s interesting to see how Motorola thinks about using this technology.

Watch the phone in action.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

Although still in its infancy, foldable screen phones could offer some notable advantages over today’s foldable devices, according to Ross Young, CEO and co-founder of Microsoft. Offer supply chain consultants. He said via email that the crease could be smaller because it would be located on the edge of the device rather than in the center. The rollable phones are also likely to be thinner than existing devices like the Galaxy Z Fold 4, which are like two phones stacked on top of each other when folded.

But these benefits are likely to lead to additional engineering challenges. Motors and sliding mechanisms will likely require more energy, Young says.

“Some brands have told us there is still a lot of work to do,” he said.

It’s not the first time Motorola has shown off a concept like this; The phone manufacturer also showcased the technology at the Tech World conference organized by Lenovo last year. But its arrival at MWC confirms Motorola’s ambitions in this area.

Motorola isn’t the only company interested in making phones with screens that can roll, slide, and expand. Almost two months ago, Samsung showed off its own vision of what future phones and tablets could look like. The star of the show was the Flex Hybrid concept, which looks like a laptop when closed but can switch between 10.5-inch and 12.4-inch screen sizes when opened.

Samsung showed off its display concepts at CES 2023.

David Katzmaier/CNET

LG also made a splash with Rollable phone concept It got poked fun at CES 2021, though the company shut down its mobile business shortly thereafter. The Chinese tech giant Oppo has developed Foldable phone concept With a 6.7-inch screen that transforms into a 7.4-inch tablet-sized screen.

At the same time, foldable phones — which are generally seen as precursors to the foldable devices of the future — still represent a small portion of the overall smartphone market. It is estimated that foldable phones accounted for only 1.1% of smartphone shipments in 2022 and are expected to account for 2.8% in 2026, according to International Data Corporation. But that hasn’t stopped phone makers from looking forward.

“They have to keep innovating to stand out,” said Brad Akyuz, CEO and mobile analyst at NPD Group. “This is the only way they can get ahead of the competition.”

But don’t count on buying one any time soon

The word “concept” is crucial; These devices are not products. Instead, they are proofs of concept meant to illustrate the direction these companies might take when developing smartphones in the future. This means we don’t know when, if any, rollable phones from Motorola, Samsung, or other device makers will be released.

The foldable phone market could be a blueprint. Samsung has demonstrated flexible display technology since 2013, but it didn’t release its first phone that could fold in half until 2019.

Whether or not a foldable phone arrives in the near term, analysts believe it will take several years for the devices to become a staple in the tech world. Akyuz pegs that at about three to four years, while Bill Menezes, director of market researcher Gartner who covers the telecom industry, estimates three to six years.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 (left) next to iPhone (right)

James Martin/CNET

There are a variety of reasons, and they all reflect the challenges the foldable phone industry is going through. Prices have to be affordable, and phones have to be rugged enough to withstand daily use without worry.

It must also offer compelling features that significantly improve the way you use your mobile device to make it worthwhile. Although today’s foldable devices have different designs that make our phones more compact when closed, the general experience is the same as that of using a standard phone. Samsung is trying to address this with a feature called Flex Mode, which splits compatible apps across the top and bottom portions of the screen when folded halfway. But this feels more like an improvement than an entirely new way to use your phone.

“The foldable phone is not much different from the flat phone concept,” said Menezes. “Once you open it, you’re still browsing to different apps, different screens or tabs.”

Even if a company like Motorola or Samsung releases a foldable phone in the near future, you probably won’t buy it. First generation products can be expensive, prone to damage, and not as polished as later iterations.

Take the Galaxy Fold from 2019, for example, whose launch Samsung delayed after a few reviewers reported screen issues. This phone is also priced at $1,980, while the much improved Galaxy Z Fold 4, which just launched in August, starts at $1,800. Samsung’s smaller foldable Galaxy Z Flip has also matured; The first version had a small screen that barely felt useful and lacked 5G.

Galaxy Fold 2019 from Samsung

Andrew Howell/CNET

Now, more than three years after the launch of the Galaxy Fold, the demand for foldable devices is starting to accelerate. Although the IDC report indicates that foldable devices represent only a fraction of the smartphone market, shipments are estimated to have grown by 66.6% in 2022 compared to 2021. NPD Group’s Connected Smart Mobility Survey also indicates that interest Growing. While 51% of respondents said they were not at all likely to buy a foldable phone in 2019, only 36% said the same in 2022, according to data from the survey shared with CNET.

“I think that’s the future, and I don’t think we can deny that,” Akyuz said. “But as we’ve seen with the foldable category, it’s going to take some time to get there.”

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