HOW WILL SMARTPHONE INNOVATION AND THE FUTURE OF MOBILE TECH DESIGN REACH AN INCREASINGLY DISCERNING MARKET? BY ALL INDICATIONS, IT’S LIFESTYLE APPEAL – MORE THAN TECH FUNCTIONALITY – THAT IS LEADING AESTHETIC DESIGN AND WINNING CONSUMERS OVER
We all know by now that a smartphone isn’t merely a tool, but a lifestyle accessory. That’s one of the open secrets of smartphone innovation: it isn’t only about building in the latest technology, but also being innovative in design and aesthetics. In other words, handsets follow and set trends in both tech and fashion.
This year’s new trend is the foldable screen. Predicted for many years, the technology for folding glass has only just caught up to expectations. But has it caught up to our needs and desires? The first smartphone-makers out of the starter’s gate have learnt the perils of racing to be ahead.
Samsung, for example, released the Samsung Fold on 20 February – and it was hardly overwhelming. The front screen was a mere 4,5”. What was this: the iPhone 6!? The fact that the device looked like a throwback to 2014 was deeply ironic, given that Samsung had pioneered large-screen phones with the launch of the Note series back in 2011.
When the handset was unfolded, it became a 7,2” mini-tablet, at a time when flagship phones were rolling out 6,5”-plus displays. And when the device was sent to early reviewers in the USA, some discovered that when they peeled off what they thought were screen protectors,
they were removing the actual display. Unsurprisingly, the April launch was postponed to the end of the year.
Just a few days later, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, Huawei revealed its Mate X – which turned out to everything we’d hoped for in a foldable. Folded up, it had a 6,6” display. Unfolded, it became an 8” mini-tablet.
The fundamental difference, aside from size, was that the Mate X simply looked good. Even folded, it was only 11mm, compared with the Fold’s bulky 17mm. Unfolded, both were super-slim: the Fold 6,9mm and the Mate X an amazing 5,4mm. But the tech that allows for such a slim device comes at a price. The last we heard, the Fold would cost $1 800 at launch and the Mate X – also due out by the end of the year – a wallet-popping $2 600. Once shipping costs and duties are factored in, it will probably cost more than R50 000. Considering the teething troubles we’ve already seen – and the fact that they wouldn’t allow the device to be touched during the Barcelona launch – these clearly aren’t the foldables we’ve been seeking.
In truth, both are just for show, to demonstrate that the leading smartphone-makers can also lead in the next wave of design technology. Before we go shopping for foldable screens, we need to see what the next generation brings. We also need
to see if the competition does any better.
WHO ELSE IS FOLDING UP?
Cellphone pioneer Motorola is expected to revive the Razr brand as a foldable phone. It’s missed a few deadlines, though, so the latest forecast for a year-end launch remains a wait-and-see story. Chinese brand Oppo, ranked fourth in the world in smartphone sales behind Samsung, Huawei and Apple, showed off a prototype at the Mobile World Congress.
There’s a dirty secret in the foldable phone race, though: there‘s already a contender on the market. The FlexPai from relatively new Chinese phone-maker Royale was released last December and showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, USA, in January – long before Samsung and Huawei came to the party.
The problem with this device, which unfolds into a 7,8” mini-tablet, is that the folded version only delivers a 4” screen. True, you get two 4” screens – one on either side – but that hardly makes up for a screen size that was all the fashion more than five years ago.
The real drawback is that the initial version is marketed as a “developer edition”, meaning it isn’t intended for consumers. In other words, it’s still a prototype – and no price tag makes that worth buying.
When A Handset Replaces A Computer
Despite the predictions of many tech manufacturers, tablets failed to replaced laptops, since they’re designed for consuming content, rather than producing it. But now there’s a smartphone designed to do exactly that: the new Samsung Note10 is still the only flagship phone from a major manufacturer with a built-in stylus and it’s aimed squarely at the business user.
The S Pen stylus is like a magic wand that turns the handset into an all-purpose device. It slips out of the bottom of the phone and can be used to write on the screen in normal handwriting, which can then be saved as text that can be exported from Samsung Notes into other formats, like Microsoft Word. In other words, handwritten notes quickly become editable documents. Even laptops typically don’t have that functionality.
The S Pen uses Bluetooth Low Energy, which means it can interact with the phone without touching it, using minimal battery life. This allows some apps to be controlled with the mere wave of the pen above the screen, while selfies can be activated by remote control. It also uses a feature called AR Doodle for personalising
photos and adding effects to videos, while the stylus is the sharpest tool yet for trimming videos on smartphones. One score for productivity.
The top of the range, the Note10+, measures a giant 6,8”, making it the largest display of any mainstream flagship phone on the market. It starts at R23 000 for the basic model, which comes with half-a-terabyte of storage.
The smaller Note10 comes in at 6,4” for those who still want to try a slightly “smaller” grip.
Both devices sport a triple array of lenses, made up of 12MP wide-angle, 16MP ultra-wide-angle and 12MP telephoto. The Galaxy Note10+ introduces a 3D DepthVision camera that can take a scan of an object and turn it into a movable 3D image. Another score for productivity.
Both units come in at 7,9mm thick, substantially slimmer than the current Huawei flagship phones. Thin, for now, is still the biggest killer feature.
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and Editor-in-Chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee