The 2010s essentially killed off the flip phone, but Motorola is pretending that decade never happened. It’s time for new flip phone to hit the market, and on Feb. 6, 2020 we will see Motorola’s revival of the Razr.
The Motorla Razr 2020
The new Razr keeps the two most important elements of the original Razr. It’s true to form with a thin body. When unfolded, it’s 6.9mm thick, which is really thin for a smartphone (although that’s the same thickness as an iPhone 6, so it’s not that unique). It also features a second screen on the front of the phone, which is the real reason everyone loved the Razr so much. The Razr wasn’t the first phone to house two screens, but based on its popularity it was likely the first time users had a dual screen phone. Like the original Razr, the second screen will show the time, notifications, and camera controls. Now the front screen will have more functionality for practical use, such controlling utilities and music.
From a design standpoint, this does not pose a huge challenge. It’s essentially a notification center and utilities screen molded into one. Any design for a smartwatch will adapt to this front screen pretty well and will be intuitive for most users. The true oddity for the front of the phone is the camera. When closed, the camera is at the bottom of the screen. So, when taking a selfie, the focus will need to be below the screen. Anyone with prior smartphone experience is accustomed to looking above the screen. This is not a huge deal, but it may be a slight adjustment for users.
Despite the camera, the front design isn’t a far cry from the original Razr. I fully support the decision to retain both screens, as this became a standard feature on most flip phones. The new Razr keeps that functionality and applies it to 2020’s smartphone market. I don’t think this will be a game changer, but I think people who own the new Razr will appreciate being able to glance at notifications without opening the phone.
Screen Real Estate
The biggest feature on the new Razr is the folding screen. People who buy a Razr in 2020 will be using a folding Plastic OLED screen for the first time. This will allow users to fold the phone then unfold it without seeing a crease. Assuming this works as advertised, it’s the selling point of the Razr. When people first use it, they will be dazzled, they will be wowed, and they will feel like they’re living in the future.
Simultaneously, they will be using a flip phone, and they will feel like they’re living in the past. Assuming the users have used a flip phone before in their lives, there are some expectations that differ from a smartphone. Most specifically, flip phones are not on a perfect vertical plane. There is usually a slight curve to flip phones and the hinge creates a divide between the screen and keypad. With this design, flip phones can easily be used with one hand.
The Razr has a 6.2 inch screen and the device is 6.77 inches (172 mm) long when unfolded. Like most modern smartphones, reachability is an issue. If users want to reach the top of the screen, they’re usually going to need to use two hands. While most smartphones have some features in place to assist with reachability, they do one of two things. Either they’ll send the screen down and only keep the top half of the screen on the display or they’ll zoom out and make the entire screen smaller. In either case, some of the screen real estate goes unused.
Reachability has been an issue for smartphones for over half a decade. The 3.5 inch screens on early smartphones, the ones that replaced the Razr, were fairly easy to navigate with one hand. Then screens got bigger, bezels got smaller, and my hands haven’t grown. Reachability features haven’t been adopted by most users, and even those who use these features know they’re less than optimal.
Viewing the phone in portrait or landscape mode won’t be a change from traditional smartphone use. Now that we have curved displays available to consumers, designers will need to determine if there’s a benefit to implementing a third orientation. Like the flip phones of the past, controls could be beneath the fold and media could be displayed above the fold. Or, a multitasker could browse the web beneath the fold while a YouTube video plays above the fold.
The curved screen on the Razr is something different. It could be the feature that reestablishes the Razr brand and makes bigger screens mobile-friendly. If designers use the curve to their benefit, they could fully use a 6.2 inch screen and make it friendly to the one-handed user. After all, isn’t that the point of a mobile phone? I want to use it on the go. That means replying to a text message with one hand while carrying coffee in the other hand.
Some promotional photos of the Razr seem to support this idea. App icons and the search bar are below the fold while the top half of the screen seems to be used for output.
Sadly, early reviews don’t seem to be embracing the curve. A first impression from Unbox Therapy made the phone look quite impressive, but the main screen was only used on a flat plane. No curves or angles, just a flat screen like you’d see on an iPhone or a Galaxy. Of course, this is an early review because the phone hasn’t been released to the public. Software can change, but it doesn’t seem like that will happen immediately. On launch day, the folding screen seems more novel than anything else.
The Razr’s Edge
With the compact design of the Razr, you might be putting your phone in your pocket for the first time in years. When folded, the phone is 94 mm tall, 72 mm wide, and 14 mm thick. The footprint of the phone is smaller than most other smartphones, especially those with screens over 6 inches. This means the phone will feel good in your pocket, but will it feel good in your hand?
The first thing consumers will do is flip open the phone. Once the novelty is worn off, they will resume daily operations with their new smartphones. They will start to feel the similarities and difference from the original Razr. While the form factor of the phone remains similar, this design may not lend itself well to daily use in a smartphone. Most specifically, the phone retains the bottom chin of the original Razr. This houses the microphone for talking on phone calls, and now it’s the home of the fingerprint scanner.
While researching the phone, I saw a lot of pictures of the phone folded and unfolded, but I struggled to find picture of the phone being used in landscape view. With the chin, this is going to become an annoying feature of the phone. One hand will have the thin top edge of the phone while the other will hold the bulge of the chin.
The chin does not protrude enough to impact interaction heavily, but the bump and asymmetry will make functionality less comfortable. This especially rings true when it comes to gaming. When quick interactions are required, this chin will serve as a barrier to functionality. While this chin does hold some practical features, the designs of other smartphones will indicate it is not necessary to the design. Rather, it is included to replicate the design of the original Razr. The phone does a good job of paying homage to the original Razr, but this should not compromise the comfort of the phone.
Do We Need a Razr Reboot?
From a hardware standpoint, the original Razr was a designer’s dream. It was a massively successful cell phone, selling over 130 million units. Most importantly, it was defined by its design. It was one of the first mobile devices to become as fashionable as it was functional, and that set a precedent for future mobile phones.
In many ways, rebranding the Razr in 2020 makes sense. Like the original, the new phone is going to be defined by its design. Emphasis will be placed on the pOLED display, but associating this with the Razr brand will indirectly highlight features of these displays. New technology can be implemented without compromising functionality. Now customers can have a folding, 6.2 inch display and the phone is still razor thin!
The success of the phone will boil down to a number of factors, and like all new technology the phone comes at a premium. The phone costs $1,500 at launch, which will make an iPhone feel like a budget phone. Even with the price tag, there’s no denying what’s under the hood of this phone. It’s capable of providing all of the functionality of other phones plus it’s one of the first folding displays to hit the market. Plus, the unboxing made this phone look like a unique experience. The packaging is uncommon and edgy (in the most literal sense of the word), and the accessories are made from high quality materials. Users are going to feel like they’ve purchased a high quality product.
With these advances comes opportunities in design. If the phone is successful, designers will need to start consider how curved screen are going to impact usability. This could make phones with large screens easier to use and present opportunities for multitasking. Or, these capabilities could go overlooked. It all depends on how features are presented to users and whether or not users embrace new flip phones.
The new Razr could be a turning point for technology. Consumers no longer have to choose between a flip phone or a touch screen, but this also means designers will have to adapt to more screens than ever before. Designers have a new challenge on their hands, but if they do it correctly the Razr might be the first successful reboot of the 2020s.