Motorola ushered in the era of the clamshell foldable phone Razr in late 2019, an exciting but expensive device with some drawbacks. But months later, the Samsung Z Flip launched with a better folding experience and a slightly lower price: $1,380 versus $1,400 for the Razr. In the years since, both brands have released several oyster models in an attempt to outdo the other.
Nearly four years later, the new Motorola Razr Plus once again takes the lead in design with its Peek Display that spans the outer half of the device. A larger external display gives you more roomfor apps and features, but it’s not just about size — all that extra screen real estate is useless if you don’t have intriguing ways to use it. Interactions should fit the external screen, such as a shortcut or a preview. And, to Motorola’s credit, the company did just that.
Phone makers can also pick up subtle cues from Motorola’s journey iterating on the Razr, like the features it chose to develop and the quirky design the brand quietly dropped from some of its released phones.
Here’s what brands should learn from the Motorola Razr Plus, whether they’re releasing foldables or feature phones.
Bigger screens are good; useful screens are better
The first modern smartphone Motorola Razr, which was introduced in 2019 and released in 2020, had a 2.7-inch external screen with several application shortcuts and a new interactivity. You can use the flip screen to show a preview of the main 16-megapixel main camera — an easy way to take selfies that are sharper than those from the 5-megapixel camera on the front of the phone.
The Razr’s first flip screen was larger than the original Z Flip’s 1.1-inch external display, and it’s even bigger than last year’s Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 4 with its 1.9-inch external display. The Razr Plus’s new 3.6-inch external display tops them all—which is big enough to display shortened versions of apps, take video calls, and display shortcuts for media and other phone controls.
Shortcut controls are more convenient to use instead of having to fully open the phone and have other benefits. For years, Motorola has claimed that Razr owners save battery by choosing, say, to check the smaller external display for notifications or preview text messages instead of turning on the entire internal display.
For foldable handset makers like Samsung, Oppo and Huawei (and TCL, if its foldable dreams ever come to fruition), following Motorola’s lead by having a large outdoor display isn’t enough: It has to be so useful that people’s behavior changes and ideally improves upon “flat” phones. This means rich interactions on the external screen through apps and features. As CNET senior editor Lisa Eadicicco pointed out in her review of the Motorola Razr Plus, the phone can be propped up like a tent, from the side of the screen to keep an eye on notifications and check which song is playing on Spotify. When photographing her friends, Eadicicco said they like to see a preview of them on the back cover. Even playing on the small screen was fun, she revealed.
“At a time when smartphones can feel unwieldy to use with one hand, I appreciate the ability to scroll through news headlines on a device that fits in the palm of my hand,” Eadicicco wrote.
This is not reserved for clamshell foldable devices either. Phone manufacturers have included other interactions beyond the home screen for years, such as lighting up the curved sides of a phone in a waterfall style to show incoming notifications. Even the Nothing Phone 1 uses the LED glyph on its back cover to flash for app and message notifications, which the newly released Nothing Phone 2 improved with more nuance. It’s easy to see what an extra screen on the back of a conventional phone – like those used in the special editions of the Asus ROG phones – could do with clamshell devices.
What has been gained and what has been lost
The first foldable Razr looked a lot like the iconic Motorola foldable phone first released in 2004. Everyone agreed that the spring-loaded hinge on the 2019 foldable Razr that lets you snap the phone closed like the flip phone’s namesake was an inspired choice.
On the other hand, that pressure made it difficult to keep the screen partially open since it was designed to flip fully open or closed. Motorola bet nostalgia would endear the phone to fans, but once the Samsung Z Flip launched with the ability to open the screen to any degree, the flexibility trumped the sad memories. The new Razr Plus quietly introduced the ability to open the phone halfway (90 degrees).
But the most obvious evolution of the Razr series is in its design. The first in 2019 had a short top half of the phone with a sculpted edge that tucked into the bottom half when folded closed. It was a clean look that evoked the design of the original Razr phone from 2004. But the thick “beard,” which supposedly doubled as an echo chamber to amplify the speakers (not something I could ever figure out) just seemed awkward in an age of function over form.
In the years since, the Razr’s design has slowly warped into more uniform halves with rounded edges, like an Animorphs case of a fun phone that loses its new look to resemble every other clamshell on the market. It will be hard to tell the Motorola Razr Plus from the rumored Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 until you spot the brand’s batwing M logo on the back.
It was easy to see why the original 2019 Razr was designed to evoke its flip phone heritage, specifically to convince consumers that the old can be new again. But four years later, all clamshell designs look the same.
So the hard lesson is: First movers may succeed in introducing exciting new design concepts, but just as the first iPhone heralded the death of the physical keyboard on the phone, convention will eventually flatten differentiated designs into lackluster similitude. Aside from the difference in how the cameras are placed on the back, almost every phone these days looks the same.
Or the shrewd lesson for brands that have bided their time: Now that innovators have normalized foldables in small but steadily growing sales, new entrants simply need to grab the same black foldable rectangle (or rectangles) to throw their hat in the ring.
But the good news for any skeptics waiting to be won over by rubber-shell foldables is that Motorola has released its most advanced model yet that’s been upgraded to have its most exciting feature yet: a large display on the outer cover. Brands will be smart to see how much people like it when you give them what they want.