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Razr to Galaxy Fold: The wows and woes of 2019's foldables

Motorola this week became the latest handset maker to debut a foldable phone. Will it succeed?

Motorola Razr

The Motorola Razr flip phone brings back the company's iconic brand from the 2000s.

Juan Garzon/CNET

The Container Yard stands in downtown LA, with graffiti and murals adorning the warehouse's red brick walls. On Wednesday, hundreds of reporters, influencers and even the DJ Diplo descended on this once-neglected part of Los Angeles to see the gadget du jour: Motorola's first foldable, the Razr

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Much like people avoided DTLA, they also shunned Motorola's phones. The company, which invented the cellphone, saw Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy devices blow right past it. Today, only about 3% of the smartphones sold in the world come from Motorola. 

But downtown LA, while still gritty in some parts, has made a comeback. Now Motorola is hoping for a resurgence of its own, all thanks to its iconic Razr brand.

"This is a relaunch of the Razr brand,"  Motorola President Sergio Buniac said in an interview with CNET. "I don't see it as a silver bullet. We see it as a journey that's just started."

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The Razr caps off a really unexpected year for foldables -- and not necessarily unexpected in a good way. By February, foldable phones had captured everyone's attention. They were something never seen before, devices with expansive screens that actually can fold in half to become more compact. Samsung, Huawei and Xiaomi showed off their designs, and essentially every other major handset maker was rumored to be working on a foldable. Even my non-tech-savvy parents in Iowa knew about the devices. 

But then came the troubles: screen defects and lots of delays.

Samsung delayed the launch of its $1,980 Galaxy Fold by five months after some reporters found screen defects in their review units. Huawei pushed back the introduction of the Mate X by several months, to Nov. 15, blaming the slow rollout of the 5G networks in China that the device will run on. Xiaomi teased a foldable early this year but never actually launched it, and Microsoft opted to design a phone with two screens held together by a hinge instead of a device with a foldable display.

Motorola, too, delayed its Razr foldable from a planned summer launch. But now the company is finally ready to show the world what it's created. 

The new Razr, unveiled Wednesday, is a reboot of Motorola's popular flip phone from the early 2000s. In the US, it's only available on Verizon's network. Presales for the the $1,500 device -- the cheapest foldable available so far -- begin Dec. 26, and it'll be available sometime in January in the US. Other markets will get the phone in 2020.

Motorola is banking on nostalgia to woo buyers, and it's counting on something else too: portability. The Razr is the first foldable that remains a compact phone size when expanded, instead of being a phone-tablet hybrid. When folded, the Razr's body measures 2.8 inches by 3.4 inches and sports a 2.7-inch Quick View display. When you open the device, the internal screen stretches to 6.2 inches, the same size as Samsung's Galaxy S9 Plus phone from last year. 

Motorola's research showed "many consumers were looking for pocketability," Buniac said. "Let's fold inwards."

Is bigger really not better?

Foldable fits and starts

In early 2019, Samsung seemed poised to be the first major handset maker with a foldable phone on the market. It set late April as the launch date for its Galaxy Fold, which sports a 4.6-inch display when folded and a separate 7.3-inch display when unfolded into a tablet. 

But the South Korean giant postponed the launch to September after several reporters discovered screen defects in their review units. Samsung spent months investigating what went wrong and tweaked the Fold's design to prevent the same problems in the future. 

"During the past several months, our team has been refining the Galaxy Fold to ensure we can provide the best possible experience," Samsung said when relaunching the Fold. "We learned from the feedback we received, and not only applied those lessons to the Galaxy Fold's design, but also took the time to rethink the entire consumer experience from purchase to unboxing and post-purchase service."

Huawei also delayed the launch of its foldable, the Mate X, to Nov. 15 from a planned summer debut. The $2,400 phone, designed to run on super-fast 5G networks in China and other regions, made its first appearance at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February. 

Unlike the Fold, which opens like a book to reveal a bendable screen on the inside, the Mate X has its foldable screen on the exterior. It needs to be opened only when you want to access the tablet-size display. Huawei executives said the delay was caused by the extra work to refine the device. 

For now it's available only in China, and it won't run Google's services because Huawei was placed on a US watchlist as part of ongoing government scrutiny of its practices and its ties to the Chinese government.

Like the Galaxy Fold, the Mate X has raised questions about durability. Foldable displays today are made with plastic, which scratches easily. The main screen in Samsung's Fold is sheltered when it's closed, but CNET's initial review unit had scratches after only about a week of use. The Mate X's foldable screens are on the exterior of the device, which means they could easily become scuffed. 

The devices, with their irregular display sizes, also require developers to specially tweak their apps to work. On the Fold, you can start using an app like Flipboard on the small front screen and then pick up where you left off when you open the device to the tablet side. But not all apps are optimized for the screen and work well. 

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Verizon will be the exclusive US carrier for the Razr. 

Angela Lang/CNET

That's not the case with Motorola's device, since the outer "Quick View" screen just shows notifications. 

"Samsung and Huawei have to work on how to fill the larger screen effectively," said IHS Markit analyst Gerrit Schneemann. "There's no question about the interface when the Razr is opened -- it's just a normal Android interface."

This year, companies likely will sell "well under" 1 million foldables, he said. Next year, the number should rise to about 4 million, he estimated. 

"We're at the beginning of this form factor life cycle," Schneemann said. "So all these first-generation issues around display quality and performance, user interface and developer support, will get sorted out."

Moto's shot

Motorola has taken a different approach. Instead of creating a phone-tablet hybrid, it's made a flip phone-smartphone combination. The company hopes people will find the compact design attractive and more durable than the foldables from Samsung and Huawei.

Motorola created a unique "zero gap hinge" design for the Razr that allows the screen to lie flat when opened but then close in on itself. The device has space for the display to bend inward in a teardrop shape rather than a flat fold, and one of the screen's five layers is made of 360-micron-thick stainless steel to reinforce the display. As CNET's Jessica Dolcourt noted, the Razr snaps shut, something Samsung's Fold, with its big gap around the hinge in the middle of the display, can't do. 

"We looked at the ways this could fail and would account for it," Tom Gitzinger, director and principle engineer of innovation and architecture for Motorola, told CNET.

Reviewers heralded the Fold as a glimpse into the future, but some noted that Samsung's first iteration of the device felt like a prototype. It didn't have the polish of a product really ready for consumers' hands. But Motorola's Razr feels more like a finished device, some said Wednesday. Dolcourt called the Razr "the best designed, most completely thought-out foldable phone to date."

Samsung is considering a similar design, which it teased at its developer conference last month. And TCL showed off prototypes of foldable flip phones at Mobile World Congress earlier this year. 

Until those appear, Motorola has the foldable flip phone market cornered. 

"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.

But like parts of downtown LA, Motorola's Razr comeback is still a work in progress.