Motorola's wild concept phone is, for all intents and purposes, a functional smartphone.
At Mobile World Congress in February, Motorola showed off its rollable concept phone, which was the first time the public got to see a working version of the next kind of flexible display for consumer phones. Recently, at a briefing in Chicago, the company gave me hands-on time with the rollable prototype -- nicknamed Rizr, which like the new foldable Razr, is a throwback to a mid-2000s series of phones with "rising" faceplates -- and I chatted with one of the product researchers who helped build it.
The prototype I handled is the same version as the one CNET Reporter Andrew Lanxon saw earlier this year at MWC, so I didn't see any new feature surprises. The Rizr is a compact handset a little bigger than a clamshell foldable with a display that loops part way around to the back cover. Rolled up, 5.1 inches of screen are accessible on the front, but tap the lock button twice and the display rolls from the back fully around to the front, flattening to 6.5 inches, about the size of a conventional phone's screen.
Motorola design researcher Lexi Valasek walked us through how this prototype worked, but was equally interested in hearing our questions. What excited us? What did we want this rollable to do? She quizzed me and other reporters to glean feedback on what the next version might have.
"Every step of the way, every turn, we're learning something different, because we've never done this type of form factor before," Valasek said.
For instance, when I asked whether they'd run into any durability issues with the rolling display, she said no -- but why was I curious about that? Because Samsung's first foldable, the Z Fold, infamously delayed its 2019 launch by six months to fix durability issues reporters had found with their review units. But also because, when the Rizr completely unrolls, the top of the display extends beyond the device's body -- and while it's rigid, I can't see how it would survive a drop.
But Valasek's questions show how curious Motorola is about consumer needs and perceptions. What good is a new kind of phone if everyone's too scared of breaking it to try it out?
To Motorola's credit, the Rizr smoothly unrolled and rerolled the screen without any trouble. It was solid, not fragile, though it certainly felt odd to feel the screen unroll under my hand -- placing it on a table as it unrolled, the screen moved the whole phone, as if it was on a tank tread. Valasek and her team 3D printed some cases that fit around the rollable's frame (which actually didn't cover up as much of the phone as the cases used at MWC), that made it far easier to hold the device while the display rolled for an admittedly better experience. This might be the first device in a long time where I'd prefer a case for usability in addition to protection.
The gears did emit a low hum while rolling the display, which other reporters didn't like -- and many may have remembered the concerningly loud squeak when opening and closing our first-generation Razr foldable in 2020. Certainly, a silent mechanism would be better, but the Rizr's buzz isn't loud enough to be annoying. A second-generation rollable may have to worry about sound, but consumers will probably be wowed enough by the first wave of rolling screens that they won't care.
Among the cool tricks the Rizr can pull off is a selfie camera that "peeks" out from the top of the phone (the screen actually dips just a bit to reveal the front-facing camera below). Far more impressive is that, while taking a photo with the main rear-facing cameras, there's an option to have a preview displayed on the part of the screen rolled up on the back. This was more for subjects of the photo to see a preview before the shutter clicked in case they wanted to make some corrections.
There are a handful of situations in which the screen will automatically unroll, like when switching video to landscape (horizontal) orientation. Also, the screen will dip just a bit to expose the earpiece (next to the selfie camera) when you make a voice call, but if you switch to speaker, the screen rolls back up. These clever choices show that Motorola is thinking, now that they have a device with a moving screen, how it should shift to be most useful to users.
The team making the Rizr implemented lessons learned from Motorola's Razr foldable phones and all the functionality packed into their smaller outer screens, which users have loved. "We've heard from our external users and it's been really helpful to know to engage or how to engage, to know when to open the phone," Valasek said. As a result, when rolled up into a more compact form, the Rizr has full functionality with only 5.5 inches of accessible screen.
The specific handset I held was constructed a couple weeks before as part of a set of nine that were seeded to early testers, who used them for a weekend as their daily drivers in order to provide feedback. I saw two of these. They ran what looked like a standard version of Android and were able to make calls and had data plans. For all intents and purposes, Motorola's rollable prototypes seem to be functional phones.
Assuming Motorola wants to put the Rizr into production -- and for a brand-new kind of phone, that's never guaranteed -- what's left to do? Motorola needs to make sure its rollable can take the punishment of being someone's daily phone, which means a lot of testing. A weekend of use can't approximate the years of wear and tear that a phone will undergo in pockets and purses, when dropped on hard surfaces or into liquids. But Motorola says it's pummeled the Rizr to simulate real-life damage.
"We've done impact testing, we've done cycle testing, and at this point, we're going through the steps to test and see what would need to be done for something to be production-ready," Valasek said.
Motorola has its work cut out for it, figuring out how much rolling and unrolling the device's gears can take.
To Motorola's credit, having the plastic screen just rotating around the outside of the phone solves a pain point predicted for rollables that wind their screens into spools. While LG's rollable never materialized after the company bowed out of the phones market in early 2020, there were worries that dust and screen-cracking particles could be tracked into the display when it was wound up. Dust is still a potential worry with the Rizr, but mostly by infiltrating where the sides of the screen move over the frame of the phone -- and in the prototype I saw, the plastic screen had an ever-so-slight gap over the frame when unrolled flat.
It's the kind of worry leveled at Motorola's first new Razr clamshell foldable in 2019, which had a bit of an air gap between the screen and hinge when folding and unfolding. That gap has disappeared in more recent versions, and there's still plenty of time for Motorola to iterate designs until the screen and frame are flush.
In the meantime, Motorola continues gathering interest on whether consumers truly want a rollable.
"Right now, we're seeing what the interest is, we're seeing what the possibilities are, and we're just vetting everything. It's really exciting right now," Valasek said.
Just as they do with a foldable phone, consumers considering rollables will have to gauge whether it's worth trying out a new kind of handset, even if it doesn't have the same premium cameras or specs as a traditional flat phone. Motorola wouldn't comment on the Rizr's hardware. It just used whatever cameras were lying around, and its configuration could change by the time it's ready for production.
Valasek is fiercely proud of the Rizr and doesn't think traditional phones have any advantage over Motorola's rollable.
"[A traditional phone] just doesn't do as much. It's kind of there. It doesn't offer you the opportunity and the extendability and the flexibility [of the Rizr]. It is what it is. This... ," Valasek said, holding up the Rizr prototype, " ...is not."