What Phone-Makers Need to Learn From the Motorola Razr Plus' Cover Display
Commentary: Motorola's Peek Display helps define the Razr Plus, and there's a lot that companies like Apple, Samsung and Google could learn from it.
David LumbMobile Reporter
David Lumb is a mobile reporter covering how on-the-go gadgets like phones, tablets and smartwatches change our lives. Over the last decade, he's reviewed phones for TechRadar as well as covered tech, gaming, and culture for Engadget, Popular Mechanics, NBC Asian America, Increment, Fast Company and others. As a true Californian, he lives for coffee, beaches and burritos.
Expertisesmartphones, smartwatches, tablets, telecom industry, mobile semiconductors, mobile gaming
Motorola kicked off the clamshell foldable era of phones with the Razr in late 2019, an exciting yet pricey device with a few flaws. But months later, the Samsung Z Flip launched with a better folding experience and slightly lower price: $1,380 vs. $1,400 for the Razr. In the years since, the two brands have released several clamshell designs, in attempting 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 half the outside of the device. A bigger exterior display gives you more room for 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. The interactions need to suit the outside screen, like a shortcut or a preview. And, to Motorola's credit, the company did just that.
Phone-makers can also take away subtle hints from Motorola's journey iterating the Razr, like the features it chose to develop and the design quirks the brand quietly jettisoned over several released phones.
Here's what brands should learn from the Motorola Razr Plus, whether they're releasing foldables or regular phones.
Bigger screens are good; useful screens are better
The first modern day Motorola Razr smartphone, which was announced in 2019 and released in 2020, had a 2.7-inch exterior display with several app shortcuts and some novel interactivity. You could use the cover display to show a live preview of the main 16-megapixel main camera -- an easy way to take selfies that are sharper than those from the phone's front-facing 5-megapixel shooter.
The first Razr's cover screen was bigger than the original Z Flip's 1.1-inch outer display, and is still bigger than last year's Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 4 with its 1.9-inch external screen. Outdoing them all is the new Razr Plus' 3.6-inch outer display -- which is large enough to feature abridged versions of apps, take video calls and show shortcuts for media and other phone controls.
Shortcut controls are more convenient to use rather than having to open the phone completely, and there are other benefits. For years, Motorola asserted that Razr owners saved battery by opting to, say, check the smaller outer screen for notifications or to preview text messages rather than activate the entire inner display.
For clamshell foldable makers like Samsung, Oppo and Huawei (and TCL, if its foldable dreams are ever realized), following Motorola's lead by having a large outer display isn't enough: It should be so uniquely useful that people's behavior is changed, and ideally improved over "flat" phones. That means rich interactions on the outer display through apps and features. As CNET Senior Editor Lisa Eadicicco pointed out in her Motorola Razr Plus review, the phone can be propped up like a tent, screen-side out to keep an eye on notifications and check what song was playing on Spotify. When taking photos of her friends, Eadicicco said they enjoyed seeing a preview of themselves on the back cover. Even gaming on the small screen was fun, she found.
"At a time when smartphones can feel unwieldy to use with one hand, I appreciate being able to scroll through news headlines on a device that fits in the palm of my hand," Eadicicco wrote.
This isn't reserved for clamshell foldables, either. Phone-makers have included other interactions beyond the main display for years, like making the waterfall-style curved sides of a phone light up to indicate incoming notifications. Even the Nothing Phone 1 uses the LED glyph on its back cover to blink for app and message notifications, which the just-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 special editions of the Asus ROG Phones -- could carry over from clamshell foldables.
What's been gained, and what's been lost
The first Razr foldable phone looked a lot like the iconic flip phone Motorola first released in 2004. Everyone agreed that the spring-loaded hinge on the 2019 foldable Razr that let you snap the phone closed just like its flip phone namesake was an inspired choice.
On the other hand, that pressure made it difficult to keep the display open part way as it was designed to flip completely open or closed. Motorola bet that nostalgia would endear phone fans, but once the Samsung Z Flip launched with the capability to angle the display open to any degree, flexibility trounced wistful 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 scalloped edge that tucked into the bottom half when folded closed. It was a neat look that evoked the design of the original 2004 Razr flip phone. But the thick "chin," which supposedly doubled as an echo chamber to amplify the speakers (not something that I could ever quite detect) just looked awkward in an era of function over form.
In the years since, the Razr's design has slowly warped into more even halves with rounded edges, like an Animorphs cover of a fun phone losing its novel look to resemble every other clamshell foldable on the market. You'd be hard-pressed to tell the Motorola Razr Plus apart from the rumored Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 until you spot the brand's batwing M logo on the back.
It was easy to understand why the original 2019 Razr had been designed to evoke its flip phone heritage, especially to convince consumers that the old can be new again. But four years later, all clamshell designs kinda look the same.
Thus, the hard lesson is: First movers may get to introduce exciting new design concepts, but just as the first iPhone heralded the death of the physical keyboard on phones, convention will eventually flatten differentiated designs into gormless similarity. Aside from variation in how cameras are placed on the rear, pretty much every phone these days looks the same.
Or the shrewd lesson for brands that have bided their time: Now that innovators have normalized foldables into small, yet steadily growing sales, new entrants just have to ape the same folding black rectangle (or rectangles) to throw their hat in the ring.
But the good news for every skeptic waiting to be won over by clamshell foldables is that Motorola has released the most advanced model yet that has been honed to have the most exciting feature yet: a big outer cover screen. Brands will be smart to see how much people like it when you give them what they want.