Hardware innovation for smartphones has stalled in recent years and so have sales, beginning with the five consecutive quarterly declines measured in 2018. A solution for producers seems to lie with software and new applications. Expanding screen configurations could be one place to start to open those horizons.
Today there are three new screen designs for mobile computers. You can review the field by checking out four devices—Yoga, Neo, Duo, and the Flip. The innovative displays for these mobiles include a device with two distinctly different types of computers joined by a hinge (Yoga), two hinged screens that can display two different apps or pages or one continuous large image (Neo and Duo), and a single screen that can display one or two different programs and can fold in half (Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip and Fold).
Samsung released a mobile phone with a flexible screen called the Galaxy Fold last year, but there were problems with the integrity of the crease. This year’s version uses a flip-phone format and an improved bendable glass that goes from 4.6" closed to 7.3" fully opened (see Tools of the Trade). Also interesting is a multitasking mode when the phone is opened to 90°, and the top bend can display one app and the bottom another.
A richer field for exploration by the software developers will likely be a format with two screens joined by a hinge. One example of this kind of tablet has been around for a few years. The Lenovo Yoga Book C930 has a primary 10.8" 2,560 × 1,600 IPS touchscreen running Windows 10 and a 10.8" secondary E Ink 1,920 × 1,080 touchscreen. That’s like joining an oversize Kindle with a medium-size Windows notebook, bound together like a book with a sturdy watchband hinge. The tablet is about 7" × 10", very thin (0.38"), and weighs only 1.71 lbs.
The two screens let you do conventional work on your laptop, but you can also read e-books, mark up PDFs, and take handwritten notes or sketch on the E Ink side with a Wacom stylus. The keyboard is virtual, and it appears on the E Ink half. The keys blink when struck and provide haptic feedback so you know you have touched and released them. The Yoga Book will probably remain a niche offering, but for those who work on both notebook touchscreens and e-paper, it’s quite an interesting hybrid.
For those who remember Microsoft’s past attempts at creating a competitive smartphone, any announcement of a Windows phone might justifiably elicit a squint. What’s different this time in two new Microsoft devices are the software and two screens. One has a new operating system, Windows 10X (code named Santorini), a streamlined version of Windows designed for a tablet (Surface Neo). The other, the Surface Duo phone (shown above), will run Android. Both devices are being developed within the Surface family, arguably one of Microsoft’s most successful hardware initiatives.
Both Neo and Duo are dual-screen devices with a hinge. The pocketable Duo phone has two 5.6" displays that will unfold to a small 8.3" tablet (phablet). The Neo has two separate 9" displays that fold out to a generous 13" workspace for two separate applications that can share information with sweeps across the surface from one screen to the other, or you can run just one program on the larger screen. Unlike the Yoga, the Neo has a physical Bluetooth keyboard that flips up and positions itself magnetically, covering about two-thirds of the screen. That leaves about one-third of the bottom screen still exposed to display a WonderBar, which is bigger than the Apple TouchBar but functions in a similar fashion. A stylus for both touchscreens attaches magnetically to the Neo case. The Neo tablet and the Duo phone are planned for end-of-year releases.
The effort to expand screen choices in a single device isn’t really new. What’s different now is a slowdown in the market dominated by the slab of glass mobile, the desire to make tablets and phones more like edge devices that can connect with larger systems and networks, and the multiscreen experiments of major players such as Microsoft, Samsung, and Lenovo. The new screens should widen the path available to software developers.