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Phone technology

Did Always On Displays Get Good?

Elizabeth Technology November 24, 2022

‘Always On’ for phone displays is a relatively new development. Of course some apps and programs have tried it before, but the cons are numerous: it consumes battery. It can make it hard to tell if the phone screen is off-on or on-on and ready to be unlocked. It used to cause pixel burn-in, where the design on-screen becomes ‘stuck’ there. (In fact, depending on how long you’ve had your phone, you may be able to spot burn-in from your battery and WiFi indicators when you go full-screen on a video on your current device.)

It seems things have changed, and both the iPhone and Pixel are coming out with phones that have optional Always On Display built in. How do they tackle the issues this style of display used to cause?

1) Battery Life

Outside of the brick and suitcase phones, handheld consumer cell phones are as big as they’ve ever been. The screens are huge, many topping 6 inches, and while the devices haven’t gotten much thicker (sometimes even slimming down) the actual components needed for computing keep getting smaller and smaller, freeing up space for the battery.

Ultimately, ‘Always On’ didn’t get much cheaper to use energy-wise, but phone batteries have gotten truly massive in the time between the first notions of it and now. Many new generation phones boast multiple days of battery life given you’re not running Minecraft, location services, and Youtube on said phone at the same time.

Battery life is no longer the limiting factor in Always On settings!

Additionally, the iPhone has announced that Always On will not activate when the phone is face down, when it senses it’s in a pocket, and when a bedtime routine is set. Users can also turn it off in settings if they so choose. This limits how much power that function actually takes.

2) Is This Thing On?

The Pixel turns off the pixels surrounding the phone’s clock display, and keeps the clock itself at a very low light. Essentially, only the clock zone and any notifications are actually ‘on’ onscreen, and in most lighting conditions it’s not hard to tell whether your device is off-on (which won’t accept touch to activate it) or on-on (which will). The new iPhone still turns on the entire screen if Always On is active, but it shouldn’t be hard to differentiate as long as your brightness preference when you’re actually in your phone’s menu isn’t set to the lowest setting.

That said, this is a new feature, and it’s going to take consumers a bit of time to adjust. Notifications on screen are generally interactable, but while the screen is “off-on” (in a state where it would be off under the old display rules), they won’t be.

3) Burn-In

While many screens on all sorts of devices, consumer or not, have improved, it’s tough to say whether or not they’ll be able to hold up to the demands of Always On without getting some burn-in. The thing causing burn-in is not the screen staying on and displaying pictures – it’s that those pictures don’t change. It’s why the TV displays showing movies in Best Buy and restaurants don’t get burn-in despite being on for far longer than any ordinary consumer would leave them on. Meanwhile, restaurant menu boards aren’t doing that annoying thing where the menu disappears for an animatic to play because they think you want that, they’re doing it so that if the menu ever changes, there’s not the ghostly image of “Double Cheeseburger – 6.49$” over top whatever they’ve swapped it out with. If they just left it as it was, it’d burn in. If the screen is brighter, the effect is usually worse.

It will likely come down to how the consumer stores their phone. Some people do leave their phone facing up on a coffee table, and those people are going to be subjecting their phone to Always On for much longer than the people who store their phone in their pocket or face down. Again, it’s too early to tell how susceptible the phones will ultimately be to burn-in, but the odds are better than they’ve been in the past.

No Mini?

Elizabeth Technology April 1, 2022

The iPhone 14 isn’t supposed to have a Mini edition upon release. This is weird – because the next smallest size is like 6 inches long.

The Ideal Size

I’ve written about phone sizing before. I do still think phones should be getting thicker and smaller, because the new ones are so big that the average human hand is just barely big enough to reach across with the fingers on one side and the hand on the other. If you need to hit a button at the top of the screen one-handed, you now need to set the phone down to do so, or risking dropping it as you balance it on your fingers to move your palm for maximum thumb range. If you lose balance like that, you may not be able to catch it before it hits the ground. However, I was forced to replace my phone as I dropped my old one and broke something inside it. Now, my phone measures just over 6 inches from top to bottom – a Moto G Power, that cost 180$, a far cry from the iPhone’s 9XX$ and above. The new size is actually less of an encumberment than I was expecting, and it came with a charger, and an aux cord hole.

Enough dunking on Apple – why is 6 inches long the new default?

Aside From Functional Use

A bigger phone is a bigger, more visible phone. If it’s logo’d? The logo is more visible on the back, and the user’s hand probably isn’t covering it as much. It means more surface area for users to put things like stickers and decorative cases. A bigger phone is harder to lose and more capable of stuffing in secondary options such as a point-perfect GPS and a powerful flashlight that can stay lit for 30 minutes at a time while also still allowing the user to use the browser. The bigger the battery, the longer it lasts, too, so that bumps up the size. Phones have replaced alarm clocks, timers, GPS, mp3 players, internet hotspots, PCs, handheld games like Tamagotchis, paper games like Sudoku and crosswords, and a whole host of other small electronics designed for a singular purpose. If you’re willing to buy accessories, you can go even further, and your phone can replace things like meat thermometers and light switches. Even further, apps allow you to do things like lock your house, adjust the temperature, and watch your doorstep from your doorbell as you please, stuff you couldn’t do from a distance before phones. When you put it like that, of course the phone’s gigantic. Look at all the stuff it’s replacing!

All of the computing power and assorted hardware to make this possible does inflate the size of the phone, and while some argue that a thicker phone would be more resistant to bending (or more pleasant to hold and store, like I do), a wider, taller phone provides more functional use via a larger screen. More surface area is arguably the best outcome for a larger phone. Some phone brands go so far as to curve the glass over the side of the device so their buyer has the largest screen out of any phone with the same dimensions.  

Besides pure, compact hardware, the screens facilitate quite a few modern apps.

Media – Social

Social Media asks for increasingly more time, effort, and software from its users for the ‘best experience’, or the experience that keeps you scrolling. Prettier pictures with a convenient, easy-to-use camera like the iPhone’s camera get more likes, and are easier to generate more of, creating a self-generating cycle. Now, the phone must act as a viewfinder as well as a high-definition camera, but there’s no view hole like there were on traditional devices, so the view takes up the entire screen instead, a compromise. The bigger the screen, the easier it is to take those high-quality pictures.

On the other side, once the picture’s been posted to social media, a bigger phone means you don’t have to zoom in to see details, and people with poor eyesight or coordination can increase the size of their text and read more without swiping back and forth on the screen every five words. Is it better than a PC, or a dumbphone (aka a flip phone)? That’s down to user preference, but a bigger smartphone allows for the option.

Media – For You!

Besides picture taking and doomscrolling, a lot of people end up watching video on their phones. SmarTVs are annoying to navigate, not everyone has a SmarTV capable of searching the web for videos, and many people deliberately keep TVs out of their bedrooms anyway. The next most viable screen is their phone, which is portable, internet-connected, and has apps for websites like NetFlix, HBOMax, etc so they can watch in proper 16×9 formatting without fussing with the phone browser.

A bigger phone is less of a headache to watch, so it’s only natural that as video became more common, bigger devices would become more common with it. Some apps are also designing for that bigger screen anyway. Popular video-based app TikTok would often cover ¾ of the bottom part of the screen with the caption with my older moto, but now that’s less of a problem – the text size is unchangeable, so it was forced to adapt to the size of my screen.

Overall, larger phones are being driven by Apple, who is by far the largest smartphone brand in the US – apps have an incentive to keep up with Apple over anyone else, meaning that if other phones was the apps to look the same on their screens, they need to keep up with Apple’s sizing. If the consumer wants the giant screen but doesn’t want to pay Apple prices, that’s great! If they don’t want the big screen, they’re about to be pushed back into earlier generations of the Apple phone, or other third party phones.

Folding Phones, and the Road to Get There

Elizabeth Uncategorized November 24, 2021

Brick Phones

The first portable phones were barely portable at all. A suitcase with a battery combined with an obnoxiously heavy phone apparatus made the first portable phones more of a novelty than an everyday item, useful only for the uber-important. The next step came with a battery packed right into the part you talked at and listened from, which could get exhausting to hold up if the call was especially long. Most phone manufacturers have some version of the infamous brick, and Samsung’s was both slightly later to the market and slightly smaller than many of them, a handheld phone released in 1988 called the SH-100. It’s the first mobile phone to be both designed and manufactured in Korea, but mobile devices weren’t particularly popular at the time. The perception was sort of like the Segway; why buy an entire mobile phone for X$ when you could simply use street- and building- phones? And who’s calling you, anyway? Obviously, this changed, but the initial launch was slow, each upgrade only adding tiny slivers of market share to Samsung’s slice up until they were able to compensate for Korea’s uniquely signal-blocking topography. They began to dominate other competitors (namely Motorola), and became a serious competitor in the emerging mobile phone market!

Folding Mobile Phones

Phone manufacturers knew that phones should reach both the ear and the mouth of the user at the same time. If it didn’t, the early microphones would make their voice indistinguishably staticky, or they’d have to shout. Phones had to have a minimum length to be comfortable to use, and they had to have a minimum size and thickness for the battery. Over time, batteries became flatter and smaller – Motorola releases the first folding phone in 1996, and the rest is history.

Manufacturers and designers soon realize that this is an excellent opportunity for customers to showcase their tastes and individuality, and so optimal design took many forms: phones could rotate. They could slide. They could simply flip open, or they could pivot. The world was an oyster, and the possibilities were unlimited.

Samsung had a number of worthy entries; some were classical flip phones with num-pads, some had tiny folding joints for an especially sleek profile when closed, some slid up to reveal tiny keyboards beneath large screens, one was a slide-up with both a 9-Key and a qwerty keyboard, nothing especially special in a world dominated by physical buttons. One phone managed to mix all of the actions, and featured both physical buttons and a tilt-a-whirl screen that could make watching videos easier. Phone manufacturers were all over the place trying to make the optimal shape… and all of that changed in 2006.

The First Smartphones – A Cultural Shift

Smartphones were revolutionary. Apple was the first to make one with the touchscreen as we know it today (previous models were too big for mobile devices or not sensitive enough to work under a light touch). But as their popularity grew, so did complaints about the system. Scratches, freezing, getting hacked, having so much info in one spot, breaking easily, expense – and yet, none of the foretellings of Apple’s doom came true. The product became a must-have. Competitors now knew the tech was possible and began pouring funds into R&D.

Samsung soon released their own smartphone (unfortunately timed right around the 2008 financial collapse) called the Behold, and took off in the arms race against Apple with different touchscreen technology – a resistive screen that could be used with styluses instead of Apple’s capacitive screen.

Gradually, smartphones become the default instead of an expensive VIP gadget. As such, features were constantly improving in a never-ending arms race among competitors. The easiest to measure and the easiest to achieve was screen size, and Samsung was a determined competitor. Screen size got bigger, and bigger.

Skinny Jeans – And A Desire for Smaller Phones

There’s a reason they stopped! There was a period of time where skinny jeans and ultra-giant screens from Samsung intersected. This may not seem it, but it turned into a huge problem: the pockets were physically too small to actually hold the phone. People with backpacks and purses were fine – most everyone else was not. They’d end up holding the phone in their hand or losing it out of their back pocket when they sat, across brands. (Apple’s iPhone 6 bent under the pressure of back pockets around this same time period, although part of that was a switch to an aluminum case, not just the device’s size.) Samsung, while not famous for bending, became famous for being too large to use effectively.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 in 2014 featured a screen that was 5.7 inches tall. Women’s pockets are often smaller than men’s – it’s a legitimate phenomenon, and skinny jeans only amplified the trend. In 2019, Aberdeen research discovered that only 40% of women could fit an iPhone X in their pocket, a phone with a screen size of 5.65 inches, barely smaller than the Note 4.

 The size also made using the phone with one hand difficult, even if you did have pockets. Many people hold their phone either with their pinky beneath the bottom of the device, or with it held tight against the heel of their palm. The size of the phone meant that many people could barely navigate half of the screen with their thumb if they only had one hand available.

Between skinny jeans for everyone and an oversized phone that was difficult to use and retrieve, marketers were beginning to realize that sometimes users wanted functionality over a device that could serve as a TV. Phone size stopped increasing, and things like cameras and wrap-around screens started appearing on top of the better hardware inside Samsung’s devices. Phones also continued to ratchet up in price.

Apple – And the Death of Steve Jobs

Samsung had a battery quality control issue first identified in 2016. Many people, some experts, some not, claim that this is all that kept Apple from becoming the minority in the market during the awkward transitional period of Apple’s new leadership. Jobs’s legendary ability to see beyond what was possible and market it made him the soul of the company; without him, Apple entered a long downwards trend of hiking costs on mundane items and selling it as a lifestyle instead of an innovation. Customers noticed, many promised to switch. Surely, Samsung could now take over?

The only issue was that Apple had just stumbled, not fallen – their marketing was the issue, not the products, and re-aligning their marketing to their products (which were now more about comfort and ‘luxury’ than innovation) kept them relevant while they sorted their organizational issues out. Apple and Samsung are arguably the two most recognizable smartphone brands out there – Motorolas have more of a reputation for ‘sturdy and cheap’, and Microsoft’s smartphone failed to launch.

Still, there was desire for innovation beyond better cameras and bigger screens.

Full Circle

Samsung made a folding phone. But wait – it made a touchscreen folding phone, something previously thought infeasible! Now that customers had warmed up to incredibly expensive new phones, the price needed to make that tech possible to sell was no longer such a deterrent. You can fold your phone again, and it only costs nearly a thousand dollars to do so. You can’t protect the screen as effectively while it’s open (the fold prevents most kinds of screen protectors from being useful), and it’s still honkin’ huge, but you can fold it and keep the screen away from your keys or rocks on the ground while it’s closed.

The only thing that prevented it happening earlier is a lack of flexible material that also behaved itself right as a resistive screen, the kind of touchscreen Samsung uses. Resistive screens work by including layers of material under the glass that, when pushed together by your finger, communicate the touch to the phone. Capacitives, on the other hand, work by your hand’s interference with the screen’s capacitance field, detecting the touch that way. Resistive screens will work when you’re wearing gloves, but capacitive ones won’t. Resistive screens also work with styluses – capacitive ones need their own special kind. Whether or not Apple, who uses capacitive screens, will be able to follow along, remains to be seen.

How Did They Do It?

Firstly, all of the mechanisms that other smartphones use have to be modified – that doesn’t matter so much for the CPU, but it matters tremendously for the battery, which is now below-par for other smartphones in the same price range.

Secondly, the phone is thicker – and now it has a joint in the middle. Earlier versions of the concept didn’t want to go back to the folding joint seen in flip phones, but they also didn’t want to compromise on size. The result was usually something too thin to drop or squeeze – remember, most phones are made out of aluminum or some kind of alloy, and the average person can already bend a smartphone with their bare hands. Samsung’s leaning towards ‘rectangular prism’ instead of ‘sheet of paper’ makes the device sturdy enough to withstand opening and closing over and over, even though the screen is soft.

Thirdly, the screen is soft! And still capable of operating as a resistive screen. This is possibly the biggest issue facing the screens themselves, and earlier versions of Samsung’s folding phones faced frequent complaints of scratches and dust ‘leaks’ inside the device, both of which were only made worse due to the lack of screen protectors available for their devices. Finding something tolerably soft and yet tolerably resistant to scratches required quite a bit of legwork by Samsung. Only now is the special polymer both cost-effective (as much as it can be for a thousand-dollar phone) and functional.