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After years of sameness, phones are getting delightfully weird again

Most devices still look like sleek rectangles, but these companies found value in odd designs.

Samsung's $1,799 Galaxy Z Fold 4 arrives amid growth in foldable phone shipments. (Samsung)

Samsung unveiled a pair of new smartphones on Wednesday — the clamshell-inspired Galaxy Z Flip 4 and another phone-tablet hybrid called the Galaxy Z Fold 4 — in another bid to push foldable devices into the mainstream.

So far, the South Korean smartphone maker seems to be inching toward that goal.

About 7 million foldable smartphones were shipped in 2021, according to data from market research firm IDC, up from 1.9 million in 2020.

That might not seem like a massive shift when you consider well over a billion traditional smartphones were shipped in 2021, but it suggests that some people out there want devices that do more than the usual. Good thing Samsung isn’t the only company rethinking the ways our phones should look and work.

It can be hard keeping up with a constant crush of new devices, especially when some fascinating options fly well under the radar. To help, we’ve put together a quick guide on what phone makers are trying to do differently, and how well they’ve managed to pull it off.

Help Desk reporter Chris Velazco reviewed several unique smartphones. Spoiler alert: None of them are iPhones. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

Further into the fold

What it’s called: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4

What’s different about it: It’s a more polished kind of tablet/phone hybrid

How much it costs: $1,799 to start

In the three years since its grand experiment began, Samsung’s foldable phones have gone from public punchline to competent companions. At first, that shift required big changes to design and construction. Now, with the new Z Fold 4, the company seems more comfortable with subtle refinements.

It weighs a little less than the model it replaces, and its external screen — the one you’re meant to use when the device is closed — is a bit wider than before. We haven’t gotten to try out Samsung’s latest devices yet, but with any luck, those few millimeters make the Fold feel a little less cumbersome to use in its smartphone form.

But remember: this phone transforms into a tablet. When open, Samsung says the internal 7.6-inch screen is also more durable than in previous years. Considering how often you’re likely to unfold, prod at, and refold that screen over the phone’s life, that’s a very welcome upgrade.

iPhones, Pixels, Flips: What to know about the top smartphones of 2021

Beyond that, though, we’re left with the same upgrades that wind up in every annual refresh of a smartphone. The processor — in this case, the Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 from Qualcomm — should give this device a little more horsepower than this year’s Galaxy S22 phones. And while earlier versions of the Fold had cameras that were mostly just OK for the price, Samsung went with an improved 50-megapixel sensor to help the Z Fold 4′s main camera capture more detail in photos and video.

I’ve used a version of this device for about two years now, and the novelty of having a big screen that (mostly) disappears when I don’t need it hasn’t worn off yet. Still, that price is plain unreasonable for many; at $999, Samsung’s smaller Galaxy Z Flip 4 is still the more practical choice. It uses the same upgraded brain as its sibling, packs a slightly improved camera system compared to last year, and — most importantly — a larger battery.

A keyboard for professionals

What it’s called: Astro Slide 5G

What’s different about it: It has a huge (by phone standards) physical keyboard

How much it costs: About $900

With just 11 full-time employees, London-based Planet Computers can’t build or sell its devices as fast as Samsung can. Thanks to a community of supporters, though, the company has successfully built three mobile devices, the latest of which is a funky smartphone/laptop mash-up called the Astro Slide 5G.

The main draw is a spacious physical keyboard hidden under the screen — it’s a bit cramped compared to a laptop’s keyboard, but the keys themselves aren’t that much smaller. That, according to Planet CEO Dr. Janko Mrsic-Flogel, makes it ideal for taking lengthy notes and sending detailed emails on the run.

So, what’s it like to use? The keyboard takes a little getting used to because of its unusual layout, derived from a defunct, fan-favorite PDA brand in the U.K. Once I wrapped my head around it, though, I found myself typing at nearly full speed.

The Astro Slide runs on Google’s Android operating system, and when the device is closed, it acts just like a regular — if seriously chunky — smartphone. What caught me by surprise is how natural it felt to use as a pseudo-laptop sitting on a table; you can open a taskbar of sorts by hitting a button on the keyboard, and scroll through webpages using arrow keys. It even handles Excel spreadsheets quite well, though I probably wouldn’t try mucking with any super-complex ones.

As pleasant as the Astro Slide can be, though, it's still far from perfect.

My review unit came with a slightly janky space bar that wouldn’t work if I tapped it from the right — being right-handed, that meant some of my notes looked like I was breathlessly dictating them. “Thiskeyboardisactuallywaitthespacebardoesntwork,” an early one read. (For what it’s worth, Mrsic-Flogel said he hadn’t seen this issue before.)

When the keyboard works the way it’s supposed to, there’s no portable note-taker quite like it. But I wouldn’t recommend this for everyone — unless you write novella-length emails, that is.

More than just a light show?

What it’s called: Nothing Phone (1)

What’s different about it: Clever lighting system for notifications, some controls for other connected devices you own

How much it costs: About $480

Like the Astro Slide, the new Nothing Phone (1) is also the product of a start-up, but it’s so polished that it hardly ever feels like one. The catch? You can’t buy one in the United States yet, though the company does plan to bring its twist on smartphone design here “in the future.” So, what’s all the fuss about?

It’s partially because it the Phone (1) is remarkably competent for the price. But this phone’s defining feature — for now — is its look.

Its back half is festooned with around 900 white LEDs (light emitting diodes), forming what Nothing calls its “Glyph” lighting system. Those lights will flash in certain ways whenever specific contact calls, when you invoke Google’s AI Assistant, or plug it in to charge. It’s a neat idea, but usually they come off like a party trick for a phone designed with style at the forefront. Still, it’s not hard to imagine how they could become more useful — imagine setting a specific light pattern for when your boss Slacks you.

More interesting is Nothing’s plan to integrate controls for third-party gadgets directly into its software. A recent software update added an experimental tool for turning on a Tesla’s A/C and unlocking its doors, no additional app required. Who knows? Maybe Nothing’s first US-bound phone will pack even more clever tricks.

The reliable option

If you’re not in the mood to wait and would rather just buy a reliable phone for around the same price, Google’s $449 Pixel 6a is probably the way to go. What it lacks in striking design, it makes up for with great performance, some interesting AI features, and a price tag that won’t make you groan.

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