Your guide to the strange smartphones of 2022

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

So far, the South Korean smartphone maker seems to be getting closer to that goal.

Around 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 change considering that over a billion mainstream smartphones shipped in 2021, but it does suggest that some people want devices that do more than usual. Fortunately, Samsung isn’t the only company rethinking how our phones look and work.

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

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

How do you call this : Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4

How is it different: It’s a more refined type of tablet/phone hybrid

How much does it cost: $1,799 to start

In the three years since it began its grand experiment, Samsung’s foldable phones have gone from public punchline to competent companions. At first, this change required major changes in 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 supposed to use when the device is closed – is a bit wider than before. We’ve yet to try Samsung’s latest devices, but hopefully those few millimeters make the Fold a little less bulky to use in smartphone form.

But remember: this phone turns 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, push and fold this screen over the life of the phone, this is a very welcome upgrade.

iPhones, Pixels, Flips: what you need to know about the best smartphones of 2021

Beyond that, though, we’re left with the same upgrades that come with every yearly smartphone refresh. The processor – in this case, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 – should give this device a little more power than this year’s Galaxy S22 phones. And while previous versions of the Fold had cameras that were mostly just okay for the price, Samsung opted for an improved 50-megapixel sensor to help the Z Fold 4’s main camera capture more detail in photos and videos.

I’ve been using 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. Yet this price is simply unreasonable for many; At $999, Samsung’s smaller Galaxy Z Flip 4 remains the more practical choice. It uses the same improved brain as its brother, incorporates a slightly improved camera system compared to last year and, above all, a larger battery.

A keyboard for professionals

How do you call this : 5G Astro Slide

How is it different: It has a huge physical keyboard (by phone standards)

How much does it cost: About $900

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

The main board is a roomy physical keyboard hidden below the screen – it’s a bit cramped compared to a laptop keyboard, but the keys themselves aren’t much smaller. This, according to Planet CEO Dr Janko Mrsic-Flogel, makes it ideal for taking long notes and sending detailed emails along the way.

So what’s it like to use? The keyboard takes a bit getting used to due to its unusual layout, derived from an old fan-favorite PDA brand in the UK. Once I got the hang of it, I found myself typing almost full speed.

The Astro Slide runs on Google’s Android operating system, and when the device is closed, it acts like a regular, albeit very bulky, smartphone. What surprised me was how natural it was to use it as a pseudo-laptop sitting on a table; you can open a kind of taskbar by pressing a button on the keyboard and scroll through web pages using the arrow keys. It even handles Excel spreadsheets quite well, although I probably wouldn’t try messing with super complex spreadsheets.

As enjoyable as the Astro Slide is, it’s 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 this meant some of my notes looked like I dictated them out of breath. “This keyboard is actually waiting for the spacebar not to work,” one early read. (For what it’s worth, Mrsic-Flogel said he’s never seen this problem before.)

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

More than just a light show?

How do you call this : Nothing Telephone (1)

How is it different: Smart light system for notifications, some commands for other connected devices you own

How much does it cost: About $480

Like the Astro Slide, the new Nothing Phone (1) is also the product of a start-up, but it’s so polished it almost never looks. The problem? You can’t buy one in the US just yet, although the company plans to put its spin on smartphone design here “in the future”. So why all the fuss?

That’s partly because the phone (1) is remarkably capable for the price. But the defining feature of this phone – for now – is its looks.

Its rear half is adorned with around 900 white LEDs (light-emitting diodes), forming what Nothing calls its “Glyph” lighting system. These lights flash in certain ways whenever a specific contact calls, when you call Google’s AI assistant, or when you plug it in to charge. It’s a nice touch, but usually they come off as party stuff for a stylishly designed phone at the forefront. Still, it’s not hard to imagine how they could become more useful — imagine setting a specific light pattern when your boss releases 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 to turn on a Tesla’s air conditioning and unlock its doors, no additional app required. Who knows? Maybe Nothing’s first US-bound phone will contain even niftier tricks.

If you’re not in the mood to wait and would rather 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 in great performance, cool AI features, and a price that won’t make you moan.

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