Flip phones like the Motorola RAZR once ruled the world. They were stylish, compact, and the ability to hang a call up with a handle was one of the most satisfying things ever. However, the demand for larger screens would eventually kill the flip phone (and the sliders and other form factors) and leave only the ubiquitous disc.
Ironically, it is precisely the demand for larger screens that has brought flip phones back from the dead with devices like the Motorola RAZR 2019 and Samsung Galaxy Z Flip. Yes, we are talking about foldable phones.
But they are only the latest step on a path that took decades. Flip phones showed up very early and Moto had a hand in it. Motorola MicroTAC and StarTAC were some of the early flip phones, and the benefits of the design were clear – it protected the keyboard from accidental presses, moved the earpiece (or mouthpiece) to a more ergonomic position, and even protected the screen from scratches.
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Motorola StarTAC • Another StarTAC • Motorola MicroTAC • Motorola MicroTAC Ultra Lite
Of course, there were some drawbacks as well. The mechanical complexity is great – a bale telephone is easier to manufacture. This includes avoiding fuzzy, easy to break or disconnecting ribbon cables connecting the two halves. This design also made the phone thicker.
And worst of all, you could not see the screen. How can you tell who is calling? Or that you missed a call or received a message? The solution was to add another screen, just big enough to convey the important info (and possibly display a clock). But it added extra cost and complexity.
There have been some creative uses of the flip, let’s look at a few examples. Sagem made it a kind of kickstand that can hold the phone up. Why do it when you can not play a video or make a video call, or something is not clear.
Sagem MC 959 • Sagem MC 939 WAP
One of our favorite uses of the flip was by Ericsson, which covered part of a touch screen with it. The keyboard pushed down on the screen (a simple, thin mechanism) and it could be tilted out of the way (and even completely detached).
The Ericsson R380 is the first phone called a “smartphone” and the first phone to run Symbian. Later, Sony Ericsson would adopt this design for its P-Series Symbian UIQ devices.
Ericsson R380 • Sony Ericsson P800 • Sony Ericsson P900 • Sony Ericsson P910
Motorola played with similar designs. Moto even found a way to avoid the need for another screen, and it was dead simple – just put a small window on the flap so the user could see the main screen.
Motorola A6188 • Motorola A760 • Motorola A780 • Motorola A1200
Most flip phones only have one hinge, but what if there are two? Nokia used this to great effect to turn the N92 and N93 into camcorders – the body of the phone formed the grip while the screen angled to let the side-mounted camera point forward.
Having so much depth for the camera module allowed Nokia to block a smooth 3x optical zoom into the N93. Of course, Nokia was not the first or the only one to make dual-hinged phones. For a while, this design was popular on phones with a TV tuner, as it allowed you to flip the screen for a comfortable viewing experience.
Nokia N93 • LG G7100 • Siemens SF65 • Sagem myMobileTV 2
There are other ways a flip phone can entertain you – Sony Ericsson Radio placed e.g. Speakers and playback control on the outside. It even had an FM radio receiver (which you could have guessed from the name), though it required wired headphones to act as an antenna.
Motorola’s trademark flip design featured a thick chin at the bottom that was often fitted with a steak speaker.
Sony Ericsson R306 Radio • Sony Ericsson W380 • Motorola V1100 • Samsung Convoy 2
Texting and email were important for business people and children on a limited calling schedule. So (no violation of T9 and the like) having a QWERTY keyboard could really speed up typing. But where to put it? Behind a flip mechanism, of course. Nokia did this with a couple of models with a distinctive split design.
Nokia 6800 • Nokia 6810 • Nokia 6820 • Nokia E70
When touchscreen smartphones pushed feature phones out of the limelight, the demand for flip phones was in demand. Makers tried to save the form factor in a few ways, which usually involved a hardware QWERTY keyboard again (though Moto’s DROID line preferred a slider mechanism).
A couple of crazy designs were tried out like the Motorola Backflip, which had a QWERTY on one side and a screen on the other – both exposed on the outside like an inverted laptop. No, we’m not sure what they smoke.
Motorola BACKFLIP • Alcatel OT-808 • Samsung T559 Comeback • Samsung DoubleTime I857
Soon there were only a few oddballs left. Phones like the Samsung Galaxy Golden and a couple of Phillips models, which had an old-fashioned flip design but ran Android. LG also tried to do it with Wine Smart, but gave up almost immediately after.
These were usually expensive, not widely available and only seem to have caught on in China.
Samsung I9230 Galaxy Golden • Philips W9588 • Philips W8568 • LG Wine Smart
Recently, HMD tried to take advantage of the nostalgia factor, imagining the Nokia 2720 Flip as a KaiOS-powered phone. There are also a few Kai flips under the Alcatel and Energizer brands.
Nokia 2720 Flip • Alcatel Go Flip 3 • Energizer Hardcase H242 • Energizer Energy E220
As we mentioned before, flip phones are back and are actually some of the top devices that money can buy. Lots of money. These folds are set to become quite popular when prices come down.
But we can not end this story without mentioning the flip tablet as well – Sony Tablet P came out in 2012 and tried to offer a smart way to expand the screen at a time when flexible OLED panels were nothing yet. They did not arrive until the following year with the LG G Flex. Who needs hinges when the whole phone is flexible?
Sony Tablet P • LG G Flex
What are your favorite flip phones?