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David Zax

A View from David Zax

A Dual-Screen Smartphone

When is a smartphone like a tablet?

  • January 23, 2013

To quote the immortal lines of Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) in Jurassic Park: “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Yes, you could build a smartphone with two screens, hinged back-to-back. And indeed, NEC has done just that, with its new Medias W N-05E, announced today in Japan (it will run on the NTT DoCoMo network there starting in April).

But should you?

Allow me to leave you in suspense as to my final judgment on the matter, while we discuss some specs. The clamshell phone features two qHD 960x540 4.3-inch screens. When you unhinge them and put them side-to-side, suddenly you have new multitasking options (navigating apps on the left while web browsing on the right, say), or can simulate something approaching tablet real estate (the two combine to a roughly square 5.6-inch screen, albeit with a bothersome seam down the middle). The device has a 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8960 processor, 1GB of RAM, an 8-megapixel camera, and it all runs on Android 4.1.

The potential use cases of a dual-screen device are not difficult to imagine. The Nintendo DS was a dual-screen gaming device that was a hit for years, and offered novel ways of interacting with games. “Second screen” has become a buzzword in TV-watching, typically referring to people who use their iPads while watching TV, sometimes to dish on Twitter, sometimes to surf related content (a map of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, say); similar tricks could come into play on a clamshell phone. And indeed, since dual-screen devices like this aren’t entirely new–see the Sony Tablet P, for instance, or the Kyocera Echo–we already have a sense of how smartphone makers are and aren’t planning to use this layout (a common trick, for instance, is to put a keyboard in one screen, and the “body” of the app in the other).

Since the Medias W is structured a little differently than rivals–the screens are on the outside of the clamshell, rather than the inside–the Verge’s Sam Byford envisions another potential use. You and a friend could be sitting opposite each other, perhaps on a train, and each be watching versions of the same movie on your phone. That trick–being able to see your own screen, but not your mate’s–seems a linchpin for certain mobile gaming innovations, too. (Battleship, anyone?)

But it seems to me like the most clever, the most innovative, the most useful way to employ double screens is also the most obvious one: to turn your smartphone into a tablet. What I want–what everyone wants, I think–is the screen real estate of a tablet, with the convenience of a device that fits in your pocket. The trend right now is to try to find a middle ground with tablet-phone hybrids called “phablets” (see “Review: Galaxy Note”). The only problem: phablets are often awkward. As Dilbert put it: “You want me to design something that is a bad tablet an even worse phone?

Clamshell dual-screen phones are in an awkward phase, too. Often, apps only work on one screen to begin with; an ecosystem of apps designed specifically for the dual-screen experience has yet to evolve. An even bigger deal-breaker, for now, is the wide bezel that, in the Medias W at least, prevents the sense of seamlessness between the two screens that you expect out of a tablet experience.

But these are surmountable problems. And if someone surmounts them, there could be quite a market for dual-screen devices like this one, indeed.

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