How LG's G8X ThinQ evolves the dual-screen smartphone

LG put a flagship smartphone in a case with a second display, but does a second display make a case for a flagship smartphone?

LG G8X hands-on: Dual screen functionality optimized for two full screens Matt Miller explains that LG offers an affordable dual-screen system with more flexibility than the Fold. It uses existing technology with software optimized for productivity. Read more: https://zd.net/2PwF8Sh

In October, I wrote about how Microsoft's dual-screen tablet designs evolved from the Courier concept to the Surface Neo, the Windows-based tablet expression of its dual-screen push. Regarding the Surface Neo's Android-based cousin, the Surface Duo, there's been even more product precedent beyond Microsoft's efforts. In 2017, for example, ZTE characterized its dual-screen smartphone as the wave of the future and the first of a new series of such products. Looking like conjoined iPhone 5s at a time when flagships had moved beyond such large bezels, the Axon M was reviewed by CNET as both "ridiculous" yet "genuinely useful." ZTE, which would encounter political headwinds in the US., made no more dual-screen devices.

However, unlike the Surface Duo, which has a 360-degree hinge, the Axon M could flip out to only 180 degrees. Closed, the screens were always on the outside of the device. And even though the second screen wasn't as thick as the phone's main body, it still added unnecessary bulk for many applications. What if you could remove the second screen when you didn't need it? That's the main propositions of the LG G8X ThinQ, A similar device to the G8 ThinQ that the company released earlier this year, it is distinguished primarily by its compatibility with a 360-degree hinted phone case that houses a second screen. The case is an example of what I call a "necessory," something that's sold separately but which is nonetheless integral to a product's identity, like the Surface's Type Cover.

You can move an app's display from one screen to another or shut off the second display with a small floating button that manages to stay out of the way when unwanted. A three-finger swipe also moves an app's interface from one display to the other. The second display also smartly turns off when it is rotated 360 degrees behind the main device. providing less competition for the Xiaomi Mi Mix Alpha with its wraparound display as the best phone to bring to a rave party. 

LG has made good use of the second screen in some of its own applications. For example, the phone's camera app can mirror the image preview to facilitate taking photos at different angles via the hinge. And LG's keyboard can expand to take up a whole screen, creating a kind of clamshell device with a glass keyboard. While it doesn't help input speed as much as the physical keyboard on the Planet Computers' Gemini, it rewards a bit of practice and keeps the other screen filled with content. Another useful feature is the ability to automatically have a specified app launch on the screen whenever it's turned on; this works well with note-taking, calendar, and to-do apps.

But while the device/case combo has all the advantages of previous devices when it comes to running two apps side by side (three in total, using split view on the main screen), it has almost no support from third-party apps that span both screens. Even Google apps such as Gmail and Google Docs that supported this on the Axon M stay moored to a single screen on the G8X. This is because LG has its own API for such functionality that the company says it expects more apps to adopt. But that's a tough sell for an accessory product from a company with a lower market share, at least unless the case will be supported by future phones.

On one hand, the case creates such a large gap between the screens that the visual disruption would be more pronounced than on the Axon M or Surface Duo. On the other hand, Microsoft has touted the ability for apps to gracefully divide their user interfaces between two screens as a key part of the Duo's proposition. While Microsoft noted that it was working with Google on dual-screen support at the reveal of the Surface Duo, we've not yet seen the kind of public announcement of support for the form factor from Google that it made for folding devices at the launch of the Galaxy Fold. That's simply critical for widespread developer adoption.

The G8X's case also adds more to the device's width and thickness relative to the main display than the Duo's second screen should. And yet, to minimize the additional "chin" area, the case uses a pogo connector to replace the standard USB-C connector; this makes the combination something that users will want to (or have to after they lose the adapter) charge wirelessly.

The main advantage of the case approach is that you can always remove the phone: A simple enough process that nonetheless evokes some of the same "Where do I keep this thing now?" kinds of issues that have sprung up with modular devices such as Motorola's X line. LG, though, hasn't committed to any future devices being compatible with the Dual Screen case. It would accommodate a different camera and power button placement but would require a similar speaker, headphone jack, and volume control placement.

The display cover case may have been a low-risk way for LG to experiment with dual-screen devices or to get something in the market quickly. Overall, it represents a solid evolution in the dual-screen journey, with larger displays, a better camera backed by years of LG's phone design experience, and more hinge flexibility than the Axon M offered. And while the ZTE supported more screen-spanning apps at its debut, there likely won't be many more in the pipeline for the Axon M.

While the combination is bulky, the literal new angles on productivity make the LG G8X ThinQ Dual Screen case an affordable and differentiated alternative today and shows how Microsoft can add to the proposition with the Surface Duo next year.

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