Earbuds That Fit Inside a Smartphone Is Equal Parts Smart and Stupid

Here’s a product render created by LetsGoDigital based on a recent patent filing by Xiaomi.
Here’s a product render created by LetsGoDigital based on a recent patent filing by Xiaomi.
Illustration: LetsGoDigital (Other)

With phones like the MiMix Alpha and its mysterious tri-fold prototype, Xiaomi is no stranger when it comes to dreaming up far out concept devices. But in a recently discovered patent, Xiaomi may have come up with a novel smartphone idea that’s better left on paper.

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In a recent patent filed to the Hague International Design system (which is part of the World Intellectual Property Office), Xiaomi describes a phone that comes with foldable earbuds that are designed to be stowed away inside the phone when not in use. No extra charging case required.

In theory, the idea makes a lot of sense, because with so many people switching over the wireless headphones like Apple’s AirPods or Samsung’s Galaxy Buds, being able to stash your earbuds inside your phone would mean you can leave the earbuds’ charging case at home. And when the earbuds get low on juice, you could simply put them back in the phone where they could recharge by leeching off your phone’s much larger battery.

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But what makes the idea really come to life is a set of product renders based on Xiaomi’s patent filing created by Dutch tech website LetsGoDigital that shows what Xiaomi’s concept might look like in the real world. According to the patent, the key trick to getting earbuds to fit inside a phone without becoming a clunky nuisance is the use of a small hinge that allows the headphones’ earpiece to swivel depending on the situation.

When used as headphones, the earbuds’ earpiece could be swiveled and adjusted so that they could properly sit in your ears, and when you need to put them away or recharge them, the earpiece could be straightened out so that when fully inserted into the phone, the earpiece would sit flush against the side of the phone. It’s a rather clever idea, though right away, there are some obvious flaws with this design.

The first issue is that earbuds shaped like the ones seen in LetsGoDigital’s render don’t look very comfortable, and adding the kind of padding or earcups that would make fit better would quickly make it much more difficult for the earbuds to disappear completely within the body of a smartphone when not in use.

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But perhaps the bigger problem is simply the amount of space you would need to carve out to make room for the earbuds. Over the past few years, smartphone makers have routinely blamed the 3.5mm jack for taking up too much space and the reason why many new phones ship with just a single port (usually USB-C or Lighting), which then has to accommodate a variety of functions including charging, data transfer, and wired audio.

But in Xiaomi’s patent, Xiaomi would have to carve out two separate slots to hold the left and right earbuds, with both earbuds most likely taking up considerably more space than a headphone jack. So in order to have enough room inside the phone for earbuds along with typical smartphone components like a processor, multiple cameras, a battery, and more, the phone would probably end up being huge. Think Galaxy Note 10+ size or even bigger.

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Furthermore, buying a phone that comes with a pair of integrated wireless earbuds could be a bigger deal breaker than a selling point, as people can be pretty picky about their headphones. For a lot of people, in-ear earbuds simply don’t fit properly or are more prone to falling out, and being forced to pay for earbuds you might not want or like could be an issue.

There’s also the problem of what to do if someone happens to lose one of the earbuds. Wireless earbuds makers typically don’t sell individual replacment earbuds, so replacing an earbud in the event that one gets lost could be kind of a hassle.

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So while I appreciate Xiomi’s desire to create a phone that would give people one less thing to carry around, it’ll probably take some more refining to turn its patent into something people might actually want to buy.

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Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.

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DISCUSSION

You nailed a lot of problems with this, and there’s one more. You notice they don’t show it from the side, because either that phone would have to be amazingly thick by today’s standards or the earbuds would have to protrude over the front and back.