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Everything you wanted to know about foldable phones but were afraid to ask

Pete Pachal

Pete Pachal

Editorial Director

9 min. read

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Foldable phones are here. Teased for more than a decade at this point, the idea of a bendable screen on a handheld device has become startlingly real in the last few months, a trend that culminated with several contorting smartphones debuting at this week’s Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain.

Mate-X-handset-resized
Image: Huawei

It’s been a long time coming. One of the benefits of OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays is that they don’t require a backlight or a solid frame. The substrate — the layer of plastic that actually houses the organic material — can be flexible, and ever since flexible OLED panels were first developed more than a decade ago, tech companies have tried to figure out ways to create bendable gadgets.

But the path to a real product wasn’t always clear. Flexible displays first came to curved TVs and monitors, although their frames were almost always rigid. In one of the more dramatic applications, LG created an ultra-thin TV that rolls up when not in use, and the Korean giant intends to bring it to market this year. Foldable phones, however, remained a compelling demo but nothing more.

LG-Rollable-TV

That is, until last fall, when foldable smartphones made their real-world debut with the near-simultaneous announcements of the Royole Flexpai and a Samsung prototype with a fold-out display. This past week elevated the idea from curiosity to full-on tech trend with a plethora of foldable unveilings from major mobile brands like Huawei and TCL showing variations on the idea, and Samsung advancing its prototype to actual product, complete with price and release date.

Foldable phones are so new and so different from what came before, they immediately invite a host of questions, and we’re going to address the main ones here. A lot is still unknowable until these devices get into customers’ hands, but one thing’s for sure: The first generation is going to be crazy expensive.

Samsung-Galaxy-Fold_3-resized
Image: Samsung

Why, though?

First things first: Why do foldable phones exist at all? The answer is seemingly obvious: To give consumers the fundamental design advantages of both a smartphone (portability) and a tablet (large-ish screen) in one device. For the Galaxy Fold, Samsung said it wanted to make a dramatic impact with an entirely new mobile experience by creating a new category.

Typically, when two different device classes merge, the result is less than the sum of its parts. We saw this with cameraphones: Adding a camera to a cellphone meant the camera was very poor, and the phone became less portable. But, over time, mobile cameras improved to the point where they were as good as, if not better than most point-and-shoots, and innovative engineering ensured phones could retain their slim and light form factors.

If foldable phones catch on, it’s logical to assume they’ll get better as they evolve. The current models may be expensive, bulky beasts, but given a few years, they’ll certainly be more durable, slimmer, and have fewer compromises. They might even get cheaper, although they’ll likely always command a premium over “regular” phones.

So how many foldable phones are there?

A bunch! The first was the Royole FlexPai, which simply folds in half, the screen wrapping around the “bend” into a wedge shape. Unfolded, the screen measures 7.8 inches. When folded, the screen is essentially cut in half at about 4 inches, though it appears from hands-on videos that you can choose to have the back “half” go dead or keep the entire screen on for a wraparound effect. The FlexPai was supposed to ship in December, but Royole is apparently still working out the bugs. When it does finally get in stores, though, it’ll have the distinction of being the cheapest foldable phone, at $1,318 for a 128GB model.

Samsung’s Galaxy Fold technically made its debut in November, but it had an official launch as a product on Sunday. The Fold has a 4.6-inch display on the outside, but it unfolds just like a book to reveal a larger, 7.3-inch screen on the inside. Besides the form factor, it’s notable for having six cameras: three on the outside, two on the inside, and a selfie camera that’s meant just for use while folded up. Samsung says the Galaxy Fold will ship April 26 and cost $1,980.

The Huawei Mate X arguably stole the show at Mobile World Congress, earning many raves from tech writers and converting at least one into a true believer that foldable phones are the future. The Mate X looks the be the least bulky of the lot, weighing just 10.41 ounces, and sporting a form factor that puts much of the internal hardware into a thicker “spine” on the side, meaning the screen portion can be a bit thinner. Notably, it unfolds outward, with the screens on the outside, so Huawei didn’t have to design a secondary screen on the opposite side like Samsung did. Huawei says the Mate X will come to stores in mid 2019 and cost a whopping $2,600.

Wait, there’s more! Both Xiaomi and TCL (which makes phones for BlackBerry and Alcatel) have shown foldable phone concepts. Xiaomi’s is probably the most interesting, with a dual-fold design where both sides of a tablet screen fold backward to transform into a smartphone form factor. TCL showed off a number of different designs, including a wedge device similar to the FlexPai, a narrow screen that looks like the bendable version of a flip phone, and a watch. And LG’s V50 isn’t technically a foldable phone, but it’s serves a similar purpose with a second screen in the case that gives you more real estate when you want it.

TCL-render-resized
Image: TCL Communications

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Are they bulky?

In a word, yes. Ben Lovejoy at 9 to 5 Mac described the Galaxy Fold as “bulky” when folded up. Stewart Wolpin at Techlicious concurred, explaining that, by nature of its bifold design, the Galaxy Fold is “twice as thick” as a standard smartphone. The Royole FlexPai is even worse, taking an already thick form factor in tablet mode, and folding it into something that feels more like a “particularly thick book,” according to Karissa Bell at Mashable.

Royole-resized
Image: Royole

For this first generation, it appears that the Huawei Mate X is the winner in terms of sleekness, although even that device is noticeably thicker and heavier than a regular smartphone with the same footprint, as Andy Boxall at Digital Trends observed. Apart from the obvious form-factor needs of more chassis material, foldable phones also need bigger batteries so they can power their larger screens, which adds to the weight.

Why build a phone to fold ‘out’ rather than ‘in’?

This is a brand-new form factor, so the field right now is full of experimentation. With no consumer data to go on, how any particular flexible phone folds is up to the designers. Samsung chose a design with the screens inside that fold outward, like a book. That has advantages to durability (since the screens aren’t exposed when it’s folded) and familiarity: Samsung says it went this route since it was the most natural folding action for the user.

Samsung-Galaxy-Fold_1-resized
Image: Samsung

The Huawei Mate X, on the other hand, folds the other way, with the screens on the outside. The design earned raves from the Verge, CNET, and BGR, and, from the videos, it definitely looks sleeker than the other designs shown so far. However, it’s unclear what the trade-off is in durability since both the screens are exposed, and the part with the crease would seemingly be subject to even more wear and tear (as any smartphone user knows, the edges are where you get the most scratches).

Can you see the crease?

It depends on the device and who you ask. Samsung still hasn’t let anyone outside of the company touch the Galaxy Fold, but it put the device on display, and Gizmodo noted that the crease was definitely visible from a distance, even if the promotional imagery downplayed it as much as possible. However, it’s tough to say for sure how noticeable it’ll be without actually using it.

Some people who have had hands-on with the Huawei Mate X have noted a line is sometimes visible in the middle of the display, although BGR cautions it’s not technically a crease. The nature of the Royole FlexPai’s hinge means there isn’t a visible crease on the display, but it also has the thickest overall form factor when folded.

Will they break or scratch more easily?

This is the million-dollar (well, two-thousand-dollar) question. Since the devices aren’t in consumers’ hands yet, we can’t know whether they’ll have a higher breakage rate, but common sense suggests they will for a number of reasons.

For starters, Gorilla Glass, the most common material in use for protecting smartphone screens, isn’t flexible, so foldable phones are instead using a type of plastic that’s inherently less durable. That said, the fact that the plastic doesn’t need to be rigid means it may be more forgiving to sudden impacts.

Also, by their nature, products with moving parts will almost always have higher failure rates than those that don’t. Even though the manufacturers have stress-tested these phones for tens if not hundreds of thousands of “openings,” there’s no way to predict how owners will end up using them — it seems likely foldable phones will be exposed to more physically risky use cases, such as getting perched on a high surface like a book.

Foldable phones also have a big problem when it comes to the most common way people protect their smartphones: with a case. The Huawei Mate X in particular, since the screens are on the outside, looks especially unfriendly to a case, so owners won’t be able to get that extra peace of mind a case provides.

Finally, for the times they’re unfolded, there’s just the inherent risk that goes hand-in-hand with a larger device. An iPad is more difficult to hold and has more surface area to damage, which tends to make them more prone to damage than iPhones. The same would logically hold for a foldable phone when unfolded vs. a regular one.

Will the trend catch on, and when will Apple get on board?

No one knows, which makes this trend really exciting! Right now, the category barely exists, and all the first-gen models are extremely expensive, so they’re clearly meant for early adopters only. But if history is any guide, foldable phones will get to more accessible prices fairly quickly, but only if they really solve a problem that users have.

The tablet market has plateaued and even shrunk as phone screens have enlarged and tablets have evolved into productivity-oriented devices meant mostly for creators and professionals. If foldable phones can capture some of that audience, then they have a real shot at success, albeit as a somewhat niche device — at least compared to the smartphone market overall.

As for Apple, an iPhone that unfolds into some kind of iPad probably isn’t in the cards. However, if the form factor takes off in general, Apple will be forced to respond with something, but given the company’s tendency toward perfectionism, it wouldn’t build a foldable device until it could ensure a user isn’t compromising on either what an iPhone or iPad provides, and it’s hard to picture a product that does that. Still, that hasn’t stopped an onslaught of fan-made speculative designs from flooding the internet!

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