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The development of mobile phones has been quite an interesting one. We began with rugged traditional slab phones like the Nokia 3310 with their simple designs that placed ease of use at the forefront. Then came flip phones (like 2004’s classic Motorola RAZR), which made mobile phones cool, hip, and many more of the teenage buzzwords used back in the day.
Fast forward to 2007, and Apple defined the smartphone with the original iPhone. Gone were flip and sliding phones of the past with their arcane concepts like physical buttons. All of a sudden, touchscreens were in vogue, and other companies like Samsung clambered to follow suit.
That’s been the status quo for many years. Developments were focused on iterating rather than reinventing the wheel. Higher-resolution screens, fast charging, 4G support, smaller bezels and better cameras were all welcome developments (though some trends like the removal of headphone jacks and notches might have been missteps).
In fact, we, the consumers, have generally been content with the phone market. Modern smartphones are crazy good, and as we’ve covered in our article on midrange smartphones, even inexpensive smartphones can last you a good while before needing to be replaced, if at all.
Unfortunately, the stagnated development meant we always seemed lightyears away from the next big thing. Do I really need the insane 50x zoom on the Huawei P30 Pro? Is the Galaxy Note 10’s S-pen really that essential? Is the Nokia 7 Plus’s lotus-like 7 camera setup worth it for the risk of Trypophobia?
Gimmicks will be gimmicks, though those are all pretty good phones in their own right. The point is, manufacturers are stuck in a rut. Power isn’t something phones can increase ad-infinitum, and we’ve reached a practical plateau in terms of advancements.
The logical next step? Folding phones.
Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately. There are currently only 2 foldable smartphones available on the market, with the rest slated for a release date of late 2019 or early 2020. Our discussions here are mainly speculation, but there’s a lot of information out there. We’ve combed through all of them to get you the juiciest titbits about folding smartphones, and we’ll hopefully answer the question that’s on many people’s minds: “Are folding smartphones worth it?”
credits to techradar.com
The first batch of folding phones were released back in 2017, where the idea of ‘more-screen’ and portability were favoured. The smartphone market loved Samsung’s Galaxy Note series for its larger screen, but 2016 Galaxy Note 7 battery debacle was still fresh in many people’s minds.
Folding phones felt like the next logical step, and many companies (though none of the bigger ones) attempted to make laptop-style smartphones a reality. The formula was simple, two screens and a hinge. Think Nintendo’s DS line, but with two smartphones instead.
Did it work? Well, people were intrigued, but the idea didn’t take the world by storm. The most notable and successful product from the time was ZTE’s Axon M (with a Metascore of 67%, not too bad for a gimmick brought to life).
Critics were fairly impressed with the robust nature of the software, with multitasking being fluid thanks to the then flagship-level Snapdragon 821 processor. This was the best thing about the dual-screens, and playing a game while watching Netflix is a novelty that still impresses today.
The problem was the alternative ‘extended’ mode, which uses both 16:9 screens as a single 4:3 viewport. The middle bezels made this less than ideal, and most video content these days weren’t designed for a 4:3 screen either. It didn’t help that Android (the operating system of choice for the Axon M) lacked native support for foldable screens at the time.
The biggest blow to the phone was the price. The Axon M was expensive, and for the price, you really were better off getting the latest Samsung or Apple smartphone at the time.
However, as a proof of concept, the Axon M did its job. It proved that foldable phones could work with a bit more optimizations, and that there was a market for said products, albeit a niche one.
With OLED technology becoming mainstream (check out our article on OLED TVs to learn more), a frankly quite amazing feat was possible. You could make foldable screens.
The Axon M used a clamshell-style design with two individual screens. Imagine that, but with a single screen all across. That idea is what fuelled the 2019 race for foldable smartphones.
The public started to take note in February 2019, where Samsung formally announced the Galaxy Fold, the first single-screen foldable phone. 5 days after that, Huawei announced the Mate X at the GSMA Mobile World Congress. The difference? The Mate X folded outward, whereas the Galaxy Fold folded inward (and had an extra mini screen on the outside).
The race was on.
Both foldable phones were extremely different to what we’ve come to expect from smartphones, even more so than ZTE’s attempt. When folded up, the Mate X and Galaxy Note functioned just like a typical smartphone (though definitely much bulkier). When opened up, you got an iPad style ‘tablet’.
Both phones have yet to be released, but we’ve got a lot of pre-release details, along with early review testimonials of the Galaxy Fold to go on.
First things first though.
To be frank, even companies like Samsung who lead the charge can’t come up with compelling reasons to justify bendable phones. If I want to scroll through Facebook or make calls, current smartphones are really all I need, with larger phones like Samsung’s own Galaxy Note series giving me extra screen real estate if needed. For no-laptop productivity, there’s tablets like the Apple iPad and Microsoft Surface.
So why folding phones?
I’ll play the devil’s advocate and talk about the main pros of foldable devices. ‘
The Axon M did this well despite the lack of native Android support at the time, and modern additions like Android N’s split screen multitasking and picture-in-picture mode can be taken a step further on large screens. Samsung’s early Galaxy Fold models even show off personalized enhancements in the new One UI software that allow for multiple screen splits.
Apart from that, there’s the increase in size. Phones have been getting progressively slimmer with time, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to cram better hardware without causing issues with overheating. The Galaxy Fold features dual batteries (totalling a capacity of 4380mAh) and 6 cameras, which is even better than what you’re getting on the current generation Galaxy S10s. Going forward, I can see companies favouring this design due to the added room for growth.
If those upsides seem underwhelming, that’s because they’re are. As they are right now, folding phones still have a ton of kinks to work through. To be frank, I’d consider folding phones novelties right now. Let’s go through some of the glaring issues that don’t have solutions in sight.
The main issue with folding phones right now is the crux of their existence. The folding just doesn’t work as intended.
While ZTE did an admirable job back in 2017, the fact that we’re pushing for a single-screen future introduced some complications.
The first signs of trouble were on announcement day of Huawei’s Mate X. Huawei bravely let people test out their new hardware on the show floor, and most people came away impressed. The software felt responsive and solidified this as a Galaxy Fold competitor from the get-go.
The problem was the plastic screen. As we touched on briefly in our article about screen protectors, touchscreens need glass, which is not flexible. This means foldable screens are made mainly with plastic. The Mate X (and the since released Royole FlexPai) both have this subtle ripple right at the folding point, which contrasts the otherwise sleek looking design.
Early review units of the Galaxy Fold had major issues with the fold-point as well, as it was a structural weak point that allowed dust and debris to enter the phone. This resulted in a widespread catastrophic failure, with multiple reviewers reporting their screens flickering out and dying within 24 hours of normal use. A few reviewers mistakenly removed a plastic layer that looked like a screen protector (it wasn’t), the fact that an integral part of the hardware was so easily removable (and that it instantly killed the phone) is crazy, especially so close to commercial release.
Either way, the issue was significant enough that the Samsung Galaxy Fold delayed its initial 3 May 2019 launch date to September. Huawei’s Mate X was also delayed due to certain issues with their component suppliers as a result of the trade war.
For better or worse, the Flexpai from Chinese company Royole is the first flexible smartphone to hit stores, and… it did way worse than we expected.
The 56% Metascore is pretty abysmal. Yet everything seems to be perfectly fine. The hardware is high-end, and the screen doesn’t suffer from failures like Samsung’s early Fold models. Despite being from a relatively new company, the FlexPai should have been a hit. Instead, The Verge’s review calls it ‘charmingly awful’, but why exactly is that?
This highlights another main issue with foldable phones. While the Galaxy Fold and Mate X’s software experiences were fairly robust, the FlexPai faltered.
The user experience is extremely important in modern tech, and the FlexPai doesn’t really do a good job. The simple action of folding or rotating the device should be fluid, but the FlexPai seems to jump through multiple display configurations before finally settling on the right one. That’s anything but fluid.
And that’s not all. Multitasking on a single screen is the best thing about tablets and folding phones, yet developer support just isn’t there yet. Native Android support alone isn’t enough, and we see that clearly with the FlexPai.
That also brings us back to the Galaxy Fold, the Mate X, and even other products like the Motorola RAZR V4. They’ve all been careful to only allow multitasking on Google’s own software like Maps, Gmail and Youtube. Apps like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook naturally work too, but what happens with the rest?
It’s worth thinking to current split screen multitasking on smartphones. While it’s been available since 2016 in Android Nougat, not all apps support it. The Axon had it easy, since it basically simulated two phones at once, but this isn’t something easily done on foldable phones.
While Google’s developer tools have been released to support foldable UIs, one has to wonder if software developers will accommodate foldable phones that only have a low adoption rate.
That’s not even discussing the extra software work done by the phone manufacturer. Huawei’s EMUI 9.1 (subject to change) and Samsung’s One UI have added customizations to make the experience smoother. How will this interact with the Android software layer?
I guess we’ll have to wait to find out.
This is the sore spot for most people. Foldable phones are crazy expensive, costing well over $1,000, and considering that your choices now are a 2-year-old Axon M, a solid but sluggish Flexpai, or a pre-order for the smooth but fragile Galaxy Fold, it’s not a good sign.
(The Mate X’s future is a little uncertain at the time of writing, with no information since August 2019 announcing delays due to unspecified reasons).
These phones are more than double the price of flagships. For reference, a Galaxy Gold will retail at an MSRP of $1,980. You can literally buy two Samsung Galaxy Note 10s (MSRP $949) or Apple iPad Pros (MSRP $949) and still have $80 left over for a nice dinner. The Mate X is rumoured to cost $2,600, which is ludicrous.
Regardless of your thoughts on the software experience and actual hardware, it’s hard to deny how difficult these phones are to recommend.
The companies seem to know that too. The FlexPai was completely sold out on May 2019 despite middling reviews, and this is a company founded on the idea of selling flexible phones. Was this due to popularity? Or was it the company playing it safe with their manufacturing counts?
I’ll leave that for you to decide.
If all you want is to know whether foldable phones are worth it, then the answer is no. At least, not right now.
I’ll always shy away from being an early adopter, as you pay extra for an unproven product that will almost always improve given time. Folding phones right now (and possibly in the near future) will be for the enthusiast and flamboyantly rich.
Many publications claim that folding phones are really status symbols, and I really must agree. Foldable screens are like holograms and augmented reality, things that just feel downright cool but are also just out of reach.
good design very slim very costly
I’m excited to see how foldable smartphones develop with time, and once affordable variants become mainstream, I’m certain you’ll find yourself getting one for your own.
Think of it this way, phones with touchscreens weren’t accepted right away upon release. Resistive touch screens were inaccurate, and the phones themselves weren’t as powerful as they are now. It took a few years, but Apple finally popularized, and arguably perfected it with the original iPhone. Who knows, Apple doesn’t have a foldable device lined up yet, could they strike gold again this time?
Regardless of your thoughts, I’d say it’s clear that foldable smartphones are here to stay. Too many companies have their R&D teams hard at work to solve the issues, and while there are going to be some bumps along the way, I’m eager to see where we end up in a year or two.
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