The foldable phones are coming, that much we can all agree on. Multiple manufacturers have announced their intentions to produce a folding device, Google is building support for them into Android, and we’ve even seen the first such phone actually make its way to market in China. At Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona next month, rumors suggest more announcements are in store from companies ranging from Huawei to Motorola and even Oppo.
But outside of an implicit agreement that folding phones are going to happen, there’s close to no consensus about what the best form for them actually is. Through various early teases, announcements, and patent filings, we’ve seen a range of different form-factors proposed. Ask four different manufacturers what form their folding phone will take, and you’ll get four very different answers.
Throwing screens at the wall and seeing what sticks
For technology fans, that’s a very good thing. 2018 was the year when practically every phone manufacturer converged on notched displays as the de facto design standard. But by eliminating their distinctive bezels, almost every phone ended up looking identical.
At the same time, phones converged from a design standpoint. 2018 also saw the phone industry hit an inevitable technology plateau. Phones became “good enough” and newer devices have increasingly little to offer.
Folding phones change all of this. They’re new, they look like something out of a science fiction movie, and companies actually seem willing to experiment with designs that are different from 90 percent of their competitors.
A relatively unknown Chinese manufacturer called Royole is the first company to release a foldable phone, and it’s adopted probably the most simple design. The Royole FlexPai, which is out now in China, has a single screen that folds once to wrap around the outside of the device. When unfolded, you’re using the whole screen; when folded, you’re using just half of it (the half that’s pointed at you at any given time).
As expected for a device that’s first to market, it’s a bit of a mess. The software is buggy, and it gets confused when it suddenly needs to operate in folded mode. It’s also ridiculously thick when the screen is doubled up on itself. For our purposes, though, it’s a useful look at the challenges foldable phones will have to overcome.
Samsung’s foldable phone
As the world’s biggest smartphone manufacturer, Samsung’s attempt at a foldable phone is understandably the most high-profile one. It also appears to be using the most complicated design. Rather than featuring a single screen that’s usable while the device is either folded or unfolded, the prototype Samsung showed off at its developers conference last year featured two screens: a larger one that folds inward like the inside of a book, and a smaller one that takes the place of the book’s cover.
The benefit of this design is that because the larger 1536 x 2152 resolution (4.2:3) display is hidden while the phone is closed, it’s completely protected. Meanwhile, a smaller 840 x 1960 (21:9) display is left for you to use as you would a traditional smartphone.
But packing a smaller secondary screen into a device may come with costs. The prototype device shown off by Samsung seemed to have significant bezels around this second screen. Even though the company said the phone was “disguised” inside a case, and would be “stunning” when fully revealed, the 4.58-inch outer screen isn’t large enough to fully cover the folded half of the device. It won’t feel like the screen of a traditional Samsung phone.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the next time we’re expecting to see Samsung’s foldable phone is alongside the Galaxy S10 during its February 20th reveal, a week before MWC, when the company will hopefully have some real-world use cases to show off.
That timing might give Samsung the drop on Huawei, which is also rumored to be preparing a folding phone for the show. The Chinese company announced its intention to produce a foldable last year, and it reportedly intended for it to be the first to market. Although the device is yet to be publicly revealed, rumors suggest it will feature a similar dual-screen design to Samsung’s device.
Xiaomi’s folding phone
Samsung and Royole have two ideas about what form foldable phones will take, and Xiaomi has a different design entirely. In a recent video released by the company, it showed off a single-screened device that folds into two places to bend the screen around itself. Although this means two potential points of failure for the screen, the result is a far more modern-looking device, complete with slim bezels and curved glass edges.
Xiaomi hasn’t officially said when it expects to announce the phone, but an MWC 2019 reveal looks likely.
Motorola’s folding RAZR
These are the designs that we’ve been able to see for ourselves, but numerous other manufacturers have admitted, or are reported, to be working on foldable devices. Motorola, for example, is reportedly planning on relaunching the iconic RAZR handset with a new folding screen. Its parent company, Lenovo, has been experimenting with bendable phones for a while now, and the clamshell RAZR could be the perfect use case.
The company is yet to officially announce the device, but a recent patent suggests that it could look a lot like a classic clamshell RAZR with a folding screen on the inside. Although that part is similar to Samsung’s prototype, the patent shows a phone that folds along its shorter edge, resulting in an especially wide display when unfolded. That might be a strange aspect ratio for games and video, although the taller display could lead to productivity improvements if you can open two apps simultaneously.
LG, Oppo, and Sony
That leaves us with Oppo, Sony, and LG as the three other possible contenders for announcing a foldable phone soon. Cryptic comments from one of Oppo’s product managers last year suggested the Chinese manufacturer could have a foldable phone to show off at MWC. In the same comments, the manager also name-dropped Sony as another company that Oppo believes is working on a foldable device of its own. For its part, Sony has remained tight-lipped about its potential foldable phone plans, although a patent discovered last year suggests it’s experimenting with foldable, rollable, and even transparent displays.
LG seems likely, but the Samsung rival hasn’t tipped its hand
Finally, there’s LG. Although a rumor that the company was planning on revealing a foldable phone at its CES 2019 keynote didn’t come to pass, the company’s commercialization of rollable TVs suggests that it has the expertise to attempt a folding phone. However, outside of a number of patents discovered over the years for both folding and rollable phablets, as well as trademarks for the names Mate Flex, Mate Fold, Duplex, and similar, there’s no official word on what a final consumer device could look like.
It’s unlikely that all of these companies are as close as Samsung and Xiaomi to releasing or even revealing their foldable devices, but the various patents and rumors show there’s far from a consensus about what form foldable phones will take. There seems to be a broad agreement that foldable phones are an important new technology, but beyond that, opinions are split on the best way to deliver it.
For me, the promise of foldable phones has always been about eliminating the need for tablets. Tablets might technically be a unique form of device, but as so-called “phablets” became the norm, the lack of any real differences between phones and tablets has become more and more obvious. Yes, a tablet’s OS and apps need to be tailored to its big screen, but that screen is its only real distinguishing factor.
That big screen makes them better for drawing, watching movies, or browsing the web, but it’s also pretty unwieldy for basic productivity tasks like typing, unless you commit to placing them on a surface or connect them to a physical keyboard like the iPad Pro and Pixel Slate. Smartphones, meanwhile, need to be capable of replying to a dozen WhatsApp messages without a table in sight. It goes without saying, but tablets are also terrible at fitting in pockets. Issues like these are why tablets and phones are still able to exist as separate device types.
Theoretically, it’s the best of both worlds
Foldable phones could change this. Done well, folding phones could offer all of the functionality of a tablet, without losing the convenience or flexible productivity of a phone. (We’re particularly curious how battery life will fare.) But done badly, they could end up offering the worst of both worlds. Eventually, manufacturers will work out their strengths and weaknesses and find a design that strikes a balance, leaving the rest of the industry free to converge on that design.
Until that happens, we’ll have a weird and wonderful array of folding devices to play with, and MWC looks like it will be where the competition will really get started.