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In defense of the Fold

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bow down to the fold

So the Galaxy Fold is out. After years of waiting the future has arrived, in the year of our lord 2019. In my opinion it is an amazing first iteration for a folding phone, and is clear to me that Samsung has been working on this for many years.

However, there are seeds of dissent in the land of fold. Many people can't stop being transfixed on the front screen, and its 'massive bezels' and tiny footprint. Some have said that Samsung 'rushed' the Fold to market because of this, and that rival companies with folding phones are 'years ahead'. Well I'm here to argue that the smaller front screen is (obviously) by design, and not some corner cutting, penny punching result of their design process.

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The smaller front screen is by design

Originally I thought the best way to make a foldable phone would be to start with a 16:9 aspect ratio (in phone mode) and then unfold into a square. One screen on the front and the bigger one inside, unfolded like a book. This is the best way to design a folding phone. Now perhaps 16:9 is just too passe these days so maybe it's more realistic to start with 18:9.

However Samsung didn't do this. They didn't give us a square unfolded tablet. They opted for a vertical 4:3 aspect ratio in tablet mode with a very narrow aspect ratio when folded in phone mode, with a display almost half the size of the phone front. Initially I was perplexed by this, but after some thought I believe these were carefully considered design decisions. Here me out:

  • First off, sticking to a 'standard' aspect ratio like 4:3 is probably a better move than going full square. Not just because it is an established ratio (Microsoft Surface devices follow 4:3) but also because it lends for better video watching.
  • Second, having the phone so narrow in folded mode emphasizes how portable and pocketable their 'folding tablet' really is. The shape can really slip into any pants or jeans, even skinny ones.
  • Third, is the size of the front display. This is a hot topic, maybe the biggest talking point of the entire device. People feel it is too small, a 'joke'. But it’s by design. Samsung wanted the Fold to be both one handable/compact and large. Function over form.

One the one end, you have smaller one handed phones like the S9 and S10e. On the other hand, you have massive phones like the Note 9 and the S10+. The fold aims to synergize these two extremes into one device. It is folding the fabric of the lineup into one user experience, but because of the unique form factor it is not tied to that delicate balance of pushing the screen as far as one can to the edge of the device as is the norm. It can go bigger than an S10+, and it can go smaller than an S9. It is giving the user two opposite phones, both of their advantages amplified, the absolute best of both worlds.

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Also, if the front of the phone was bezelless, unfolding it wouldn’t give you that much extra display. The experience would't be as much of a 'wow factor'. And it would be very tall and difficult to one hand, which seems to be a common complaint these days (just looks at the new Xperia 1).

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We are used to big phones because we use them two handed. It is why we want our screens to stretch all the way to the edges of the device. We are already holding them in two hands, we may as well get a bigger screen at that point. The Fold is meant to be unfolded when using two hands, and folded when using one. Hence the front is tailored for one handed use. The front is not meant to be used with two hands. It's trying to be more pocketable and one handable like a smaller compact phone (remember those?), yet also bigger than a phablet. And I think Samsung succeeded in this.

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Thoughts?