Foldable devices are going to be an exciting part of our future, but if 2019 has proven anything, it’s that they’re not yet ready to be part of our present. Royole’s was terrible, Samsung’s has proven defective, Huawei’s is behind schedule, and Xiaomi and Oppo’s alternatives are merely social media video teases for now. Even LG, the company that doesn’t know how to say “no” to an outlandish idea, demurred on foldables this spring, saying it can’t yet come up with a compelling one. I think LG’s right in its candor because I believe everyone who’s shown anything foldable so far is going about it the wrong way. None of them are getting the shape of the thing right.
Most companies are starting with a smartphone as their default folded shape, and the most natural unfolded state for such a slab inevitably leads to a squarish aspect ratio. However, I’ve had my hands on the Huawei Mate X, Royole FlexPai, and a selection of TCL foldable prototypes so far, and my conclusion from those experiences is that the unfolded device, no matter its size, should have a widescreen aspect ratio. It’s more important what a foldable is like when it’s unfolded than folded — or, at the very least, that form is the one that should be taken as the starting point.
The occasions when I find the size of my phone’s screen inadequate these days are few, but they’re almost always the same: watching videos, browsing photos, and looking at websites designed for the desktop. Each of those benefits from a widescreen display. Even things that phones are already good at, such as browsing bottomless social media feeds or mobile gaming, also get a boost from an elongated display. My colleague Dieter Bohn reviewed Sony’s Xperia 1 this week, and the thing he most appreciated and enjoyed about it was the “tall boy” 21:9 display. Ever since phones started breaking away from the common 16:9 aspect ratio and toward more elongated shapes in 2017, mobile apps, games, and services have been gradually altering their interfaces to better match that design trend.
No one is coding bespoke software for square screens right now, and back at MWC in February, I was struck by just how wasteful it was to play a YouTube video on the unfolded Huawei Mate X. The empty black space above and below the moving images was almost as tall as the video itself. I loved the design, refinement, and apparent robustness of the device I had before me, but I couldn’t escape the sense that it was taking almost no regard of how people would use a gadget of that kind.
Make it 16:9 in its unfolded state, and a foldable will look and feel tailor-made for YouTube and the vast majority of streaming content and games. With the advent of 5G, especially next year, the variety and availability of streaming services are only going to expand — and whether you’re playing on Google Stadia or binging the latest HBO Max offering, a widescreen device will be your perfect mobile companion.
I think it’s paramount for Android foldables to adapt their shape to the most commonly used apps because the experience of Android on a tablet has always been underwhelming. If you’re Samsung or Huawei, trying to sell your foldable as a productivity or work device is a surefire way to fail. The iPad has a huge lead on that front, and once you get to sizes of 10 inches or above, I think a squarer aspect ratio works better. But to play to the strengths of a smaller screen with a less optimized tablet OS, Android foldable device makers should focus on making videos and games look their absolute best, and those things have mostly standardized around the classic 16:9 widescreen ratio.
My proposal, however, presents a design challenge of its own because once you set 16:9 as the aspect ratio for the unfolded slab, you’re looking at a 16:4.5 or 8:9 aspect ratio when folded, depending on where the presumed single fold would land. This is where I hand it off to the designers: maybe the right solution is two folds, as Xiaomi has shown is possible, or a more extreme version of the partial fold that the Mate X has. Or maybe the first generation of foldables will have to accept that it can’t have a perfect smartphone on the exterior, which is something Samsung’s Galaxy Fold design acknowledges with its chunky external bezels.
I can understand why companies feel compelled to try and deliver an uncompromised smartphone plus an awesome tablet in the same device. We consumers are demanding.
The best devices of our current smartphone era have always been the ones that feel most efficient and perfected. Ungainly camera bumps, such as the ones on the Nokia 808 PureView or Lumia 1020, have produced gorgeous photography but failed to find mainstream acceptance. When Avenir Telecom offered to build a phone with a monster 18,000mAh battery, it fell 99 percent short of its crowdfunding goal. As much as we might claim we’d tolerate some aesthetic compromise for a practical advantage, a quick look at the slick, ever thinner, and ever more fragile super flagships of today suggests that, in the end, the consumer insists on beauty, efficiency, and function all at once.
I would love to have a Google Pixel of the future that’s the size of the current non-XL device, albeit a little thicker, which can suddenly unfold into a mini tablet that I can finesse my photo edits with. And when I want to kick back with the latest Verge Science video, no black bars (or notches!) would be really nice as well. That might mean I’d have to sacrifice usability in the device’s folded state, such as what’s proposed by Motorola’s foldable RAZR prototype, but you know what? I’d be buying the foldable for what it can do when open, not closed, so I think I’d accept it. Hell, no external screen to blink notifications at me might actually be an upgrade.
Everything I’ve seen from Samsung, Huawei, Royole, TCL, et al. suggests that foldable device designers are still unsure exactly what the ideal shape should be. My overriding impression is that the engineering challenge of just making the hinges work reliably and the screens fold and unfold without breaking is so large as to overwhelm other considerations.
But user experience isn’t an auxiliary concern. It must be paramount. And to create a radically new form factor and user experience, companies ought to be thinking radically. I’ve witnessed way too many failed attempts at making smartwatches out of leftover smartphone parts. To make the foldable of the future, designers and engineers must start with a clean slate. And my humble suggestion is that it should have a 16:9 aspect ratio.