Maybe you spotted one at the coffee shop, sitting conspicuously on a table in an L-shape position. Maybe you’ve seen one on the subway, in tablet mode, held by someone who’s trying very hard not to drop their $1800 gadget. They’re out there in the wild, but foldable phones are still a rare sighting. That might be about to change because we are entering — and I’m making an official call on this — hot foldable summer.
They’ve been on the market for years, but there are tons of good reasons why foldables haven’t caught on in the mainstream, starting with the fact that they’re expensive as all get-out. There were also some real bad problems with durability early on, and although build quality is much better now, there’s still a question mark over how a folding phone will hold up four or five years down the line. And then there’s the simple math: there’s basically one company selling folding phones in the US right now. Samsung has more or less run unopposed over the past few years, with no real competition prodding it to innovate.
That’s why the onset of hot foldable summer is so exciting. For the first time in years, we’re going to see some real moves in the foldable market — far beyond “this year, the screens are a few millimeters wider.” It looks like we’re about to get a new Razr from Motorola with a seriously big cover screen, which could vastly expand the number of things you can do with the phone closed. The Pixel Fold is on the way, too, with a wider tablet-like form factor that’s instantly more appealing than the taller Z Fold 4. Even OnePlus is getting in, which could mean some much-needed competition on price.
Clearly, there’s a lot to look forward to, but there’s nothing in these leaks or on these spec sheets that really answers the unspoken question about foldables: why? Why would I want a phone that folds in half? We’re all getting by okay on slab-style phones, aren’t we? Why invent a whole new set of engineering problems when we’ve already figured out how to make a durable, reliable phone?
First, the cynical answers. At least part of the impulse for foldables has to be attributed to a general consensus of “well, it’s 2023, and our phones should do something that they didn’t do 10 years ago.” Phones that fold in half look and feel overtly high-tech. They’re essentially based on all the same components as your garden-variety smartphone — but darn it, they just seem cooler because look! They fold in half!
We can’t ignore, either, that the tech industry has a bad habit of trying to push fancy new gadgets on us that we don’t really need in the name of profits and shareholder value. We’re all loving our 3D home theaters, right? So how do we know that folding phones aren’t just another Fire Phone with some tricky new moves?
Here’s where the good news starts. Even if the drive to make them is partially based on corporate desires and capitalist interests, there are legitimately useful applications for foldables. Our phones may be the same basic shape that they were 10 years ago, but under the hood, they’ve gotten a lot more capable. The list of things you can’t do on your phone and need a laptop for has been shrinking year after year. Along the way, our phone screens have increased in size to accommodate all the stuff we want to do on our phones now.
That’s put us in an awkward spot where our phone screens aren’t always the right size for whatever it is we’re doing. We’re either watching a show on a screen that feels a little too small or checking the temperature outside on a screen that’s a lot bigger than it needs to be for that task. Meanwhile, the phones themselves have become absolutely monstrous in size.
The solution? More screens! You keep a tablet at home when you want a bigger display to watch your shows, or you keep a smartwatch on your wrist for the quick-hit tasks like checking texts and setting timers. It’s great, if you don’t mind paying for and charging three different devices. But there is another way: foldables. They meet us in the middle. What if we had more screens but they were all attached to each other and only visible when we needed them? No more getting off the couch to go find your tablet when you need it: it’s already in your hand. Truly, that is the dream.
Folding phones make a lot more sense when you think of them this way: flip-style phones are like a phone and a smartwatch combined, and folding phones are a phone combined with a tablet. Of course, the next logical step would be a screen that could shift its shape and size to fit any of those three form factors, but that’s still the stuff of far-fetched CES concept demos and science fiction at the moment. Who knows, maybe someday our phones will swivel, expand, or roll. But right here and now, foldables are about to get their moment in the mainstream spotlight — and it’s not just a weird flex.