Foldable Smartphones – Why do we need it? How does it work? What options do we have?

We are finally entering the world of foldable smartphones. It has been some time since we had a brand new form factor and with Samung’s recent announcement, we are well and truly on our way. 2018 has been the year of foldable phone announcements.

We had a relatively Not Known Chinese brand “Royole” who beat Samsung to the launch announcement by announcing the launch of their “Royole FlexPai” foldable smartphone. To be honest though, it feels like it is a prototype that was put together to have bragging rights over Samsung. As far as we are concerned, the first meaningful announcement comes from Samsung with their Infinity Flex Phone.

Why do we need a foldable smart phone?

The primary reason is to have both a tablet and phone form factor in a single device. This can come in handy when you want to consume/engage with content for longer periods of time (> 30 mins). The obvious use cases that come to mind are watching videos, gaming and reading long format content. As with most new technology, we will have resistors who won’t find this a compelling argument. However, as advancements happen, we will reach a world where this form factor could very well become the norm. We have also seen some designs out there that helps you convert this into a tablet with a keyboard, effectively replacing your laptop. The eventual dream would be “One device to rule them all”.

Do keep in mind that, we are embarking on this journey now and the first generation devices are likely to have their share of kinks.

What options do we have so far?

We currently have ZTE’s Axon M, Royole FlexPai and Samsung Infinity Flex in the pipeline. Listed below are details that we are currently aware of, including release dates and prices.

Specifications and details

ZTE Axon M Royole FlexPai Samsung Infinity Flex Phone
Price $725 $1320 Not Known
Unfolded Screen Size (Resolution) 6.5″

(2160 x 1920)

7.8 inches

(1920 x 1440)

7.3 inches

(2152 x 1536)

CPU Snapdragon 821 Snapdragon 8 Series Not Known
RAM 4GB 6GB / 8GB Not Known
Storage 64GB 128GB / 256GB Not Known
Cameras 20MP (f/1.8) 16MP/20MP (f/1.8) Not Known
OS Android 7 Nougat Android 9 Pie Android 9 Pie
Release Date Released Dec 2018 Not Known

Fold Quality & Mechanics

Each phone strives to provide the flexibility of a larger form factor, however, approaches it differently. ZTE Axon M essentially folds the phone along a hinge bezel, leaving a visible line through the screen. This renders the experience virtually unusable unless you really really want to try them out. For all practical purposes, they are more of a dual screen than a foldable screen. The Royole FlexPai allows for complete fold of the screen however, hands on reviews so far, note that it feels flimsy and the software is glitch during folds and unfolds. By folding across the external curve, there will be significant pressure on the screen. We worry the life of the device will be limited.  The Samsung is the closest to a polished product with a sharp fold on the other side of the screen. However, Samsung, during their announcement had really low lighting and we would like to see these devices in our hands for a review to be able to reliably comment on the fold quality.

ZTE Axon M Unfolding

Royle FlexPai Unfolding

Samsung Infinity Flex Unfolding

How does it work?

Depending on the fold methodology adopted, the mechanics will change. ZTE Axon M, for example, is essentially 2 screens with a bezel separating the 2 screens. Samsung being a leader in screen technology has built a foldable AMOLED display which they call Infinity Flex Display. By keeping only a single point of folding, the Samsung design seems a lot more cleaner compared to FlexPai which has essentially just built a full fold of the AMOLED screen which often leaves a large curvature that seems to interfere with quality of view.

Other players, Patent wars and the long game

While Samsung is the first major player to put out a firm product, foldable smartphones has had everyone scurrying with their announcements in 2018. With great announcements come many patents. Some of the notable names so far are Apple, LG, OPPO and Motorola. It certainly looks like 2019 is the year, a new form factor is born. Do keep in mind that this is year 1 and don’t be quick to write off the tech, just yet.

With Android’s explicit support for foldable phones with “Android Q”, it looks like the stars are aligning for the long game here. What do you think? Will this stick or is it a fad?

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