Back in 2019, at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain, the Galaxy Fold stared back at the adoring crowds, protected by thick panes of glass and security rope, almost like Han Solo trapped in carbonite. Elsewhere on the show floor, the Huawei Mate X and the Royole FlexPai were being shown off to tech reporters eager to understand why phones with foldable displays were such a big deal. Everything felt a bit crude and unfinished; a half-baked solution seeking out a problem no one had.
Fast forward to September 2021. Samsung’s latest foldables are landing to a warm reception amidst praise for how consumer-ready these devices feel. No longer “escaped-from-a-lab” prototypes, they are refined, ready-for-primetime phones that can be safely recommended to anyone looking for a premium phone.
The premise—going from a smaller pocketable form factor to a large screen experience by folding/unfolding the displays—is enticing. The larger on-demand screen is something regular phones can only dream of, whether it’s for watching videos, playing a game or reading an e-book. A big display lets you run multiple apps side by side so you could, for instance, watch a YouTube video while chatting with friends and looking up that obscure fact in a web browser. Throw in a stylus and it’s the closest you will get to the pen and notebook experience on a phone. To top it all, they still feel a little magical even to those jaded with smartphone tech.
The promise of foldables goes beyond the displays, as the thicker form factor could afford phone manufacturers the extra space needed to pack in more hardware sensors and components or bigger batteries, or simply explore more innovative design concepts, such as the Motorola Razr 5G and the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3. Both leverage folding displays to transform a regular Android phone into incredibly portable and stylish devices that fit in the tightest of skinny jeans or small bags.
The tech behind the screen
Folding phones are not new in the strictest sense. The Moto RAZR may be our lasting memory of flippy phones we slammed shut to end calls, but it was far from the only one back in the day. Yet, the way some core elements of the smartphone have been reimagined to make a foldable like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 possible deserves a closer look.
Aside from reorganising the internal components inside the two halves, the biggest challenge was to take the display with layers of mostly inflexible glass and, well, flex it. Traditional LCDs require a back-lit light source, which makes the setup too thick to bend. So, in these, you start with an OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) panel, essentially organic materials that emit their own light when electricity is passed through them while staying thin enough to the point where they are flexible.
Remember the iPhone X or the Samsung Galaxy Edge? Both had flexible displays but the tech was used to give the devices curved edges. First-generation foldable screens were made with OLED panels printed on a thin layer of plastic polymers, which made them more susceptible to scuffs and scratches than glass screens. With the 2020 Galaxy Z Flip, Samsung made the leap to what it calls Ultra-Thin Glass technology—glass less than 100 microns thick (or about the thickness of human hair). At this level, the glass could be bent far enough to be used in foldables.
With the Z Fold 3 adding an S Pen stylus support, the layers keep adding up—there’s the flexible OLED panel covered by Samsung’s UTG and a layer of polymer, with all of it covered by a PET screen protector (yes, the same PET you see in aerated beverage bottles), which can be both rigid and glass-like hard to the touch.
What needs works
For foldables as a category, the areas that need work are blindingly obvious to anyone who has held a regular phone and then picked up a Z Fold 3. Straight off, you notice the extra weight and thickness—they are far denser than a regular phone and aren’t as easy to operate or handle with one hand. Second, there’s the ever-present and hard-to-ignore crease down the middle of the screen where it folds in half. You can see it if you hold the phone at a certain angle, and it’s discernible each time you swipe up and down—a far cry from the smooth, seamless interface we are accustomed to.
Then there’s the hinge; water-sealed but still vulnerable to dust ingress in a way most premium smartphones aren’t. Moving parts by design necessitate exposed nooks and crannies. Finally, the added moving parts and the precision engineering required to craft one of these devices will always add to the cost, making them more expensive than today’s premium phones.
The future of foldables
With Samsung’s dominance in the foldables conversation—expected to hover around the 75% share till 2023, according to a recent report by analyst firm Counterpoint Research, it’s easy to assume that the fold and flip form factors are where foldables start and end. Far from it—last year, TCL showed off a trifold concept that unfolds on two hinges to reveal a large 10-inch, tablet-sized screen (Samsung has a similar prototype in the works). TCL and Oppo have also showcased rollable displays, the latter via the Oppo X 2021, which goes from a 6.7-inch screen to a 7.4-inch; unrolling the display helps the Oppo prototype avoid the annoying “crease” all other foldable phones have, vastly improving the touch and feel. Apple traditionally waits for a market to mature before it launches its offering, and Counterpoint pegs the rumoured iPhone Flip to break cover no sooner than 2023.
Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, tweets @2shar.