Today’s high-end smartphones are so sophisticated and pack so many features that it’s hard to imagine how phone manufacturers will be able to improve their offerings for the next generation of products. The just released Galaxy Note 10+, for instance, packs an impressive edge-to-edge, nearly bezel-less 6.8” display, a whopping 12 gigabytes of RAM, and four cameras on the back that work together to allow for professional-grade photography. But the ultra-competitive high-end phone market demands continual innovation and improvement, year after year, forcing manufacturers to explore increasingly exotic and radical designs for their flagship devices. Perhaps the most promising development in the phone design space is the introduction of folding-screen technology, allowing devices to double their screen real estate and enabling users to fit a tablet-sized display into their pockets.
The most infamous example is the Samsung Galaxy Fold, which the company showcased in February alongside the Galaxy S10 and S10+, and was initially slated for an April release date before being delayed due to concerns about the device’s durability. While early reviewers praised the unique and innovative form factor of the phone, they brought to light some glaring design flaws: several outlets complained that the Fold’s design allowed dirt and other debris to get caught underneath the display, and that if the user attempted to remove what seemed like a removable screen protector, the device would be irreparably damaged. For a $1,980 device, these issues were considered by many to be unacceptable, and Samsung took the surprising step of indefinitely postponing the launch of the product in order to work on addressing these problems.
Now, several months later, Samsung has unveiled their newer, redesigned Galaxy Fold, which specifically addresses the concerns of early reviewers: the screen protector has been tucked underneath the folding screen’s plastic bezels, making it impossible to accidentally remove and preventing foreign objects from getting lodged underneath the screen. Also, Samsung has reinforced the hinge mechanism to improve the overall durability of the device. As of September 6th, 2019, the device has officially launched in South Korea, and a global launch is planned for the month of September. Reviewers have had the opportunity to handle the redesigned device, and while they praised Samsung’s improvements, some of their original complaints remained: when the device is opened, a distracting visible crease runs down the center of the display, and the phone’s mediocre battery life and small exterior display when the phone is in its folded form leave much to be desired, particularly in light of the hefty price tag.
While Samsung’s Fold is not technically the first device with a folding screen to hit the global market — the “Royale FlexPai,” which feels more like a proof-of-concept device than a consumer product, has been available in China since January — it’s the first device of its kind to appeal to a general audience, albeit one willing to shell out nearly two grand for a phone with a relatively untested form factor. But it won’t be the last. Huawei has introduced the competing Mate X, a folding-screen phone that differs from the Galaxy Fold with a screen that works differently — whereas the Galaxy Fold opens like a book to reveal its display, the Mate X has a screen that wraps around the exterior of the device, allowing the same display to be used for both folded and unfolded operation.
Like the Galaxy Fold, the Mate X is marketed as a premium device, carrying a substantial price tag of $2,600. Huawei’s phone features an even larger 8-inch display, and because the device folds outward, not inward, it promises compelling features, such as the ability to show both you and your subject the viewfinder when taking a photograph. A release date for the Mate X has not yet been announced, but Huawei says the phone should be available for purchase before the end of 2019.
Motorola is also rumored to be working on a phone with a folding screen, drawing inspiration from their once-ubiquitous RAZR line of phones to envision a device with a display matching the size of those found on more traditional phones, but which folds into a compact size ideal for portability. Though the underlying technology has existed in various forms for years, mainstream integration of folding displays in consumer electronics is still in its infancy, and as of yet it’s unclear which style of implementation the industry will favor.
What is certain, however, is the disruptive potential of smartphones with transforming form factors. The concept of a device that combines the portability of a smartphone with the usability of a tablet has the capacity to fundamentally alter the relationship we have with mobile computing. Reviewers of the Samsung Galaxy Fold have observed that using the device on a daily basis feels more deliberate and immersive than what is achievable with a standard smartphone, even ones of the high-end variety, as the screen real estate afforded by the Fold’s 7.3” display enables opportunities that are impractical on standard smartphones, such as easily working with multiple open applications simultaneously. As such, devices with folding screens have a good shot at replacing multiple devices used by technology enthusiasts; it’s not hard to imagine a future where one transforming device takes the place of a user’s phone, tablet, and laptop. Nobody knows for certain how the smartphone industry will evolve in the coming years and decades, but devices like the Galaxy Fold offer a glimpse into a future in which radically different mobile computer technology fundamentally changes our collective way of life.
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