Foldable phones are shaping up to be the next big trend in the smartphone world. The idea is to use the famous OLED technology to produce smartphones that can fold in half. Think a flip phone, but sideways. That would allow you to have a regular five-inch cellphone that can open into what essentially is a ten-inch tablet.
Many companies are pursuing that idea. But Apple, Samsung, and Huawei are the three biggest names in the folding race right now — with the latter two on track to release a new model soon, maybe even before the end of 2018. Samsung’s fabled foldable phone, in particular, has been the object of much media attention, and leaks indicate the phone already has a name: the Samsung Galaxy X.
However, should you even care? Innovation is good, sure. It’ll be good to see a deviation from the brick-shaped handset design we’ve been using since the release of the iPhone 1. But innovation is pointless if it doesn’t actually improve the user experience.
In fact, the market already has at least one foldable phone, and if that’s the future, it doesn’t look very promising. The phone in question is the ZTE Axon M, released in November of 2017.
#ZTE Axon M
The Axon M is an Android smartphone with a 5.2” LCD display that was released at the $700,00 range. Its biggest feature, however, is the second LCD screen located on the back of the phone, which can fold out until it was parallel to the phone’s main screen, essentially turning the device into a 10” tablet.
That allowed the user do some cool things with the phone, like running two apps side by side, or mirroring the screen on both displays so two people could watch and interact with the phone while sitting across from each other.
However, the phone wasn’t exactly a tablet hybrid. Since LCD is glass and can’t fold, there was a clean black line between the two screens. Meaning that trying to watch a video in tablet mode looked less like a tablet and more like watching something extended across two monitors that are pressed side by side — the boundaries of the screens cut right through the middle of the video, creating a rift that looked like a black line.
Second, there was a clear problem that comes of having twice as many glass surfaces on your phone, with one in the front and the other in the back. As one YouTube commenter was quick to point out: “So doesn’t matter what side I drop it… RIP screen.”
#The Pros of a Foldable Future
The future, however, is shaping up to cut back on the drawbacks of the Axon M. The key to that lays in one relatively old technology that has been making plenty of headlines lately: OLED.
Unlike LCD displays, OLED screens can be made out of flexible materials, such as plastic. Meaning an OLED screen can actually fold in half, creating a device composed of a single screen that can be opened and closed, rather than two parallel screens. In other words, no black line between the two halves of your display.
The flexibility of OLED screens also means they can take some impact without breaking. Furthermore, unlike LCDs, OLED does not require backlighting to function, which greatly decreases their battery cost.
A good foldable phone would give you the phone-tablet hybrid of your dreams. Imagine a 12” tablet that you can easily fold and put in your pocket? The option of having a screen composed of two — or several — moving parts also opens the doors to phone interactivity we haven’t even thought about yet, like using apps or playing games that can detect the movement of one side of the screen or the other.
Finally, there is the possibility of extinguishing the need for separation between a low-definition frontal and a high definition rear camera. The Axon M, for example, has only one 20 Megapixel camera that faces you by default. If you want to use “rear” camera functions, all you have to do is turn the phone around; use the back screen to take the picture.
But of course, it’s not all roses for the foldable phone idea. Especially not in the next couple of years, when the technology is still going to be at its infancy.
#The Cons of Foldable Phones
While the use of OLED will mitigate some of the problems we saw with the Axon M, it won’t make them all magically disappear.
First, foldable phones are bound to be bulky. You just can’t escape adding extra thickness and weight when you add a second screen to the phone, not with the current technology at least. The folded screen won’t just disappear when you aren’t using it, after all. And if patent filings from companies like Microsoft and Samsung are any indications, it seems we’re moving towards a future where the folding mechanism relies on hinges between the two parts of the screen, which adds more bulk to the phone.
The Axon M, for example, it’s 12.2 millimeters thick. That isn’t a lot, but it’s still 58% more than the iPhone X. It’s also 32% heavier, at 230 grams.
Folding phones also means more complexity, which means more places where things can go wrong. Both screens have to work well, they have to fold without wearing out over time, the complex folding mechanisms need to stay in balance, and the software has to keep up with all of that.
Finally, OLED itself is also a problem. Currently, the technology is still expensive, and it may be one of the reasons why future folding phones will be on the costlier side of the phone spectrum. On top of that, there are plenty of technological hardships associated with the technology that are being worked out. OLEDs are weak to Water, UV light, and their first interactions had a smaller lifespan than its competitors.
The Galaxy X was being hinted at back in 2015, dubbed Project Valley at the time; and Samsung had expressed an interest in folding phones as early as 2013. Working out the quirks of the OLED technology it’s thought to be one of the reasons Samsung has been taking so long to develop the foldable future they dream of.
It seems like the decision to get a foldable phone or not will depend solely on how much you value screen real state. If you’re someone who regularly carries tablets around, a foldable may save you the trouble of bringing extra hardware with you.
For now, all we can do is wait and see. The first OLEDs to hit the market will determine if this trend is here to stay, or if it’ll be another footnote in smartphone history.