The jury is out on whether bendable screens are a lasting trend or a passing fad.
Your next smartphone may flip open to reveal its screen and fold up when you are ready to put it away — just like the old-school clamshell phones from the 1990s.
The question is: Is that something we even want anymore?
Tech companies like Samsung, Motorola and Huawei sure hope so. Many of us realised a few years ago that the smartphones we had were already very good — and their successors were only slightly better — so we have been holding on to our phones longer and longer before upgrading. That hurts those companies' bottom lines.
So in an effort to come up with something new and exciting that will make us spend our dollars, phone-makers are bombarding us with so-called foldables. They include Samsung's US$1,380 ($2,499 in NZ) Galaxy Z Flip, which was unveiled Tuesday, and Lenovo's US$1,500 Motorola Razr, which was released in the US last week.
There's something off about all of this. For years, tech companies experimented with new phone designs driven partly by consumer surveys, which brought us handsets with bigger screens, longer battery life and sharper cameras — things we really wanted. But folding phones are not something most of us have asked for.
And unlike past bleeding-edge innovations, the few foldables unveiled so far have had major problems. Samsung's first foldable phone, the Galaxy Fold, which it released last year, broke within days of use by tech reviewers. According to early reviews, the new Motorola Razr suffers from poor battery life and a fussy hinge.
"It's a solution looking for a problem," said Paolo Pescatore, a technology analyst for PP Foresight. "That's my worry for a lot of these technologies that are fast-tracked into people's hands. There's no demand, so why rush it?"
So are foldables a passing fad or here to stay?
Folding screen technology is certainly fascinating and worth keeping an eye on. But the consensus among consumer technology experts I talked to was that you and I should probably wait for the devices to mature before even considering buying one. Here's why.
How foldables work
The new foldables are arriving in many different shapes and forms.
Some devices, like the Galaxy Fold and Huawei's Mate X, have two screens. When you unfold them, you get a tablet with a roomy screen. Once it's shut, you have a second outer touch screen to type away at.
Other devices, like Samsung's Z Flip and Lenovo's Motorola Razr, open to reveal a standard-size touch screen. When the phone is folded up, a miniature screen in the outer shell shows notifications or app previews.
Larger bendable devices are also coming, like Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Fold, which is set for release this year. It has a bigger bendable screen so it can function as a tablet computer that folds up like a book. The Lenovo device measures 13.3 inches unfolded.
All of these gadgets rely on a hinge, which introduces a moving part to a smartphone. It's another component, other than the screen, that could break.
The main benefit of a foldable phone is that you can enjoy a big screen that takes up less space in your pocket.
Um, that's about it.
There are mostly cons
Foldables come with many downsides.
Foldable gadgets rely on flexible OLED, a display technology that is much thinner than traditional screen panels. Gadget-makers have used flexible OLED for years to make our phones and smartwatches slimmer. The Apple Watch, for example, uses a flexible display, but it is not bendable because it is covered by robust sapphire crystal.
To make gadgets bend, you have to sacrifice some hardness. The flexible displays of foldables are generally covered by a plastic layer, which can be scratched up or penetrated more easily than the tough glass protecting traditional phone displays. (Samsung said its Z Flip uses an ultrathin, foldable glass that would let you fold and unfold your phone 200,000 times.)
"If you take a ballpoint pen and you push really hard on the iPhone screen, it'll be fine," said Kyle Wiens, chief executive of iFixit, a company that provides instructions and parts to repair gadgets. "If you do the same thing on the foldable displays, you'll kill it."
In theory, the clamshell designs of the Z Flip and the Razr offer a partial solution to the durability problem. That's because the main screens are not exposed when folded up. Yet if you drop the phones while using them — say, when you are walking and texting and trip over something — you will have a problem.
"There's no protecting the foldable display in a real-world environment the way that consumers treat their smartphones," said Raymond Soneira, founder of DisplayMate, who advises tech companies on screen technology.
Foldables also have a design flaw. In general, when they are unfolded, the screen has a visible crease — an eyesore compared with the seamless displays on our smartphones and tablets.
Last but not least, it remains to be seen whether the mechanical hinges of folding phones will survive the test of time.
There are early reports of potential problems with the hinge on the Razr: Some reviewers said the hinge is extremely tight, making it cumbersome to fold and flip open the phone. CNET, the tech reviews site, said the hinge of its Razr test unit broke after 27,000 cycles using a robot.
Motorola said in a statement that it was confident in the durability of Razr, adding that CNET's test method put undue stress on the hinge.
Carolina Milanesi, a tech analyst for Creative Strategies, wasn't convinced by this defense. "At the end of the day, you're not going to go out to every user and say, 'This is how you fold it,' " she said.
The biggest downside of foldables may have nothing to do with the technology: the price. The devices range from about US$1,400 to more than US$2,400.
For most people, that's a deal breaker: You can get a zippy smartphone with a great camera, like Google's Pixel 3A, for about US$400.
So where does that leave us?
It's too early to tell whether foldable phones will succeed. In a few years, the technology will probably become cheaper and more robust.
At that point, will you want one?
The concept sounds attractive to Wiens, despite the early hiccups.
"Everybody clearly wants huge displays, but I hate how big my phone is in my pocket," he said. "I think you can make an argument this is something that people want."
Soneira of DisplayMate said a foldable screen made more sense for a gadget that we already treat more delicately: a computer. Imagine enjoying a jumbo screen to watch movies on an airplane, then folding it up to fit inside your carry-on luggage.
"If a manufacturer comes out with a nice foldable laptop, I'm in," he said.
Written by: Brian X. Chen
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