Phone manufacturers have long been obsessed with bridging the gap between phone and tablet. Different approaches have yielded differing levels of success…the “phablet” form factor has been a big success for companies like Samsung and LG, while Apple continues to increase the dimensions of its phones and trim back bezels to maximize screen area. Unfortunately this has led to customer complaints about handset size, especially from users who lean toward the petite and for whom pocket space is at a premium.
Enter the folding smartphone, a taste of retro style for those who miss their old compact devices, or simply want to pretend they’re in an episode of Westworld. And nearly every major release so far has been a dumpster fire.
So why is it so difficult to make a foldable phone? The primary culprit is likely the OLED screen technology itself. Active-Matrix OLED displays, like the ones used in these phones, have a number of appealing qualities and flexibility is one of them. However, OLEDs are fragile and are highly susceptible to oxidization and water damage as they are made from organic compounds. Even the smallest flaw in the lamination of these screens can cause catastrophic damage very quickly. It’s one of the reasons why folding phones have only been seriously considered recently; prior to now, most flexible OLEDs had been confined to specialty costuming and architecture purposes, such as integrating screens into information kiosks and shop displays.
The first big product launch came last year from Samsung, in the form of the Galaxy Fold a $2,000 device that could unfold itself along its right side to expand into a phablet. The phone had its rollout abruptly postponed last spring after review units sent to the press began to fail within 48 hours of receipt. Reports of weakness in the phone’s hinge, display failures and particles of grime getting behind the screen spread. In addition, the phone screen had a confusing plastic layer that greatly resembled the type of protective film commonly seen on consumer electronics, resulting in users ruining their phones when they unknowingly peeled off a vital component. The phone finally made it to shelves at the end of September of 2019, 4 months after its originally-planned launch date, after its vertically-oriented hinge and screen were extensively reworked.
Unfortunately the problems aren’t over for Samsung, as their launch of the clamshell Galaxy Z Flip has led to accusations of misleading marketing and cheaping out on materials. Samsung claims its internal display is made of an ultra-thin, foldable glass. But some reviewers have found the screen extremely vulnerable to punishment, with deep, permanent scratches being easy to inflict.
It has been theorized that the “glass” is actually plastic with glass particles blended in, allowing Samsung to claim it’s a glass display without actually using the material as the prime ingredient.
According to BGR, the cost of these durability issues is high…a first-time screen replacement for the Z Flip costs $119, which seems quite reasonable. But if you need a second screen fix later, you’ll have to cough up $499…over a third of the phone’s $1,380 MSRP. For the Galaxy Fold, expect screen replacements to cost $599.
Also entering the foldable smartphone arena is Lenovo-owned Motorola, who have released the much-anticipated Razr clamshell only for it to immediately show durability issues as well. Input’s Raymond Wong posted a photo showing the OLED display is developing air pockets and separating from the top plastic layer after only a few days.
In addition, CNET held a live-streamed hinge test of the Razr, which was intended to fold the phone 100,000 times using insurance company Squaretrade’s “FoldBot,” but the experiment was terminated at the 27,000 mark when the hinge began to exhibit resistance and began making a loud clicking noise, indicating potential breakage.
Huawei has also released the Mate X, a $2,600 smartphone that has also displayed many of the symptoms that plagued the Galaxy Fold, including debris under the hinge causing OLED failures, prompting one Gizmodo UK writer to dub the phone “seemingly a pile of shit.” Also, it’s Huawei, so it’ll probably steal all your data and give it to the Maoists, and then give you coronavirus just to be a dick.
So for now, folding smartphones are unfortunately still stuck solidly in the realm of science fiction. But perhaps the bigger issue is not the technology and its limitations, but the seeming lack of quality assurance practiced by these companies. In the current “Everything Is Content” age, it’s breathtakingly foolish for these brands to have released these new, bleeding-edge products into the hands of the press and select consumers without doing everything possible to ensure that they will last.