The future of foldable smartphonesNew foldable phones are redefining the way traditional smartphones look, but how well will they fare among consumers?
Smartphones have evolved rapidly in terms of technology over the years. But their look has largely remained intact: glass on plastic, metal or glass bodies. No matter how expensive or how cheap your phone, they all look exactly alike.
But in 2019, an evolution in the aesthetics of the smartphone came in the form of bezel-less screen designs, which were quickly adopted by the lower- and mid-range phones due to the simplicity of its execution and the overall development of screen technology. With these screens, gone were the days of big, bulky LCD displays with thinner implementations of the same technology alongside completely different technology, like LED.
As display technology started shedding its weight, smartphone manufacturers started experimenting with new formfactor devices. Now, in 2020, we are seeing the first commercial implementation of screens and, by effect, smartphones that can fold. These new foldable phones have already redefined the way traditional smartphones look with some that fold inwards, some that fold outward and even some that fold top-down.
On the cusp of 2020, the future of smartphones looks diverse, not only internally but aesthetically as well. Samsung is leading this innovation by introducing two foldable smartphones: the Galaxy Fold and the Galaxy Z Flip. Motorola is also banking on the popularity of their most successful flip phone, the Moto Razr, and has introduced a revised version of the phone with the folding screen. Then there’s Huawei, different from all the others with an outward folding screen, with the Huawei Mate X. All of these devices are extremely expensive at the moment, owing to the complexity of their design, engineering and components; which means only the wealthiest of early adopters can get a hold of these phones, but the main question surrounding these devices right now is: “Is it consumer ready?”
In many ways, no. All these smartphones have their own share of issues that might not appeal to general smartphone users in their current state. This is primarily because of the engineering complexity around foldable phones and the feature set that consumers have come to associate with flagship phones. Many manufacturers are struggling with the engineering around their folding mechanisms since moving parts inside a smartphone open the floodgates to many issues that could arise during normal everyday use. Screens too have failed in many instances because of the early nature of the technology.
One of the earliest examples of the issues that arise with foldable phones can be seen with the implementation of the Samsung Galaxy Fold. Initially released in October 2019, the initial units of the Fold were plagued with critical display failures. Reviewers started peeling off a protective plastic layer on top of the ultra-thin foldable display which turned out to be critical to its function. Many users of the phone complained the screen literally died after they peeled off the plastic layer, condemning Samsung for releasing a product without any warning labels or safety features in place. Samsung has released a revised version of the phone with a protective bezel around the layer to dissuade users from peeling off the screen.
Since these screens fold in various ways, there also seem to be issues around visible creases around stress points. The Fold has a crease running right down the middle of the screen while phones like the Z Flip and the Moto Razr flaunt one right across the middle. Users went into a fury around notches during the earlier days of bezel-less displays, imagine what kind of a response an intrusive centre crease is going to prompt. While companies have been trying to reduce the visibility of creases, none of them have been successful. No matter how dim the crease may be, they’re going to pop-out like a sore-thumb on dark and bright screens.
Another major problem around folding screens is the folding mechanism. Since the screens can’t fold flush and they require at least a little bit of flex on stress points, this pushes folding mechanisms to make space for the screen to fold inside, or outside, the mechanism itself. In many instances of these mechanisms, they open up spaces of dirt, grime and small particles to make their way inside the folding mechanism. In JerryRigEverything’s durability test video (on YouTube) on the Razr, a pebble lodged itself behind the folding screen due to the way it folded, leaving open spaces around the hinges when it did. Samsung, in the Z Fold, tried to mitigate this issue by placing bristles around the folding mechanism to catch dust particles, but in a dust test by iFixIt (again, on YouTube) that put these bristles to the test, they found it almost useless in keeping dust out of fine moving gears.
Owning a phone with the ability to open and close also comes with their fair share of problems that traditional slab phones might have already engineered out. Foldable phones can’t be water resistant since the folding mechanisms will always leave gaps through which water can find its way in. Screens will also not feel as premium as your slab phones, since folding glass has its own share of engineering complexities; although the Z Flip does feature a foldable glass display, many issues like visible glass shards still plague them. Even in the Z Flip, however, a plastic protection layer sits on top of the glass which mitigates many of the benefits of glass like scratch resistance and hardness.
As exciting as foldable phones might be right now, they are far too young in terms of engineering to be of any use right now. Many of these phones keep breaking because of the fragility of wafer-thin parts and thin-foldable glass implements. Moving away from tried and tested designs will always come with unprecedented issues and right now, these foldable phones have many implementation, durability and engineering issues that need resolution. At this point, they are way too early for mass consumer markets but we’re more interested in how the R&D departments of these giant smartphone companies battle wits with physics and material design.