Our smartphones play an integral part of our everyday lives, impacting everything from how we communicate with one another to how we retrieve information and keep ourselves entertained. However, to meet society’s needs (from both an ergonomic and materialistic perspective), development and innovation is required to push the smartphone sector to its limits.
Foldable phones were high on the agenda at the both CES 2019 and the 2019 Mobile World Congress (MWC). But in an already saturated market, is the concept of foldable smartphone realistic and feasible? UnSUBURBIA has looked at whether this latest smartphone technology will become the next big trend, or just be a novelty item.
The appetite for foldable smartphones
Since the first inception of mobile phones, size has always been a huge factor. From the original Motorola DynaTAC 8000X released in 1983, to the Nokia 8310 in the early 2000s, the market has been awash with large and small handsets – be it for innovation or stylistic reasonings.
Yet, the recent market seems to have moved backwards in some respects, with a larger handset becoming the choice of consumers. This isn’t a throwback to the old Motorola though, it’s about having a much larger surface area for a bigger screen with a higher resolution, all on a lightweight handset which has shrunk considerably in terms of width. We want size and clarity, but not the girth and bulkiness. But, there’s only a certain limit to where the current smartphones can get us, in terms of design and practicality, to increase the screen size and maintain a slimline style.
Step forward folding smartphones. On the face of it, this latest tech innovation seems like it’s an answer to the conundrum smartphone manufacturers are facing. A folding phone offers users the best of a tablet (the large screen) at the size and practicality of a smartphone (the foldable feature) – it can offer an innovative alternative to having more devices than you need.
Those being bold with the fold
Across the first two larger technology shows of 2019 – CES and MWC – the biggest players in the foldable smartphone market were on-hand to show off the innovative technology they had to offer.
Currently the most vocal about their folding smartphones are Samsung and Huawei, yet both providers offer different approaches to the folding screen. Samsung Galaxy Fold uses a multi-interlocking gear hinge system, allowing the smartphone to fold open and out like a book. The front screen measured at 4.6 inches, whilst when it opens out, the tablet-sized screen is 7.3 inches. The Galaxy Fold also features six cameras, so taking a photograph when you have the smartphone folded open is easy.
Huawei Mate X, however, takes an alternative approach to its folding technology. Rather than opening like a book to reveal the large screen like the Galaxy Fold, the Mate X is designed like a tablet that folds in half, giving it a double screen appearance. The manufacturer said at the 2019 MWC that it had three design concepts for the Mate X, one being very similar to that of Samsung’s version, however felt the chosen design was less heavy and bulky.
When full folded out, the screen is an impressive 8-inches in size, whilst folded, the front screen is 6.6 inches and the back is 6.38 inches. At 0.4 inches in thickness, Huawei uses its patented “falcon wing design” for the hinge system, and unlike the Galaxy, the Mate X offers a split screen for multi-tasking, so you can use two applications at once. Standout stats from its MWC presentation also included being chargeable up to 85 per cent in 30 minutes, meaning its 600 per cent faster to charge than the iPhone Xs Max.
Other manufacturers who are making strides within the foldable smartphone market include Royole with the world’s first folding phone, the FlexPai, and Motorola who has reimagined its iconic RAZR flip phone to fold out into a full-length smartphone. The technology grapevine is littered with whispers that both Apple and Google are also set to set into the foldable smartphone market, but we’ll have to watch this space for now.
The problems with the prototypes
Like with any new innovation, there are bound be problems and issues before the final piece can go on general sale. But with the foldable phone, the problem is a lot bigger than your usual UX issue – the problem is with the screen, the phone’s foldable feature, which has come under scrutiny.
Samsung is already investigating issues with the Galaxy Fold, according to reports from Bloomberg. It’s believed that a crease begins to appear on the foldable screen after it has been folded 10,000 times.
It might seem a lot, but in reality, we check our phones that many times in the space of one year – that’s 28 times a day, every day. Based on the reported figures, you’d be looking to get your foldable screen replaced on an annual basis, something which inevitably would come with a high price tag.
And speaking of price, the cost of the first-generation foldable phones could come at an eye-watering cost. The Huawei Mate X is set to be priced at £1,980, whilst the Samsung Galaxy Fold will come at a cost of just over £1,500. At the lower end of the scale, the much less polished Royole FlexPai will cost you £1,000.
It’s price and durability that’ll be high on the agenda for the discerning consumer – and unfortunately, neither of these can be looked on favourably from the folding smartphones perspective.
Is the future really foldable? This latest piece of technology showcases how far innovation can be pushed, with folding screens creating an extension of the classic smartphone view. In some instances, the larger screen will be a huge benefit to looking at and taking photos, using map tools or playing games on – you’ll be able to immerse yourself into the visuals much more.
But the biggest counter argument for the foldable phone revolution has to be consumer need. Are we struggling that much that we truly need foldable phones? The amount of people who would benefit from having an extended screen surely would be massively outweighed by those who wouldn’t overly benefit from having one. And at the projected pricing, it seems like a foldable smartphone may just be the latest ‘must-have’ trend for the more materialistic among us.
But the only way to see whether or not folding smartphones are going to thrive in an already busy marketplace, is to let them enter said marketplace. The proof will be in the practicality when the smartphones hit consumers’ hands and whether this fluid technology will become the norm, or fold under the pressure.