It seems like many companies in the smartphone industry are moving toward developing foldable smartphones. There are two real devices so far: Samsung has announced the Galaxy Fold and Huawei is building the Mate X. Oppo is experimenting with a foldable prototype that looks like the Mate X; Motorola is planning an all-screen revival of the Moto Razr; and Xiaomi has teased a crazy prototype with two folds in the display. Even Corning is working on a flexible glass cover to someday protect all these devices from scratches.
With so many manufacturers trying out the foldable smartphone form factor, there are a number of implementation ideas. While Samsung already has the Galaxy Fold, a new report from Bloomberg claims that Samsung isn’t putting all its eggs in one basket. The company is reportedly tackling three different foldable form factors.
Samsung’s three foldable form factors
Of course, the furthest along in development is the Galaxy Fold, which has a foldable screen on the inside of the device when it is closed. It’s basically a tablet that folds in half like a book. Since you can’t see the big screen when the device is closed, Samsung added a second, smaller display to the outside of the device. There are also cameras on the front, inside, and back of the device. Until Corning gets its act together with flexible glass, these folding displays need a plastic cover, and the inside-display form factor has an advantage since, when closed, the display is protected from scratches.
Bloomberg reports that Samsung has a second device in the works that “folds away from the user similar to Huawei Technologies Co.’s Mate X.” Huawei’s Mate X and Oppo’s prototype have the folding display on the outside of the device, like a skin that wraps around the entire phone. Besides looking incredible, this design has the advantage of only needing a single screen—when closed, the wraparound display becomes a “front” and “back” display, showing apps in a traditional smartphone-like form factor. When open, the single display becomes a huge tablet. The only part of the phone that isn’t covered in pixels is a single vertical bar that houses cameras, the USB port, and other large components. With a front and back screen when closed, this single set of cameras doubles as both a normal camera and a selfie cam.
While the wraparound design of the Mate X really seems like the future, for now, the big downside is scratchability. Without a flexible glass cover solution, the Mate X is going to be covered in an easily scratchable plastic on all sides.
Bloomberg says this Mate X-style device “already exists as a prototype” inside Samsung. It was apparently considered a candidate for the company’s first foldable device, but the current plans are to launch this second form factor after the Galaxy Fold. Bloomberg notes that with only one screen, this device will be thinner than the Galaxy Fold, which is a whopping 17mm thick when closed.
For a third form factor, Bloomberg reports that Samsung is working on a “vertically folding phone.” We imagine this would look like an old-school flip phone, just with the inside being all display. Motorola reportedly has a foldable version of the Razr flip phone in the works, and while it hasn’t actually shown off a device, it did file some design patents that could give us an idea of what Motorola and Samsung are planning. Bloomberg claims that Samsung’s vertically folding device will be out “late this year or early next year” and may or may not have an extra screen on the outside.
It’s worth noting that Samsung has never really let the flip phone die, even in the age of slab-style smartphones. In China, the company is still producing devices like the “W2019,” a dual-screen flip smart phone with a keypad, which looks like something from an alternate reality where flip phones never went away. If you think the $1,980 Galaxy Fold and $2,600 Huawei Mate X are expensive, get ready: Samsung’s dual-screen flip phone beats them all with a whopping $2,700 price tag.
The Galaxy Fold’s durability problems
Before Samsung gets to its other two form factors, it still has to deal with the launch of the Galaxy Fold. While that device isn’t due out until April 26, Samsung still has some bugs to work out. Bloomberg claims Samsung is still dealing with durability issues with the folding display, saying the company is “trying to eliminate a crease that appears on the panel after it has been folded about 10,000 times.” The report says that Samsung is even considering free screen replacements for the Fold if the display continues to be a problem.
From a durability perspective, Samsung picked one of the harshest form factors for its first foldable device. By putting the foldable display on the inside of the device and closing it like a book, it’s putting a much sharper crease in the display than a wraparound display has to deal with. The Galaxy Fold still doesn’t close totally shut at the hinge—Samsung’s hinge is designed to keep a 3mm gap to not totally crease the screen. That is still a lot more crease than the Mate X, which only has to deal with bending around an 11mm-thick device.
With slab-style smartphones pretty much saturating the market, smartphone sales are down across the industry. Manufacturers are searching for the Next Big Thing, and it looks like many are clinging to either 5G or this foldable smartphone trend. Sure, things are pricey right now, but at least smartphone design is getting interesting again.