Concept art of the Samsung Galaxy F foldable phone

Foldable phones might be the strangest and most revolutionary tech of 2019. But how do these things work, and when will we get the chance to buy them?

What Makes These Phones Foldable?

Sure, we had flip phones that were folding back in the ’90s and 2000s. But we’re in the age of smartphones now, and if you tried to fold your smartphone in half, you’d end up with a broken phone. That is unless your smartphone has a flexible OLED display, a polymer screen, specialized components, and a jointed case. Foldable phones are filled with a ton of revolutionary tech, but the most ground-breaking component that you’ll see is the famous, flexible OLED display.

Organic light emitting diode displays (aka OLED displays) work by pulsing electricity through a mesh of organic compounds. They are extremely thin, flexible, and vivid. They don’t require a backlight, and they can produce bolder colors than thick LED displays.

These beautiful, flexible displays are primarily manufactured by Samsung, and they’re already in a host of products with which you may be familiar. The Galaxy S7 Edge has a curved OLED display. The iPhone X contains a Samsung OLED display. Sony has put out some OLED TV’s, and LG produces a line of Signature OLED TV’s that are paper-thin and slightly flexible.

Manufacturers like Samsung and Royole have been developing OLED displays since about 2011, and these displays have already found their way into a lot of consumer-grade products. Why has it taken so long for foldable phones to become a thing? Well, businesses have had to figure out how to make all of the other components in a phone flexible, too.

Glass isn’t very flexible, in case you were wondering. As a result, manufacturers have had to develop bendy polymer screens for flexible phones. Powered circuitry and lithium-ion batteries can catch on fire if you flex them back and forth, so manufacturers have had to find a solution for that. Aluminum and plastic phone cases are technically bendable, but they’ll snap after a couple of folds. See where this is going? Everything that you’d expect to find in a cellphone has to be revolutionized for use in a foldable phone.

Manufacturers like Samsung and Royole have figured out how to make the components in a phone more flexible. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be releasing foldable phones. But the technology is still in its early stages. That being said, it’s going to take a few years for these devices to become affordable and commonplace.

In the meantime, we can only hope that manufacturers come up with a better name for foldable phones. People will inevitably start calling them “phondables” or “flexiphones,” and that’s just no good.

Foldable Phones Offer Endless Possibilities

So, what are we going to do with foldable phones? It’s kind of hard to figure out where this trend is going because manufacturers have already taken the tech down a variety of unique paths.

We know that some devices, like the Samsung Galaxy F and the Royole FlexPai, can expand into tablet-sized smartphones, and that’s pretty cool. You can use these like regular smartphones when you’re walking around, or you can fold them out into tablets when you want to video-chat a friend or get some work done. Phones that double as a tablet could change how we consume media, and they could make it even easier to do work on the go.

There are also devices, like the Motorola RAZR 4, that take foldable technology in the other direction. The RAZR 4 folds in on itself like a flip phone, and essentially turns your bulky cellphone into a much smaller device. Some tech demos have shown foldable phones that can wrap around your wrist, and Apple acquired a patent for a phone that rolls up like a scroll, oddly enough.

This technology is so new and ground-breaking that manufacturers aren’t sure what to do with it. And that’s a really exciting thing because the format of smartphones can finally evolve into something greater.

Concept art of the Motorola RAZR 4 foldable phone

The Tech Can Get Bent Out Of Shape

A lot of the problems with traditional smartphones have been worked out. Their screens are durable, they have tolerable battery life, and they’re relatively easy for people to use. But foldable phones will set us back a bit. They have larger screens that require more battery power, they’re made of materials that aren’t very durable, and they will work differently from the average smartphone.

The biggest complaint that you’ll hear about these phones is probably going to be their plastic screens. No, they won’t shatter like glass, and companies like Royole have gone out of their way to wave around slogans like “say goodbye to broken screens,” but that idea is a bit misleading. Remember how iPods had plastic screens that would get scratched and scuffed in your pocket? Yeah, foldable phones are going to have the same problem. And since these phones are foldable, you’re not going to have a lot of luck finding a screen protector.

But the screen isn’t the only fragile part of a foldable phone. Manufacturers are going to have to stray away from hard metal or plastic phone cases in favor of materials that can handle being bent hundreds of times a day. The hinges on these foldable phones are going to be serious weak points (they were on flip phones too) because they’ll mostly be made from plastic and light metals. The OLED displays on these devices will also be an issue because OLED’s can suffer burn-in over time (like a TV), and the organic material that they’re made from is very vulnerable to moisture.

Battery life, software compatibility, circuitry, and ease-of-use will also be hurdles for these phones. But some people may not be too worried about these smaller issues, and they’ll be resolved long before foldable phones reach a consumer-friendly price.

If you happen to get your hands on a foldable phone in 2019, then you’re going to be shelling out a lot of money for a device that’s fragile, clunky, dim, and power-hungry. Remember how wonky the 1st generation iPad was? Yeah, it’ll be a little bit like that. But competition promotes technological progress, and these foldable devices (if they become popular) should become comfortable and durable in less than a decade.

Concept art of the Royole Flexpai unfolding into a tablet

You’ll Have A Foldable Phone…Eventually

As of this very moment, the only foldable phone that you can buy is the Royole FlexPai, and it costs $1,318. A lot of companies seem to be pushing their flexible phones to the market as fast as possible (alongside 5G), and some companies will set release dates at MWC 2019 on February 25th. It’s safe to assume that that the Samsung Galaxy F will come out this year, but we’ll know for sure when Samsung holds a press release on February 20th.

Judging by the FlexPai’s $1,318 price tag, you aren’t going to find any budget foldable phones in 2019. And frankly, the FlexPai doesn’t look like a super high-quality device. Videos from CES 2019 show that the FlexPai’s screen doesn’t fit flush to its body, its plastic-y case doesn’t fold flat, and its Water OS awkwardly flips and stutters when the device opens and closes. There’s a good chance that a high-quality, flexible phone from a popular manufacturer will run for more than $2000.

Here are the flexible phones that we know about:

  • The Royole FlexPai is available for purchase right now. It retails at $1,318.
  • Samsung will reveal the release date and price for the Galaxy F on February 20th.
  • Huawei is set to show their 5G foldable phone at the MWC on February 25th.
  • Motorola hasn’t shared much about the RAZR 4. There are rumors that the device will show up at the MWC, but Motorola isn’t included on the MWC Exhibition page.
  • Oppo may show off a foldable phone at MWC on February 25th.
  • Xiaomi released a video for their foldable phone earlier this week.
  • Sony might be putting together a foldable phone, and some concept footage has been put together by TechConfigurations.
  • LG recently filed a patent for a foldable phone.
  • Apple recently acquired patents for a foldable phone and a phone that rolls up like a scroll.

Sources: Patently, Android Authority, CNET

Profile Photo for Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
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