It’s safe to say the era of foldable phones is now upon us. Android 10, the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system, builds in support for foldable devices.
By Jesus Diaz
The Galaxy Fold finally arrived in the U.S. last September after a delayed ship date while Samsung worked through issues with the device’s screen, and now Motorola’s foldable Razr is about to go on sale as well.
In fact, everything seems to be folding these days. Lenovo now has a foldable PC, the $2,499 ThinkPad X1, while LG wowed crowds at this year’s CES with both a roll-down OLED TV and a model that bends.
But foldable phones got here first, and more are scheduled to join their ranks this year (including, possibly, a rumored device from Apple). It’s a new form factor that promises the convenience of extreme portability when shut and a larger screen whenever you need to get things done.
The appeal of foldable phones is clear: you get the productivity-boosting powers of a big screen that can fold up for maximum portability. But the risks are apparent, too — look at the delayed launches of both the Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X, as Samsung and Huawei struggled to make sure their first foldable devices were durable enough to survive the rigors of everyday use.
Here’s a look at the flexible phones that have been announced so far, and what we could eventually see. And for all the other non-foldable handsets we’re looking forward to, check out our list of our most anticipated smartphones of 2020.
Foldable phones you can buy right now
- Samsung Galaxy Fold
- Royole FlexPai
- Huawei Mate X (China only)
- Motorola Razr (pre-orders start Jan. 26)
Samsung Galaxy Fold
After a longer wait than Samsung probably cared for, the company started shipping the $1,980 Galaxy Fold this past September. And after spending some time with the phone, which has been redesigned since getting a sneak peek earlier this year, we found that the Galaxy Fold is an innovative device that still feels a little impractical at this point for everyday use.
Nevertheless, Samsung is treating the launch as a success. A Samsung executive told the audience at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin that 1 million Galaxy Fold smartphones have been sold, though the company subsequently backed off of that claim.
The Galaxy Fold’s backstory didn’t suggest it would be a hit. Samsung planned to launch the $1,980 phone at the end of April 2019, but that launch was put on hold, after some review units released by the company exhibited problems with the screen. The Galaxy Fold had also seen its share of lackluster reviews based on that pre-release unit. Samsung mobile boss DJ Koh called the Fold launch “embarrassing,” and said in an interview that he pushed for the phone’s release “before it was ready.”
Two big problems popped with the Fold’s screen. Some reviewers removed a protective layer that needed to remain in place. In another case, some debris got between the Fold’s hinge and its display, rendering the screen inoperable.
Samsung says it addressed those issues in advance of the rescheduled September launch. The protective layer now extends past the bezel, which Samsung expects will prevent people from trying to remove it. Protective caps have been added to the hinge’s ends, and there’s less space between the hinge and the phone’s body in the revamped design.
The Fold uses the Infinity Flex display Samsung introduced last year. When unfolded, the display expands to 7.3 inches. Samsung’s App Continuity feature lets you resume using the app you had open on the folded-up 4.6-inch display in tablet mode. And multitasking supports lets you run three apps at once.
The batteries are split into two, one on each side, for a combined power pack of 4,380 mAh. (The Fold lasted a little more than 10 hours on our battery test, which we ran using the device’s 7.3-inch screen.) The 7-nanometer processor powering the device is aided by 12GB of RAM. And the Galaxy Fold offers six cameras total — three on the back panel, two inside, and one up front.
You can get the Galaxy Fold through Samsung, Best Buy and AT&T. We’d recommend the unlocked route, as the AT&T version comes with a lot of preinstalled bloatware.
While Samsung presses ahead with the Fold, the company is entertaining other foldable phone designs for future devices. One report suggests a design that folds outward like Huawei’s Mate X (see below). Other reports suggest that a future version of the Galaxy Fold planned for this year will feature an 8-inch screen and a Galaxy Note-like S Pen, or that Samsung will come out with a folding clamshell-style device, similar in concept to Motorola’s flexible Razr. (Samsung teased a flip-style foldable at its annual developer conference last October.)
We could find out soon enough what Samsung has planned on the folding phone front. The company is holding a press event on Feb. 11 where it’s expected to show off the Galaxy S20, the latest addition to its flagship Galaxy S lineup. But as with last year’s Galaxy S10 launch which gave us our first look at the Galaxy Fold, we could be in for a foldable phone debut, too.
That would be the Galaxy Z Flip, the rumored name for the follow-up to the Galaxy Fold. This Samsung foldable is expected to have a clamshell design that reveals a 6.7-inch display and a lower price tag than the Fold.
The iconic Razr has returned for its second act — and this time, the 2020 Motorola Razr is a foldable smartphone. Motorola has shoehorned a 6.2-inch flexible OLED panel into a body similar in proportions to its classic clamshell, complete with a secondary display on the outside for quickly responding to notifications and snapping selfies without opening the device.
Motorola and Lenovo developed 26 prototypes over a period of four years before settling on the final design of the Razr’s foldable screen and hinge. They claim the new Razr won’t be tarnished by the same fragility that soured the Galaxy Fold’s highly-anticipated launch. In fact, the Razr’s hinge feels so strong and sturdy, it makes the device somewhat tough to flip open with your thumb alone.
Because most of Motorola’s attention has seemingly gone into making the Razr durable, the handset is decidedly less impressive in terms of specs. Inside beats a Snapdragon 710 chipset, not the best-in-class 855 silicon that powers most flagship models. Additionally, the Razr’s single 15-megapixel external camera didn’t seem to rival Apple’s or Google’s imaging prowess in our brief hands-on testing, though we look to put that lens through its paces more extensively in our upcoming review.
Neither of these faults might be particularly egregious if the new Razr didn’t cost $1,500. Sure, that’s a couple hundred cheaper than the $1,980 Galaxy Fold, but there’s a certain standard of performance you expect when spending quadruple digits on a handset, and the Razr bucks that trend.
Motorola postponed the Razr launch due to greater-than-anticipated interest, but now the release is back on track. Pre-orders for the Razr start Jan. 26, with the phone arriving in stores on Feb. 6. The Razr’s available from Verizon, Walmart and Motorola’s own website.
Huawei Mate X
Huawei’s folding phone surfaced earlier this year, and the Mate X is not going to come cheaply. The phone will cost 16,999 yuan in China, which translates to about $2,400 in the U.S. — not that the Mate X is slated to ship to this country.
Instead, Huawei has only launched the Mate X in China for now, with its Nov. 15 release later than what the Chinese phone giant originally promised. Huawei says it sold out of its first batch of Mate X phones.
Those who splashed out for the phone will get a lot for their money. Unfolded, the Mate X acts as an 8-inch tablet. Fold the device, and you’ve got two screens — a front-facing 6.6-inch screen augmented by a 6.4-inch panel on back. That screen can double as a mirror when you take a photo of someone using the Mate X’s camera. The folded Mate X is just 11mm thin — there’s no gap between the screens — so it should fit easily into a pocket.
The Mate X packs plenty of power with a Kirin 980 processor, though that’s not Huawei’s most up-to-date chipset. The Kirin 990, introduced in September, features a built-in 5G modem, and Huawei eventually plans to release a Kirin 990-powered Mate X, though that version is coming later — probably next year. A pair of batteries combine to offer 4,500 mAh of battery life to keep the massive screens powered up.
Huawei had been aiming to launch the Mate X in the summer but pushed back the release to the fall. The reason, a Huawei spokesperson told CNBC over the summer, was to do more testing to avoid the troubles that plagued the Galaxy Fold’s aborted rollout. “We don’t want to launch a product to destroy our reputation,” Huawei’s spokesperson told CNBC.
It’s worth noting, though, that Huawei finds itself in the crosshairs of the Trump administration, which has barred U.S. companies from buying telecom equipment from Huawei while the U.S. Department of Commerce is forbidding U.S. companies from offering hardware and software to Huawei without permission. (That’s why the Mate X will run Android, but won’t have any Google apps installed, similar to Huawei’s Mate 30 Pro.) As a result, we’d be surprised if the Mate X ever makes officially it to the U.S., even once Huawei starts producing the foldable phone in greater numbers.
The Mate X is still on track to launch in Europe in 2020, the company says. And Huawei is now teasing a follow-up version, the Mate Xs, that’s expected to be more durable than the original.
The world’s first foldable phone already debuted more than a year ago. It isn’t as polished as Huawei or Samsung’s but, hey, the little Chinese David beat the two Goliaths to be first to market. Called the FlexPai, it has a 7.8-inch AMOLED screen with a 1920 x 1440 resolution and measures 7.5 x 5.3 x 0.3 inches.
The Snapdragon 855-powered Flexpai has two cameras rated at 16 and 20 megapixels, and comes with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage in its $1,318 developer model. (There’s a consumer version of the FlexPai, but it’s only being sold in China.) While Royole quickly sold out the first batch of FlexPai phones, it’s continuing to take orders on its website, suggesting that the company plans to make additional models. Be prepared to wait up to 90 days for your order to ship, Royole warns. The Royole website is currently teasing a second-generation model promising an improved display.
We had a chance to go hands-on with the original FlexPai during CES 2019, and it’s a more polished experience than initial videos of the phone might have you believe. Folding the FlexPai is relatively fluid, and you can use the phone in full-screen, phone-sized and tent modes. The device also doesn’t feel that heavy. Still, the FlexPai felt a little unfinished, like it had been rushed to market to beat the bigger players. We hope to eventually test out the cameras and see how this phone holds up to everyday use.
Microsoft Surface Duo
Microsoft is getting into the foldable phone market as well — eventually. At an October 2019 product event to show off new Surface laptops, the company also previewed the Surface Duo. It’s a smartphone running Android — yes, Android and not Windows — that features a pair of 5.6-inch displays. You’ll be able to flip around the screens, which can rotate 360 degrees, to use the device either as a phone or tablet.
When the screens are side by side, you’ll be able to perform up to tasks at once, stretch one app across both screens, or use the second screen as a keyboard. Microsoft promises a slim design, which would give the Surface Duo an edge over bulkier foldables like the Galaxy Fold.
You’re in for a long wait with the Surface Duo, though. Microsoft isn’t planning to release the dual-screen phone until the 2020 holidays, and it hasn’t yet announced a price.
The Surface Duo is just one dual-screen device Microsoft has in the works. It’s also developing the Surface Neo, which features a pair of 9-inch screens and a 360-degree hinge. It runs Windows 10X as its operating system. Like the Surface Duo, the Neo ships late next year for an undisclosed price.
LG was rumored to be working on a foldable phone to debut at Mobile World Congress in the spring, but that trade show came and went without any such revelation. Instead, the company showed off the new LG G8 ThinQ and 5G-ready LG V50 ThinQ phones, right after LG president Kwon Bong-seok, told the Korea Times that it’s premature to come out with a folding device. “We have reviewed releasing the foldable smartphone when launching 5G smartphone but decided not to produce it,” the LG executive said. Instead, the company is focusing on its 5G device for now.
That’s not to say that LG has given up on second screens, though its take on the design is a little different from the folding displays other phone makers are pushing out. In November, LG released the $699 G8X ThinQ Dual Screen, a modular smartphone that lets you pop in a second 6.4-inch OLED panel which is housed in a wraparound smartphone cover. The Dual Screen case works remarkably well for running different apps in parallel, though unlike a true foldable display, it’s not ideal for expanding a single app to tablet-like proportions — so LG still has work to do.
Let’s not assume the G8X ThinQ is the final word for LG and foldable phones, especially after IP Park, chief technology officer and president of LG Electronics, told us in 2019 that his company was working on both rollable and foldable devices. And trademark filings suggest that LG is at the very least lining up potential names for a rollable device.
In a filing with the European Union Intellectual Property Office, LG has applied to register three brand names: Flex, Foldi, and Duplex. The latter may refer to the dual-screen phone. Flex is already in use in of LG’s curved phone, the G Flex 2. It seems logical to think that Foldi may refer to a foldable screen phone.
There’s also another patent — filed on November 20, 2018 — that shows this strange foldable by LG:
You may think of TCL primarily for its TV sets, but the company makes phones, too, usually under other brand names like Alcatel and BlackBerry. That’s been changing in the past year, with phones carrying the TCL name arriving in the U.S. this spring. Also in the works is a foldable phone from TCL. We just don’t know definitively what it will look like.
TCL has given us a pretty good idea by showing off a foldable phone prototype at CES 2020. That version is a wallet-sized device that unfolds to reveal a 7.2-inch AMOLED (2048 x 1536) panel. It looked pretty polished when we saw it, but TCL also told us that it’s just one of 30 to 40 different designs under development; it just happens to be the furthest along.
The reception for other phones like Motorola’s Razr may cause TCL to pivot to another design. The prototype we’ve seen is bigger than the Razr flip phone and it doesn’t have an external screen. Should the public embrace a specific type of foldable phone, we could see TCL pursue another design instead.
Xiaomi’s folding phone has gone from prototype to a more polished promotional video that emphasizes what an eye-catching design Xiaomi is working on. It’s a double-folding phone where the top and bottom of the tablet-sized screen fold down, leaving you with a compact (if chunky) smartphone.
A more recent video, posted to Weibo, shows us what the phone will look like when it folds and how it will work when unfolded. Xiaomi’s effort could be called the Xiaomi Dual Flex or Xiaomi MIX Flex, and it’s unclear when it will available
There have been rumblings about Oppo’s foldable phone plans, first uncovered by Mobielkopen in the form of patent filings. And now the Chinese phone maker has come out and said that it’s ready to build a folding phone — if there’s enough interest.
While there are few details about specs for this device, Oppo vice president of Chinese sales and marketing Brian Shen took to Weibo last year to post photos of a foldable prototype. Like Huawei’s Mate X, Oppo’s take on a foldable phone has the screen wrap around the outside of the fold, leaving you with two screens on either side of the device when it’s folded up.
In his post, Shen said the foldable phone could enter mass production if Oppo sees enough customer demand.
That had been all we heard of Oppo’s foldable phone plans until reports of an Oppo patent covering a foldable phone with a pop-up camera. That approach could potentially solve one of the design flaws with foldable phones like the Mate X — where to put the phone’s camera. It’s still unclear if Oppo is going to proceed with this — or any — foldable phone design.
The 2017 Axon M was more flop than foldable, thanks to a dual-screen design that reminds me of the LG patent. But that’s not the end of the line for ZTE. In an interview, ZTE Marketing VP Jeff Yee said that they will get “something that’s truly bendable.”
ZTE has filed patents not just for a phone that folds in in itself, but also a phone with a wrap-around display. While drawings reveal the general design of each, their size, price, and development progress is not yet known.
Sony Xperia F
This one’s far from official, surfacing only on Chinese site CNMO, so take it with as many grains of salt as you prefer. But Sony is apparently working on a foldable phone of its own, reportedly called the Xperia F.
Details are pretty scarce. The phone will reportedly feature an ultrawide 21:9 aspect ratio and won’t be ready for prime time until sometime this year. At least there’s already a concept video, though.
It would certainly make sense for Sony to try something to liven up its smartphone business, especially with Xperia line failing to make much of a splash, particularly in the U.S. And 2020 could be the right time to jump in with a foldable phone, given the problems some of the early entrants went through last year. Still, until more details emerge — let alone a confirmation that Sony is even interested such a phone — we’d hold off on planning for the Xperia F release.
We’re doubtlessly going to hear from other device makers about foldable phone plans, especially if the Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X prove to be popular . For now, though, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with concept designs.
One of the more interesting efforts comes from Sharp and features a candy-bar shaped design that folds in two. Interestingly, Sharp’s phone leaves some of the screen exposed when folded, presumably so that you can check the time, see incoming calls and read notifications. Dutch blog Let’s Go Digital used Sharp’s patent filings to sketch out what such a device would look like.
Google has patents of its own for a phone that folds in two and three places. That, plus the fact that Android 10 has introduced native support for flexible screens, has fueled speculation that we could one day see a foldable Pixel.
What about Apple?
And finally, there’s Apple. The Cupertino company is not talking about its foldable plans at all, especially not after releasing a trio of new iPhones in September. But there’s no doubt they are working on exploring different designs, as shown by a series of patents covering everything from hinged designs to phones that have multiple folds.
Most likely, Tim Cook and company will wait until Google, Samsung, Huawei, and company iron out all the many technological kinks. But perhaps, if the format takes off as these companies and the Westworld scriptwriters think it will, Apple may be left behind in the Next Big Thing. More