Rushing foldable phones doesn’t work. Just ask Samsung and Huawei

Commentary: Galaxy Fold and Mate X delays show that foldables aren't ready yet.

Rushing foldable phones doesn't work. Just ask Samsung and Huawei
Rushing foldable phones doesn't work. Just ask Samsung and Huawei

If the cautionary tale of the tortoise and the hare applies to foldable phones, Samsung and Huawei are learning the hard way that being first still won’t guarantee the prize.

The phone-makers wanted their Galaxy Fold and Mate X to prove how exciting and successful a foldable phone could be. Instead, we got a lot of flash and — so far — little substance.

Foldable phones were meant to be the future, but delays to the $2,600 Mate X and $1,980 Galaxy Fold threaten to make the new designs DOA. Samsung delayed the Fold when the screens on some reviewers’ test phones kept breaking (ours did not). Huawei delayed the Mate X to “improve” the screen, the Wall Street Journal reported, though Huawei surely also wants to avoid the same fate that befell the Fold’s delicate plastic display.

These snafus threaten to derail what was once heralded as one of the biggest leaps for mobile phones. Foldable phones promised to double the screen size and revolutionize design at a time when phone sales have waned amid lackluster annual aesthetic upgrades.

But major hiccups are dampening enthusiasm for the bendable devices before they even come out. A foldable phone has to employ flexible plastic, which make them especially vulnerable to nicks and gouges, pressure damage and bulges formed by debris tunneling under the display. These delays cast doubt on how well the radically expensive devices hold up to constant use.

The delays don’t come as a total surprise. The phone brands only showed off their foldable phones briefly, unlike other phones that see much more time in reviewers’ hands before the final review unit appears. We used the Mate X for about five minutes in March and first touched the Galaxy Fold moments before we received our review unit in April. The phone-makers’ elusive attitude was a strong tip-off that the foldable devices weren’t ready for prime time.

The Fold was announced February 20 and was supposed to sell 50 days ago on April 26. Huawei unveiled the Mate X a few days later and was slated to sell in June. Samsung declined to comment. Huawei did not respond to a request for comment.

Plastic is a problem, but bendable glass is years away

From the very beginning, phone-watchers remarked that the Galaxy Fold and Mate X’s foldable plastic screens could be their very undoing. Because who wants to spend $2,000 or more on a scratch-prone phone?

Observers were mostly concerned about the “ugly” crease you see when you unbend a foldable phone into its full-screen mode, and if this could lead to wear and tear over hundreds of thousands of bends. The crease either appears as a ridge or a valley depending on if the larger screen unfolds on the inside or outside of the device.

For example, the Galaxy Fold opens like a book to reveal an interior 7.3-inch display, where the Mate X’s 8-inch screen acts more like the book cover that wraps around the outside of the frame. More