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Samsung: We'll announce Galaxy Fold timing 'in the coming weeks'

After 45 days since Samsung paused sales of its foldable phone due to screen problems, we're still not sure what that timing looks like.

Angela Lang/CNET

Samsung hasn't given up on the Galaxy Fold, even 45 days after its first foldable phone was planned to go on sale in the US on April 26. A Samsung spokesperson affirmed to CNET in an email, "We will announce timing in the coming weeks." The company paused its $1,980 luxury device on April 22 due to screen breaks, flickering and bulges beneath the screen on review units. While Samsung didn't provide a specific time frame by any means, this is a fresh confirmation that the world's largest smartphone-maker still plans to launch the Galaxy Fold. In May, Samsung mobile chief DJ Koh said that the Fold's US launch "will not be too late." CNET's Galaxy Fold remained intact during the review period. 

The Galaxy Fold isn't the only Samsung product that's on hold. The Galaxy Home smart speaker, driven by Samsung's Bixby assistant, is reportedly coming later this year, over a year after it was first announced, and many months after its projected April window. These delays are unusual for Samsung, a brand that has developed a strong track record for launching its smartphones very soon after launch. 

The case of the Fold is one of damage control, as Samsung works behind the scenes to fix the screen issues that caused damage in the first place, before the $2,000 devices get into customers' hands. What isn't clear is how many customers are still eager to pay up for the cutting-edge phone that folds in half, even after Samsung reinforces the display.  

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

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Samsung says its Galaxy Fold is still coming.

Angela Lang/CNET

Best Buy recently canceled its Fold preorder sales, which means that interested Fold owners would have to preorder anew when and if the phone goes back on sale. Samsung's recent silence casts doubt on Samsung's ability to ship its foldable device in June, a time frame suggested by an email AT&T sent in April to its preorder customers. Samsung also emailed preorder customers, saying they would cancel their Galaxy Fold order by May 31 if buyers chose not to opt-in. The tech giant won't charge credit cards until the Galaxy Fold ships.

AT&T did not respond to fresh requests for comment about the Fold's timeline launch. A T-Mobile spokesperson replied, "Please reach out to Samsung for further information regarding Samsung Galaxy Fold. T-Mobile did not open up preorders for this device."

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Well, this is awkward...

Samsung's Galaxy Fold delay puts Samsung in an awkward position. As the world's largest phone maker and the the first major brand to announce a foldable phone, Samsung's reputation as an innovator is riding on the Fold, especially after its spectacular unveiling on Feb. 20. 

Samsung's troubles underscore just how risky and fragile the concept of a foldable phone really is. Foldable phones represent a new type of device that's meant to maximize screen size without expanding the overall size of the device. The tech giant wanted to lead the way, burnishing its reputation as an innovator in the phone's transition to the next big thing. 

Until Samsung and other brands can allay buyers' fears, the future of foldable phones hangs precariously in the balance. Intense criticism may hurt future sales and shake consumer confidence in the concept of foldable phones in general. 

The Galaxy Fold's chance to lead the emerging category could come under fire if buyers turn their backs on the innovative design, or opt for a rival model such as Huawei's Mate XTCL's upcoming designs or a rumored foldable phone like the Motorola Razr. On the flip side, those other companies have the chance to learn from the Galaxy Fold's mistakes.

Why caused Galaxy Fold screen damage in the first place?

Several early reviewers experienced damage to the screens on their Galaxy Fold loan devices, which made the foldable phones unusable. Photos of the damaged Folds ranged from a fully blacked-out screen to a bubbled device, and one with a portion of the screen white and the other half blacked out. 

The Fold has a horizontal clamshell design, where hard glass halves close like a book to protect a tender 7.3-inch plastic display inside. Samsung even includes a case in the Galaxy Fold box as extra armor for the glass exterior, in case you drop the phone.

There may be a specific reason that some of the phones came to harm. Two reviewers experienced a total screen failure when they removed a thin plastic film that runs along the Galaxy Fold's screen. There's a narrow gap between this film and the bezel-edge of the display, which has led to confusion about the nature of the film. 

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It isn't immediately obvious if the plastic layer belongs to the phone or if it's the film you commonly see on devices to keep screens smudge- and lint-free during shipping and storage.

Bloomberg's Mark Gurman found out the hard way that the latter wasn't the case. He tweeted this about his review unit last week: "The screen on my Galaxy Fold review unit is completely broken and unusable just two days in. Hard to know if this is widespread or not."

YouTube reviewer Marques "MKBHD" Brownlee had a similar experience after peeling the layer off his Galaxy Fold review unit. 

"PSA: There's a layer that appears to be a screen protector on the Galaxy Fold's display," he tweeted. "It's NOT a screen protector. Do NOT remove it."

But the protective film isn't the only source of Samsung's early troubles. CNBC's Todd Haselton experienced screen flickering on the left side of his review device. The Verge's Dieter Bohn also had issues, with Bohn's screen forming a bulge beneath the surface. On Tuesday, YouTube reviewer Michael "Mr. Mobile" Fisher also found a bump beneath his Galaxy Fold screen.

ReadThe Galaxy Fold can't have this one useful thing

These reports of a faulty Galaxy Fold are a nightmare situation for Samsung, the first major brand to sell a foldable phone. The Fold -- which has a 4.6-inch screen on the outside, a bendable 7.3-inch screen on the inside and a nearly $2,000 price tag -- is a major risk for the tech giant.

Should I be worried?

While the reported problems make the affected Galaxy Fold unusable, they're not dangerous, unlike the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7, which was found to overheat and sometimes catch fire.

What is Samsung doing to fix the problem?

We're aware that Samsung is doing three things:

  • Investigating broken devices.
  • Reinforcing the inner plastic screens for final production units.
  • Clarifying packaging to communicate with Fold owners not to peel off a protective screen layer.

Samsung said in a statement, "We will take measures to strengthen the display protection. We will also enhance the guidance on care and use of the display including the protective layer so that our customers get the most out of their Galaxy Fold."

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In addition, we've asked Samsung what it thinks happened, if buyers can feel assured that their Folds won't break, and how Samsung will make it clear what future Fold owners should and shouldn't do to protect their phones.

So far Samsung hasn't addressed these specific questions, but has said that Fold owners should contact Samsung customer care (1-800-SAMSUNG) if they experience any problems. We hope to get a few more details before the foldable devices go on sale. 

Read: Sucking up to buyers might be Samsung's best way out of this Galaxy Fold mess

What does this Fold incident mean for Google Android support?

Google's support for the category of foldable phones is unwavering. At its annual Google I/O conference on May 7, Google's Senior Android Director, Stephanie Saad Cuthbertson, said that foldable phones "open up a complete new category which, though early, might just change the future of mobile computing." 

Android Q, the upcoming refresh of Google's mobile operating system, will focus on App Continuity, the software that helps phones like the Galaxy Fold quickly move an active app from one screen and orientation to another, say from a small screen on the outside to a larger screen on the inside and back again, without missing a beat. Since developers don't typically make their apps for foldable screens, standardized developer tools and best practices will help make these apps work better on foldable screens. 

Google's ongoing role here suggests that the Fold's issues are a pothole, rather than a roadblock, on the path to foldable phone designs.

What is this film layer thingamajiggy everyone's talking about?   

Let's address the film layer first. I had received my review unit on Monday morning, then shot an unboxing video, and worried that I had forgotten to take off this plastic layer -- what would the YouTube viewers say?! 

Turns out, what looks like a paper-thin sheet of plastic covering the foldable phone's 7.3-inch display is a protective layer that's crucial to helping keep the phone damage-free.

You can see the edges of that layer here, on my review unit:

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Look closely and you can see a thin line hugging the screen just beyond the bezel. This is the protective layer that Samsung wants to remain firmly in place.

Angela Lang/CNET

OK, so now we're clear: Whatever you do, don't peel back this film. It's part of the screen and bad things happen when you remove it.

But again, the protective layer isn't the whole story, because two other reviewers, Haselton and Bohn, said that they didn't remove the film, and still had problems that rendered the Fold unusable. So what's going on?

What's the deal with the Galaxy Fold's screen?

The Galaxy Fold has a completely different screen setup than any other phone. There's a 4.6-inch display on the outside that's covered with Gorilla Glass -- that's the same as other Galaxy phones like the S10 and S10 Plus ( $1,000 at Walmart). But inside, the screen is made of a plastic (polymer) material that Samsung calls its Infinity Flex Display.

Samsung created this with a new process and specific adhesives to withstand the screen's bending and flexing without breaking. The screen protector layer is meant to remain in place to prevent damage to the display below -- that's the thing that actually makes your "screen" light up. Without the hardness of glass to cover the delicate display, the Fold is more vulnerable, something that's become vividly apparent.

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What it's like to watch Netflix on the Galaxy Fold

Angela Lang/CNET

Is there something different about the review phones?

Yes. Reviewers received early production models. That means these aren't the final review units, and could be prone to certain issues that Samsung might have the opportunity to fix before the Fold reaches buyers' hands.

For example, I was told that my review unit is an unlocked European version that doesn't support US services like Bixby Voice, Samsung Health and Samsung Pay. Likewise, I was warned that call quality might be compromised because the phone isn't optimized to US bands.

While I'm fully testing this review unit of the Galaxy Fold, I am withholding a rating until I receive the final production model CNET ordered.

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Did Samsung say you're not supposed to remove the film?

It isn't clear if Samsung thoroughly briefed every reviewer who received a phone about the screen protector layer. There was no instruction in my box -- no literature at all, in fact -- but also no other indication, like a pull tab, that you should remove it.

I almost did anyway. As a reviewer, I like to experience the phone as "clean" as possible. That means everything I can peel off is going to come off. I emailed Samsung for more information about this layer on Tuesday. A spokesperson responded, "Galaxy Fold is manufactured with a special protective layer. It is not a screen protector -- do not attempt to remove it."

The company further elaborated its position:

"A few reviewers reported having removed the top layer of the display causing damage to the screen. The main display on the Galaxy Fold features a top protective layer, which is part of the display structure designed to protect the screen from unintended scratches. Removing the protective layer or adding adhesives to the main display may cause damage. We will ensure this information is clearly delivered to our customers."

Samsung added this statement as well: 

"The protective layer is part of the display structure designed to protect the screen from unintended scratches. The main display of the Galaxy Fold is made with a new, advanced polymer layer and adhesive that's flexible and tough enough to endure repeated folding actions. Because the main display is made with polymer, the extra protective layer is in place to guard against impact. It's built into the display which is why it should not be removed by force. Consumers who notice that the protective layer is not integrated on the display should contact Samsung customer care at 1-800-SAMSUNG as soon as possible to avoid any additional damage to the display."

Desmond Smith, director of creative content and a tech evangelist at T-Mobile, tweeted that the carrier's final production models will come with a warning on the wrap that goes over the Galaxy Fold's screen:

But peeling off the Fold's screen layer isn't the only issue 

While removing the plastic film caused a problem for some, it isn't entirely clear what the protective film does or how its removal relates to the screen's behavior. Remember that two of the reviewers kept the protector on. Bohn and Fisher suspect that a piece of dust or debris may have become lodged under the screen to create the bulge he felt, and a slight distortion on the Fold's surface.

Haselton, meanwhile, observed a persistent screen flicker over the left half of the screen. We know that two batteries, one on each side, work in concert to form a single power source. I'm not an electrical or chemical engineer, but I wonder if that could indicate a battery issue. Hopefully we'll all find out one way or another.

At any rate, the Galaxy Fold's risky design has created some inconsistencies that could damage its early production phones and its reputation.

Why are bendable screens made of plastic in the first place?

Right now, glass doesn't bend so well. That's something that Corning -- the maker of Gorilla Glass, which covers most high-end phones -- is working on. Don't expect bendable glass to save second-gen foldable phones, though. It won't be ready for some time.

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Published April 17, 2019. Updated most recently May 31 and June 7, June 10, 2019 at 8:05 a.m. PT: Adds Samsung's confirmation that it will still announce a timeline for the Galaxy Fold release.