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Foldable Phones

Galaxy Fold dominated the Galaxy S10. Can it top MWC 2019 too?

Four new Galaxy S10 phones, along with earbuds and smart watches -- but all we care about is that foldable phone. Is that all anyone at MWC will care about too?

When Samsung executive Justin Denison showed off the company's concept foldable phone back in November, it was almost anticlimactic.

The lights dimmed. Denison held the device with his right hand, and with his left, unfolded it for a short moment before folding it back up and putting it away. It was a brief and frustrating tease.

On Wednesday, the Galaxy Fold finally got its full day in the limelight, at the Samsung Unpacked event in San Francisco. Samsung actually started its event with the unveiling of the device, rather than leading with its Galaxy S10 lineup. Details like the colors of the device brought oohs and aahs from the crowd. What also elicited a reaction: The $1,980 price tag.

Samsung co-CEO DJ Koh shows off the Galaxy Fold at Unpacked in San Francisco.

Angela Lang/CNET

The Galaxy Fold, the first smartphone able to fold out into a tablet, stole the show. Never mind that it's nearly double the price of more mainstream products like the flagship Galaxy S10 or "budget" Galaxy S10E, never mind the Galaxy Watch Active or Galaxy Buds. If you're like the rest of the tech world, you're already obsessed with all things folding.

The bigger question is whether it continues to dominate the headlines when MWC Barcelona, the world's largest phone show, kicks off Monday. Heavy hitters like Huawei and LG, and scrappier players like TCL are looking to make noise of their own, rocking innovations like foldable designs and access to 5G.

This is all good for the industry, since phones have gotten pretty stagnant over the years. The biggest change since the first smartphone came out a decade ago has been larger screens that stretch across the entire front display. (Oh yes, and notches.) Some phones have ditched their traditional fingerprint readers, some boast fancy AR capabilities, and nearly all high-end models sport multiple camera lenses. But they're all still basically a shiny, rectangular piece of glass and metal.

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That makes it pretty tough for folks like you and me to shell out the money for a new model each year. We're all hanging onto our devices longer -- for about three years now, instead of two -- and thinking twice about which devices we actually buy. Last year, smartphone shipments dropped for the first time ever, down 5 percent to 376 million units, according to Strategy Analytics.

But the Galaxy Fold -- and potentially more devices from MWC -- mark a different wave. 

"Consumers never can have enough screen," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "But at the same time, they don't want something humongous." The foldable Galaxy solves that problem, she said.

Rise of flexibles

The Galaxy Fold is a compact smartphone when closed and a more expansive tablet when fully opened. When folded, the display is 4.6 inches, and when unfolded it's 7.3 inches. The gadget has six cameras, with three on the back, one on the front and two inside, Denison said Wednesday. The Galaxy Fold comes with 12 gigabytes of RAM and batteries on each side of the foldable phone.

Apps will seamlessly transition between the display sizes, letting you pick up on the tablet where you left off on the smartphone, something Samsung calls App Continuity. When the device is opened into the bigger display, you'll be able to use three active apps through something Samsung calls Multi Active Window. Apps shown off for the Galaxy Fold included YouTube, Netflix and Facebook. 

There'll be two versions of the phone, one that's 4G LTE and another that's 5G

The Galaxy Fold will be available April 26 at a starting price of $1,980, making it the most expensive smartphone on the market. It'll come in four colors: cosmo black, space silver, Martian green and astro blue. 

Samsung won't be alone with foldables for long. Most major Android phone makers and even unknown startups are working on foldable devices. Google has said it's committed to providing Android support for foldable designs. Startup Royole already sells its foldable device, the FlexPai, at $1,318 for the version with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The FlexPai closes like a book, with its screen on the outside.

Huawei and Xiaomi have teased flexible phones. Even Apple has filed patents for foldable phone designs.

"Foldables are eventually going to be a big deal," Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell said. "We've reached the physical limit of what we can do with a single screen, but people want more. The only practical way to do that is with a foldable."

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Samsung has created a new category of phone with the Galaxy Fold.

CNET

It's likely we'll see some of those devices at MWC in Barcelona, Spain. The question is whether any can challenge what Samsung's made -- or if they'll mostly be prototypes we'll see later in 2019 or 2020. 

More choices than ever before

Chances are, you're probably going to hang back before taking a gamble on a foldable phone. The devices are still too experimental. There aren't enough apps. They're going to be expensive. And they're pretty foreign for people who've gotten used to those rectangular slabs.

But that's where the meat of Samsung's Unpacked event comes in.

This year is the first time Samsung has introduced four different Galaxy S variants at the same event. For some buyers, that may be confusing and overwhelming.

The devices have a lot in common. All have dynamic AMOLED screens and Samsung's new Infinity-O Display that fills even more of the device's front. There's still no notch for the camera but instead a "punch hole" for the front lens. You can charge other devices, like Samsung's Galaxy Buds, by placing them on the back of the phones, and they all boast faster Wi-Fi 6.

But there are some key differences, particularly the display size and the number of cameras. The Galaxy S10 is Samsung's mainstream phone, with three camera lenses on the back and a 6.1-inch display. It starts at $899.

The Galaxy S10 Plus sports at 6.4-inch display and comes with the option of a ceramic body instead of metal and glass. Like the S10, it comes with three cameras on the back but adds a second on the front. It starts at $999.

The Galaxy S10E crams high-end features, like Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 processor and two rear-facing camera lenses, into a smaller package. It has a 5.8-inch, noncurved display and ditches the ultrasonic fingerprint reader in favor of a side button for unlocking the device. It starts at $749.

For people who want the absolute fastest connectivity, there's the Galaxy S10 5G. The device features a fourth camera lens on the back and a bigger battery than the S10 Plus, and it connects to the ultrafast 5G networks starting to be turned on across the US. It'll launch first with Verizon in the second quarter before rolling out to other carriers that same period.

The wider range is likely a way for Samsung to hedge its bets by giving consumers more options. The company is hoping to bounce back from a lackluster 2018, which saw phone sales decline amid criticism that upgrades were too incremental.

So while Samsung wants us to gawk at the Galaxy Fold, it wants us to actually buy one of its Galaxy S10 phones.

But that doesn't mean we can't still dream about that beautiful foldable future. 

Originally published at 12:36 p.m. PT on Feb. 20
Update at 9:42 a.m. PT on Feb. 23 with details about MWC.