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Galaxy Fold: It's time to talk about the screen crease, notch and air gap

We know about Samsung's foldable screen problems. Here's what it's really like to use.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I said in my full Galaxy Fold review that Samsung's new foldable phone lives and dies by its screen. Nothing could be truer. On your typical phone, screen quality is more a given than anything else. If it's large enough, bright enough outdoors and pin-sharp, then you're probably not going to think about it as much as you are everything you use it to view. But the Galaxy Fold is different. The screen is the phone, and because it bends in half, the mechanics of this foldable display are its most crucial element. It's fantastic when it works, expanding your screen space in ways that make reading and viewing a pleasure. 

When the foldable screen doesn't work, though -- when strong reflections, dents and worse get in the way -- then the perils of this new design stand out in sharp relief. The worrisome screen malfunction experienced by five early production Galaxy Fold review units has taught us that much, enough that Samsung officially delayed its Galaxy Fold sale date in order to fix. 

Thankfully, my Galaxy Fold review unit didn't break. But the screen and other elements are worth talking about, especially because it was the plastic crease running down the center of the Fold that caused the most hand-wringing before these other issues came to light. How bad did it really look?, people wanted to know. Would this seam deepen over time? Creasegate threatened to take down the Fold and its ilk before foldable phones ever really got started. 

Let's also remember the notch. The thick thumb-shaped cut-out housing two front-facing cameras and two sensors inspired sneers when Samsung first showed off the Fold prototype in late February. Onlookers fretted that it looked cheap and would get in the way.

People also had words about the air gap, the little loop of open space at the Fold's hinge end that's wider than the end where the screen sides snap shut.

Having used the Fold every day for over a week (I've since then had to return the Fold, as part of a 10-day review unit agreement), I wanted to address three of your biggest concerns and share what they're really like. Let's start with the crease.

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The crease isn't as bad as it seems

The second you open the phone, you'll notice the crease. It dips in a little and catches the light. I noticed it most on white or black screens, but when you're immersed in something -- a movie, an article, a game -- the crease becomes much less in-your-face. That's partly because you stop concentrating on it so intently, and partly because it's less apparent as pixels light up and change.

You can also feel the crease, or more accurately, the hinge beneath it, when you run your finger down or across the screen. Sensing its presence isn't the same as the crease disrupting or distracting me from what I'm doing. That never happened to me, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility that it could be a drag in some specific scenarios.

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You try bending a phone without making a crease.

Angela Lang/CNET

Just remember it's there because this is where the Fold folds over. I'm not sure how you'd have a foldable phone without a seam, at least not with the materials we have now. Can you imagine a piece of glass folding in half and then unfolding? I can't. 

Other foldable designs such as the Huawei Mate X, which puts the foldable screen on the outside of the device, have the opposite issue -- not a "crease" but a bulge. I liken it to the skin around your knee or elbow. A foldable screen is a joint.

Creases and bulges don't feel elegant or premium, but they're inevitable at this point. The only solution to this that I could foresee is a futuristic material that rearranges molecules as you open and close the device.

ReadThe Galaxy Fold can't have this one useful thing

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The air gap is related to the crease

Another thing the Fold doesn't do well is close perfectly flat. There's an air gap on the end closest to the hinge and that's because... the plastic screen doesn't totally stack on top of itself. Perhaps that really does cause the plastic to snap. 

I didn't find that the gap made the Fold too awkward to stick in my pocket or purse. It's barely a large enough space to insert a credit card. When I did put one it, and then another, they held in place, but mostly because the Fold's magnetic edges kept it there. I wouldn't be able to slide in a pen. A bobby pin, maybe, but don't do that -- you wouldn't want to scratch the plastic display.

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You can see how the Galaxy Fold's central seam catches the light.

Angela Lang/CNET

Huawei boasts that its Mate X lies flat because of its superior "Falcon" hinge, but there's some clever engineering there, too. The Mate X has a swoop on the side and "asymmetrical" screen lengths. It also gives you a grip to hold the phone, but that's a design workaround to place the battery, cameras and other rigid electronics in an unmoving part. Still, it could very well be a good solution. We'll see when we spend more than 5 minutes with that foldable phone. 

Read: Samsung's best way out of the Galaxy Fold mess: Suck up to buyers

OK, the notch is a problem

Unlike the other screen concerns, I actually think Samsung could have designed around the notch. It's thick, bulbous and takes up more space than it really needs to considering that it's only holding two camera lenses and two (stacked) sensors. Hold the Fold up to the light and you see a lot of dead space off to the right.

When you watch videos and play games, the notch slopes out onto the screen. You won't lose a crucial scene or moment, since the activity takes place in the center of the display and not on the edges, but there's really no need for the notch to be so big.

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Oh notch, why must you be so big?

Angela Lang/CNET

The logic here seems to be that Samsung wanted to center the cameras closes to the crease without having to fold the camera sensors over each other. I suspect Samsung extended the notch to the right edge because that looked less awkward than cutting it off and leaving you with an uncentered island of a notch. 

Again, Huawei gets around this on the Mate X by putting all the cameras in a stack on a part of the Mate X that doesn't move.

If you don't like the notch, Samsung has the good grace to let you blacken it out in the settings menu. This creates a thicker bar at the top of the screen. 

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The Folds notch is over an inch long.

Angela Lang/CNET

When you fire up some apps, including YouTube, the screen in line with the notch blacks out anyway, leaving thick bars along the top and bottom (because the app can't fully resize in the Fold's dimensions). This does somewhat cut off the full-screen experience, which is a big point of the Fold in the first place.

The best thing to keep in mind is that this first wave of foldable phones is laying the groundwork for a brand-new type of device, one that will be much more complicated than the phone in your pocket today. 

The Fold may be flawed, even when it's working well, but Samsung and others can learn from the Fold's mistakes to create the foldable phone you'll really want.

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Originally posted April 25 at 6 a.m. PT.