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Galaxy Fold's plastic screen wasn't its only undoing

Commentary: Flimsy design is a death sentence for foldable phones.

samsung-galaxy-fold-28

The Samsung Galaxy Fold's improvements highlight its flaws in the first place.

Angela Lang/CNET

Update, Sept. 18: We now have a retail model of the Galaxy Fold and have begun to review it.


Right after I reviewed the Galaxy Fold, Samsung's first foldable phone, I said that a foldable phone is only as good as the quality of its screen. That's because, more than with any other phone, the screen is the foldable's very reason for being.  Its entire value rests in its ability to provide you a meaningful experience on a bigger display than one you can have with a 6.8-inch phone like the Note 10 Plus -- and in a footprint that's half the size of a tablet. 

Turns out, I was half right. The screen's integrity is only one part of the bigger picture. The Galaxy Fold didn't have a rocky beginning solely because the plastic screen's top layer is softer than glass. The damage came because the entire design was flimsier than it should have been. The screen became the central point of failure.

Months after putting the Galaxy Fold on ice, Samsung is finally ready to sell its redesigned foldable phone this month. Plastic and metal reinforcements promise to help bolster the screen to avoid the early problems that make Samsung stomp the brakes on its planned Fold sales. This doesn't mean the screen won't be prone to damage, but plugging design holes could help keep those problems from developing so quickly.

The Galaxy Fold is the company's first-ever device with a screen that bends in half, and also the first to come to market from any major brand. (Huawei's postponed Mate X might now go on sale in October.) But the rush to be first hurt the Fold, embarrassed Samsung's CEO, and cast doubt on the durability of these seriously risky devices. It's a lesson Samsung is unlikely to forget -- and hopefully unlikely to repeat.

The Fold's screen problems began almost immediately, when a handful of reviewers noticed three different issues maligning the display. There were bulges. There was flickering. And in more than one case, a protective layer that looked like a common disposable dust guard proved to break the screen when taken off. The Galaxy Fold was more prototype than finished product, and it showed. 

Samsung said it's fixed the Fold's weaknesses by adding plastic and metal reinforcements throughout. It's closed off air gaps where muck can get in, strengthened the screen layers and made that crucial protective film hard to pry off. I went hands-on with the refreshed Galaxy Fold, and found it to be sturdier than the first time around.

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I'm reminded of the iPhone, Samsung's archrival in mobile devices. Reviews stretching back 10 years compliment Apple's top-notch build quality. The iPhone feels solid and cohesive. Buttons don't wobble in their housings. You don't see many hairline gaps where dust and crumbs get stuck. 

Yes, the iPhone has experienced problems over the years (e.g., Antennagate and Bendgate), but not to the scale of Samsung's PR nightmares with the fire-prone Galaxy Note 7 and this delayed Galaxy Fold. Samsung went out on a limb in its quest to be first to be foldable, but in the end, it only set the company back. It would have been better off taking a cue from Apple's construction ethos.

Samsung's fixes for the Fold tell us a lot about the design to begin with. Whether it wasn't tested long enough in-house for problems to develop, or whether Samsung accepted taking shortcuts to meet its self-imposed deadline remain unknown. 

It's no doubt been a costly mistake. Samsung had to spend more time and money to review the problems and fix them, cancel preorders and credit initial buyers $250 apiece for their trouble (here's what we know about Fold preorders now). The company also appears to have scaled back its sales expectations, cutting its two best colors from the portfolio. 

Meanwhile, competitors are watching and waiting to see what happens next. Huawei, LG, Motorola, TCL and Apple have all either announced their intention to release a foldable phone, or are rumored to be in the planning stages. 

LG is also hedging its foldable-phone bets with a case that turns a regular 6.4-inch LG G8X into a dual-screen device. These brands will be sure to avoid the same design weaknesses that lead to the Fold's screen problems in the first place.

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Now the trick is to see how well Samsung's improvements work. Plastic end caps and internal metal architecture may help keep the screen healthier this time around, but it doesn't address other potential design issues, like an oversize notch, an external display that's too small to comfortably type on and a fingerprint reader that's awkward to use when the Fold is closed.

Samsung may have shored up the Galaxy Fold's most glaring mistakes, but I'm already looking forward to seeing what better foldable design the brand comes up with next.

Samsung did not respond to a request for comment.

Originally published earlier this week.