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Small, simple foldable phones have one advantage over expensive rivals

Commentary: The Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X's ridiculous specs and prices may not win the war.

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Motorola Razr Foldable Flip Phone

The Motorola Razr is small enough to fit in your pocket.

James Martin/CNET

It's fun to geek out over big, expensive foldable phones like the $2,000 Galaxy Fold, with its 7.3-inch bendable screen and six cameras. But the ultra-large, extra-pricey devices aren't what people most people can afford to buy. Instead, it could be the smaller, simpler foldable designs that wind up getting foldable phones into the hands of more users -- not because they're better, but because they're cheap enough to afford.

Foldable phones are seen as a possible alternative to the rigid rectangular devices we carry around today. With screens growing larger and larger, big phones are the right dimension for watching video, reading and playing games, but they're also heavy, often unwieldy and trickier to pocket. Being able to bend the screen in half is a compromise between screen size and portability.

But the price is a sticking point. 

The Galaxy Fold and $2,600 Huawei Mate X cost over twice the price of an iPhone XS and Galaxy S10 Plus. They're priced as luxury and novelty devices, not for mass sales. However, drop the price and interest grows. For example, the $1,500 foldable Motorola Razr whipped up energy for the modernized flip phone

Now playing: Watch this: Motorola Razr vs. Galaxy Fold: Foldable phone specs compared
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So has the clamshell design that Samsung teased at its own developer conference in October, which a new rumor suggests cost as little as $850. And beating them both in price is the newly announced $350 foldable phone created by the brother of Pablo Escobar, the late Colombian drug kingpin. 

There will be a trade-off between features and price

For most known brands, a cheaper foldable phone is likely to be a smaller one with fewer features, and it'll cost around the price you might pay for a top-notch phone. For half the price of the Galaxy Fold -- or a -- this class of foldable phone might find more committed buyers, even when cutting back on features.

There is, of course, a trade-off there. We've already seen interest in "cheaper" foldable phones from the $1,500 Motorola Razr launch -- the Razr goes on sale Dec. 26. Although you save $500 compared to the Galaxy Fold, you also miss out on high-value features such as a much larger screen with more functionality, many more camera options and significantly greater storage for the price. In many ways, the question of Motorola Razr versus the Galaxy Fold presents a false sense of savings. When it comes to what people are willing to spend money on, those extra benefits might not matter. 

tcl-trifoldstill001.png

TCL's trifold phone is on the bigger side of the foldable spectrum.

CNET

For this type of enthusiast, there's hope. Simpler foldable designs that cost less could very well feed the hunger for a new category of phone. Qualcomm, the world's largest mobile chip-maker, just announced the Snapdragon 765, a new 5G chipset that aims to make ultrafast, midrange phones more affordable. But we can expect them to still cost more than today's 4G phones with the same features.

Phone-makers such as TCL and Xiaomi are also experimenting with new foldable designs. Alongside TCL's mammoth tri-fold, which opens into a 8-inch tablet, is a slim, flexible device that could one day wrap around a wrist. Motorola's parent company, Lenovo, worked up a similar concept years ago that actually did.

What makes foldable phones so exciting isn't only the act of opening and closing the hinged device. It's also the fact that at this early stage, foldable phones are as fluid and flexible as their bending screens: They could be big, small or -- if they ultimately fail to take root -- nothing at all.

Originally published earlier this week.