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Sorry, Razr and Galaxy Z Flip: Foldable phones still need a win

The new wave of mobile phones continues to be plagued by worries about durability.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

Motorola's Razr (left) and Samsung's Z Flip went on sale within about a week of each other.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Last year was a tough one for foldable phones. It didn't matter who made the devices or where they went on sale. They all saw delays, had manufacturing problems, cost a lot of money to buy and raised questions about why anybody actually would need them. 

Welcome to 2020. Foldables have taken a big leap forward with new clamshell designs from Samsung and Motorola, both going on sale earlier this month. Reviewers and early buyers said they actually find them useful, and the prices -- while high -- aren't nearly as eye-watering as those of the earlier generation.

But instead of taking victory laps, the devices continue to face challenges.

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"The issue now is everybody is … physically and philosophically tearing these things apart," said Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell. "There's so much interest and excitement on one hand and disappointment with what happened to the first Fold on the other. The whole category is plagued a bit."

Foldables captured the world's attention. They were something never seen before, devices with expansive screens that can fold in half to become more compact. Samsung, Huawei and Xiaomi showed off their designs, and essentially every other major handset maker was rumored to be working on a foldable. The belief was the devices would eventually go mainstream and get people excited about phones again. While screen defects and delays struck last year's foldables, the hope was this year's crop of devices would be problem-free.

Instead, it's nearly impossible to buy Samsung's new $1,380 Galaxy Z Flip, with the South Korean company releasing new small batches on Fridays instead of selling a steady supply. Motorola's new $1,500 Razr -- also tough to find in stores or online -- has its own problems, especially competing with the cheaper but higher-spec'd Flip. For about $100 less, you get better cameras and a faster processor.

Neither device has yet proven to be very durable, with reviewers questioning how well they'll stand up to daily use over several years. Both broke during the first drop in CNET's tests. There have been a couple seemingly defective devices out in the wild, and Samsung's Galaxy Z Flip has faced controversy about its glass screen, which some users thought was too much like plastic. 

Samsung's Flip controversy

At a time most companies don't even have one foldable phone, Samsung has two. The Flip resembles an ultra high-tech flip phone, with a bendable glass interior display, while the Galaxy Fold is a phone that expands outward to reveal a bigger tablet.

So far, the Flip hasn't experienced the problems faced by its predecessor. It's $600 less, and because the screen is basically a smartphone that folds closed, there shouldn't be many app compatibility problems. Samsung also took what it learned from the Fold's screen problems -- which caused a five-month launch delay -- to make the Flip more durable. 

A key part of that is something new and oddly controversial: a foldable glass screen. In the short time the Flip has been available, its display has been applauded for offering something found in no other devices on the market. But it has also been criticized for not being as durable as regular glass found in most smartphones today.

The Z Flip's ultra-thin glass is only one tiny layer -- 30 microns, or 0.03mm, to be precise -- of the entire display. Corning's Gorilla Glass 6, which can survive 15 drops from a height of 1 meter and appears in many high-end phones, is 0.4mm to 1.2mm thick, and the supplier's bendable glass will be 0.1mm thick when it appears in devices within the next year or two. 

It's because of that thinness -- and the other plasticky layers -- that the Flip's glass screen already has seen some controversy. Tinkerer Zack Nelson, who runs the JerryRigEverything YouTube channel, put the handset through a battery of durability tests and came away disappointed by the results. He found that even his fingernail was capable of leaving scratches on the phone's screen at a point in the test where real glass would have typically resisted markings. Nelson questioned whether the Z Flip's screen actually was glass at all. It is -- but it still behaves a lot like plastic.  

Samsung's display business put out a press release describing the display, and German company Schott confirmed that it supplied the glass to Samsung to be incorporated in the screen.

In another issue, one of the world's first Flip buyers found his device's screen cracked at the hinge when he first used it. That raised concerns that the Flip, like the Fold, could have manufacturing and design problems. In the case of the Fold, Samsung delayed the launch of the $1,980 device by five months after some reporters found screen defects in their review units. 

For now, the Flip buyer's problem seems to be a one-off incident. "Based on our investigation, we can confirm this was an isolated case to the device in question, and the customer's device has been replaced," Samsung said in a statement. 

The Flip sold out in the US within five days of its launch, and the second batch, released a week later, also has sold out. 

"Consumer response to the Galaxy Z Flip has been nothing short of amazing and has exceeded our expectations," Samsung said.

Stuck in the Flip's shadow

Motorola's Razr was supposed to have a big lead over Samsung's second foldable. The company initially planned to sell the clamshell device last summer, but it pushed the launch date to the fall. After even more delays, the Razr finally went on sale Feb. 6, just five days before Samsung unveiled its Flip. Surprisingly, the Flip hit stores three days after Samsung showed it off at its flashy Unpacked event in San Francisco, giving the Razr only a week's lead for sales. 

The Flip basically mimicked everything the Razr did right -- especially the clamshell design that turned it into a high-tech flip phone -- and avoided some of the biggest complaints about Motorola's phone. In terms of specs, the Z Flip has a more powerful processor than the Razr, two rear cameras, Android 10, a bigger battery and twice the storage. And there's the glass in the Flip. 

Along with fewer features, the Razr too faces durability concerns. A writer at Input reported that the publication's Razr is peeling apart at the device's fold, with a giant horizontal air bubble separating the top lamination and the display panel. The damage isn't the result of rigorous durability tests but rather occurred in the user's front jeans pocket sometime during a 45-minute subway ride in New York, the publication said. 

Unlike the defective Flip, Motorola hasn't examined the Razr to find out what went wrong. But the company said that it has "full confidence" in the device's display and doesn't expect that purchased Razrs will peel as a result of normal use. 

"As part of its development process, Razr underwent extensive durability testing intended to simulate a product lifecycle," Motorola said. "The issues Input is describing were not seen during these tests and no other cases have been reported at this time. Without the opportunity to analyze the device further, we're unable to provide additional insights."

Huawei, meanwhile, unveiled its second-generation Mate X this week in Barcelona, Spain. Unlike its predecessor, the Mate XS will go on sale outside of China. Its expected price of nearly $3,000 would severely limit who could actually afford it, and it isn't likely to come to the US because of Huawei's political battle with the US.

Samsung this year  will likely introduce a successor to the Galaxy Fold, as well as possibly introduce other designs. TCL has shown off prototypes that could one day be a reality, and virtually every other handset maker is experimenting with foldable technology. While foldables are still a small part of the market today, they could become the norm in a few years, when foldable glass and other components have advanced enough.

For now, though, foldables are still looking for their win. 

None of the issues seen with this year's foldables "are as bad as the Fold, but they do add to the skepticism that is in the market," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "Nobody's going out banging on doors, asking for foldable devices."

We'll see how soon -- or if -- that changes.