Galaxy X? Galaxy F? Samsung's foldable phone faces 10 big issues

Samsung's foldable phone challenges are about more than just design.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Director, Commerce & Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
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Jessica Dolcourt
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It's widely expected we'll see Samsung's first foldable phone -- rumored to be called the Galaxy X, Galaxy F, Galaxy Flex or Galaxy Fold -- on Feb. 20 when the company launches its much-anticipated Galaxy S10. Whatever it'll eventually be called, turning the concept of a folding phone into a real, working device that people actually want will challenge Samsung on every level, from the device's durability to getting top app-makers on board.

Competition is already one of Samsung's greatest challenges, and it hasn't even launched its phone. China's Xiaomi recently stole Samsung's thunder with a tri-fold prototype that brings a fresh -- and dare we say, impressive -- design concept that's new to this budding space. (See the video below.) Others like Huawei, LG and Motorola are rumored to show off their own takes on foldable phone design soon.

Samsung's foldable phone is said to have a 4.5-inch screen on the outside and a 7.3-inch screen inside when you open it up like a book. It'll run Android 9 Pie OS with Samsung's new One UI on top, and you'll be able to multitask in up to three panels on the larger screen.

Read: Samsung's One UI rolling out to the Galaxy S9

Foldable phone designs that can open into a tablet to become a true two-in-one device have the potential to shake up a stale industry that's seeing a slowdown in sales and innovation. As the largest phone-maker on the planet, Samsung wants to shine in this space, although failure means suffering a financial hit and the very public loss of stature for a brand that's losing its footing as an industry innovator.

Samsung's foldable phone is here, with brand-new One UI for Android

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Samsung would do well to learn from recent mistakes in foldable phone design while setting its plan in motion. Getting a foldable phone design right may prove more important than getting it first. Here are the biggest challenges that Samsung -- and other device-makers -- face when making phones that fold and bend.

Samsung did not respond to a request for comment.

1. Portable enough to carry around

We only got a glimpse of the prototype foldable phone back in November, so it isn't clear how thick the device will be. Even if we had seen it up close, Samsung warned at the time that the external casing was basically a husk to house the internal parts -- the final design will look much different. 

But a foldable phone will be thicker than your average handset by definition. It has to be, considering that you're doubling up two screens when it's in "closed" mode.


A thick foldable phone won't play nice with pockets.

Angela Lang/CNET

The trick will be to make the device thin enough over all so that the Galaxy X/Galaxy F isn't busting through your pocket, or will require its own satchel just to carry it around. If a foldable phone is too big for people to use naturally, it'll quickly lose its value. Having used the foldable Royole FlexPai and the hinged, dual-screen ZTE Axon M , we've seen the pitfalls.

"In many ways, Royole has done Samsung a favour by setting the bar so low," said Ben Wood, research chief at analyst firm CSS Insight. "How Samsung communicates the benefits of such a product will be key to its future success."

2. Make it fold flat

Part of the portability challenge is working out exactly which shape a foldable phone will take when it's closed. Don't expect it to fold flat.

Just look at the FlexPai and Microsoft Surface Book 2 . Both have a flexible central hinge or seam that bends the flat sides closed. The result is a loop you can fit a pen into. 

Royole FlexPai phone

There's no guarantee the foldable Galaxy phone will flatten more than the Royole FlexPai.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The only reason that the ZTE Axon M closes flat is because it's made up of two completely separate screens that can stack on top of each other with a hinge. A truly foldable phone, however, aims to be one uninterrupted panel that bends inward or outward on itself.

There may be no way today to overcome the huge engineering challenge of building a foldable device that folds flat, not until materials are perfected and the manufacturing process go through several iterations to shrink that air gap more each time.

3. A premium, not toy-like, feel

Nobody wants to buy a device that feels slower, older or less potent than a standard flagship phone that costs less. The foldable phone's camera and processor have to be just as good as the standard Galaxy S10's to take great photos and control amped-up multitasking on the phone's two screens. This was a major problem with the ZTE Axon M, which used older components to keep costs in check.

There's also the question of how nice a plastic screen can feel. Samsung's "Infinity Flex Display" for the Galaxy X/Galaxy F's 7.3-inch interior screen will be made of a plastic material, as is the FlexPai's. The plastic screens of yore felt awful. Here's hoping that Samsung's for the foldable phone is still pleasant to use.

Corning is developing a bendable glass thin enough to one day cover foldable devices, CNET was first to report. Until then, Samsung will have to rely on detailed build quality and lush finishes to make its foldable phone feel upscale.

"Consumers want more real estate in a smaller package and have expressed that through their buying patterns," said Stephen Baker, VP of industry analysis at NPD Group. "This will be the best way to deliver on that consumer demand but it is likely a multiyear process before pricing, software, apps and the product itself have the kinks worked out." 

ZTE's Axon M is a flip phone with twice the screens

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4. It's got to be balanced

I can't stress this one enough. The ZTE Axon M lodged the battery on one side, which made the phone feel freakishly off-balanced and hard to use. It's the same problem that tablets have when you use them in keyboard mode -- unlike a laptop, with its electronics under the keyboard, tablets store everything behind the screen. That makes them feel like they're always about to tip over.

Samsung could add counterweights or multiple batteries, perhaps, but it should take care not to make the phone too heavy to comfortably carry (see No. 1 in this list). I think buyers will accept a uniformly heavy device, but they'll hate an imbalanced one.

5. A strong, subtle seam

A taste of the ZTE Axon M.

Sarah McDermott/CNET

A foldable phone's flexion point is the "seam" that runs down the middle of the display. This is where the bending happens, and it's really important that it's strong. Royole says the FlexPai's seam will last over 200,000 flexes in the phone's lifetime -- that's the equivalent of opening or closing the phone 548 times a day for a year or 274 times a day for two years.

The thickness of that seam is also important, since a band down the middle of the display is going to keep that 7.3-inch screen from being one uninterrupted panel like you have on a true tablet. The ZTE Axon M's fat bezels got in the way when watching video and trying to play even casual games in full-screen mode.

Will Samsung's seam be smooth and easy to open every time? Will it ever stick? These and other durability question will undergo some of the most intense scrutiny, especially later on in the phone's lifetime.


You shouldn't have to engage in origami to take a photo as you do the Axon M.

Josh Miller/CNET

6. No awkward cameras, please

One of the more awkward Axon M features to use, the single camera took all photos on the phone. But to shoot as you would a rear-facing camera, you had to flip it over. This configuration kept selfie quality high, but meant you missed a lot of shots when taking a photo of anything else.

We know from the Pixel 3 that you don't have to have more than one camera to take excellent low light and portrait photos, but retaining those popular features will be necessary for the foldable phone to compete.

7. Killer apps that work every time

It helps that Google has committed to supporting Android on foldable phones, paving the way for apps to smoothly transition across screens as you open and close the phone.

Getting app and game developers to modify their apps to work on a foldable phone is another beast entirely. It's one thing to make sure that the apps transition well. It's another to take advantage of the three active areas that Google says it will support on the larger screen. (Here's an example of the Flipboard app.)

"Unless the foldable device is supported by solid operating system and software support, a foldable phone risks going into history as a gimmick," said Werner Goertz, a senior director at analyst firm Gartner.


Apps like Flipboard can spread out three ways on the foldable Samsung phone's 7.3-inch interior screen.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The complication here is that it's entirely up to the developer how many active areas any given app will use. A game could use just one window, for example, and a productivity app could turn a second pane into a full-size virtual keyboard. Developers with the most resources are likely to get their apps ready first, while smaller outfits may fall behind.

Read also: For Samsung's foldable phone, killer apps would seal the deal

8. All-day battery life is a must

The bigger the screen, the more power you suck down in use. The foldable Galaxy X/Galaxy F will need significant battery reserves if it's going to last all day with both those screens going. But batteries don't bend, and one large battery is more efficient than two smaller ones.

Samsung will have to come up with some creative solutions to keep the device from running out of steam by the middle of the day. And early adopters may have to accept that the foldable phone needs more top-ups than a typical phone.

9. Keep that price in check

Samsung's foldable phone won't be cheap. My guess is that it'll start somewhere in the $1,300 to $1,500 range. Samsung will want to recoup the costs associated with a higher bill of materials, research and development, a new manufacturing process and marketing campaigns.

It will also expect to sell far fewer units while the technology is still new, counting on more refined future iterations to build its fan base, as Samsung did with the stylus-equipped Galaxy Note . In the meantime, that means Samsung will make far less money on what is likely a more expensive phone than its flagship Galaxy S10.

But if the sky-high price isn't backed by a thoughtful design, robust hardware, strong battery life and smooth user experience, Samsung's Galaxy bendable Galaxy experiment could fold before it ever has a chance to take off.

The 30 worst phone names of all time

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10. Name it well

A device's name should be the least important thing about it, but naming is, in fact, a crucial part of how brands win the affection -- or ridicule -- of buyers. Just see the gallery above for some cringe-worthy names that leave you wondering how they got approved.

For better or for worse, being the world's largest smartphone maker means that Samsung's successes and missteps are on display to the world. For example, naming its foldable phone something like the Galaxy F, would open Samsung up to criticism if the device were anything less than terrific. In the US, after all, F stands for "fail." 

Read: Galaxy F would be a terrible name for Samsung's first foldable phone

On the other hand, calling the phone the Galaxy Flex, Galaxy X, or something similar, could help it stoke buyers' curiosity. Bottom line: Samsung's foldable phone challenges aren't only about design, but extend to wooing shoppers, too.

Originally published Jan. 23 at 4 a.m. PT.
Update: 8:41 a.m. PT with analyst quotes.
Update: 11:49 a.m. PT to include news of Xiaomi's foldable phone.
Update: Feb. 5, 5:00 a.m. PT with more details.

Read now: Galaxy S10 won't save Samsung innovation, but foldable Galaxy X could

Read nextGalaxy X: Samsung's foldable phone must learn from ZTE, FlexPai's mistakes