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Our first look at Samsung's foldable raises more questions than answers

The phone-maker shared a sneak peek last week.

This was our first glimpse of Samsung's foldable future.
Angela Lang/CNET

In the moment everyone at Samsung's annual developer conference was waiting for, SVP of Mobile Marketing Justin Dennison reached into his interior jacket pocket and pulled out Samsung's first foldable phone. Rumored to be called the "Galaxy X" or "Galaxy F" -- Samsung didn't disclose the device's name -- this foldable phone for 2019 represents Samsung's best chance of maintaining its position as the world's largest phone-maker.

Samsung's foldable phone reveal comes at a time when flagging smartphone sales and stalled innovation have created a "recession" that threatens not just Samsung's dominance, but Apple's too, leaving room for players such as Huawei to tighten its already closing grip. Foldable phones promise to reenergize this stalling space, where even this year's headliners, from the Galaxy S9 to the iPhone XS, vary only incrementally from 2017's best models. As much as radical new design would shake up the flagging industry, it also raises questions about the design's usefulness, and how easily it could stumble into gimmick territory. 

Now playing: Watch this: Galaxy X foldable phone FAQ: Specs, release date, price

Samsung isn't alone in pursuing a foldable phone. LG and Huawei are developing prototypes of their own, and one brand, Royole, has already come out with the all-plastic FlexPai, whose screen folds outward, rather than inward like the phone Samsung's Dennison showed on-stage. 

Samsung coyly refused to share more than the basics, though we now know more about the phone's specs. We know that the screen bends inward like a book, and that there's a screen on the outside as well, so you can use the phone while it's folded in half. 


Royole's FlexPai leads the foldable charge.

Angela Lang/CNET

The company also detailed how it had to create some new manufacturing processes and components. Finally, we know that it uses a new interface that will run on top of Android, called One UI, that will also come to future Samsung phones, likely the Galaxy S10. 

What we don't know is if the cover material is made of glass or plastic, how much it will cost you, and if using it will be practical or gimmicky. What will keep it from flaming out like the "foldable" ZTE Axon M?

"Possibly when we start selling the foldable phone, it may be a niche market, but definitely, it will expand," Samsung mobile chief DJ Koh told CNET in an October interview. "I'm positive that we do need a foldable phone."

"Need" is a strong word for any new device category, but phone-makers and pundits agree on one key benefit: more screen space. A foldable phone essentially doubles your available surface area. 

The design engenders new ways to use the phone. You might unfold it to play games and watch videos on a larger canvas. Or, you might split the screen hemispheres into separate panes for better multitasking. 

For example, one display could potentially become a virtual keyboard, while the other formed a composition window. Or, you could mirror the content on both screens and watch the same video clip across the table from a friend. And a phone that folds can prop itself up while you watch movies, no case needed. Like the earliest attempts at dual-screen phones, the Holy Grail of greater screen surface promises rich possibility.

Google agrees: The future of phones is foldable

Samsung, LG and Huawei can't make a foldable Android phone without Google's support. Moments before Samsung unwrapped the foldable phone, Google announced its own support for foldable phones. The goal is for apps to work seamlessly when shifting from the exterior screen to one larger screen, and from one pane to multiple active portions of the screen at once.

As these powerful, portable computers continue to become the hub of people's lives, phone-makers have struggled to increase screen size without making the device itself too large and heavy to carry in a pocket or purse. The foldable configuration aims to change everything.

But handset-makers have their work cut out for them. Making two screens fold in on each other is easier said than done. A screen that can bend and flex is one thing -- Samsung and LG first made "curved" screens in 2013 and 2014, respectively -- but the phones themselves didn't bend. 

Making the body of the device fold is a challenge on a much bigger scale: Batteries and components are rigid, and shifting the battery to one side can make the phone feel imbalanced. Besides that, flexible screens have been in the works for years, but thin glass can have a tendency to break more easily, especially when bent hundreds of thousands of times in a device's lifetime.

Royole's FlexPai solves the screen flexibility issue by using plastic instead of glass to cover the OLED display. Plastic isn't a popular material these days, especially when you consider the price tag (the FlexPai developer models starts at $1,588). Royole put the battery on the right side, and said it balanced out the left with the other components. A rubberized hinge controls flexion on the back. 

Now playing: Watch this: Royole FlexPai is a foldable phone you can actually buy

Read: Samsung Mobile CEO: Our foldable phone will be a tablet you can put in your pocket

Despite design challenges, creating a bendable phone is a risk Samsung must take. Samsung is betting that being the first major player to show off a foldable phone could help it get ahead of competitors trying to eat a slice of its pie. A foldable phone is also a halo device, an aspirational product like Ford's GT supercar or Nokia's luxury Vertu phones, which gives the brand some prestige. Volume sales aren't the name of the game here, but capturing attention is.

"Does the industry need to move to foldable? No, but it does open up new hybrid device category," Lam said, referring to a category that spans phones and tablets. (Note that the term "phablet" was coined in response to the Galaxy Note for the very same reason.)


Samsung's had flexible screens down pat for years. That isn't enough to make a phone truly foldable.

Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung's challenge is to see that its bold new designs don't backfire and bomb. The company took a risk with the Galaxy Note series, and it ultimately paid off. Despite a rough start, Note is now an established brand with a loyal following, and the jumbo screen phone design it pioneered is now the industry standard. However, 2013's Korea-only Galaxy Round, the world's first phone with a curved screen, was a sales flop, even though it led to the curved-edge Galaxy phones we take for granted today.

We still don't have details on the Galaxy F's hardware specs, but the foldable hybrid is rumored to have a 7.3-inch display, a silver finish and Qualcomm's Snapdragon 8150 processor. It's said to have 512GB internal storage, with support for a microSD card.

"The price point for this technology will be very high," Lam said. "It will be years before a consumer-grade version is available at the right price."

At this early stage, it's best to frame the Galaxy X/F, and any first-wave foldable phone, as a stepping stone to a device we may one day want, rather than the one we need right now.

Originally published Nov. 6.
Update, Nov. 13: Added more details after Samsung's event.

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