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The first foldable phone beats Samsung to the punch

Samsung, LG and Huawei are all predicted to launch foldable phones soon, but you can preorder the Royole FlexPai right now.

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Angela Lang/CNET

Cloaked in dark shadows, Samsung demoed its foldable phone prototype during its developer conference on Wednesday. But a small startup headquartered in Fremont, California has already beat Samsung to the punch. The Royole FlexPai, which debuted in Beijing in October, is a phone-tablet hybrid that features a flexible screen. Already available for developers in China, the FlexPai will be consumer-ready by December through the Chinese carrier China Mobile. 

In the US and UK, you can preorder a developer's model, which ships out in December as well. The FlexPai costs $1,318 (£1,209) for the 6GB of RAM/128GB variant and $1,469 (£1,349) for the 8GB of RAM/256GB version. (Australian pricing wasn't released, but that converts to about AU$2,180 and AU$2,440, respectively.)

Now playing: Watch this: Royole FlexPai is a foldable phone you can actually buy
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The phone features a bendable 7.8-inch AMOLED screen that's made out of flexible plastic and has a 1440p resolution. Running along the back of the FlexPai is a hinge, where you can bend the device in half as if you're closing a book. 

The FlexPai fully closed.

Juan Garzon/CNET

You can leave it bent and propped up, or close it altogether, wherein it'll snap together with embedded magnets. When it's closed, it functions as any standard phone would, and depending on what side of the screen you hold it by, you can navigate on a screen with either a 16:8 or 16:9 aspect ratio.

The FlexPai runs an OS called Water and it's layered on top of Google Android 9.0. Whichever way you choose to hold or bend the device, the screen adjusts to the many different orientations and viewing options.

During my brief time with it, the FlexPai's screen appeared vibrant and colorful, and the hinge and enclosing mechanism felt sturdy. But the device still needs work. Aesthetically, it still looks like a prototype rather than a refined and polished product. As a double-sided phone, the FlexPai is quite squarish and thick, making it hard to hold. (Although it's slim when flattened out as a tablet.)

The screen was also buggy while switching orientations, and it was hard swiping and tapping through different home screens without the FlexPai registering all my unintentional touches from the different sides of the screen as I was holding it. 

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You can bend and prop up the FlexPai's 7.8-inch display.

Angela Lang/CNET

Other specs include a 2.8GHz octacore Snapdragon chipset, expandable memory and a 3,800-mAh battery that can charge rapidly using Royole's proprietary charging technology called Ro Charge.

Below the display are the phone's two cameras: a 16-megapixel wide-angle camera and a 20-megapixel telephoto lens. In a similar design to the flippable ZTE Axon M, the cameras act as both the rear and front-facing shooters when you fold the screen together. The FlexPai also has a fingerprint scanner and dual-SIM capabilities. It charges via a USB Type-C port and does not have a headphone jack.

Before the FlexPai's debut, companies that demoed their foldable phones or tablets usually presented them as concept or prototype devices -- products bred from their R&D department that may come in the far-off future. Royole's background in flexible displays, however, uniquely positions it to create a viable flexible device, and the company has been working on the FlexPai for six years. It's also pouring $30 million into developer support.

But FlexPai won't be the only flexible phone you'll see in the months to come. In addition to Samsung, LG is rumored to be working on its own phone, and it could debut as soon as the beginning of next year. Huawei reported that it's developing a foldable phone too, and it'll be equipped with high-speed 5G connectivity.

Until these phones eventually launch, however, it looks like these tech giants were outrun by this small Royole company and its FlexPai phone. And while the device itself is still rough around the edges, at least it can say it was first.

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