• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Foldable phones: Just a fad or the new norm in smartphone design?

The Huawei Mate X foldable smartphone was on show this week at the Mobile World Congress.

The mobile industry has this week unveiled the folding phones that represent the next wave of innovation in smartphone design.

But at up to double the price of current high-end phones and with the durability of those flexible screens still to be tested on a large scale, questions remain over whether the foldable screen will be a passing fad or the new norm for phone design.

While the likes of the Samsung Fold and Huawei Mate X are on show at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, they remain inaccessible to the masses, protected behind glass cases – an indication of their unfinished state and fragility.

A few journalists briefly got to hold the devices and try out their folding mechanisms under the watchful eye of device minders. Unfortunately, I wasn’t lucky enough to lay my hands on one, but standing a few metres away from a demonstration of the Huawei Mate X, it was clear that this is the hero phone of the show and the best foldable design to emerge yet.

The Falcon Wing

The Mate X has an 8-inch wrap-around OLED (organic light emitting diode) display that when unfolded reveals an almost square screen aspect that resembles a small tablet. So far, so normal.

Then the demonstrator bent the phone in half and the screen folded around and snapped shut to resemble a regular-size smartphone with a 6.6-inch display on one side and a 6.4-inch display on the other.

The technology allowing that folding transition, the Falcon Wing mechanical hinge, apparently took Huawei engineers three years to perfect. It relies on using a polymer material that is softer than glass and can handle repeated flexing.

Read more: Samsung’s new creations are all about the screenBest smartphones on the NZ market: What to look for and what to avoid

The phone doesn’t fold squarely in half. It is an asymmetric fold because one side of the phone has a thicker edge to accommodate the Mate X’s four cameras, power button, USB-C connector and fingerprint sensor.

When folded, the Mate X measures 11mm thick. In tablet mode it is incredibly thin – just 5.4mm, slimmer than most regular smartphones currently on the market.

While Samsung’s Fold won plaudits last week on its unveiling in San Francisco, the Mate X seems to have a better design due to one major difference: Instead of the screen folding in on itself like the Samsung Fold, the screen wraps around the outside of the Mate X when it is folded. That’s a much slicker design, but begs the question – how will that folded screen hold up to the knocks and scrapes it is likely to get in a pocket or bag?

Left, the Samsung Fold, and LG’s V50 ThinQ.

Still a prototype

The reality is that there are only a handful of Mate X prototypes in existence, so a lot more testing will be required to perfect its design before its commercial debut set for around the middle of the year.

Huawei really only showed off basic Android functionality as well, so it is unclear really how the millions of apps available via the Google Play store will look on the Mate X screen and how they will transition when the screen is folded.

The Mate X will be a 5G, or fifth-generation mobile phone that connects to compatible high-speed networks and its other specifications are impressive – a fast Kirin 980 processor, 512GB of storage and a large 4,500 mAh (milliamp-hour) battery that supports fast-charging.

But all of that comes at a serious cost: €2,299 or around NZ$3,800. At that price it blows the top off the premium smartphone market. With New Zealand only expected to move to 5G late next year, the Mate X is unlikely to debut in New Zealand this year. Even the Samsung Fold, a 4G phone, hasn’t been given a New Zealand release date yet. It will sell in other markets for US$1,980 (NZ$2,870).

Analysts estimate only around 2 million foldable smartphones will ship this year, a tiny fraction of the phones that will hit the market. It will for the time being remain a luxury device.

Elsewhere at the Mobile World Congress, other smartphone makers were showing off their own foldable phones. Brian Shen, the vice president of Chinese phone maker Oppo shared photos on social media of a foldable prototype he was touting at the show. It looks very similar in style to the Mate X, though there are no firm plans to release it at this stage.

TCL, another Chinese company that makes Alcatel and Blackberry-branded phones also showed off foldable phones employing its own DragonHinge flexible display technology. It expects to have handsets in the market next year.

Two screens better than one

An intermediate and more affordable measure on the way to foldable phones is more conventional models that boast screens on both sides. LG’s V50 ThinQ is a 5G phone with a regular old hinge connecting two displays. It allows for multi-tasking of apps, but it has been designed with streaming video applications in mind.

The demo at Mobile World Congress showed a baseball game with views from different camera angles appearing on the two screens. I can see that having huge appeal with rugby and America’s Cup fans.

Another two-screen model from HiSense features two screens, but one of them is an e-ink screen, like an Amazon Kindle device. The appeal is that you can enjoy the low glare effect of e-ink for reading books and flip the phone over for regular smartphone use.

Those two-screen phones are much more modestly priced from $400-$1,000 so will find a market ahead of the move to foldables.

The foldables may have stolen the show, but the journey to flexible displays has really only just begun.

Peter Griffin visited the Mobile World Congress as a guest of Oppo.