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6 major challenges foldable phones need to overcome to prove they’re not a fad

By Raymond Wong from Mashable

Samsung’s DJ Koh explains how the Galaxy Fold is the future of mobile.

 are really, finally, happening this year. But almost nobody should buy one until their many kinks are worked out.

Earlier this week, Samsung upstaged its own Galaxy S10 unveiling (all four of them) with another big announcement: its foldable Galaxy Fold phone. The nearly $2,000 luxury device, which transforms from a phone into a tablet when unfolded, is being touted as a taste of the future of mobile. 

But now that we’re days removed from the Galaxy Fold’s flashy reveal and merely days away from Mobile World Congress, where a handful of other Chinese phone-makers will show off their own foldable phones, I can’t help but see red flags everywhere.

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In 2017, I made a prediction that foldable phones had no chance of succeeding. At the time, I based my skepticism off of prototype foldable displays and the many dual-screen and foldable phones that failed to catch on.

The short of it was this: the technology to make foldable phones practical isn’t ready yet And now, even without seeing the Galaxy Fold in person, I’m more certain than ever foldable phones are going to be a short-lived fad

That Samsung didn’t feel confident enough to let any journalists try out the Galaxy Fold for themselves, especially when the device is launching in two months, is somewhat alarming.

The fact is, foldable phones are cool to look at and they’re exciting to write about — it sure beats writing about another well-made Samsung knockoff that costs hundreds less — but there are clear engineering challenges that still need to be overcome for foldable phones to really herald in a new era of mobile. Solutions that not even Samsung has figured out yet. 

If foldable phones are ever to become mainstream, all of the following need to be solved.

1. The crease

There’s no getting around the crease when you fold a screen in half. From afar, the crease running down the middle of the fully-opened display on the Galaxy Fold is hardly visible. But up close, which is how you’ll be using it, you’ll definitely see it. And once you do, you won’t be able to unsee it. 

Every foldable display I’ve seen has a crease. There’s no way to get around it, and I don’t foresee any company solving this problem anytime soon. Just as there’s a visible crease when you fold a piece of paper in half, the crease on foldable phone screens will be a constant reminder that you’re essentially using a prototype.

2. The durability

With the crease comes the question of durability. Samsung was super gung-ho about the hinge on the Galaxy Fold. Don’t get me wrong, it looks like the most beautiful hinge on a foldable screen so far (unlike the hideous wrinkly bend on the Royole FlexPai), but how many unfolds will it be able to endure? How durable is a display that you’ll fold and unfold hundreds of times a day? 

It’s bad enough to have a single dead pixel on a screen on a $1,000 phone. What happens if the pixels along the crease start to die? Can any phone maker guarantee the pixels along a screen’s crease will be good for years to come?

What about using a case? How does a case work on a foldable phone?

3. The software

Man, oh, man is the software for foldable phones not ready. Sure, Google has already thrown its full support for Android on foldable devices, but that doesn’t mean squat. If the spectacular failure of Android tablets has taught us anything, it’s that third-party developer support is extremely crucial to a form factor’s success. 

Getting developers to optimize their apps for a foldable phone’s specific aspect ratio is going to be a tough challenge. It’s hard enough that app developers already have to design their apps for a million different screen sizes and aspect ratios on Android, and now phone makers want them to do it again? Good luck with that. 

At least with regular phones, there are already established display aspect ratios everyone agrees on. Foldable devices, not so much. Take the Galaxy Fold: It has an outside display with a 21:9 aspect ratio and unfolded interior display with 4.2:3 aspect ratio. Neither of these are commonplace, and that’s just for Samsung’s phones.

Who even knows what aspect ratios Xiaomi’s foldable phone (above) with twofolds or Huawei’s yet-to-be-seen device has.

How many developers will actually update their apps for tablets? I mean, it’s been almost nine years, and Instagram still doesn’t have a tablet app for iPad or Android tablets. What makes device makers think developers will suddenly come around to making tablet apps again?

4. The battery life

Phones just started getting big enough batteries to last almost two days and now you wanna take a step back all because you want a slightly larger, creased screen? Thanks, but no thanks. 

I’m curious to see how long the Galaxy Fold’s 4,380 mAh battery will last when using the expanded interior screen. A 4,380 mAh battery may seem like a lot for a normal phone, but for a 7.3-inch screen, it sounds wimpy; Samsung’s new Galaxy Tab S5e has a 10.5 inch screen, and it needs a 7,040 mAh battery. To put that into even greater perspective, Samsung’s upcomingGalaxy S10 5G has a 4,500 mAh battery and it has a 6.7-inch screen.

What I’m saying is: battery life is gonna be an issue with these early foldable phones. Constantly unfolding and folding a screen is only gonna eat battery faster. 

Either we get shorter battery life with smaller cells or phone makers cram bigger batteries and make the foldable phone even thicker. Ugh.

5. The thickness

Samsung hasn’t disclosed dimensions for the Galaxy Fold, but you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see it’s thicc when folded up. You can easily get an idea of how thick the Fold is by looking at the USB-C port then doubling it.

A thick phone is acceptable if it means having like a massive 16,000 mAh battery that’ll last up to five days on a single charge. But otherwise, why would anyone choose to put a brick in their pants? Foldable phones need to get significantly thinner before they’re worth owning. 

6. The price

Samsung’s Galaxy Fold will cost $1,980 when it comes out on April 26. 

That. Is. An. Insane. Amount. Of. Money. 

And if Samsung thinks it can charge nearly $2,000 for a foldable phone, you can bet your lunch money Huawei and Oppo and Xiaomi won’t be shy doing the same. Although Chinese phone makers are known for undercutting Samsung and Apple on pricing, they’ve not shied away from selling their own exorbitantly-priced phones under the guise of offering a luxury experience.

Samsung’s set expectations with the Galaxy Fold, calling it a luxurious device that’s designed for early adopters, but if it or any other device maker wants foldable phones to be the next big thing in mobile, prices will have to come down. Like way down. Foldable phones stand no chance if few people can afford them.

Breakthroughs at MWC 2019?

Just because Samsung hasn’t figured out how to overcome these challenges doesn’t mean another company hasn’t.

At Mobile World Congress, we’ll finally get a look at how other companies will tackle foldable phones. Will they succeed where Samsung hasn’t? 

I’d love to see a company prove me wrong and show me a foldable phone that has all of these issues covered. But it seems unlikely that’ll happen at MWC this year. We’ll probably see a bunch of head-turning prototypes, but that’ll likely be it.

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