The Future Is Here And It’s Foldable (I) – Samsung Galaxy Fold

In 2007, Steve Jobs went up on stage and unveiled the future of mobile communications to the world. The new iPhone was to be a fundamental change to the way we interact with phones, a preview of the next 13 years in which the smartphone had become an essential aspect of our daily lives. During these 13 years smartphone haven’t changed too much from a conceptual standpoint, but rather they’ve evolved naturally. Screen size, number of cameras, processing power have grown, the bezels around the display have shrunk to the point where they’re starting to disappear, but essentially the capacitive touchscreen was the last great revolution in mobile phones. After the accelerated pace of innovation in the 00’s, a decade which saw the first colour screen phone, the first phone with a built-in camera, the real phone with an Internet connection that was actually usable and useful, the first WiFi, GPS and touchscreen phones or the first phone with a built-in music player, things have settled on an evolutionary path in the 10’s.

Royole FlexPai

This evolution is still going on today, but in 2019, a new smartphone revolution is finally afoot. In november 2018, at a developer conference, Samsung showcased a foldable prototype behind closed doors. In January 2019, Royole beat the big boys to the punch by launching the FlexPai, officially the world’s first commercially available foldable phone. It was a crude device, visibly a prototype rushed through the factory gates just to get the ‘world first’ title, but it was a sign that the big change that we didn’t realise we were waiting for was already here. Now all the eyes were fixed on the big players to see their implementation of this concept, especially since everybody knew Samsung had had a prototype showcased but nobody had seen it. On the 20th of February, the whole world met the Galaxy Fold, a much more refined device than Royole’s proposal but with a price to match which placed it in its own exclusive market segment. Only 5 days afterwards, so as not to be left out, Huawei launched the Mate X, a conceptually similar implementation, but with a different design, but with a price tag that was just as prohibitive. The foldable display revolution had started.

Of course, the inherent problems of a brand new technology started appearing and the public’s enthusiasm was quickly curbed when they realised that a flexible screen can’t possibly be as resilient as a classic glass one at this point. Galaxy Fold’s botched launch greatly contributed to this revelation. The review units that were sent to publications and content creators were susceptible to the accumulation of particles of various sizes under the display, deforming and eventually contributing to its failure. It didn’t help that one overzealous reviewer attempted to remove what seemed to be a screen protector and ended up with a destroyed screen. Samsung recalled all the review units and cancelled preorders and announced an indefinite delay of the model’s commercial release to go back to the drawing board. It was expected that a new technology would come with problems and disclaimers, but for a 2000€ it was way too prone to breaking irreversibly.

Huawei Mate X

In the meantime, Huawei also postponed the launch of their Mate X fearing the same kind of negative publicity. It didn’t help that their implementation meant that the display folded on the outside, leaving it permanently exposed. Plastic is much more prone to scuffs and scratches as it is and for such an expensive phone this is a tough pill to swallow. This is probably the reason why the Mate X was eventually released in China, but still isn’t available in most of the rest of the world even a year after its announcement.

In september 2019, Galaxy Fold came back with numerous improvements meant to inspire more confidence, but with just as long a list of disclaimers in the box practically addressing all of the possible mistakes a user might make in handling this device. Everybody praised its potential and the unique experience of having a foldable tablet in one’s pocket, but have reached a commonc conclusion: for now, this concept is little more than a status symbol and by no means a device to be manhandled daily.

Long before these first foldable models saw the light of day, though, an old player on the phone market suggested that great things are coming especially for nostalgics and fans of the brand. In 2018, Lenovo’s CEO (Lenovo owns the Motorola brand), suggested that foldable screens are closer than we think and that a revival of the classic and wildly successful Razr brand was not out of the question. After the first wave of foldables came in february 2019, rumours about the new Razr started gaining even more traction and generating hype. The wait was over in november 2019 when the new Motorola Razr was officially launched to huge acclaim. It even promised a display with no crease thanks to an innovative hinge which tucks it in when folding, avoiding outright bending it. Sadly, the enthusiasm was short lived thanks to the still rather high price and the compromises made to reach it: a single mediocre camera, a weak battery and a plastic build which did not do the 2004 original model justice.

Cu toate acestea, cutia nostalgiei a fost deschisă, iar ecranele flexibile anunță revenirea telefoanelor cu clapă. Dacă conceptul de tabletă propus de Galaxy Fold este prea mult pentru majoritatea utilizatorilor, conceptul unui smartphone mare care se pliază și încape într-un buzunar este unul care surâde multora. Astfel, Samsung s-au pus din nou pe treabă, inspirați și de avântul generat de Motorola, iar anul acesta au lansat Galaxy Z Flip, un model menit să îngroape Motorola Razr. Și reușește cu brio, având o construcție din sticlă și metal, o baterie mult mai bună, două camere și un preț chiar ceva mai mic.

Despite these drawback, the nostalgia box had been opened and flexible displays are now heralding a comeback for flip phones. While the tablet concept that the Galaxy Fold and Mate X are proposing is too much for most users, having a regular smartphone which folds in half and becomes more pocketable is a much more lucrative concept from a sales point of view. Not to be left out of this new trend, Samsung came out with the Galaxy Z Flip this year, a model which tries to make people forget all about the Razr. And it kinda succeeds at doing so because even if it lacks the same nostalgic punch, it has a way better build, a much better battery and two cameras while also being a bit cheaper.

This was indeed a long introduction and we should get to work. Let’s have a look at the two foldable implementations by Samsung and see what recommends them (or not) as avatars of this new chapter in the history of mobile phones. First, let’s meet the Galaxy Fold…

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