In the tech industry, R&D developments are closely guarded secrets. But the concepts and prototypes unveiled in 2018 made it easy to predict that the world’s first foldable phones would hit the market in 2019. That said, it’s hard to believe how quickly that prognostication came true. 2019 was barely underway when three manufacturers tossed their hats into the ring. In quick succession we witnessed the unveiling of:
The Royole FlexiPai, made by a new manufacturer eager to make a name for itself.
The Huawei Mate X, made by a Chinese company known worldwide for its innovative products.
Established less than 10 years ago, Royole specializes in flexible electronic parts and was the first manufacturer to come out with a foldable device. A risky move! After the official unveiling in China last October, the FlexiPai made its North American debut in January at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas.
When unfolded, the device boasts a 7.8-inch screen that’s 7.6 mm thick, making it the top contender in the mini tablet category. When folded, its two screens, which measure about 4 inches each, can be used independently. The hitch? The folded phone is way too thick to be carried around conveniently. In short, it’s a great idea and notable first effort, but the product still needs fine-tuning.
Next, Samsung introduced the Galaxy Fold (not to be confused with the Ford Galaxy!) at an event in San Francisco on February 20. The public was impressed with the way it can fold, push an application from the small screen to the big screen, and even manage up to three applications at the same time.
The device features a 4.3-inch screen and opens like a book to reveal a 7.3-inch display with unusually square proportions (4.2:3). More screens means more cameras—there are six in all!
While undeniably appealing, the device comes with an MSRP of US$1,980 (more than CA$2,500) that’s sure to turn off a lot of buyers. We’ll be watching its official release on April 26.
Incidentally, Samsung pulled the veil off a number of other new Galaxy products at its February 20 event, including the S10e, S10 and S10x.
Less than a week after Samsung’s big reveal, Huawei elbowed in with an announcement of its own. The Chinese giant introduced its new and oh-so-seductive Mate X just 24 hours before the Mobile World Congress got underway in Barcelona.
When folded, the device has a 6.6-inch screen in front and a 6.4-inch screen in back. When unfolded, the display is 8 inches diagonally and, as with the competition, is almost square (8:7.1). Once again, Huawei partnered with Leica for the cameras, of which there are four. The foldable device will be 5G compatible and offer incredible memory thanks to two SIM card compartments.
From a technical standpoint, the Huawei product is very similar to the Galaxy Fold, but it’s a cut above in an area that many consumers care about: the look. With more refined lines, seamlessly integrated screens and a remarkable folded thickness of just 11 mm, it’s clear that Huawei didn’t want its foldable device to be lumped in with the rest. It’s one thing to make a display that folds, but it’s another thing entirely to make one that folds elegantly.
So, that’s where the foldable phone market is at. Some manufacturers, like Apple, are late to the party, but certain patents would indicate that they’re already well on their way. Others, like LG, are sticking to double screens (like a Nintendo DS) rather than going foldable.
These products are expected to come out soon, but some key questions about them remain. Will people buy them? Will this new line of products ever turn a profit? Considering the millions of dollars that went into the research and development, it will take a lot to generate a return on the investment. And with each device costing more than $2,500, there has to be a genuine need for this technology.
But maybe this new wave of innovation is exactly what the mobility world was waiting for. What do you think? Do foldable phones appeal to you? Would you buy one?
And here’s a more philosophical question: Are the Galaxy Fold, Mate X and FlexiPai foldable cell phones or foldable tablets?
Check out other articles by our technology correspondent Mathieu Roy.