Don’t Get Caught Up in the Folding Phone Hype — Yet

Samsung's Galaxy Fold is part of the rise and fall of the folding phone

Illustration of a folding phone up on a pedestal

 Lifewire / Joshua Seong

Folding phone technology is teaching us a valuable life lesson: when you fall down, pick yourself up, gently unfold, remove the debris from your hinges, and start all over again.

That’s certainly what Samsung is doing after its public and embarrassing Samsung Galaxy Fold debacle in which reviewers accidentally destroyed review phones by peeling away a protective layer from the fragile folding screen as they quickly found that Samsung was set to deliver a half-baked product.

Now, though, Samsung is finally ready to jump back into the folding phone breach, delivering the fixed and finished Galaxy Fold in September. Good for them, but should you jump with them? History tells us we love folding phones – at least certain ones.

Samsung Galaxy Fold

History Un-Folding

Our earliest cell phones were virtually all folding or, more accurately, flip phones, ones that, perhaps coincidentally, resembled Captain Kirk’s legendary Star Trek Communicator. Like that TV prop (trust me, it didn’t even function as a walkie-talkie), early flip phones put the microphone and, later, the keyboard, in one half and a tiny screen on the other. Some models had an even smaller notification screen on the outside of the folded phone.

That form factor didn’t change much for the better part of a decade, but the devices did get smaller and thinner, culminating in the Motorola Razr V3, a sleek silver flip phone released a few years before the game-changing iPhone hit the market.

As the iPhone and single-screen slab devices rose, folding phones faded away. Even though they were never as powerful as even the first iPhone (no apps, low-resolution screens), I kind of miss them. My old Motorola StarTac flip phone was so tiny and fun to use, but that was also when I primarily used my smartphone to make calls.

Star Trek Communicator
 Lifewire / CBS Studios

Folding Space

This next generation of folding phones is something different: all of them rely on flexible OLED displays to carefully bend, say, a 7-inch display into a 4.5-inch one. There are at least five companies working on folding display phones: 

I’ve only seen a handful of these in person, but with few exceptions, I’d say it’s more accurate to call them folding tablets. The Galaxy Fold, for example, achieves maximum utility when you unfold it to reveal the hidden tablet-sized screen. There is another screen on the outside. It’s larger and more powerful than the ones old-school flip phones offered, and it even works in concert with the larger flexible screen. But there’s no denying how large and thick the Galaxy Fold is when folded.

When I test drove it a few months ago, I thought of the Fold and other phones like it as a third way. Not really a smartphone and not just a tablet; it’s a hybrid that could take mobile productivity workers with deep pockets (it costs $1980) further.

Limits of the Genre

Still, I’m not scrambling, nor should you, to get a folding phone. These devices, like the Royole FlexPai, tend to be awkward demonstrations of what flexible displays can do and not a major leap forward in design and form factor. Even the admirable Huawei Mate X and the Oppo Foldable (which look remarkably alike) still end up with odd, enlarged grips (almost handles) that we’d never accept in a standard tablet.

The device that comes closest to the folding phone ideal comes, naturally, from Motorola, which is working on something called the Razr 2019. It looks like a classic Razr at first, but when you unfold it, an unbroken screen extends from the top edge of the phone to the bottom., Unfortunately, we haven’t even seen a prototype of this device, just amazing renderings that may or may not bear any relation to the real thing.

Black Mirror Future Phone
 Lifewire / Netflix

The Dream

Where is the folding phone for the masses?

Actually, I’ve seen that phone. The other night I was watching season 5, episode 2 of Black Mirror, Netflix’s popular sci-fi series. The episode deals with an insanely immersive VR game that brings two friends much closer than they anticipate. It was good, but for me the highlight was the moment one character pulled a folding smartphone out of his back pocket.

The palm-sized handset was no thicker than two credit cards stacked together. I watched in amazement as he flipped it open to reveal an edge-to-edge touch screen. There were no other embellishments. Unfolded, the phone was paper-thin — it looked perfect. This, I realized was the folding smartphone I wanted all along.

Someday, we’ll look back on this folding phone era and laugh, trading jokes about it, I hope, on something like Black Mirror’s folding phone ideal. Until then, I wouldn’t spend too much time considering whether or not you should buy a folding phone.