Why Foldable Phones Are a Dumb Idea

Can even Apple make them work?

Key Takeaways

  • Rumors say Apple is planning a folding iPhone in 2023.
  • The folding iPhone will come with some kind of Apple Pencil.
  • No matter how well-designed it is, a folding screen is just a bad idea.
A foldable phone from Microsoft.

Apple may be planning a foldable iPhone for 2023, complete with an Apple Pencil, and an OLED screen.

Communications and research company Omdia reports that Apple plans a folding phone with a big screen, up to 7.6-inches, in just two years. If Apple releases an iPhone, you can be sure that it has overcome the problems of early foldable phones, like Samsung's disastrous Galaxy Fold phone, with its janky hinge and peel-off screen.

But even with a technically functional fold, is a folding screen actually useful? Isn't a folding phone the dumbest thing ever?

"A foldable phone can do everything a phone can do, but you have the option to make the screen bigger," Zedd, tester for smartphone retailer PhoneBot, told Lifewire via email, "which is a huge WIN since most users prefer content consumption on their phones."

Into The Fold

Samsung’s Galaxy Fold was a disaster. The hinge caused the screen to bulge and break in the middle, and the screen’s protective top layer was so badly made that many reviewers peeled it off, believing it was part of the protective packaging.

Ginned-up "-gate" controversies aside, Apple doesn’t release products that are so unfinished or badly designed, so we will assume that, a) this rumor is correct, and Apple will be making a foldable phone; and b) that it will work as designed.

The Samsung Galaxy Fold

"The past iterations of the folding phones have been great and personally, I preferred using a folding phone," says Zedd, "but the thing which you might not get used to is the crease. You can see it and more often than not you can feel it."

A folding phone has a few advantages. Or one advantage: You can make its screen bigger. That's it. As Zedd says, this is good for "content consumption," but not much else.

It's nice to have a bigger screen when you're reading a book, or watching a movie, especially since you can fold the phone back up and put it in your pocket when you're done. Try that with a tablet.

Dumb Phone

Except you can’t. When folded, the second half of the unit has to go somewhere, which means the folded phone is twice the thickness of the unfolded phone. That means it’s no longer pants-pocket-sized, unless you’re wearing cargo pants, and don’t mind the pocket being weighed down.

And no matter how well designed a folding phone, the screen will have some kind of crease. The first crop of phones have bendable, plastic-covered screens, which show a crease down the center after minimum use.

Early reviews of the Galaxy Fold reported dirt finding its way into the crease. Microsoft took a different approach with the Surface Duo, using two separate screens, hinged together like a book. But this still put a line down the center, which ruins the main use-case: movie and TV viewing.

A Microsoft foldable phone.

And what about that plastic screen? After more than a decade of touching beautifully made, scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass screens, are we supposed to go back to plastic? Unless Apple has made glass that can be folded in two, then it’s either a two-sheet option like Microsoft, or plastic. 

"Since companies can’t use normal Gorilla Glass on a folding phone, they scratch more easily than normal flagships," says Zedd. "You need to protect your folding phone from scratches."

Great. Let’s all add bubbly, badly aligned screen protectors to our folding iPhones.

Back to Front

The last problem with a folding phone is this: where do you put the screen when you’re not using it?

There are two ways a phone can fold. It can end up screen-out, putting screens on the front and the back of the handset, or screen-in, in which case you need a third auxiliary display to use when the unit is folded—otherwise you must unfold it just to check the time, or to see who sent that last message.

Folding phones and flip phones made sense when phones had buttons, and weren’t little pocket computers. They used a tried-and-tested laptop design, adapted to a smaller device. But with phones, which are all-screen, all the time, folding them is too full of compromises to make sense.

Then again, if Apple makes a folding iPhone, perhaps all these wrinkles will be ironed out. Yes, that was a pun.

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