Tech

A brief history of modern foldable phones

A travelogue through the highs and lows of the folding phone era, from creaky hinges to shattered screens. Is this the future we were promised?

After 10 years of the touchscreen slab, it's time for something new. The next phase for smartphones is foldables — devices with screens that fold. Whether that's a phone that folds open into a tablet or a phone that folds in half to become smaller. Everyone from Samsung to Motorola is pushing foldable phones as the next big thing.

There's just one problem: every serious stab at a foldable phone has failed. Companies want us to believe that things will be different this year. But I have my doubts. Overcoming the challenges doesn't seem worth the trouble and so far nobody has made a reliable and durable foldable phone. This is a brief history of how disastrous foldables have been thus far.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images

2019

January 2019

Royole pulled up to CES with the FlexPai, the world's first commercially available foldable phone. The 7.8-inch display folds in half like a book and has the latest specs, two cameras, and a large battery. But just holding it revealed how unfinished of a device it really was.

Everything about the Royole is awful. Just the worst. The build quality is terrible and the screen is cheap.

The FlexPai's gap when folded up is enormous. I could stick my pinky finger inside of it. Mashable famously called out the phone's hinge for its "audible crunching sound" when you folded the device up. The software is terrible and doesn't adapt well when switching between screen modes. On top of this mess: it cost about $1,300 (8,999 yuan).

Nobody wants a phone that's twice as thick in their pocket.

February 2019

Samsung unveils the Galaxy Fold at Unpacked, making it the first major and well-known consumer tech brand to do so. The company said it planned to launch the Fold on April 26, 2019.

Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

$1,980

Marketed as a "luxury" device, Samsung set the Fold's price at nearly $2K with a white glove set-up.

TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

We should have known something was seriously wrong with the Galaxy Fold when the company had no units for Unpacked attendees to go hands-on with.

Video: MKBHD

At Mobile World Congress, Samsung again didn't let anyone touch the Galaxy Fold. Show attendees could only see it inside of its display, which was clearly designed to make the plastic screen's crease less visible.

picture alliance/picture alliance/Getty Images

Looking to upstage Samsung, Huawei announces its own foldable: the Mate X.

Not only is the Mate X's display larger (8 inches) than the Galaxy Fold's, but it would cost more, too: about $2,600 when it launches in June.

At least, the plan was to launch in June...

At the end of February, Oppo vice president Brian Shen took to Weibo to share a foldable phone concept the company was working on.

Brian Shen

Shen didn't share details, but from the images, it appears Oppo was exploring a form factor that was similar to Huawei's Mate X with a tablet-sized screen on the outside screen that folds in half.

Brian Shen

According to TechCrunch, Shen said Oppo (in February of 2019 at least) didn't believe foldable phones improved the user experience. The concept device never made it to production and Shen said Oppo would take a wait-and-see approach before diving headfirst into commercializing a foldable device.

A tablet that fits in your pocket sounds cool, but is it really necessary when everyone's using 6-inch phones now?

March 2019

Xiaomi co-founder and president Lin Bin posts a video on Weibo showing off a device with a screen that folds in two places. The foldable concept device looks pretty sick, like one of the foldable devices used in Westworld.

Lin Bin claims Xiaomi has successfully adapted MIUI, its take on Android, for the foldable device.

And that was the last we ever saw and heard about Xiaomi's foldable phone.

Months ahead of I/O 2019, Google outlines best practices and ways to optimize Android 10 (née Android Q) for different foldable devices. The plan was to get developers to start testing apps for different kinds of foldable screens using an emulator.

APR ‘19

Days before the Galaxy Fold was supposed to launch... review units started breaking.

Raymond Wong / Input

YouTuber MKBHD peeled the protective film on the foldable screen thinking it was a pre-installed screen protector, only to find his review unit completely destroyed.

MKBHD

Bloomberg, The Verge, and CNBC reviewers also broke their units in less than 24 hours after getting them for testing.

Todd Haselton / CNBC

The busted units reveal major flaws to the screen and hinge and Samsung is forced to delay the launch until it can reinforce them.

NurPhoto/NurPhoto/Getty Images

May 2019

The broken Galaxy Folds throw a wrench in Google's plans. With Samsung pulling all Galaxy Folds to reinforce them, Google has none for developers to demo. There literally were no foldable phones to check out at I/O. I went looking for foldable phones and all I got was this photo with Andy.

June 2019

Amid Samsung's issues (and delay) with the Galaxy Fold, Huawei also pushes the Mate X launch to September to allow for more testing to ensure durability.

Video: Emkwan Reviews

9/6

After months of radio silence, Samsung announces a new launch date for the Galaxy Fold for early September.

Future Publishing/Future/Getty Images

August 2019

Unsurprisingly, Huawei delays the Mate X to November to allow for more time to bake in the oven.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

At IFA 2019, TCL shows off several concept foldable phones that demonstrate its patented "dragon hinge." There's one that could theoretically wrap around your wrist or clip to your shirt.

Video: GadgetMatch

The only working prototype resembles the Royole FlexPai and TCL said it was strictly a concept with no plans to produce it.

September 2019

The Galaxy Fold relaunches. Samsung reinforced the hinge to prevent particles from getting inside and extended the border around the plastic inner screen. But the phone was still a failure: fingernails could damage the display. Fingernails!

Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

November 2019

Motorola announces the Razr, a revamped version of the original RAZR flip phone, with a foldable display and Android.

At first, the Razr doesn't look or feel terrible at all.

Raymond Wong / Input

$1,499

The two downsides seem to be the price and exclusivity on Verizon.

Raymond Wong / Input

I walked away impressed and excited for the Razr to launch in January 2020.

After two delays, Huawei launches the Mate X. But there's one small wrinkle: it's only sold in China, making the phone's availability super limited.

Video: Emkwan Reviews

December 2019

As the year comes to a close, Motorola dumps some slightly bad news: the Razr is delayed. The company said it wouldn't be a "significant shift."

2020

January 2020

At CES 2020, foldable phones are mostly a no-show. TCL shows off another concept. But again, it's just a concept.

As a concept device, it's not fair to judge it since it's not a finished product. However, I can say the TCL foldable is creaky when it's unfolded and there's the same potential gap issues where the screen meets the hinge.

Evan Rodgers / Input

Look at this hinge. It's completely exposed and dust and dirt could get underneath it.

Evan Rodgers / Input

Needless to say, TCL says it's not rushing to market with a foldable yet and it's going to wait to see whether there's real interest in them or if they're a passing fad.

Meanwhile, OnePlus CEO dunks on foldable phones and their very visible creases "very large and not very clean or a very crisp fold."

AFP Contributor/AFP/Getty Images

“This isn’t something that I can accept in products that are built.”

Pete Lau, CEO of OnePlus

AFP Contributor/AFP/Getty Images

On January 22, Motorola announces a new launch date for the Razr: February 6. Pre-orders start on January 26.

February 2020

Days before the Razr's release, the launch starts to become a disaster... fast. Devices arrived a week earlier than they were supposed to and hands-on videos and posts on Twitter with the final device reveal its biggest flaws.

Here, a retail unit's screen is completely destroyed.

Max Weinbach

The hinge makes awful creaking sounds when it's folded and unfolded...

Video: Max Weinbach

And worse, you couldn't find the phone on launch day. Input called dozens of stores in the tri-state area and in San Francisco, but most Verizon stores didn't have the Razr. And the few lucky flagship stores that did only had one. That's no way to launch an anticipated smartphone that reportedly exceeded demand.

After all of the launch chaos, we finally had a chance to do some real world testing with the phone. And, well, it's cool, but so, so mediocre. The phone's a real tragedy says our very own Joshua Topolsky.

“Maybe someday some company will figure out how to make this form factor into something greater than its slab brethren, but today is not that day.”

Joshua Topolsky, editor-in-chief of Input

After weeks of non-stop daily leaks (seriously, we've already seen the phone from all angles and know all of its features) Samsung just up and unveils the phone in a commercial during the Oscars.

Can Samsung's new foldable succeed where the Galaxy Fold and other foldable phones have failed? We won't know until we get to try it out at Unpacked on February 11 and test one for a review. But if the graveyard of failed foldable phones and concepts is any indication, these devices have a long way to come before they're the kind of phones that mainstream users can count on.

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