You would be forgiven for being cynical. I have seen foldable display concepts as long as I participated in technology fairs (which is honestly longer than I would like to mention). Big names like Samsung and LG have pumped countless R & D dollars into the technology, hoping to enter the development of the smartphone form factor as a first step.
Of course the concept is nothing new. The flip phone is the ubiquitous smartphone plate decades ago. And a number of companies have tried to cheat the system. The 2017 Axon M was one of the most memorable attempts lately – though this device was just over two screens clamped to a hinge.
It was bold and audacious, but above all, it was completely silly with an execution that left much to be desired. In my review, I called it "a fascinating mess." But hey, ZTE deserves at least some credit for a number of products that have – with varying degrees of success – tried to resist the trend of the same smartphone.
There are many reasons to be pessimistic about the state of the art in 2019, but I humbly offer you a beacon. This year smartphones will be back for fun. With the back to the corner and the dizzying sale make smartphone manufacturers a leap. Damn it, it's January and we've already got a look at what it has to offer.
There are foldable parts on the front of the charger. This seems to be the term we have chosen for the moment – and it fits well with the category. What convertibles belong to the laptop category are foldable phones. Real folding elements require that the display itself be foldable, so devices seem to be able to be converted from a one-handed smartphone to a larger tablet.
For various reasons, the axon M did not fit into the description. Last but not least, this was the gap between the two displays, which, frankly, led to a pretty crappy movie experience.
The first real leaflet we saw was a surprise candidate. If the name "Royole" in front of the Flex Pai meant something to you, the phrase "with cheese" probably followed. From the moment we saw grainy shots of the handset for the first time, it was clear that it was first and best are rarely one and the same. "Screens are here," I wrote then, "and they look crappy."
About a month later in China, I got some time with an updated version of the cellphone and checked my first impressions a bit. The Flex Pai, however, is not much more than a little-known company that is committed to making a name for itself by being the first.
Romain spent some more time with the device at CES and seems to have come to similar conclusions. Royole gets credit for actually making the device a reality – even if the device is designed for developers rather than consumers. This, of course, speaks for a broader usability issue.
It was a cause that Google liked to pick up in November when the company announced Android support for foldable displays. Like the score before, Google also tried to overcome the emerging trend.
We just announced support for Foldables on #AndroidDevSummit, a new form factor coming from Android partners next year.
Android apps run smoothly when the device folds up. This is the main function of this form factor: screen continuity. pic.twitter.com/NAfOmCOY26
– Android developer (@AndroidDev), November 7, 2018
That's how Android VP Dave Burke described the category: "You can imagine the device both as a phone and as a tablet. By and large, there are two variants – two-screen devices and one-screen devices. When it's folded, it looks like a phone and fits in your pocket or purse. The defining feature for this form factor is called screen continuity. "
It will be fascinating to see if industry merges into a single form factor. The Flex Pai is one of the simpler ones – essentially like a sheet of paper that folds (a bit awkwardly) in half so you can put it in your pocket.
The same day, when Google announced Android support, Samsung (briefly) showed its own version of the technology. In the 45 seconds that the company devoted itself to the company in a two-hour keynote address, we glimpsed a seemingly early prototype. Here the device has a display on the outside and unfolds to show a larger display inside.
The "Infinity Flex Display" at first seemed to be more demanding than Royole's – but "look" is the key word here. It was a big, blocky prototype that we'll hear more about unpacked next month.
In the meantime, Xiaomi debuted earlier this week, which has since been considered the most advanced in the group, but like Samsung, we just got a glimpse of it. And here it was in a much controlled environment of a short, pre-recorded clip and an extremely low resolution. The "world's first double-folding phone" looks like a science fiction movie.
The company threw the word "prototype" around freely.
And then there is Huawei. Mobile Chief Richard Yu highlights the plans to announce a 5G folding phone at Mobile World Congress next month. Details are still rare. The same goes for Motorola's Razer, a $ 1,500 folding backback rumored.
If this price gives you a break, then get used to it. The Flex Pai is already available for $ 1,300, and most other phones are on the right track to get about the same price, making the latest iPhone and Samsung Galaxy devices look like a bargain.