Foldable phones are really here, and they're filled with unfortunate compromises

When it comes to foldable phones, all eyes are on Samsung right now. It's easily the leader in the world of foldable OLED technology, and has the general smartphone chops to build a complete experience that's likely to be the most polished of the segment this year. But all we've seen of the purported Galaxy X is a quick flash on stage at its unveiling — we haven't put our hands on one. The rest of the industry is marching on with its own foldable phone development, and some companies let us use what they're working on.

A company called Royole is showing off its foldable phone technology at CES 2019, and I commend them for jumping right in and letting anyone do whatever they want with this device. It isn't a dummy unit or locked in a demo loop, and you can spend as much time as you want with it to understand how foldable phones (or, at least this phone) work. But in being so transparent and open with people, we're starting to get a picture of the reality of the cutting edge of foldable phones: there are trade-offs to be had, and they're big.

Royole's FlexPai foldable phone is built around an OLED panel that measures in at 7.8 inches in a 4:3 aspect ratio. The total display comes in at 1920x1440, which is good enough for just over 300 ppi. Specs-wise it's completely normal: a Snapdragon processor, 6-8GB of RAM, 128-256GB of storage, and 16 + 20MP cameras. (Royole didn't disclose the battery size, but based on how quickly it charged I'm guessing it's quite small.) It has a fingerprint sensor sleekly embedded in the side. That's all boring, but it shows that we're to the point where you can have a crazy foldable phone form factor while having everything else inside the phone be modern and capable.

Yet, there are massive gaps in the experience that show this technology isn't ready for the mass market.

The FlexPai folds smoothly and has strong magnets to hold it in its folded state, which is really clever. But it has uneven bezels, much larger on one side, making the folded experience different depending on which side you hold. And at this point, the software gets tripped up trying to decide both which way you're holding the phone for rotation and which side of the phone you want to look at. At the same time, it has to turn off the touch response for the back and sides of the phone to keep accidental touches from throwing off the whole thing. It's slow, and clearly unfinished, but this is a problem all foldable phones will face and I'm skeptical that it can be addressed easily.

Then there's the general hardware problem. The FlexPai is basically two "normal" 16:9-ish phones connected along their long edge with a rubber accordion-style hinge. With the bezels and hinge mechanism in the middle, the phone is still really wide when folded. The screen bend is pretty darn tight, but not tight enough to keep the folded unit from being ungainly and thick. And when folded out flat, the hinge doesn't have the strength to "snap" the whole thing into place, leaving an ever-so-subtle bend in the screen or forcing you to disconcertingly pressure it flat by hyperextending it the wrong way. (And don't mind the USB cable you see in the photos — the battery unfortunately died while I was using it so I had to plug in for the photos.)

Finally, the screen. This is a problem every foldable phone, including the Galaxy X, is going to face: the screen is covered in plastic, not glass. Royole flips the script here to talk about the display being shatterproof, which it is, and rates its display at handling 200,000+ bends, which seems adequate. But plastic is in turn extremely scratch-prone compared to modern glass coverings. And at the same time, the thin and flexible plastic introduces some odd visual inconsistencies and waviness when the screen is flat — no doubt something that can be improved over time, but it's noticeable right now. And touching a thin plastic screen just doesn't feel as nice as touching Gorilla Glass.

(And then there's the Royole-specific problem of naming the phone "FlexPai" ... a re-brand is necessary.)

Foldable phone technology is surprisingly mature, but it still packs massive trade-offs.

For the near future, if we want to experience a foldable phone, we're going to have to accept the realities of the situation: there are going to be major trade-offs in the core smartphone experience. The fact that a company like Royole can make a fully functional foldable phone, with quirks but no deal-breaking issues, is a testament to how far along this technology is. But it's lacking an incredible amount of polish that's going to be required for these products to actually sell and make sense in the general smartphone market.

Whether it's a small company like Royole or a behemoth like Samsung that gets to market first, we're in for a bumpy ride of navigating the introduction of foldable phones with all of their shortcomings and issues.

Andrew Martonik

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

  • It all looks just cheap and gross, no matter how interesting the technology on the inside is. I get that it's a demo of an unfinished product being handled at a trade show but nothing about it screams 'this is what I have been waiting for!'. If anything, showing it off at this stage, in this condition, just makes me uninterested. Maybe Samsung can present it better.
  • I think it's going to be a while before we get that "Its amazing" feeling. This is a start and it's going to be way too expensive at first. The tech will get there but anyone's guess on how long that will be when it'll be consumer friendly with price and functionality.
  • For me I don't know if this is the direction phones need to go. As a user of continnum and now Dex ide like to see this area pushed alot more. I have a gaming pc connected to my TV but to work on it for some reason it's not very clear on my 49"tv but for games it's amazing. So what I do is for small bits like editing my website making new flyers ect I use dex and to edit videos where I need the power I use RDC from my dex to my pc and its cristle clear and works well for me. I am happy with note size screens for phones but I would like to see phones become more than a phone. There was a project in the works when continnum came out where you could buy a laptop shell with a battery working screen mouse and keyboard and USB c connection that would make continnum into a laptop type device and I think hp also did one. For me this is where I want to see phones go rather than a foldable device.
  • Samsung had theirs in a case which hid the huge bulge when the phone was folded like a taco.
  • It is not an unfinished product... You can but one right now for $1300 USD.
  • Just because you can buy it does not make it a finished product. It just means you can help fund their next prototype lol.
  • Normally being a beta tester is free. You're suggesting people pay for the privilege.
  • I'm a rather early adopter, and my track record is rather good (passer on AR/VR ^^). This seems very meh to me as the thing once folded is too thick for a pocket, and if it's to bag it, why pay extra for something foldable ?
    I smell another "3D revolution !" ;-p
  • I'd rather see a solution like LG and roll up a second screen. But that is even further away for phones than this bulky version.
  • Question is why we need this complex technology?
  • It will be great in vehicles and devices at home, but maybe no smart phones.
  • I usually like buying bleeding edge products and adopting early but this doesn't grab me at all and it probably should as I often jump between small phones and large ones and a foldable screen device covers both bases. I just think the technology is gonna be quite clunky and troublesome for a few generations and at the prices being touted it's too much money to gamble
  • At an absolute minimum the hinge/chassis supporting the display's folding must accomplish the following; Provides for a display fold radius of 5mm.
    Mitigates 'all compression and tension' when folding display from 0-360 degrees-always maintains the 'neutral bend axis'.
    Supports the 'entire' display surface at all times (monolithic feel folded or unfolded).
    Touch sub-system always accurate regardless of fold angle.
    Accommodate a single fold device (C-Type) and double fold devices (S-Type or G-Type). Anything less results in a very flimsy device as those we have seen to date. Its all about the solid feel, 'fit and finish' and durability to be a successful product. BTW, the 'wedge design' is a non-starter and laughable.
  • It's a first generation device, WTF!! Compare the first iPhone and first Android phone to the ones we have today. I hate when people are so critical of first-of-a-kind technology.
  • The first iphones and Android weren't that bad. Android had a little lag maybe especially with heavy skins.
  • Lag? Lol.... They didn't exactly have 4G LTE ten years ago, or today's CPU speeds.
  • They did OK without LTE in the beginning. As the devices became more intensive things began to slow down. In any event, a poor analogy to compare foldable screens lukewarm reception.
  • Not that bad... Early iPhone/Android were looked at in a similar fashion. Large and bulky with massive bezels while offering poor performance and battery life. Mobile internet was still a joke and the app craze hadn't taken off. I viewed them as a worthless fad and inferior experience. Who in their right mind wanted to use a phone for internet access?
  • Apparently everyone now that mostly everybody has an internet-based phone now😂
  • Go look at some of the HTC Google phones like the G1. Try and move a widget. Go get a sandwich, come back, find Android has crashed and restarted. Repeat. Android has come a LONG way, but saying it was a cluster**** is paying it a compliment. And Iphone , well their phones worked well because they didn't do anything. No multitasking, no cut and pasting ... they were an ipod with a phone number.
  • Steam cars and dirigibles were laughed at when they first appeared.
    It turned out people were right to laugh at them.
  • It seems like they could make most of the screen glass and just use plastic where it bends. I love the foldable phone idea but no way I can pay a premium for it. Also waiting for better dual screen phones.
  • Yeah you could potentially do that. But that also introduces issues with the points where the surface joins from glass to plastic ... could introduce further issues and structural problems.
  • How do you meld glass with plastic?
  • Foldable phone doesn't exist until Apple invents it.
  • Lol yup bec they ll it better! Everyone else will take inspiration on how its done right from the UI to design.
  • Of course their invention will use Samsung screens lol.
  • Actually, they're working with LG display and another division for the bendable circuitry
  • At least there's no notch!
  • What about an Android flip phone with screens on the inside and outside on the top and one on the inside of the bottom?
  • Big fail....if this is ground breaking someone can have my shovel
  • I think this is gonna be like smart watches and those idiotic Big Brother home devices: a weird and ultimately useless gimmick that 90% of customers won't care about.
  • Nothing about xiaomi’s take on foldables? Was this article written before? I heard Corning is working on some sort of bendable glass, is that true? Many questions.
  • Soon as the phone actually exists and I can get my hands on it, I'll be happy to give it the same treatment!
  • I would be more interested in one of those devices that you press a button and the screen pops out. Guess that is more of a rollable screen. Samsung showcased a concept of this before.
  • I will be surprised if I ever want one. Current phones are great and these foldable phones have zero appeal to me.
  • The good thing is that having the screen on the outside of the ben keeps the radius tolerable. But, just because it's IN the future doesn't mean that it IS the future. Having a micro-hinge with two screens that come together with gapless precision, and outside rails that lock it in place, would be another option.
  • The Notch is already on the way out. Android Wear never caught on. I suspect folding phones are another gimmick too far.
    It's like laptops; once they were invented the form factor didn't change (except some have 360 degree hinges). Some ideas are basically right. The rectangular screen phone is one of them, which is why it took over so fast. No matter what anyone does the fold is a weak point.