Geoffrey A Fowler
THE WASHINGTON POST – You’re not going to buy the first folding-screen smartphone. But I know you’re curious.
When I flip open the Samsung Galaxy Fold, people in elevators and coffee shops give me a double take normally reserved for Maseratis and exotic birds. It’s a phone so big it folds in half, I tell them. It’s very delicate. And it costs USD2,000, I add, as their eyes pop out of their heads.
The Galaxy Fold has many flaws, yet it still matters for one big reason: It’s bringing back the flip phone. Heaps of people complain smartphones have become too unwieldy to hold and slip into pockets – yet we keep buying devices with larger screens. The Fold is the first major smartphone with one continuous screen that can flex and snap shut like a 2005 Motorola Razr. This thing has the largest screen ever built into a smartphone, yet I could close it up and grip it with one hand, even if I was riding the bus from Speed.
Living with the Fold for a week proved that we have not yet maxed out on screen space. Closed, it’s like two extra-large Snickers bars laid side by side. Opened, it’s as big as the screen portion of an iPad Mini, minus all the borders. The Fold’s 7.3-inch interior screen offers about 10 more square inches of pixels than even the humongous “Max” iPhone. Good grief, I’ve been ruined – now any other phone feels puny.
As a product, the Galaxy Fold unfortunately does a disservice to this tech and ergonomic leap. What makes the Fold a flop starts with concerns about durability. My review unit remained fully functional over a week of heavy use – but I was terrified by one heck of a warning label listing all the ways I might inadvertently break it.
Are you supposed to carry this thing in bubble wrap? At least one other journalist’s Fold did break, after just a day of normal use. (Samsung offers Fold owners a discounted USD150 screen replacement in the first year, but it should have thrown that in entirely free.)
Durability aside, the ludicrous price – twice that of other flagship phones – is enough to scare most folks away. The design, like a sensible pair of Dockers, doesn’t look refined enough to excuse it as a luxury.
There will be plenty of debate about whether Samsung jumped the gun in bringing the Fold to market, especially after a botched launch in April. Samsung says it is selling the Fold in limited quantities, and the company has barely been advertising it. To me, it echoes another tech lightning rod: the Tesla Roadster. Back in 2008, Tesla was very expensive, first-generation technology that broke easily. A few people enjoyed being that early adopter. Most waited for more dependable, mass-market models.
If we accept that the Fold is Samsung’s version of a concept car that’s actually for sale, we can move onto a more interesting question: What can we learn from the first folding phone?
More screen is better
What are you missing by not using the world’s largest smartphone? It speaks to a truth about the current relationship many busy professionals have with technology: We will use all the glowing screen we can get.
Reading and burning through email was a delight on the screen that’s about as wide as a book, allowing my eyes to bounce around less. My biggest revelation was multitasking: I could work on the screen with two Android apps side by side, as though I had two phones in front of me.
On my morning commute, tracking email on one side of the screen and Slack on the other was a productivity boon. (You can layer on even more apps, but those windows start to get too small to be useful.)
Taking photos with the Fold is also eye-opening. Unfolded, there’s about twice as much image there to frame your shot as you get on any other smartphone. It’s hardly a discreet way to snap shots, but what photographer doesn’t love getting a closer view of what they’re capturing?
The screen is fine for videos and games, though the limiting factor is still the total length of the screen. When you’re watching movies or video with a modern HDTV aspect ratio, the Fold isn’t actually any wider than the largest flat-phones.
Even with all that extra screen to power, battery life was not a major concern. On a single charge, my Fold lasted from dawn until at least 9pm most nights.
Make peace with a crease
When the interior screen is open, you can see – and feel – a slight ridge where it folds up. This pleat is most visible when you’re surrounded by bright ambient light, and mostly melts away when the screen is lit up with bright content. I think we’ll get used to this, kind of like the “notch” at the top of devices such as the iPhone that contains front-facing cameras.
More screen might mean less screen time
I really enjoyed closing up the Fold when I was done with my task. The thunk provided a feeling of completeness – a mental break from a screen that’s normally still there in front of you begging you to scroll further.
There are magnets built into the screen that help it close, but that snap is still not as satisfactory as the spring-loaded close in flip phones. (Remember using those to bring calls to dramatic conclusion?)
But beware trying to operate the Fold with one hand: poking the screen with a finger to make it close may have contributed to problems reported on a review unit by the news outlet TechCrunch.
The “closed” experience needs a rethink
The Fold includes a slender screen on its front surface that’s supposed to be a fully functional smartphone on its own. It isn’t. That screen – measuring 4.6 inches on the diagonal but just two inches wide – is so thin that apps and words appear tiny.
Samsung says it worked with Android-maker Google on software to allow apps to work seamlessly across the exterior and interior screens. They do, but there’s little use to it with that tiny front.
Controls need to move
Holding onto a device of unusual proportions meant buttons weren’t always where I might have wanted. Samsung embedded the Fold’s fingerprint reader along the right edge of the screen, but I found it so thin that it failed frequently. (Samsung offers facial identification to unlock the phone, but it’s less secure than what’s available in the latest Apple devices.)
Apps could also be better optimised for people using a screen of this size. Samsung has an interesting solution for the shutter button in its photo app: You can literally pick it up and move it to wherever your finger finds it convenient.
Durability is a fatal concern
There’s an unforgivable contradiction in a device that’s supposed to make working and playing on the go easier but is delicate enough you would think twice about taking it everywhere.
Samsung included a warning label on the Fold saying keep away hard fingernails, dust and anything wet. To live on the edge, I did take my Fold out on a sandy beach. It survived, but I wouldn’t recommend even taking one near a bag that’s ever been to the beach. The hinge that allows the device to flex could let in water and detritus.
Samsung says it used robots to test that the Fold could open and close its OLED screen at least 200,000 times. But a robot test by warranty firm SquareTrade found the screen developed problems after just 18,500 folds. I am hopeful Samsung will quickly iterate on lessons from the Fold to make future folding devices hardier.
May more shapes (and weights) bloom
The Fold ultimately feels most like a portable tablet. Even when it’s folded in half, that much screen and battery is heavy – 9.28 ounces – a third more than other flagship phones.
Perhaps the idea of a folding screen will find its best expression in different forms. How about using the tech to let phones return to even smaller sizes? CNET has reported that Motorola is close to unveiling a new folding-screen version of its classic Razr flip phone, which measured about two by four inches closed up.
Or maybe a flip format will be most useful on even bigger devices. Lenovo has previewed a folding 13.3-inch tablet running Microsoft Windows. Closed up, it’s about the size of a leather diary. Fold it halfway, and you can set it upright on a table like a tiny clamshell laptop.
Maybe we’ll come up with a new term for that shape. How about the palmtop? Screens are about to get interesting again.