Less than two weeks ago, the idea of a high-quality bendable phone seemed like a farce. After all, the first foldable handset—the Royole FlexPai—was ambitious, but also a piece of junk. It was clunky, hard to open, and looked like something that needed months, if not years, of refinement.
But then the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X were announced, and suddenly, the idea of bendable gadgets doesn’t seem so ridiculous. Despite being based on opposing designs, both phones look polished enough that you don’t need the imagination of Salvador Dali to envision how these devices might fit into your life—assuming you can afford their butt-puckering price tags.
The most exciting part is what it means for upcoming bendable devices over the next two years. Right now, we’re looking at the wild west when it comes to foldable phone design. There are so many ways a bendy handset design can go wrong, and right now, neither the Galaxy Fold nor the Mate X has nailed it. There are pros and cons to each design.
By using an outward folding screen, Huawei’s Mate X offers a significantly simpler chassis and slimmer profile than the Galaxy Fold, while its asymmetrical body offers a more substantial grip and a place to stash much of the phone’s guts.
At the same time, putting a bendy screen made out of plastic on the outside of the phone exposes it to all sorts of potentially harmful objects like rocks, keys, or anything else people might keep in a pocket or purse. And lord help you if you drop the Mate X, because if it falls on concrete or pavement, it’ll have plastic rather than glass shielding it from any scratches, tears, or rips. And while Huawei did make an official case for the Mate X, it’s more of a fancy sleeve than any kind of reliable armor. It can only do so much.
Additionally, because there are screens on both sides of the phone when it’s folded closed, Huawei only needs to equip the Mate X with one set of cameras. When you want to switch between snapping a normal photo and a selfie, all you have to do is flip the phone around.
Meanwhile, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold offers a much more robust-looking body at the expense of thinness. And while I didn’t have the opportunity to play around with the Galaxy Fold as I did with the Mate X, its inward-folding clamshell design seems to provide much better protection against the trials of everyday life.
And by having a blank back to work with, Samsung was able to add wireless charging to the Galaxy Fold, while in front, the Fold features a third (though somewhat small), glass-covered screen for quickly glancing at notifications or checking your emails, along with a traditional earpiece up top for making calls. The Fold’s big hinge also suggests that it may hold up better after thousands of bends.
However, by putting its big 7.3-inch screen on the inside of the device, Samsung had to fit a total of six cameras on various parts of the phone so that people would always have a picture-taking sensor pointed in the right direction. That’s even more damning because while Samsung managed to avoid the issue on every other phone it’s ever made, the Galaxy Fold is the first Samsung handset to have a notch.
But the biggest concern is that with an inward folding screen, the Galaxy Fold’s smaller interior radius leaves its bendy screen more prone to creasing. Not exactly a good look for something that’s all about having one, big, uninterrupted display.
And both the Galaxy Fold and Mate X compromised on fingerprint sensors. Instead of offering the in-display fingerprint readers found on the Galaxy S10 and Mate 20 Pro, Samsung and Huawei were forced to go with a more traditional side-mounted fingerprint reader.
In a lot of ways, this turn of events reminds me of the development cycle for early 2-in-1s. Before landing on the designs behind the polished hybrids available today, companies tried all sorts of transforming, hinges. My Thinkpad 1171 from 2002 featured a central hinge that allowed its display to tilt back and forward while and also rotating laterally, like some kind of spinning marquee.
Other devices like the original Dell XPS 12 from 2012 featured a display that rotated inside a floating hinge, allowing you to flip the screen around without needing a full 360-degree range of movement. There were even little design cues like the retractable keyboard on the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro from 2013, which allowed its keys to lie flush against its deck when in tablet mode, so you didn’t need to worry about anything damaging the keyboard.
But the real magic happened in the fall of 2012 when Microsoft released the original Surface RT. Despite all of its shortcomings such as limited ports, shallow keyboard, and a restrictive OS, the Surface RT’s design was a revelation. Microsoft essentially birthed the first decent detachable, forever splitting the 2-in-1 category into two separate categories: slates with kickstands and removable keyboards, and more traditional laptop-like systems with 360 rotating hinges. And ever since then, laptop makers have been slowly iterating on these two basic designs.
That’s the sort of crossroads foldable phones are at right now. There’s an endless amount of possibility, but no one has demonstrated why each path is superior to the other, at least not yet. And over the next two or three years, we’re going to watch and see how device makers try to refine a whole new type of gadget. It’s going to be weird, it’s going to be exciting, and I can’t wait to see what comes out next.