When will folding phones become actually affordable?

Pioneering a new technology isn’t cheap. The latest foldable display technology seen in the Samsung Galaxy Fold, Huawei Mate X, and even the Royole FlexPai is expensive. Too expensive for the general consumer to make 2019 the year of the foldable phone, despite the exciting revolution in design thinking.

This is partly the outcome of first-generation devices based on first-generation innovations.

At the same time, these foldable devices are intentionally made to be super high-end devices, packed with marvels. This revolution won’t be in our pockets and on our wrists just yet.

Here’s why.

Limited yields

Royole super thin OLED display

For display technology, the road from lab innovation to consumer hardware is long and slow. Complex hardware and expensive fabrication processes require huge upfront investments in the order of billions of dollars. Once mass fabrication begins, manufacturing yields can constrain the viability and profitability of new technologies. A panel with even a single dead pixel can’t leave the factory.

Opinion post by
Tristan Rayner

OLED technology, the current gold standard in smartphone manufacturing, had been in testing and small-scale production for years before becoming commercially viable. Many companies experimented with OLED, but few went on sale, and even then, they were initially out of reach for anyone but the hardcore enthusiast with a deep wallet. It took Samsung years to drive down the price of OLED screens to be competitive with LCD.

While OLED panels with flexible substrates have been around for a few years now, they weren’t designed to be actively and repeatedly flexed by the end consumer, but encapsulated in glass, as we’ve seen in the likes of the Galaxy S series, and the iPhone.

Current foldable designs call for an improvement in panel durability, but without the protection provided by a glass cover. The thin plastic substrate needs to flex thousands of times without ever creasing or malfunctioning. They are naturally harder to produce, and even the protective films on the surface of the display are surprisingly complex — the flexible display on the Nubia Alpha, for instance, features a protective film made up of 11 distinct layers.

Even protective films are difficult to make: the Nubia Alpha features a protective film made up of 11 distinct layers.

Aside from the display itself, the final manufacturing yields of foldable products are believed to be much lower than conventional smartphones. Besides the displays, new and complex hinge designs are another factor inflating manufacturing complexity and, naturally, the final retail price.

Limited production

Smartphone makers have to test the waters with foldables. But without a clear demand, the bets being placed are modest. OLED production for foldable displays is in its true infancy, making the per-item cost significant until economies of scale play out.

Whatever capacity is available is apparently in use at the moment, too. Android Authority understands from speaking with new smartphone entrant Energizer at MWC, that it contacted foldable OLED display providers and can’t get access to displays from these factories because other companies have already reserved all the capacity.

Given the expense involved and the limited demand, even the largest OEMs are committing to much lower runs of devices when compared with other flagship smartphones, a complicit factor in high unit costs. Fab utilization isn’t going to go dramatically higher from these test devices, creating a chicken and egg scenario.

Exclusivity and control

Here’s the other factor that is more inside the control of manufacturers right now. These are first-generation devices. They’re as good as they can be today, but they’re still imperfect. The Galaxy Fold is hindered by the fold gap that we still haven’t seen a lot of. Meanwhile Kris’ musings from his time with the Mate X were encouraging, but still show that the device appears to be a proof of concept, rather than a proof of our future.

As Kris wrote in his impressions post, the big deal here is the “dual benefit of driving innovation,” and “enabling a very public pissing contest between two of the biggest smartphone manufacturers in the world.” Not, so much, the devices themselves.

Samsung Galaxy Fold Price

In terms of control and exclusivity, Samsung and Huawei aren’t offering these devices at reasonable prices to try and sell them. The exclusivity of both devices serves them far better than being flogged cheaply, as Samsung is showing with its concierge-level of service for Fold buyers.

Both manufacturers are retaining control with high-end, high-cost, and yet unclear value items.

Not even Samsung or Huawei are sure of the value of their products; they aren’t mass-producing them, and they aren’t pricing them to sell. They’re pricing them to try and retain control and not have them in the mass market before they’re seriously proven.

Ridiculous specs

Both the Galaxy Fold and Mate X are completely overblown on the specs front; the Galaxy Fold, in particular, has five cameras and 12GB of RAM, for reasons unknown.

Both devices are also 5G, which is another costly new addition to the spec sheet. 5G adds an element of nice-sounding future-proofing to these powerful devices. But, as we keep warning you, it’s mostly a marketing ploy for now, given the lack of practical 5G anywhere on the globe.

Will this change, and when?

We’ll definitely see prices fall as displays and hinges becomes better and cheaper, and foldables go from being over-spec’d monsters to value offerings. Huawei CEO Richard Yu suggested a sub-$1000 foldable phone within a few years. “Over time, we will be able to push it below 1,000 euros. For that, we need one to two years. Later maybe in the range of 500 euros,” Yu said recently.

In the meantime, I’d expect tiered offerings. We’ll still have overpowered devices at the high-end, but perhaps some budget options with lower specs after the flagships are launched. Xiaomi has already announced it has a 5G phone for 599 euros, proving that 5G tech itself isn’t necessarily prohibitive and doesn’t need a foldable device to go with it.

A foldable won’t be cheaper than an iPhone before 2021

We know Xiaomi and other low-cost OEMs are working on their own foldable solutions, from overall designs, to hinge tech, such as the TCL DragonHinge. Largely though, we’ll be waiting for more production facilities and more competition in this space for these hi-tech displays, and the complicated hinges, and final assemblies.

To answer the question, I doubt 2019 sees an affordable foldable phone. We may see lower spec’d editions around the September/IFA period, but we might need to wait until 2021 before a foldable is cheaper than an iPhone.

Foldable phones have arrived, but are we there yet?

Huawei Mate X Foldable Phone Hands On display unfolded

Opinion post by
Abhishek Baxi

Foldable phones were, unarguably, the highlight of Mobile World Congress this year. Launched within a week by the two biggest smartphone makers in the world, the category got instant credibility, along with a lot of scrutiny.

While Samsung showcased the Galaxy Fold only from a distance, some media folks – including our very own Kris Carlon – did spend some time with the Huawei Mate X, albeit very briefly. Much has been said about the two devices not being ready for prime time, and hence Samsung’s and Huawei’s reluctance to put them in the hands of MWC visitors.

Of course, Samsung and Huawei are keen on painting foldable phones as the next evolution of personal computing devices, but are they?

The wow factor

Foldable phones are without doubt a technological marvel. While sci-fi movies might have convinced us that foldable displays were an obvious evolution, it’s absolutely mind-blowing that we have functional folding devices with beautiful OLED displays in our hands today. And it’s not just the foldable screen that’s impressive. Beneath the surface, the hinges on both smartphones are stunning pieces of engineering, not to mention the incredibly powerful specs we’ve grown accustomed to.

Are foldable phones solution to an actual problem?

Some geeks and early adopters among us, with $2000 in the pocket of course, may want to jump on the first-generation devices from Huawei and Samsung. Foldables are indeed a killer product category – in theory – and they’re definitely flaunt-worthy. But are foldable  a solution to an actual problem?

SoftwareSamsung Galaxy Fold

Much of the software showcased on the Galaxy Fold and Mate X has been underwhelming as yet. You get a bigger display, and that’s that. More map data, larger photos, and more screen estate while browsing the web.

Multitasking with three apps isn’t a massive leap, really, and mostly looks clunky. With almost square aspect ratio displays, most videos – a big selling point of a larger display – will play letterboxed to almost the same size as many larger smartphones in the market today.

Google took years to make Android workable on tablets, and this new form factor will likely need platform updates, as well as extensive software tinkering by OEMs before it truly offers a compelling experience. That’s clearly one of the reasons why the Galaxy Fold and the Mate X weren’t handed out to media for an extended time at MWC.

Hardware

Huawei Mate X Foldable Phone rear panel

Samsung and Huawei clearly rushed to be the first to the finish line with a foldable device (the Royole Flexpai doesn’t really count), while setting the groundwork for iterative improvements down the line.

While the build quality on Mate X looks solid, there is a bump in the display above the hinge. Many suspect this bump will only become more pronounced over time. Like anything you fold and refold repeatedly, it’s going to degrade. Also, hinges could loosen up over time like most products with hinges, including laptops, do.

There are too many unanswered queries at the moment.

On the Galaxy Fold, the screen doesn’t lie flat. Is that how it’s supposed to be? Is that comfortable? I don’t know. In the case of the Huawei Mate X, the display folds outwards. How do you protect the all-screen slab from scratches? It’s not even glass, but plastic, which is more prone to scuffs. There are too many unanswered queries at the moment.

There are also questions about battery life, a constant pain point for power users and those on the go. A slight battery size bump on a device with double the display area doesn’t sound too promising. Using a tablet as a secondary product, you can toss it back in the bag if the battery runs out or leave it to charge across the room. When it comes to your primary device, that’s not a compromise most will make.

What’s next?

A flexible phone design by Motorola.
A flexible phone design by Motorola.
An image showing the Motorola foldable phone patent.

These are early days for foldable phones. Smartphone makers will naturally try to throw different form factors at consumers to see what sticks. Foldable phones won’t be limited to the phone-to-tablet form factor we’ve seen so far.

Via patent filings, we’ve seen Motorola’s attempt at reincarnating its classic clamshell phone, the Moto Razr, by using a tall display that folds into a smaller phone with a smaller external display. This is the same approach ZTE is taking.

In January, Xiaomi teased its prototype foldable phone that folds like the Huawei Mate X, but on both sides, for a more compact smartphone experience. Samsung is also tipped to be working on two more foldable phones in different form factors.

Foldable phones won’t be limited to the phone-to-tablet form factor.

Outside of the Android ecosystem, Microsoft has been working on adapting Windows 10 for its rumored Andromeda foldable device. This will be followed closely by foldable Windows devices from manufacturers including Lenovo and Dell.

The last word

The Huawei Mate X standing on a wooden table.

I don’t want to be dismissive of this innovation (it’s incredible, really!), but I’d also be wary of calling it a new dawn for smartphones. Innovation in smartphones has reached a plateau, and it’s admirable to see some brands forge a new path. It’s what happens next that determines how far we go with foldables.

Of course, more use cases for foldables will emerge over time as the platform evolves and goes beyond our current usage and how we engage with our devices. Or maybe, folding devices will grow on us, like all-screen-and-no-keyboard smartphones, large phones with 6-inch+ displays, and other “quirky” things we got used to in the past.

I quite like the Mate X, honestly, but do I need it? Does it work for me? I’m uncertain at the moment. What do you think?

This week in Android: MWC 2019 wrap up

mwc 2019 logo shot with google pixel 3

MWC 2019 has come to a close, and it was one of the most exciting trade shows in recent memory. We got a ton of new and notable technology, and we gave out our awards accordingly. We put our hands on the Huawei Mate X, Huawei’s first foldable phone. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy Fold, the Mate X folds around the outside of the device. It’s a great design, though we can’t decide which is better. Naturally, Huawei is not impressed with Samsung’s efforts. 

Beyond the Mate X, there was a tidal wave of phones coming out of MWC. We saw the Sony Xperia 1, the Nokia 9 Pureview, the LG G8, the LG V50, as well as a host of other connected devices. It was a 5G fest, and that’s just the news in Barcelona. Outside of Spain, we saw new hardware from Google, new hardware for Google Assistant, and a cool new device from HTC.

Here are your top stories from MWC 2019

2:15 – The best phones of MWC 2019

The awards are in! Here are our choices for favorite tech from MWC 2019 — phones and beyond.


4:10 – This smartphone has an 18,000mAh battery, looks dangerously heavy

You always said you’d take a thicker phone if it got you a bigger battery. Energizer is calling your bluff in a big way.


15:45 – Huawei Mate X first look: 5G flexibility in a foldable form factor

Huawei Mate X Foldable Phone Hands On partially folded

The Huawei Mate X brings a lot to the table — a foldable design, 5G, and monster specs — but it’s going to cost a lot as well.


30:45 – Nokia 9 PureView hands-on: Five cameras aim for mobile magic

Nokia’s next PureView camera is here, and this time it has five sensors. We’ve got all the specifications for you and we’ll even tell you where to pick one up.


37:15 – LG G8 ThinQ hands-on: Bland on the outside, blistering on the inside

The LG G8 is LG’s latest flagship is a little boring on the outside, but it’s packing some great internals that will keep you going all day.


LG V50 ThinQ hands-on: A safe bet on 5G

LG V50 ThinQ 5G logo closeup

Meanwhile, LG announced its first 5G phone, the LG V50, and we’ve got all the details you need to know, including the future of LG’s 5G phones.


45:30 – Xiaomi announces Mi Mix 3 5G: Snapdragon 855, 5G connectivity for 599 euros

Meanwhile, Xiaomi announced its first 5G phone with a familiar look and a surprising price tag.


51:15 – Sony Xperia 1, 10, and 10 Plus hands-on: embracing the super tall display

Sony is taking things to the tallest extreme with a large forehead and a 21:9 aspect ratio, just like in the movies!


Here are your some other stories from MWC 2019 and beyond Barcelona

2:30 – Nubia just announced a phone-smartwatch hybrid with a flexible screen and it looks insane

Nubia has a new smartphone/smartwatch hybrid with a flexible screen and a camera module. It’s pretty sci-fi looking, but is it for you?


19:30 – HTC 5G Hub is an ultra-powerful Android smart display and a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot

Speaking of hybrids, HTC has a Google Home/tablet/hotspot hybrid device that will power your home network, or the rest of your devices on the go.


32:10 – Motorola RAZR foldable phone is still coming soon

We’re not done with foldable phones yet because Motorola confirmed that its foldable is coming soon.


39:55 – Physical Google Assistant buttons are coming to more phones along with new features

Google Assistant is getting a dedicated button on a lot more phones, and with that some added functionality.


47:40 – The Google Pixel 3 Lite and Pixel 3 XL Lite are probably coming soon

And of course, that’s not the only hardware we’ll be seeing sooner rather than later, we hope.


Meanwhile, here is a story we couldn’t cover on either podcast

Samsung Galaxy Fold is just for rich people, and Samsung knows it

Samsung seems to have a pretty good idea who will buy the Galaxy Fold, but we’re still trying to figure out who the Galaxy S10e is for.


Who wants to win a Samsung Galaxy S10?

This week, we’re giving away a brand new Samsung Galaxy S10Enter this week’s Sunday giveaway for your chance to win!

Don’t miss these videos

That’s it, folks! We’ll have another giveaway and more top Android stories for you next week. To stay up to date on all things Android Authority in the meantime, be sure to subscribe to our newsletters at the link below.

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