The concept of a smartphone or tablet that would have a foldable display is something that seemingly has been “just around the corner” for years now. Now it appears that kind of phone design could really be a reality in the very near future. Last week, rumors hit the Internet that ZTE plans to launch the Axon Multy, via AT&T, in October. That device will reportedly have two individual 1,920 x 1,080 resolution displays that can come together to form a 6.8-inch, 1,920 x 2,160 resolution display. The design use a horizontal clamshell that would fold together with a vertical axis.
But what about a true foldable display, one that would really fold together but stay as one unit, instead of a design made up of two separate screens? After years of patent filings, along with rumors that didn’t actually pan out, and even reports that the company showed off foldable screen prototypes behind closed doors at MWC 2014, Samsung might finally be getting ready to show it’s long awaited foldable display in an actual smartphone. Koh Dong-jin, the head of Samsung’s mobile division, was quoted this week at a media conference as saying, “Samsung has the foldable smartphone in its roadmap for the Note series and is currently working to solve a series of hurdles before unveiling it next year.”
That’s huge news. Previously, Samsung execs have only hinted at the promise of a foldable smartphone, but this is the first time that the company has actually put some kind of timeframe for when we can expect such a device to be released as a real product, and not as a demo or a prototype, Dong-jin added, “Samsung will not roll out the foldable smartphone as a stop-gap product, but as a well-made flagship that can appeal to consumers.”
Samsung has received a ton of criticism lately regarding the fact that it didn’t do enough to make this year’s Note 8 stand out from the older Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus. So, the prospect of a new Galaxy Note getting a foldable display will certainly make that device stand out. But what would the Note actually look like with a flexible screen? There are a few design ideas that Samsung could take for this phone.
The double screen Note
One simple way to create a foldable design for the new device is to do what the ZTE Axon Multy is supposed to do. The device might not have a foldable display at all. Instead, Samsung may choose to create a double screen, with two separate displays inside individual shells. The phone would expand via a hinge in its chassis, and the two screens would then be visible, and perhaps linked up via software. The phone itself would still keep the screens separate physical.
Kyocera tried and failed at this method years ago
One smartphone maker, Kyocera, tried to do just that several years ago when it released the Echo in 2011. It had two 3.5-inch screens that could come together for one “big” 4.7-inch screen. The problem was that that hinge made the “merged” screen hard to use, and few apps were available to take advantage of this feature. It didn’t help that the phone was also pretty thick and bulky. Indeed, the Kyocera Echo got picked by use as one of the worst Android phones of all time.
To be honest, we would be shocked if Samsung took this route with the phone. The company has been filing patents for true foldable displays for years, which means they have been spending a long time working on this issue. We seriously doubt that the Note would go down this old fashioned route.
The wallet-style Note
The Galaxy Note 8 has the biggest display of any Samsung smartphone. Its 6.3-inch Super AMOLED screen has already been named as the best display made for a smartphone by the research firm DisplayMate. For the foldable Note, Samsung could design the phone so that the display itself stays about the same size as the current Note 8, but that it and the phone folds in the middle, similar to a wallet. Samsung has even filed a patent for a “tri-fold” smartphone that has a similar wallet design, with two ends folding in the middle.
You wouldn't need to sacrifice screen size with this method
This kind of design has a couple of benefits. One is that people who are happy with the size of the Note 8’s display won’t make any size sacrifices with the foldable device. Obviously, yo’ll also be able to fold it up when it’s not in use. There are some reviews of the Note 8 that have complained that it is too tall, so a design that allows the device to be more compact might be desirable. Samsung could also put a secondary display on the back of the phone for notifications, video chats and other functions that don’t require the full display to be used.
However, there might be issues with this kind of design as well. One of the obvious ones is that in wallet mode, the phone might suffer from being too bulky. There’s also the issue of the S Pen, which has been the main distinguishing feature for the entire Note series. There might not be a way to accommodate such an embedded accessory in a wallet design.
The phone/tablet hybrid
It’s also possible Samsung could go the phone/tablet hybrid route with the new Note. The simplest way to do this would to launch a device with a bendable display in the middle that would fold out to form the larger tablet, such as the mockup shown at the top of this article. Another idea would be a “rollable” display, where the screen would unroll from a smaller form factor into a larger one.
It's also possible Samsung could go the phone/tablet hybrid route with the new Note
A rollable display might sound cool on the surface, but we would imagine lots of issues using one in the wild. We think the best route for a phone/tablet hybrid is to go with the foldable display down the middle. It’s simple to understand and use, and you could even keep the embedded S Pen in one of its sides. There might still be issues with bulk, but for people who want to be able to use a larger display without taking a second standalone tablet, this design might be the way to go.
Samsung is not alone in developing concepts for foldable mobile devices. Lenovo showed off physical concepts of two such products over a year ago at their TechWorld event. One was a tablet with a bendable middle that could expand the display. The other wilder concept turned an ordinary smartphone into one that you could wear on your wrist, as its chassis and display wrapped around it. So far there’s no indication from Lenovo that these concepts have moved beyond the press demo stage.
In addition, LG Display, one of Samsung Display’s biggest competitors, has been rumored to be working on foldable screens, with mass production reportedly slated to begin in 2018. LG also showed off an 18-inch rollable newspaper-style display prototype at CES 2016. As with Lenovo, there’s no real word from LG on when its products will actually reach the hands of consumers.
There’s still a ton we don’t know about Samsung’s plans for the rumored device, and it’s more than possible that the company could run into speed bumps before it’s released to the public. Indeed, there were a few rumors that Samsung might show off working foldable phones a few weeks ago at IFA 2017 in Berlin. However, The Investor claims that Samsung cancelled those demo plans at the last minute due to concerns that unnamed issues with those displays have yet to be corrected.
After years of waiting, would you buy this new Note if it had some kind of foldable display design? Which form factor do you think it should use? Let us know your opinions in the comments!