Samsung is gearing up to reveal its first foldable device later this week, and LG and Huawei are set to follow in 2019. However, as near as its announcement seems, Samsung’s already lost its chance at “world’s first” bragging rights. That honor went to a tiny company most people haven’t heard of.
I recently went hands-on with the Royole FlexPai, the world’s first foldable smartphone. Here are my thoughts.
Thoughts on the foldable display
In its extended position, the FlexPai is more like a tablet than a smartphone. It features a 7.8-inch 1440p AMOLED display. The display itself is bright and offers saturated colors; I didn’t notice any difference in quality compared to standard AMOLED panels in traditional smartphones on the market today.
As you may have noticed, the display has a 4:3 aspect ratio, presumably so the device can better function like a traditional phone when folded.
The folding mechanism is supported by a hinge with over 100 unique components. The hinge seems very sturdy, but obviously the real technical achievement is the flexible display. In addition to the underlying flexible display panel, Royole is using a type of flexible plastic material instead of the familiar cover glass.
While the plastic does not feel nearly as premium as glass, it’s probably the best material available for the task. It also effectively makes the FlexPai shatterproof.
Taking the Royole FlexPai from tablet to phone mode is pretty straightforward — just fold it down the middle. The hinge supports pretty much every angle, so you can fold and use it in any position you wish. Royole claims the FlexPai can be folded at least 200,000 times, enough for several years of normal use.
I couldn’t help but feel nervous when folding and unfolding the FlexPai during my time with it. Even when I placed my hands at the center of each side, the amount of force required to get the device to fold all the way down made me worry I might break it. This could be addressed with an improved hinge design in the future.
A device for developers
Royole is already taking pre-orders for the FlexPai and will begin shipping units worldwide around the end of this year. In the United States, the FlexPai will cost $1,318 for the 6GB RAM and 128GB storage model and $1,469 for the 8GB RAM and 256GB storage model. Those prices may seem high to an everyday consumer, but the FlexPai is intended for developers and enthusiasts, who will have an easier time justifying the high cost.
The other device specifications are pretty standard for a high-end device. When it ships, the FlexPai will have Qualcomm’s latest 8-series chipset, dual-SIM and microSD expansion support, dual-cameras, and a 3,800mAh battery. Royole also says you’ll be able to charge the battery up to 70 percent within thirty minutes, just like the Mate 20 Pro.
Royole will ship a custom version on Android 9.0 with the FlexPai. I went hands-on with a pre-production unit, and the software was extremely buggy. For example, the FlexPai’s software didn’t keep up with folds and unfolds. UI elements sometimes distorted. The screen didn’t always correctly rotate. Apps would crash, and sometimes the entire device would, too.
Royole assured me it’s working on the software issues and will have them addressed before the release in six to eight weeks. No doubt what I experienced was somewhat rushed.
Why this is still significant
Make no mistake: The Royole FlexPai is a first generation product. The pre-production unit I tested was very impressive, but ultimately felt half baked. Even if you aren’t going to buy a FlexPai, however, the commercial release of such a product may end up being a major milestone for the tech industry as a whole.
Arguably, the main reason it’s taken so long for flexible displays to arrive in consumer products is general disinterest among suppliers. Therefore, Royole’s major investments in production facilities ($1.2B) to make this tech more readily available is admirable. It may be a tiny company, but it’s managed to grab the “first” tag before the larger manufacturers.
All things considered, I think it’s best to treat the Royole FlexPai as a signal to the industry rather than a product you might actually buy as a general consumer. As suppliers compete with each other, we can expect the cost of implementing this tech to go down and the pace of innovation to go up.