For years smartphone manufacturers have promised flexible, foldable displays would lead to dramatically different mobile experiences. At MWC 2019 we’re starting to see this vision come to fruition.
Samsung and Huawei are the clear leaders of the foldable revolution, but they’re not alone. TCL had several foldable phone concepts on display during the show, and Royole was back showing off the FlexPai. Not wanting to be left out, Oppo got in on the action by informally announcing its own foldable phone over Weibo.
Let’s take a closer some of the foldable phones shown off during MWC 2019.
Samsung Galaxy Fold
We got our first (very brief) glimpse of the Samsung Galaxy Fold last year during Samsung’s Developer Conference. Now Samsung has finally announced the official name and plans to launch it in April for a price of $1980.
The Galaxy Fold has two different displays. In phone form, there’s a small 4.6-inch display with a 21:9 aspect ratio on the front of the device. When you want more screen real estate you open the phone like a book and there’s a 7.3-inch flexible display awaiting you.
Samsung’s design might seem a little odd, given it uses an extra panel compared to devices from Huawei, Royole, Oppo, and others. However, foldable displays are not only more fragile than traditional screens, but replacing them will cost a fortune. The Galaxy Fold is much better protected by its design.
One downside to Samsung’s design is that the outer display is smaller than the 5 to 6-inch average you’ll find in most modern smartphones. The 21:9 aspect ratio is also a bit jarring, even if Sony doesn’t seem to think so.
Huawei Mate X
Huawei made its foldable intentions known last year, and at MWC 2019 we finally got our first look. As already mentioned, the Huawei Mate X takes a very different approach to foldable displays than Samsung.
Read more: Huawei Mate X first look
When completely unfolded, the Mate X features an 8-inch display. Transforming it into a phone is as simple as folding the device in half, giving you a 6.6-inch display on the front. The rear side of the panel isn’t fully useable as a second display, except for a few special software features. For example, if you are taking a picture of a person, they’ll see themselves from the back panel.
In some ways, the Huawei Mate X’s hardware feels more polished than Samsung’s. You get a much bigger display when you use it as a phone and it folds completely flat (or nearly). There’s also no notch.
Of course, the Mate X display also has a pretty noticeable crease in the middle. While Samsung’s foldable also has a crease, it’s much less pronounced. Putting a fragile display on the outside of a phone is also an expensive accident waiting to happen. Let’s not even get started on the $2600 price tag.
TCL foldable concepts and the promise of DragonHinge
Samsung, Huawei, and Royole’s foldable phones are all really expensive. Foldable and affordable remain incompatible concepts for now, but TCL hopes to change this in the future.
At MWC 2019 TCL showed off its DragonHinge-based foldable phone prototype. DragonHinge is TCL’s patented hinge design. It uses a series of small gears hidden in the hinge, which probably isn’t terribly different from the competition.
This particular prototype is more of a folded phone than a foldable one. We never saw it actually folding, some display units were fully flat and a few were partially folded. Granted, this is a very early prototype meant to show TCL’s commitment to foldable technology and not necessarily representative of any specific future product.
TCL also had a few other foldable concepts to show, but these weren’t working displays and were merely mock-ups designed to show some of the potential designs TCL might look into on its journey towards producing a foldable phone.
TCL made it clear it won’t rush into foldables and is waiting for the right use case, as well as the right price. For now, all TCL will commit to is a vague 2020 timeframe for its first commercial foldable announcement.
Oppo’s foldable phone
Oppo vice president Brian Shen recently unveiled the company’s folding smartphone through a series of photos on Weibo. The Oppo phone has an outward-folding display and a sidebar containing all the camera equipment — just like the Huawei Mate X.
While the Galaxy Fold has a small 4.6-inch screen in phone mode, the Oppo design means you’ll get much more screen real estate when using it as a phone. We don’t know exactly what the size will be, though we’d guess the screen will be around the 6-inch range folded, and similar to the Fold or Mate X when unfolded. As mentioned with the Mate X, the downside is foldable displays are typically less durable than traditional displays and so Oppo’s design could be much more fragile.
Aside from a few photos, we don’t really know much else about Oppo’s plans, but it clearly doesn’t want to be left out of the foldable wars.
The Royole Flexpai is nothing new, first announced last year and already available in very limited quantities in China. While more polished devices like those from Samsung and Huawei more or less stole its thunder, Royole was still present at MWC 2019.
In its extended position, the FlexPai is more like a tablet than a smartphone. It features a 7.8-inch 1440p AMOLED display and folds with a pretty large gap. It’s not the most elegant design, but it’s the earliest and — starting around $1300 — it’s also the cheapest foldable phone.
The device hasn’t changed much from what we saw last year, though the software experience felt a lot smoother than in previous demos. In other words, Royole is committed to improving the experience of its foldable.
Foldables share a lot of promise, and hype
All theses foldable phones seem cool, but they have real limitations and high price tags. It’s too early to call any of the above foldable designs out as the best, though later this year Huawei and Samsung will release their respective devices and we’ll finally be able to more definitively crown a champion.
The age of foldables is just getting started and likely years away from mainstream. Plenty of players have also yet to formally announce foldable solutions — including companies like LG.