Rumor has it that LG and Samsung are both working on foldable smartphones with flexible OLED displays that allow you to use a single device either as a phone or a tablet. ZTE beat them both to market by taking a big shortcut: the ZTE Axon M that ships this week doesn’t have a flexible screen that folds in half. It has two screens and a hinge that lets the phone that lets you use both screens at once.

Phone Arena has an early unboxing of the phone, and reports that ZTE is already talking about a follow-up with better specs. And DigiTimes reports that other phone makers including Huawei and Oppo are developing their own folding phones.

While DigiTimes isn’t always the most reliable source, I wouldn’t be surprised to see additional companies throw their hat in the ring now that ZTE has kicked things off. But that got me wondering, is there actually a market for folding phones?

I mean, they have some obvious appeal: it’s a phone! That you can use like a tablet! One device to carry around instead of two!

But tablet sales have actually been slumping for the past few years, and that’s at least in part to the fact that phone makers found a different way to give you screen real estate: just make smartphone screens bigger. Now that phone makers are also reducing bezel sizes, it’s also possible to cram a 6 inch screen into a phone that’s about the size of an older 5.2 or 5.5 inch model.

Sure, a folding phone might be able to give you a choice between using a 5 inch or a 7 inch display. But is that really a big enough difference to justify all the down sides? The ZTE Axon M is pretty thick for a modern phone, has more moving parts that can break than most phones, and two screens will likely run down a battery a lot more quickly than one. Then there’s the line that you’ll see between the two screens, which makes the Axon M more useful as a device for seeing two apps in side-by-side windows than as one that you can use to watch videos or play games that span both screens (although both modes are available).

It’s possible that Samsung and LG will resolve some of those issues with their upcoming phones, because a single flexible OLED display won’t have a line that runs don the middle, and since pixels on an OLED display can be turned off individually, it should only consume extra power when you’re actually using the full screen.

But I imagine those phones will be expensive, potentially damage-prone, tough to put in a case, and generally not all that much more useful than a phone with a single large screen.

Or maybe I’m just suffering from a lack of vision. Maybe in a few years all smartphones will be devices that are truly worthy of the name “phablet.” But right now it seems like a lot of companies are developing products with no proof that there’s actually much of a market for them.

via /r/Android


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18 replies on “Do you actually want a folding smartphone?”

  1. I would buy it if I was buying phones that cost a few hundred dollars. Considering that most expensive phones, are not any different compared to $100 phones, other than hardware, I think the ZTE makes more sense. You get something different with functionality that other phones don’t offer.

  2. I saw a video on the Axon M. Interesting, but not ready to jump on board. I’ll watch from the sidelines to see how things progress.

  3. I think this one missed the mark a bit. The line down the middle isn’t a deal breaker for me, but it needs to be as small as possible. For those users with not so great vision, a bigger screen makes reading web pages and documents much easier. It should fold with the screens on the inside but be able to answer a call without opening the phone. Maybe a small e-ink display on the back? The hinge would need to be extremely robust and the battery would need to be in the 6000 mah range. The phone itself needs to be tough enough to not need a case. It will already be big, thick and heavy. Adding a case would make it even bigger. Definitely not a phone for the masses, but for some, it would be a godsend.

    1. There doesn’t need to be any lines.
      Samsung and LG have flexible OLEDs, which can be one long display that stretches both sides.
      And since its flexible, the middle portion just converts from a semi-circle fold to a flat.

      Ideally, you can have both sides in “phone mode”. So that if a call comes you don’t have to open/unfold it… or fumble trying to think about which side worked. Just use any side, whatever’s most convenient.
      However, it will mean having 4 front-firing speakers (that can act as earpieces), and two rear cameras (that can act as Selfie cams).

      1. You spoke of durability earlier. Bending a plastic display does not instill any confidence in me. Not to mention the ease of scratching that type of display. Both sides being in “phone mode” may be ideal for some, but not for everyone. Exposing a plastic display to the outside world (or the inside of your pocket) is not likely to lead to a long usable life. A clamshell device would be suitable for a wide range of use cases. I am not saying one that folds with the display out should not be made, just that there are good reasons to have a phone with the displays folding in.

        1. Yeah, I agree.
          However, the appeal with a foldable display works best with an outward-flip.

          I feel like the inward one would be a lot more durable, however, it won’t be a very comprehensive experience over a standard 5.7in phone. And still, it would be less durable than a slab, dare I say much much less durable. Which begs the question: why?

  4. I don’t see the point if there isn’t an explicit benefit to them – manufacturers are slapping on gimmicks on their phones to give them some appeal, but there’s no added value other than a temporary wow factor.

    Come up with a new use case first; not retrofitting ill-conceived stories to pointlessly sell new tech.

  5. We already have seen prototypes by Lenovo with flexible screen. That was already slim, but still work is required before it becomes a real product. I think, this will become the next thing in smartphone evolution. Some things like battery, camera and display might not be as good as on the current smartphones at this point.

  6. First and foremost, I want a phone that’s huge and cheap, I’m on a $200 6.5″ 16:9 Xiaomi Mi Max right now, and I love it (I loved my 7″ 16:10 Huawei Mediapad X1 more, but they got discontinued). So a foldable phone would have to be as huge (folded) and cheap, and I guess they won’t be.
    Second, I’m not sure how the ergonomics of the unfolded phone works.I’d mostly use that for video, what will the ratio be ? If it diverges too much from 16:9 it’s rather useless for video. Maybe for games and Office work ?

  7. If implemented well, like my previous concept, it can be compelling.

    However, overall it is not a good idea.
    We are getting more and more reliant on these portable computers, so they will need to be able to withstand the tortures of the environment. And since phones like the SGS8/iPhoneX are not upto the task… a foldable phone will be even more fragile and less resilient. So it won’t be able to resist the tortures of everyday life.

    1. If it folded so that the screens were on the inside it would be more robust and would work with a case.

      1. But then you wouldn’t be able to use it as “half-tablet”, ie, in phone-mode.
        An outward folding makes the most sense.

        However, the extra screen you get doesn’t improve the overall experience, as much as, the trade-off you give from having a sturdy phone.

        And by sturdy I mean like a Samsung S6 Active with a replaceable Glass Screen Protector.

  8. Yes! It’s clearly not for everyone though.

    Don’t get me wrong, a phone with a screen that can fold flat will be awesome, but this is what we have now.

    There’s a specific group of people that it suits:
    1) People that want to multitask with more space given by a big phone with Nougat split-screen. Budgeting software on one side, bank on the other. Maps on one screen, browser on the other. Pokemon GO on one screen, Discord on the other.
    2) People that plan to use the “tablet mode” for things that aren’t movies, and games. Social media, documents, news, ebooks…
    3) People that are willing to put up with the line and reckon they won’t mind it.

    The Axon M has some caveats, but if Huawei, Oppo and the rest release similar phones then hopefully at least one of them end up being pretty solid.

  9. would absolutely love a foldable galaxy note for art on the go.

    but obviously only with a single screen

  10. tl;dr: Yes, please!

    And tablet sales are slumping because you can’t actually do anything useful with the darn things. Apple still not wanting to put expandable storage in their tablets, for example, or slapping a half-assed pen on some of their notebooks and calling them “Pro” while the OS is still geared at pointing at things with fingers, can’t do multitasking and is having all GUI elements on screen in plain sight even if you don’t use them (even PalmOS was using menus). Put full touch-enabled OS X with Ink on an iPad “Pro” 10″ and I’ll buy that thing in a heartbeat. And sell my MBA 11″ in the next (heartbeat). And no, I won’t buy any of the other pieces of furniture (also called notebooks over 12″), even if Apple keeps maintaining an artificial feature gap.

    1. That’s not my experience. Everyone around me who has a tablet uses it daily, some for hours.

      The issue is that a) tablets don’t break (unlike phones) since they stay at home and b) there’s no reason to upgrade them, they can browse/message/social/game (except 3D)/play media just fine whatever the specs. My brother-in-law won’t let me upgrade his TouchPad (w/ Android), and I just bought a replacement for my 2011 Galaxy Note 10.1, but for no reason (well, playing h.265 vids will be a plus; but mostly because snobbery).

      The best Tablets can hope for is to fully replace PCs (I just decommissioned my parents’ PC, they’re 100% tablets now), and even PCs don’t get upgraded much (5+ years). That sets the tone.

  11. I would love to get my hands on a ZTE Axon M…but I’m on T-mobile, so I likely have a wait for any sort of unlocked version.

  12. Yes, the zte axon m became my dream phone. Being able to do true multitasking, stand your phone up on a table without a stand/case and increase your screen real estate like how dual monitors do it is way more useful than a regular rectangle with a spec bump.

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