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Samsung's Dr Tim Roh, president & head of MX business, recently claimed that 'the mainstream moment for foldable smartphones is here' (MX, by the way, stands for 'Mobile eXperience'), citing sales in 2021 of "almost 10 million foldable smartphones shipped worldwide". Analyst firm IDC puts the 2021 figure at 7.1 million and forecasts that 2025 will see 27.6 million foldables sold – a near-fourfold increase.
That's impressive, but still a very small percentage of the total smartphone market – 0.5% in 2021, rising to 1.8% in 2025.
However, Nabila Popal, research director with IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, notes that foldables made up a third of the premium (>$1000) Android market, and adds that "what is interesting to vendors now is the battle between the Flip and the Fold form factors. Although the Flip seems to be more popular, it is still too early in the game to declare a clear winner. Vendors should continue to keep a close eye on the overall foldable market as it continues to grow and attract new players to the market."
Following the 10 August Samsung Galaxy Unpacked event, the foldables market now includes the Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Flip 4. Hot on Samsung's heels, Motorola has announced the delayed Razr 2022 and Xiaomi has unveiled its Mix Fold 2. Have the design, features, performance and pricing of these new phones moved the dial significantly? Let's take a look.
There are two main foldable form factors – 'fold' and 'flip', the former opening horizontally to provide a tablet-sized screen, the latter closing vertically to shrink a conventional-sized phone to a more pocketable size. Both types provide a secondary display for use when the phone is closed. Most fold-style phones open like a book to reveal the primary screen, but Huawei takes the opposite approach, with a wraparound main screen forming the cover of the book, if you like.
If you're after the largest screen possible, Microsoft's Surface Duo 2 offers two hinged 5.8-inch screens that open to provide 8.3 inches of real estate. This approach avoids the problem of the crease that's often visible on foldables with flexible hinge-spanning screens. Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold 4 and 3, at 7.6in. (primary) and 6.2in. (secondary), slot in behind a quartet of larger phones -- Xiaomi's Mi Mix Fold and Mix Fold 2, the Honor Magic V and Huawei Mate Xs 2 -- and ahead of another one, Oppo's Find N.
Among the flip phones, Samsung's Galaxy Z Flip 4 and 3 both offer larger primary screens than the Motorola Razr 2020 (6.7in. vs 6.2in.), something the new Razr 2022 has rectified. The Razr phones both have larger and more usable secondary screens (2.7in. vs 1.9in.).
There's considerable variation in the foldable market when it comes to the width and aspect ratio of devices when used in portrait mode – that is, open for flip-type and closed for fold-type phones. The Surface Duo 2 is by far the widest device in this mode at 92.1mm, while Galaxy Z Fold 4 and 3 are the narrowest at 67.1mm.
Aspect ratios in portrait mode range from an almost square 13:9 for the 5.8-inch Surface Duo 2 to an elongated 27:9 for the 6.52-inch Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold.
Another metric with ergonomic implications is the screen-to-body ratio: a primary display that appears to be 'all screen' is generally a more pleasing experience than a device with noticeable bezels around the IPS or OLED panel. The new Galaxy Z Fold 4 leads the way here as the only foldable to break 90%, while the flip-type Motorola Razr 2020 brings up the rear at 70.7%.
Weight is always important, of course, and fold-type phones are obviously heavier than flip-type ones. The Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold (332g) and Honor Magic V (293g) are even heavier than Microsoft's bulky Surface Duo 2, while Huawei's Mate Xs 2 is the lightest folding phone at 255g -- although that's still heavier than a flagship conventional phone like Samsung's Galaxy S22 Ultra (228g).
Note that the Galaxy Z Fold 4 is a few grams lighter than the Fold 3, while the Flip 4 is a few grams heavier than the Flip 3.
Durability, and in particular resistance to the ingress of dust and water, is a particular problem for foldable phones, with their flexible screens and intricate hinges. Samsung leads the way among foldable phone manufacturers with an IPX8 rating for its Fold 3 and 4 and Flip 3 and 4 devices – but the 'X' means that they are not dust-resistant. The '8' signifies that Samsung's foldables can withstand immersion in up to 1.5 metres of freshwater for up to 30 minutes (let's see if any reviewers are brave enough to test that). Motorola's Razr phones have a 'water repellent design' that can cope with 'moderate exposure to water, such as accidental spills, splashes or light rain', but there are no formal IP ratings for these devices.
Stylus support might seem to be an obvious requirement for a folding phone that opens to a tablet-sized device, but offerings are currently patchy. Samsung has an S Pen Fold Edition, but it's a $49.99 extra that has no on-device home. Huawei has an M-Pen 2s for the Mate Xs 2 and Microsoft will sell you a Slim Pen 2 to go with the Surface Duo 2 for $129.99, while Xiaomi's just-announced Mix Fold 2 may have stylus support too. Honor and Oppo need to up their game on this front.
When it comes to cameras, foldable phones have lagged behind flagship conventional phones, despite the fact that there are unique photo and video opportunities available with these devices (see Samsung's Flex mode). Samsung's Galaxy S22 Ultra, for example, has the following rear camera line-up: 108MP wide angle, 12MP ultra-wide angle, 10MP telephoto and 10MP periscope telephoto. Here's how the foldable market shapes up.
Only Xiaomi, with its 2021 Mi Mix Fold, delivers a cutting-edge 108MP wide angle camera -- an experiment it has abandoned with the new Mix Fold 2. The market seems to be settling on 50MP for the main rear camera, and Honor backs that up with the same resolution for the Magic V's ultra-wide and telephoto cameras. Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold 3 was well adrift with its 12MP wide angle camera, so it's good to see the Fold 4 receiving an upgrade to 50MP. There are no periscope telephoto cameras on view here. Samsung's flip-type phones both have 12MP wide and ultra-wide cameras, and are outgunned by Motorola's new Razr 2022 with its 50MP/13MP combo.
Honor leads the way on selfie cameras with a 42MP sensor, while Samsung's folding phones bring up the rear with just 4MP. Motorola's new Razr 2022 boosts the selfie camera resolution to 32MP, up from 20MP in the 2020 model. Also noteworthy is Oppo's Find N, which has 32MP punch-hole cameras in both the secondary (outer) and primary (inner) displays.
Of course there's a lot more to photography than raw sensor resolution, and manufacturers offer all manner of increasingly AI-assisted photo and video features. Make sure you check the reviews of these devices to get more detail.
With 5000mAh battery capacity now the benchmark for flagship conventional phones such as Samsung's Galaxy S22 Ultra, we'd expect, or hope, to see that at least matched in the leading fold-type phones, whose larger screens encourage multitasking, in particular. Only Xiaomi's 2021 Mi Mix Fold breaks the 5000mAh barrier here, with the Honor Magic V and Huawei Mate Xs 2 not far behind. Given the extra screen real estate on folding phones, we can expect to see disappointing battery life results in reviews until capacity increases or new technologies deliver lower power consumption.
Meanwhile, Samsung's Flip 4 gets a welcome boost to 3700mAh, up from 3300mAh in the Flip 3, and the Motorola Razr 2022 moves to 3500mAh, up from a lowly 2800mAh in the 2020 model.
There's a mixed picture when it comes to battery charging, given that the state of the art is now 150W: Xiaomi leads the way on wired charging at 67W, with Honor and Huawei close behind at 66W. Xiaomi claims to deliver a full charge to the Mix Fold 2 in 40 minutes with its 67W charger, while Honor claims 50% to the Magic V in 15 minutes from its 66W charger. Wireless charging is supported by Oppo and Samsung, reverse charging by Honor and Oppo, and reverse wireless charging by Samsung.
The foldable phones covered here have all appeared within the past two years, the longest-in-the-tooth being Motorola's Razr 2020, which launched in September of that year. The lastest crop of foldables, from Motorola, Samsung and Xiaomi, all run Qualcomm's flagship Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 chipset, while older models run the 2021-era top dog, the Snapdragon 888. The outlier is the Razr 2020, which is based on the mid-range Snapdragon 765G.
All run Android of one flavour or another, usually with a vendor-specific UI overlay. Huawei's Mate Xs 2 is noteworthy on two counts: it lacks Google Mobile Services, using Huawei Mobile Services to circumvent the long-standing Google ban, and it's the only phone in this group not to offer 5G support.
Because they are, for the most part, based on current or recent flagship chipsets, performance from these foldables is pretty good. Here, for example, are Geekbench 5 CPU results (single core and multi core) for all bar the very latest Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 devices.
By way of comparison, the leading Android scores in the Geekbench charts are 1190 (single core) and 3884 (multi core).
Pricing & availability
As noted at the top of this article, foldable phones fall firmly into the premium category, and although some prices, especially of flip-type phones, are now dipping under $1000, these devices don't look like becoming 'affordable' -- and therefore candidates for mainstream adoption -- any time soon.
Also, the availability of devices from the Chinese manufacturers outside of their home territory is variable, even though -- as the charts and discussion in this article hopefully makes clear -- this is where a lot of the innovation and envelope-pushing is coming from.
Until prices come down and more cutting-edge devices make it out of China, it's likely that the progress of foldable phones towards the mainstream will be steady rather than swift. Still, there's clearly a wider range of devices available and prices are heading in the right direction.
Perhaps the foldable market will have to await the elephant in the room -- Apple -- to make its entrance. There have been rumours of foldable iPhones for years, but current informed opinion cites 2025 as the earliest date for Apple's debut.