Foldable phones: Why you should wait for a folding 5G Apple iPhone

Foldable phones from Samsung, Motorola and Huawei offer promise, but most buyers should wait for a folding, 5G iPhone before buying.
Written by Bill Detwiler, Contributor
Motorola Razr Open

We're days away from the unveiling of Samsung's Galaxy Z Flip and the public release of Motorola's new folding Razr, but let's be honest, the foldable phone market is a bit of a mess. 

Samsung's original foldable phone, the Galaxy Fold, was dogged by technical problems that delayed its launch. Even after the Fold went on sale, buyers were warned in a YouTube video to "use a light touch" and to keep the phone's "articulated spine" (the hinge) "free from water & dust." The water I sort of get, but seriously, how many pockets, purses, or bags are dust and lint free? Guess I'll need to store my $2,000 Fold in a hermetically sealed pouch.

In Motorola's official "Caring for razr" video, the company warns Razr owners to keep sharp objects away from the screen and close the phone before putting it in a pocket or purse. Motorola also explains that the phone's "screen is made to bend: bumps and lumps are normal." Wait what? The screen on my $1,500 phone is going to have bumps on it?

In all seriousness, if foldable devices are to catch on, and I still believe they will, manufacturers need to make some major improvements and buyers should wait for those changes.

SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)

Improved durability and all-day battery life

Today's foldable phones are just too fragile, mostly due to their bendable screens. No one expects smartphones to be as rugged as Motorola's old DynaTACs, but foldable phones should be just as durable as regular smartphones. The screens shouldn't have bumps, lumps, bubbles, creases or any other flaw. The hinge shouldn't stop working when exposed to normal levels of dust and debris. People should be able to use their phones in the real world, not a laboratory clean room. Lastly, the battery needs to last all day.

Folding design that isn't a gimmick

Remember the Amazon Fire Phone with its 3D display? What about the Samsung Galaxy Round, which had a concave curve to its screen? Most people probably don't, because those phones were based on gimmicks. For the record, I do not believe flexible, foldable, or bendable screens are a gimmick. As I've written about previously, foldable phones could finally push office workers away from the PC. But, a phone that folds must do so for a useful purpose...not just because folding is "neat." If folding makes the phone smaller and more easily fit into a pocket or bag, that's a useful purpose. The phone's outer screen, if it has one, should allow you to perform useful tasks. The operating system and apps that run on the phone should take advantage of both the open and closed positions and transition between both seamlessly.

Reduced cost

Right now, companies are charging a premium for folding screens and 5G. But, there's a very small market for phones that cost more than a laptop and are more fragile than your grandmother's china. Just as prices for flatscreen TVs, computers, and smartphones came down, so too will the price for foldable, 5G phones.

Image: Angela Lang/CNET

Wait for Apple (and others) to release their foldable phones

The folding Huawei Mate X is available now, but only in China. Other major handset manufacturers have either announced their plans for foldable phones or filed patent applications that hint at their foldable phone plans. In January 2019, Chinese phone maker Xiaomi showed off a foldable phone prototype and began taking votes on whether to call it the Dual Flex or the Mix Flex. LG, thanks to its subsidiary LG Display, has the technology to make flexible screens and is rumored to be working on a foldable phone. Google filed a patent application for a foldable device in June 2018. PC maker Lenovo, unveiled the folding ThinkPad X1 Fold laptop at CES 2020. Apple has been filing patent applications for "electronic devices with flexible displays" since 2011. And at their Surface event in October 2019, Microsoft announced the Surface Neo, a folding Windows 10x tablet-like device, and the Surface Duo, a foldable Android "phone." Unlike devices with bendable displays, the Neo and Duo have ridged displays attached to hinged panels.

Look, Samsung makes amazing phones and tablets. I use a Galaxy Note 10 Plus and Galaxy Tab S6 every day, and they are two of my favorite devices. I'm also genuinely excited to see Motorola bring the Razr back as a foldable phone. But until there are more foldables on the market and flexible screen technology improves, prices won't come down, foldable phones will remain too fragile for most buyers, and we won't have a clear picture of which features are genuinely useful or just gimmicks.

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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