Those of us who have been using mobile phones for the last ten years or more won’t have failed to notice one significant change over this time: almost with every new generation of phone their size has got bigger. As an example, the first iPhone, released in 2007, measured 4.5 by 2.4 inches; the latest iPhone X is more than twice as tall ( 5.65) and at 2.8 inches nearly half an inch wider. This represents an increase of approximately 30 %, and with other manufacturers this development has been even more pronounced.
Now, of course, there’s an obvious reason for this trend: with every new generation of phone the variety and number of tasks they can perform has increased, and the amount of screen ‘real estate’ has got correspondingly bigger to make doing all those tasks that much more convenient. Although some of the bigger phones are getting close to tablet size, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 for example weighs in at 6.4 inches, for most people the size is constrained by the physical limits of carrying the phone around in your pocket. However, with many people using their phones as a replacement for their tablets, the search for a big screen on a small format device has become something of a holy grail for phone developers; until now.
The way to go was pretty obvious early on, a phone has two sides so let’s make use of them both to contribute to the screen – either the outsides, or, like a book, using the insides. Two problems, however, needed to be solved 1) how to create a folding screen which gives you an uninterrupted image (rather than simply having two separate screens), and 2) how to avoid having a normal size phone which is twice as thick.
Early attempts, like the Kyocera Echo way back in 2011, being bulky and only having two separate screens, failed on both counts.
Last year, however, a Chinese start-up company, Royole, introduced the FlexPai which, although relatively bulky, does have a truly flexible continuous screen.
Despite the novelty of the folding screen (and the honour of being the first), early reviews were not without some misgivings: in particular the FlexPai’s ugly rubber hinge and the fact that it doesn’t actually fold completely flat, along with lacklustre performance from the software, being some of the most common criticisms. Oh, and did I mention the 1000 pound plus price tag?
Enter this year’s offerings, the Samsung Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X, both of which are significantly better. By the way, before we move on the term that’s now being used for this new generation of folding phones by the cognoscenti is the rather inelegant “Phablet” – you get the idea a cross between a phone and a tablet (I won’t be holding my breath to see whether it gets adopted by the wider community).
Beginning with the Fold, it adopts the book approach to the screen, you open it to reveal quite an impressive display measuring 7.3 inches on the diagonal. But the fun doesn’t stop there, when folded the image transfers automatically onto another screen (roughly half the size, obviously) on the front of the phone, making it look if not feel like a normal phone.
Despite some criticism about the open screen having a slightly discernible crease down the middle, the display itself is good with a seamless viewing experience. Less impressive is the depth of the phone, however, sideways on the Fold actually looks a lot like two Galaxies stuck on top of one another and, although better, like the FlexPai the phone doesn’t fold completely flat. Apart from that, battery life is apparently good (there are two of them) and the user experience is pretty much standard Samsung.
Moving on to the Mate X, the first thing you’ll notice is that the full screen wraps around the front and back of the phone rather than being on the inside, it’s also a somewhat squarer format.
When closed the display moves automatically to either the front or the back, depending on which side you are looking at and both of these screens are significantly bigger than what we see on the Fold. Better also is the crease problem – it’s notably less obvious. Another advantage is that the phone does actually fold completely flat and at 11mm deep it’s appreciably thinner than the Samsung which is 17mm. Having the screen on the outside, whilst solving the crease and flatness problem does , however, make it more vulnerable to scratching and damage compared to the Fold. Altogether though, the Huawei’s aesthetic is more satisfying, making it look like a much more integrated design that what we see with the Samsung.
Both phones are packed full of features, have fast processors, lots of storage and, at around £1800 for the Samsung and £2000 for the Huawei, eye-watering price tags. Apart from early tech adopters, who else might be willing to part with that amount of money? Well, if you really spend a lot of time on your phone for work, you’ll definitely value the ability to have multiple apps open and available on the screen. Similarly, people who regularly use their phone for entertainment (reading e-books, watching TV and videos etc.) will love the extra screen space. Similarly, all users will value being able to leave their tablets at home and only having to have one device in their pockets.
All in all, both Samsung and Huawei have adopted different strategies to mastering the folding screen dilemma and come up with pretty satisfying solutions. Which one will turn out to be the right one going forward will only be seen in the fullness of time as more companies enter the marketplace.