Weird Flex, But Okay

The dawn of foldable and flexible display panels

The dawn of foldable and flexible display panels

Futuristic bendable tablets and smartphones have been lurking in our imagination for years. From decades worth of pop culture to Microsoft’s future vision videos, a phone that folds out into a much larger device has been a dream. Come 2019, this dream is now a reality.

With industry heavyweights Samsung and Huawei leading the race with their new Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X devices, several other brands have jumped on the flex train and are going full steam ahead. LG has already unveiled a rollable TV panel, Nubia has showcased their Alpha wearable phone and by the looks of it, Xiaomi and Apple aren’t far behind.

What exactly are these “foldables”?  Simply put, these are devices that will let you run apps in two configurations (smartphone or tablets) and switch between them seamlessly.When a user opens up a folded display, optimized apps switch from a portrait mobile layout to a tablet-friendly landscape layout either on the same display or from a vertical display on the outside to a horizontal one on the inside of the foldable.

This gives way to a few different implementations.

Outward Fold

Samsung wasn’t the first to flex on the competition. The Royole FlexPai, revealed at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2019 was the device that gains the distinction of the first foldable smartphone. It’s implementation, however faulty, was unlike Samsung’s, bending outwards to achieve tablet orientation.  Now, Huawei’s Mate X takes an identical approach with an outward fold as well.

The advantage of an outward folding display is that they can fold out flat in tablet orientation. The display also, in theory, is less prone to creases as it rests on the folding mechanism. The downside is the exposure to scratches and scuffs as the display is always exposed.

Inward Fold

Inward folding is the more complicated of the two. Samsung took this approach with its Galaxy Fold device, featuring a smaller display on the outside of the fold and a larger one on the inside.

The Galaxy Fold opens up like a book. It may seem simpler, but in actuality, the process to support an inward folding display will be complicated as it has to protect the display by maintaining the central curve. The display can’t fold beyond a certain point, which leaves the device lacking structural integrity.

This also results in a thicker smartphone design, but the design does protect the display from scratches.

Twin Fold

Xiaomi has teased a prototype device that has two folds, resulting in a triple shot left, right and central portion. The blurry promotional video showcases a unique-looking device that has a fold on either side of the main viewing area. Both side panels fold out to form a tablet-like display expanding the viewable screen. The device then can be folded back into a compact smartphone-like form factor and placed into a pocket.

What remains to be seen is how apps will react and transition from a smartphone layout/configuration to a tablet interface. What also remains to be seen is how soon developers will jump to support these apps, a fragmentation issue that has plagued the Android platform for long.

The foldable display technology has been a long time coming. As is with any new piece of innovation, the pricing isn’t really practical, with both Huawei and Samsung charging over $1,500 for their handsets.

In the end, do we really need foldable phones? The answer doesn’t matter anymore, there have been billions poured into them already. The flexible display might revolutionize all technology, but it might also be swept under the couch and left alone for posterity. The question to ask now, is how can we best use them? While the ‘fl-execution’ may take a few years to answer, we’re left with the same reaction as a millennial-favorite meme: weird flex, but okay.