Flip phones ruled the mobile world until smartphones took over with their touchscreen slabs. However, we might soon be folding our phones in half again – if Samsung has its way.
Foldable smartphones are coming, and as with the curved screens of the Galaxy Note Edge and Galaxy S6 Edge, Samsung appears to be leading the charge. For a couple years now, the company has been sharing concepts of foldable and rollable smartphones, and now a flurry of patent applications and rumours suggest the first models are coming very soon.
Samsung intends to make fully functional smartphones with flexible displays that allow you to fold the phone shut and tuck it in your pocket – and maybe even phones that open up to reveal a full-sized tablet screen within, or touchscreen devices that roll out of a tube.
Sound crazy? Maybe. Seem expensive? Undoubtedly. Is it exciting? Absolutely. Here’s everything we know about the so-called Galaxy X phones so far.
SETTING THE TABLE
What you might not realise is that Samsung has been quietly preparing us for this future for the past several years. Back in 2011, Samsung released a concept video that showed a flexible AMOLED phone that’s little more than a technological piece of translucent paper: much more advanced than what’s actually coming anytime soon, but a truly inspired creative spark all the same.
Much more realistic is the above video that shows a smartphone that opens up to become a tablet – or rather, a tablet that folds in half to reveal a smartphone on the outside. However you choose to frame it, we’ve heard that idea come up again in a recent report, so it might be pretty close to the real thing.
We suspect that Samsung has been waiting for the tech to match its ambitions, and that time appears soon: in early 2015, a Samsung Display representative said that “the commercialisation of foldable smartphones will be possible in 2016.” However, it sounds like 2017 is more likely at this point.
Indeed, Samsung is apparently so far advanced with its plans that it was showing off the new phone behind closed doors at this year’s Mobile World Congress. It was a prototype, admittedly, but the investors and mobile operators that saw it were reportedly “very impressed” with the concept.
THE WALLET PHONE
From the outside, in its fully open and extended state, the Galaxy X phone should look pretty similar to a typical Samsung flagship phone: it has one large touchscreen on the front, cameras on both sides, and a home button below the display. It’s a smartphone.
Only this smartphone does something quite surprising: as the recent patent application illustration shows (via Patently Mobile), the phone can fold right in half, fully covering the screen and making the phone about half its normal size. That makes it more pocket-friendly, plus it keeps the display nicely ensconced within the shell.
On the outer edge of the hinge is a charging contact, not unlike those seen on smartwatches, and you can pop the Galaxy X phone into a charging cradle to juice it up. Unfortunately, that suggests that the phone cannot be used while charging, much like wearable devices, since the contact is hidden while the phone is fully open. Guess that’s the price of advancement, huh?
HOW DOES IT WORK?
That’s the most realistic Samsung illustration we’ve seen to date of the foldable design, but there have been other sketches and concepts seen since last year. One constant has remained true between them: that amazing new hinge system.
Samsung reportedly calls this initiative “Project Valley” because of that hinge: essentially, it creates a little pocket for the touch display to fold up without ever creasing. That small valley allows the phone to fold flat while allowing enough space for the screen have a slightly curve, preventing unsightly seams from appearing.
And then when you unfold the phone, the screen becomes fully taut, making it a properly useable smartphone. We’re curious how different the screen will feel given the lack of outer glass, but we have to assume Samsung has found a way to make it work.
FOLD OR ROLL?
While the wallet-like design seems the most prominent one, there are other concepts too. Bloomberg reports that Samsung will release a foldable phone that resembles a makeup compact, which should be pretty similar to the wallet design in function, and also a 5in phone that unfolds to reveal an 8in tablet screen within.
In other words, the latter is the exact device seen in the video up top. And that’s not all: a patent application uncovered in late 2015 included another illustration of that concept (above), with the phone screen appearing on the outside and the larger tablet screen unfolding from within.
Samsung’s rollable device concept might be the most intriguing of the bunch, however. You can catch a quick glimpse of it at the end of the video up top, while Samsung showed an updated concept (above) in May 2016 at a display expo. It was also seen in a patent application in late 2015.
One version of the rollable phone features a small touchscreen on the cylinder, with a dialer app and quick access to various apps, while the full touch display rolls out from the tube. However, the newer version shown above appears to be for tablet or television use and doesn’t seem to have app functionality on the tube itself.
Samsung may still be finalizing the use cases for these concepts, but the idea of a slim, travel-friendly tube that unfurls into a full-size, functional touch screen is very intriguing indeed.
The latest rumours seem to suggest the Galaxy X will miss the Galaxy S8’s March reveal, and will instead arrive later in the year at Berlin’s IFA tech show. This is usually when Samsung would reveal a new Galaxy Note phone, so it will either be taking a year off (possibly to distance itself even further from the explosion-happy Galaxy Note 7) or will be launching a folding flagship alongside the latest addition to its familiar Phablet range.
According to the Korea Herald, Samsung may make up to 100,000 phones in a limited run, to test the technology and see how well it goes over with customers, before moving on to full-scale production.
That same rumour pegs a 4K-resolution display for the phone, which seems overly ambitious given the power needs for such a screen, but it would certainly be a showstopper. A Quad HD (2K) display like the Galaxy S7 seems more reasonable, but we’ll have to see whether Samsung opts to pull out all the stops for its first foldable phone.
During that same month, Samsung showed off the above flexible screen and the latest rollable concept at a display trade show, and Bloomberg‘s June report added fuel to the fire that a 2017 release is likely for at least one foldable phone.
Samsung loves pioneering these totally out-there concepts, and we saw the super-niche Galaxy Note Edge quickly evolve into the immensely popular Galaxy S6 Edge and Galaxy S7 Edge. Will foldable smartphones be its next surprise success story? We may find out come early next year.