Folding smartphones will be my dream handsets

Smartphones are finally getting weird again, and I love it.

Just a couple years ago, the landscape was a lot different than it is today, with a lot more variety in the sort of models that were coming out – for better or worse. We had that brief fling with autostereoscopic 3D phones, saw a number of models with multiple screens, and had manufacturers experimenting with some pretty elaborate form factors – heck, sometimes even doing more than one of those at a time, like the Kyocera Echo with dual screens and a crazy convertible tablet mode.

But now: slate, slate, slate, slate. Even the once unflappable QWERTY slider threatens to go the way of the dodo.

jolla-small-sqLuckily for those of us who enjoy someone shaking things up every once in a while, it feels like the tide is finally turning. Jolla’s got that neat “other half” business with interchangeable backs, Apple might be looking to bring pressure sensitivity to its displays, and smartphone screens based on flexible OLED technology are finally hitting commercial devices.

That last one there is just sick with potential, and right from the start, we’ve seen two companies take the tech in two different directions (quite literally) with Samsung and LG each giving us curved-screen phones – just curved in different ways.

Those are only the start of where things are going, and rumors have already talked about Samsung coming out with a handset that could see its screen stretched out to flow onto its edges. We also saw a presentation the company put together for its Analyst Day, laying out a track for future advancements along this line. It’s all pretty sensible: start with curved displays, then look at phones with screens that bend, and finally get to the point where we can just straight-up fold our phones closed.

Samsung’s clear that we’re still a good two years or more away from full-on folding phones, and that there are significant technological hurdles to confront before we get there, but that’s where things are headed.

I could not be happier.

The thing is, I love flip phones. Love ’em. I love their compact size, I love the angled shape they open to, and I love that satisfying snap when flipping them closed. In fact, pretty much the one and only thing I don’t like about them is that they’re absolutely rubbish at being smartphones.

samsung-flip-smallWhen we had input (buttons) separate from output (display) they made a lot of sense. But then when those two start mingling – when we get into touchscreen input, folders just seem a bit… pointless. Why split things into two parts when you’re spending the majority of your time focused on just one? Sure, smartphone OEMs have tried to force things to work, but what we get is just unbalanced. Look at Samsung’s efforts, like that new W2014; while the top half with the screen on each side is fine, the bottom half just looks huge by comparison, and I fear it’s a big waste of space.

But foldable displays – how they could change things. Sure, the shape would be a little wider than a traditional folder, for more of a clamshell look, but that doesn’t make me one iota less excited.

I worry a little about scuffing up the body of my phones, but I worry a LOT about scratching the screen. A smartphone that folds shut, its screen protected from stray keys or paperclips in my pocket? Mana from the gods.

I’m no fool, though. I know that this OLED-on-a-flexible-substrate stuff is still in its infancy, and that two of the biggest enemies such screens face are damage from repetitive bending, and trying to bend through too acute of an angle – notice how the pair we have now avoids both these issues.

Can Samsung improve on the tech to the point where the sort of bend-every-time-you-use-it, folding-nearly-180° design a proper flip phone successor would need becomes plausible? God, I hope so. I can easily see it taking longer than the two years Samsung projected, and that tight-angle business really sounds like a tough nut to crack, but I so hope the company gets there someday.

Variety, after all, is one thing we just don’t see enough of in smartphones, and a folding design in particular is one I’d love to see make a comeback – just as soon as the tech’s ready to catch up with my dreams.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bits Read more about Stephen Schenck!