The big new smartphone design trend for 2019 is the folding screen. As phone displays get ever larger, with some now bordering on tablet dimensions, the folding panel takes things back a step by allowing a phone to bend in the middle and therefore be both normal-sized phone and usable tablet.
The first we saw was from Royole in the FlexPai, which was rushed out for January's CES show in an effort to be the first to launch. 'Fun but flawed' was our initial impression, with the overall feeling that the tech is impressive but not quite there yet.
Of course, Royole was not a brand that had crossed our path prior to the launch of the FlexPai, so we have much higher expectations for some of the industry's biggest names - these guys have been working on their foldable designs for many years now.
At February's MWC 2019 we saw finished foldable designs from Samsung, Huawei, while TCL showed us a prototype and Motorola all but confirmed it was also working on such a device. Energizer also showed off a foldable phone behind glass. LG's foldable phone is all a bit up in the air, though its new V50 does support a second display which is half-way there, sort of.
And then there's Apple with the possibility of a foldable iPhone. Will it, won't it? Is its reliance on Intel modems about to bite it in the bum?
Those concerned about how they will protect these pricey, super-fancy new breed of phones, given that they won't fit in a traditional case, will be pleased to learn Corning is also working on foldable Gorilla Glass. All the foldable phones we've seen so far use plastic displays, which are not as tough as glass.
It's working on ultra-thin, bendable glass that’s 0.1mm thick and can bend to a 5mm radius, it told Wired, and is working at ways to combine its rollable Willow Glass with its tough Gorilla Glass. The tech isn't expected to be ready for a couple of years yet, but there is this oddly satisfying Gif of Corning's current attempts:
Samsung Galaxy Fold
There's a 4.6in HD+ Super AMOLED screen on the outside of the device, which can be unfolded to reveal a larger 7.3in QXGA+ Dynamic AMOLED display that can display three apps at once. The exterior screen is not usable in this position, but App Continuity allows you to continue what you were doing on the smaller screen on the larger display.
Galaxy Fold has a total of six cameras, with three (16Mp + 12Mp + 12Mp) on the back, two inside (10Mp + 8Mp) and one (10Mp) on the front in its folded position.
The new Samsung phone features 12GB of RAM, 512GB of storage and a fast 7nm 64-bit octa-core processor. The battery is rated at 4,380mAh.
The phone uses a new custom operating system called One UI, which is much more simplified than what we are used to seeing on Samsung devices, and optimised for one-handed use.
Samsung reportedly has two more foldable phones in the planning stages, with Bloomberg reporting that two very different designs see one phone much more like the Huawei Mate X below, with a large outer wraparound screen, and the other a vertically oriented clamshell with a small external display.
Huawei Mate X
Huawei may well have outdone Samsung just four days after Unpacked when it announced the Mate X at MWC 2019. It folds the opposite way to the Galaxy Fold and has a more expansive near bezel-less display.
Unfolded it’s 8in but fold it outwards and that one display becomes a front display of 6.6in and a rear one of 6.38in. It’s pretty special at this stage, and the most ready-for-market foldable at the time of writing.
The software is as yet unproven, and at €2,299 it is mightily expensive but just look at it. It goes on sale midway through 2019.
The Huawei Mate X will be when of the first 5G phones when it arrives.
At MWC 2019 TCL and sister company CSOT showed off a foldable phone prototype using its patented DragonHinge tech. We saw them behind glass and they are a compact take on foldables that are less flashy than Huawei or Samsung’s.
This is because TCL is, it says, dedicated to making these phones more affordable than rivals at around the $1,000 mark. Because of this, don’t expect to see one on sale until at least 2020.
We’re also not sure if these phones will be TCL branded or be licensed to TCL’s brands like BlackBerry or Alcatel. Yes, you could have a foldable BlackBerry in 2020. We love tech.
Energizer Power Max 8100S
Energizer's upcoming foldable phone was hidden behind glass at MWC 2019. The hinge is not as, er, pretty as some of the other foldable phones we saw at the show, but the specs are pretty interesting.
For a start there is a huge 10,000mAh battery which, paired with that extra screen, makes this a beast of a device. Also beastly is the Snapdragon 855 processor and 48Mp camera, one of two lenses at the rear. There's also a 12Mp lens here, and 24Mp round at the front. The Power Max 8100S has 8GB of RAM and 256GB storage.
Only the outer display was visible at MWC, and it's a notchless 6in 18:9 panel. On the rear is a 8.1in 4:3 display with a Full-HD resolution.
No information was given on when the Energizer foldable phone would be released or how much it would cost.
Xiaomi Foldable Phone
Xiaomi president Lin Bin earlier this year posted a video to Weibo that shows him using a Xiaomi folding device running MIUI software.
The phone in the video is revealed to have two folds, which allows a quarter of the display at either end to be folded back and wrapped around the device. The screen appears to remain active when folded.
Xiaomi reportedly told LetsGoDigital: "The double folding phone is the latest innovation by Xiaomi. One of the key components of the phone, the flexible folding screen, is co-developed by Xiaomi and its supply chain partner. Aside from the screen, its design, folding mechanism and MIUI adaptation are independently developed by us.
"Xiaomi is first in the world to present a double folding smartphone and has conquered the technical challenges posed in its three different form factors - double folded, single folded, and tablet form. Prior to finding the best solution, Xiaomi has conducted extensive research and experiments to develop a robust folding mechanism that will allow the flexible screen to withstand mechanical stress."
Korean outlet ETNews also reports that Xiaomi - and another Chinese brand, Oppo - are working with suppliers to obtain the necessary components for production of foldable devices.
Sources suggest the Xiaomi foldable phone might materialise in the second half of the year, perhaps with the name 'Xiaomi Mix Flex'. It's probably too early to learn more about the upcoming Xiaomi foldable phone at its MWC press conference on 24 February.
Motorola Foldable Phone
The WSJ reports that the iconic Motorola Razr flip phone will return as a foldable phone in 2019 - with a sky-high $1,500 price. It claims Motorola and Lenovo will partner with Verizon on producing 200,000 foldable Razr phones, which could arrive as early as February.
It's become obvious that we aren't going to see a foldable Moto in February, but new information from Motorola's VP of Global Product, Dan Dery, points to an imminent release. Dery told Engadget the company had "no intention of coming later than everybody else in the market", which suggests we should see a launch before the summer.
Renders (shown above) of such a device point to it adopting a similar shape and format to the original Razr, but replacing the former physical keyboard with more screen. Of course these are merely concepts.
Dery says he has been impressed by the design of Huawei's Mate X, but the outer-screen design could be easily scratched. Instead, Motorola is working on a "plastic OLED device with plastic film on top", but the screen will not be on the outside.
LG Foldable Phone
Despite rumours that LG would announce its foldable phone at MWC 2019, the company is now expected to hold off until at least 2020.
Brian Kwon, who now runs the company's smartphone business, told journalists at a Seoul press conference in February that LG has "reviewed releasing the foldable smartphone when launching [its] 5G smartphone but decided not to produce it”.
According to the Korean Times, LG believes it is too soon for it to launch a foldable phone, and must instead focus on regaining its market position.
Google Foldable Phone
According to patents recently discovered by Patently Mobile Google is also looking to get into the foldable phone game.
The patents show a smartphone with a single inward fold, operating on a central hinge to form a clamshell-style device.
Nothing else is known of Google's plans at this moment.
ZTE Foldable Phone
ZTE's first attempt at a foldable phone is the Axom M (pictured above), but in essence it is two phone screens strapped together. Now the company is planning to properly address the foldable phone design, according to new patents unearthed by Mobiel Kopen.
With a design very similar to that of the Galaxy Fold, with a front display that is separate to the main tablet-size display, this truly foldable ZTE phone would have a flexible- rather than rigid screen.
The patent reveals an illustration but no description of how it might work:
From the drawing we can see a rear fingerprint sensor, mono speaker, USB-C charging port and dual-lens camera with LED flash.
Apple Foldable iPhone
Amidst all this talk of foldable phones it's only natural that people would turn their attention to Apple: will there be a foldable iPhone?
In truth there is no hard evidence to suggest Apple is working on such a device, and history tells us it will probably hold off longer than other phone makers to see whether this is a trend that will stick.
But Apple does have patents alluding to a foldable iPhone, and in the past it has allegedly put in orders for foldable screens with LG.
Plus there's the fact that the many concept images of such a device already circulating point to genuine interest from consumers (that shown here was made by Dutch industrial designer Roy Gilsing for Foldable Phone News).
Cowen analyst Matthew Ramsay notes that Apple is in a difficult position due to its reliance on Intel modems. It is faced with a choice of launching 18 months after competitors with an inferior Intel modem without mmWave capabilities, sourcing a modem from its competitor Samsung, settling its disputes with Qualcomm, or purchasing Intel's modem business and producing the necessary parts itself. None of these options is ideal, reports Bloomberg.