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The foldable phone could be the next big smartphone trend

BY James O'Malley

13th Apr 2023 Technology

The foldable phone could be the next big smartphone trend

The foldable phone could bring back the fun of the flip phone with extra smartphone capabilities. But is it worth the hype? James O'Malley investigates

I remember in the early Noughties, the phone I most coveted wasn’t a Nokia 3310—even though it was a near-indestructible brick, on which you could play Snake. What I wanted was a Motorola RAZR.

What made it cool wasn’t just that it was "razor" thin (hence the name), but that it was a flip phone. It kept your keypad and screen safe, it was more portable—and it meant you could answer calls with a big, theatrical flick of the wrist, as if to say to the world, “Look at me and all of the important business I am doing”.

"Two decades on, we could be currently living through the rebirth of the flip phone"

However, before I could get my hands on one, flip phones quickly fell out of fashion as phones became almost unfathomably smarter.

It turns out a flipping mechanism is a bad idea when what you really want is to maximise the size of the screen, so you can fill it with apps and all of the other modern functions we expect from our phones.

But all of this could be about to change. And two decades on, we could be currently living through the rebirth of the flip phone. Why? Because we can make phones that don’t just flip—but fold.

Open sesame

Motorola razr folding phoneCourtesy of Motorola. The iconic Motorola razr has been reimagined as a foldable smartphone

Thanks to screen technologies pioneered over the last few years, it’s now possible to make a phone that looks like the phones most of us have in our pockets—but which have a screen that can bend and flex, without breaking.

This means we can once again have our phones take on the classic clam-shell design, but have them fold out so we can watch widescreen videos, send long messages or do whatever else.

This breakthrough has already seen the first few devices come to market, in the form of the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip and an all new version of the Motorola RAZR. Both of them fold closed and can pretty much fit in the palm of your hand.

"Phone manufacturers have figured out a way to print the OLED display not on glass, but on plastic polymers"

There are other devices too, like the larger Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4, which is like a normal-sized phone that folds out into a small tablet. But all of them are only possible due to two key breakthroughs.

First, there was the invention of OLED displays—normally, a screen needs to have a light behind it that shines through to light up the screen, but with OLED, each individual pixel is its own light source and generates a tiny amount of light itself. Screens no longer need anything behind them.

And secondly, phone manufacturers have figured out a way to print the OLED display not on glass, but on plastic polymers, which makes them flexible enough to bend.

You break it, you bought it

So is it time for us to rush out and buy a cool new phone with a foldable screen?

I must admit I’m still a little sceptical. For a start, there’s wear and tear: a physical hinge mechanism adds a toll to moving parts of a phone. Each time you open and close it, you’re stressing it slightly. Similarly, the screens on folding phones are almost by definition slightly more delicate, as they have to fold.

"The screens on folding phones are almost by definition slightly more delicate, as they have to fold"

And then there’s the question of the software: is anyone designing apps to make sure they work on foldable screens? This is particularly tricky for devices like the Galaxy Z Fold, which when opened up has a different shaped screen to most others. Will apps take advantage of the space?

But perhaps the biggest drawback at the moment is the elephant in the room: if you want a new, high-performance folding phone, you’ll have to part with almost a grand—both the Galaxy Z Flip 3 and the new RAZR are currently £949. And the Galaxy Z Fold 4 starts at £1,549.

Should I place an order for the RAZR folding phone I always dreamed of? For the time being I’m going to flip-flop and say “maybe, but not quite yet.”

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