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Whatever happened to foldable phones?

A foldable phone displayed with screen bent to about 90*

Foldable phones went from incredible innovation to, well, when was the last time you saw a folding phone in the wild if you ever have? This isn’t so surprising when you consider their less than auspicious debuts. After the first foldable phones disappointed both in terms of quality and sales, things looked bleak. So is the foldable phone dead? Not by a long shot. Come with us, if you will, on a journey outlining the past, present and possible future of foldable phones.

History of the foldable phone

For many of us, the first we heard of foldable phones was the hoopla around the 2019 Samsung Galaxy Fold launch. However, the idea of folding phones has been around for quite a while. 

In 2006, a company called Polymer Vision unveiled its Readius concept. More of an e-reader with phone capabilities, it would have opened up to reveal one large, tablet-sized screen much like the foldables of today; a screen that could then be rolled out further almost like a futuristic scroll. It was pretty ambitious for 2006. So much so that as far as we can tell the concept never came to fruition. 

In the following years, a number of companies would make dual-screen “foldable phones.” You could either split the screens, allowing them to do different things, or go into “extended mode.” This would combine the two screens, but there would of course always be a large gap where the joint separated the two displays.

These were not true foldable phones. Rather, they were dual-screen phones that performed the amusing but not entirely useful parlor trick of offering a tablet-sized display with a huge gap in the middle. Close, but no cigar.

First Generation OLED foldable phones

That all changed with the advent of foldable OLED screens in mobile tech. (And yes, this tech was named FOLED. Obviously.) 

OLED stands for organic light emitting diode. OLED screens are thin and with some serious R&D, can be made to fold. 

First out of the gate was the Royole Flexpai in late 2018. Was it great (or in any way, shape or form worth the $1,300 price tag)? No. If the goal was to be the first though, mission accomplished.

Then of course came the first Fold. The media got their hands on test units in early 2019, and the feedback wasn’t great. Putting the phone through its regular paces had a similar result to putting a bull in a china shop—the phone was simply too delicate and easy to break with normal use.

Just days before the planned April release, the Fold’s debut was postponed indefinitely. Facing similar problems, the Huawei Mate X also saw a months-long release delay. When they finally hit the market in late 2019, the durability of both phones was greatly improved. Still, the public had begun to question the wisdom of spending up to $2,000 on a phone with questionable longevity, and neither phone came close to its projected sales numbers.

Next stop, Motorola RAZR. If we’re playing the understatement game, let’s say that the RAZR did not help the case for foldable phones. 

Being the grandpa I am, I was a huge fan of the original flip phone. I couldn’t wait to see what the resurrected model had to offer. The answer, unfortunately, was not much for a whole lot of cashola. While its durability didn’t seem as questionable as the first foldables, it was still noted as a point of concern by a number of reviewers. 

The RAZR was really taken to task on performance (or lack thereof). The phone’s processor speed, memory allocation and camera performance all were noticeably inferior. Which would have been just fine if its price reflected this. At $1,500, it certainly did not. As COVID became the worldwide focus, this chapter ended leaving many users with the opinion “Foldable phones = pretty sus.”

The Next Generation of Foldable Phones

If you were paying attention in the first quarter of 2020, however, there was a hint that foldable phones might be hitting their stride. That hint was the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip. While it shared the RAZR’s flip phone design, it fared much better in reviewers’ hands. Performance and durability were more to the media’s liking, and the price tag, while still firmly in flagship territory, was more palatable. 

For those waiting for foldables, the good news is that this has been the trend across the board. The Huawei Mate’s successor, the Mate XS, was faster and more durable than its predecessor with an improved camera set. Samsung, meanwhile, made a hugely improved Fold in the Galaxy Z Fold 2. 5G capability, the type of fit and finish we’ve come to expect from the South Korean manufacturer, and improved multitasking capability made it the best foldable phone up until that point. Samsung also offered a 5G update to the Z Flip, while Motorola delivered a 5G-capable RAZR users could rely on and enjoy. 

Where we’re at now

That brings us to 2021 and the third generation of foldable phones.  It’s clear that manufacturers have worked the gremlins out of the phones and can now focus on adding the features buyers deserve at this heady price point. 

Samsung has added IPX8 water resistance and 120Hz displays to both the Z Fold3 and Z Flip3 – plus the Fold gets S Pen support and a screen protector that increases durability a whopping 80% (um, how fragile was it before?). 

The Huawei Mate X2 (not readily available Stateside) has an amazing camera set and has finally switched to having the display folding inwards so that you’re not out thousands of dollars if you mistakenly put your keys in the same pocket as your phone. And TCL (yes, the TV guys) have unveiled a concept that folds out into a phablet and then rolls into a full tablet. Sound familiar? Granted, they’ve been teasing crazy-cool concepts since early 2020, so who knows if we’ll see a functioning phone by year-end as they claim? Still, it’s pretty exciting stuff.

Now I’m going to be Captain Buzzkill and balance the excitement with a bit of reality. For now, most of these phones remain wildly expensive. Even with an introductory MSRP $200 lower than its predecessor, the Z Fold 3 will cost you $1,800. The RAZR (2020) update is set at $1,400. If you don’t mind that it won’t run Google services and you can actually get your hands on the Huawei Mate X2, it’ll run you a hilarious $3,000. In our opinion, the excellent Galaxy Z Flip 3 is a great buy at “just” $1,000.

All that said, presale figures for Samsung’s new foldable phones seem to suggest buyers are a-ok with the pricing and 2021 will be the year foldable phones explode into the mainstream. With 450,000 preorders (projected to reach 600,000) in South Korea alone, there has been 10x more demand than for the Z Fold 2. 

So what happened to foldable phones? They just had a little growing up to do. Now they’re ready to party, thank you very much.

An affordable foldable phone plan

If you break the bank on a foldable phone, you may be looking for an affordable phone plan to use it on. Ting Mobile has you covered. With plans starting at just $10 and stopping at $55, you’ll get the coverage you need, the 5G* and LTE fast data you want with unlimited talk and text so you can tell your friends about your sick new foldable phone.

*5G compatible device required