The foldable phone era has officially begun. Samsung introduced the world to its first foldable phone this week, a device rumored to be called the Galaxy X or Galaxy F. This was not a typical announcement with every detail on display as they were for the Galaxy S9 or Note 9 unveiling. Rather, Samsung teased its foldable phone through a short video and by hoisting aloft a working prototype in an executive's hand on stage.
Although Samsung never displayed the foldable phone up close -- not even behind museum glass -- the device is plenty real. It's conceptualized enough to earn Google's backing. In fact, Samsung's project seems to have spurred official Android support for all foldable phones, no matter the manufacturer. Meanwhile, Samsung gathered developers in a Wednesday afternoon session to share a few more details, such as the phone's 4.5 and 7.3-inch screen sizes.
Despite the dribs and drabs of information, the foldable phone's brief onstage appearance raised more questions than answers. Here's what we know -- and what's still to come.
What's the phone called?
Samsung didn't give the foldable phone a name, but rumors suggest that it'll be called the Galaxy X or Galaxy F. The "F" could stand for "fold" or "flex". The "X" might mean "extra" or "10", since there are 9 Galaxy S phones out -- though we do expect to see a Galaxy S10 around March this year.
What is a foldable phone?
If we go by Samsung's definition, a foldable phone is a device with a cellular connection (hence the "phone" part) that looks like a tablet when it's full opened and can close to look like your usual phone. Samsung's prototype has a tablet-like screen that closes inward like a book, but Royole's FlexPai, another foldable phone, has an outward-folding screen, which means the "screen" is on the outside. There's no single definition.
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Didn't ZTE make a foldable phone?
Last year's ZTE Axon M was an early version of a foldable phone that attached two separate phone screens through a central hinge. Samsung's foldable phone (and Royole's FlexPai) appear to have unibody displays that fold at the midpoint. A magnet secures the FlexPai's screen in the "closed" position.
We can credit the Axon M with exploring different new ways to use a dual-screen device; Royole has already adopted some of these, for example, mirroring the contents of both screens so people on either side of a table can watch the same video clip. ZTE could very well come up with a second-generation foldable (or "foldable") phone.
What's the benefit of a foldable phone?
There are two main advantages. First, a foldable phone can more than double your available screen space. For example, Samsung's model has a 4.5-inch display that you'll use when it's closed. Then the inside opens into a 7.3-inch screen. You could argue that you have the equivalent of three displays to work with.
A larger screen gives you an expanded viewing surface, but it also unlocks different ways that you can use your device. For example, Samsung's foldable display will let you multitask in three areas at once. ZTE's Axon M lets you use the entire screen for one app, load a separate app on each screen, or mirror the same app on both screens.
What happens when you open and close Samsung's phone when you're using an app?
Like the Royole FlexPai, this foldable phone will automatically transfer the app or screen you're looking at in the folded-up "closed" position to the "open" position, and vice versa. We noticed some lag here on the FlexPai, but haven't had a chance to see how Samsung will handle the transition.
What's so great about Samsung's display?
Samsung created a new display for its foldable phone, the Infinity Flex Display. The company said that it had to modify the usual layers that are part of any display (this is what lights up the "screen" you see on your phone). All displays are made of layers, but they're usually stacked and unmoving. The Infinity Flex Display uses a new adhesive that Samsung developed to laminate the display layers so they can flex and fold hundreds of thousands of times.
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The company also needed to make the Infinity Flex Display thinner than any other mobile display. It cut the thickness of the polarizer layer, which helps make the screen legible, by 45 percent.
When will Samsung's foldable phone go on sale?
Samsung said it will start mass producing the phone in the "coming months." The foldable phone will likely start selling in 2019. We expect Samsung to hold a separate launch event to introduce the details. Again, this was just a sneak peek.
How much will it cost?
The short answer is that we don't know because Samsung hasn't announced it. However, it's easy to guess that this will be an expensive device. The Royole FlexPai's foldable phone for developers costs $1,318 for a device with 6GB RAM and 128GB of internal storage. The version with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage goes for $1,469.
Since Samsung's Galaxy Note 9 for power users starts at $999, it's a fair guess that a cutting-edge foldable phone would easily start at $1,500, if not more. We can expect devicemakers like Samsung (and Royole) to justify high prices based on total screen real estate. After all, they reason, you're getting a tablet and phone in one -- and phone prices are only getting higher.
What's the battery life like?
Samsung aims to give its foldable phone battery life that lasts as long as current Galaxy smartphones, said Jisun Park, the engineering director and head of the system software group for Samsung's mobile business. That's despite the fact there's more active screen to drain the battery. The US version of the Note 9 lasted for an average of 19 hours and 20 minutes in CNET's looping video drain test.
Where is the battery anyway?
We don't have access to the design particulars, but batteries don't bend. Expect a large battery to sit on one side and many of the other components to balance it out on the other. One major complaint we had with the ZTE Axon M was that it felt imbalanced with the half containing the battery drastically thicker and heavier than the other half. Samsung will have to watch out for that.
Is that picture what the foldable phone will really look like?
Almost definitely not. Samsung showed off a prototype model, commenting that the real parts were hidden within. Samsung isn't ready for the public -- or competitors -- to see a final design.
If there's one breadcrumb officially left us about the foldable phone's eventual shape, it's in the new One UI operating system. The company mentioned that the rounded rectangular edges that form a major design motif are meant to match its devices' rounded edges. The prototype foldable phone has 90-degree edges and thick bezels. We can anticipate a softer look.
What is the device made of?
Materials are a big deal because buyers have been conditioned to spend more for aluminum, ceramic and glass. But the FlexPai uses a plastic screen and body to achieve flexibility and keep costs in check, and the ZTE Axon M traded down camera quality and other parts to keep it affordable.
It's possible that the foldable phone will have at least one plastic screen. When CNE asked, Samsung's Park suggested during a session for developers that the exterior screen could possibly have a different material topping the display than the interior screen. Our guess is that the 4.5-inch screen could be made from Gorilla Glass while the 7.3-inch screen inside could be made from plastic.
Samsung did not respond to a request for comment.
How does it work?
In general, you'll start using the foldable phone like you would your usual phone, and then open it when you want to take advantage of the larger screen space. Samsung didn't share details about how the hardware and software share messages.
Does it run on Android?
Yes, but there's more. Samsung announced that the foldable phone, and future phones, will run on a redesigned version of Samsung's custom software called One UI. Samsung is making the One UI beta available this month, but only for Android 9 Pie users. It's a fair bet that the foldable phone will launch with Android Pie.
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Which apps will work on the phone?
It's still early days, so we don't have many details about apps. That's part of the reason Samsung unveiled the device at SDC, its developer conference: To get developers on board with supporting the phone. Samsung's in-house apps, such as SmartThings, will presumably work on the device, and longtime partner Flipboard showed off its initial efforts on an app.
Since the biggest benefit is the ability to multitask -- running three apps at one time or accessing more features in a particular app at once -- the onus is on developers to create compelling apps that work seamlessly on the foldable phone. Samsung is relying on app developers to help innovate as they did with stylus-compatible apps for the Galaxy Note.
When you open the device, does the smaller screen go dark?
At the moment, Samsung's design will "turn off" the 4.5-inch screen and open your app on the larger 7.3-inch interior screen, picking up where you left off.
What's Samsung's competition like?
Small at this point, but the future looks fierce. The clamshell ZTE Axon M isn't a major competitor, and neither is the Royole FlexPai, even though it beat Samsung to a genuinely foldable display. But we do know that LG and Huawei have their own plans for foldable phones in the works. LG is rumored to launch as early as January at CES 2019.
Will Samsung sell its foldable displays to other devicemakers?
During an SDC panel Wednesday, a developer asked when Samsung would sell its display technology to rivals. It declined to comment on that possibility, but Samsung is one of the world's major display panel producers. It's likely it will eventually sell the technology to competitors to use in their own devices.
Is this all for real?
A foldable phone may feel like a pipe dream, but this is one fantasy that may actually come to life. Questions remain about the price, practicality and convenience of using a foldable device.
What comes after foldable?
"Our innovation pipeline includes rollable and stretchable displays," Samsung's Denison said Wednesday during the presentation.