Rushing foldable phones was a bad idea. Just ask Samsung and Huawei – CNET


The Galaxy Fold opens into a 7.3-inch screen.

Angela Lang/CNET

If the cautionary tale of the tortoise and the hare applies to foldable phones, Samsung and Huawei are learning the hard way that being first still won’t guarantee the prize. The phone-makers wanted their Galaxy Fold and Mate X to prove how exciting and successful a foldable phone could be. Instead, we got a lot of flash and — so far — little substance.

Foldable phones were meant to be the future, but delays to the $2,600 Mate X and $1,980 Galaxy Fold threaten to make the new designs DOA. Samsung delayed the Fold when the screens on some reviewers’ test phones kept breaking (ours did not). Huawei delayed the Mate X to “improve” the screen, the Wall Street Journal reported, though Huawei surely also wants to avoid the same fate that befell the Fold’s delicate plastic display.

These snafus threaten to derail what was once heralded as one of the biggest leaps for mobile phones. Foldable phones promised to double the screen size and revolutionize design at a time when phone sales have waned amid lackluster aesthetic upgrades.

But major hiccups are dampening enthusiasm for the bendable devices before they even come out. A foldable phone has to use flexible plastic, which make them especially vulnerable to nicks and gouges, pressure damage and bulges formed by debris tunneling under the display. These delays cast doubt on how well the radically expensive devices hold up to constant use.

The delays don’t come as a total surprise. The brands only showed off their foldable phones briefly, unlike virtually every other models that see much more time in reviewers’ hands before the final review unit appears. We used the Mate X for about five minutes in March and first touched the Galaxy Fold moments before we received our review unit in April. The phone-makers’ elusive attitude was a strong tip-off that the foldable devices weren’t ready for prime time.

The Fold was announced February 20 and was supposed to sell 51 days ago on April 26. Huawei unveiled the Mate X a few days later and was slated to sell in June. Samsung declined to comment. Huawei did not respond to a request for comment.


The Mate X’s screen bends outward, which means the plastic display covers the exterior of the phone frame.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Plastic is a problem, but bendable glass is years away

From the very beginning, phone-watchers remarked that the Galaxy Fold and Mate X’s foldable plastic screens could be their very undoing. Because who wants to spend $2,000 or more on a scratch-prone phone?

The key to making phones stronger is bendable glass, which won’t be ready for a few years. CNET got an exclusive look at Corning’s bendable glass, which, even if fragile, is still expected to offer a degree of protection over the Galaxy Fold and Mate X’s plastic screens.

Observers were mostly concerned about the “ugly” crease you see when you unbend a foldable phone into its full-screen mode, and if this could lead to wear and tear over hundreds of thousands of bends. The crease either appears as a ridge or a valley depending on if the larger screen unfolds on the inside or outside of the device. 

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For example, the Galaxy Fold opens like a book to reveal an interior 7.3-inch display, where the Mate X’s 8-inch screen acts more like the book cover that wraps around the outside of the frame.

A plastic screen prone to scratches on its softer surface was another issue, especially for outward-bending models like the Mate X, where more of the delicate screen is exposed.

In the Galaxy Fold’s case, where Gorilla Glass protects the interior screen when the phone is closed, I still noticed indentations and scratches on the plastic cover material after just seven days. Some of the Fold’s issues arose because reviewers peeled off a protective layer that wasn’t intended to come off, which made the phone immediately stop working. Samsung has reportedly fixed these problems, but hasn’t shared when it plans to put the Galaxy Fold on sale.

What about the US ban against Huawei?

Some have wondered if the US government’s move to blacklist Huawei from its US partners plays a role in the Mate X’s delay. For example, Huawei is cut off from any US-based business supplying software (e.g. Android), components and even consulting services across all of Huawei’s businesses.

Although the ban received a temporary reprieve that allows Huawei to support current products, it’s uncertain if the Mate X falls into that category. The Mate X was announced before President Trump signed the executive order against Huawei, but not yet released.

If Huawei needs Google’s support for foldable phones and Android apps to sell the Mate X outside of China, that could certainly influence its decision to wait. The Wall Street Journal reported that sourcing parts wasn’t an issue, according to Huawei SVP Vincent Peng, but that Huawei and Google are still discussing the license over Android apps.

Android Q supports foldable phones.


Don’t give up on foldable phones yet

It’s too soon to declare foldable phones dead. Samsung and Huawei still plan to launch an improved Galaxy Fold and the Mate X, respectively, and Google declared support for foldable designs in May at its annual Google I/O conference for developers. That means app-makers are already optimizing their software to work on foldable phones.

While off to a stuttering start, these companies have invested millions into foldable designs. It’s a gamble that they’re counting on to pay off in the long run.

Other phone brands also have foldable plans. Apple, LG, TCL and Oppo have either filed patent applications for foldable designs or announced that they’re already at work. Rumors are ripe for a foldable Moto Razr comeback design that will modernize the beloved flip phone.

Apple often waits years after a category is established — think smartphone or smartwatch — before coming in with a fully polished product.

The very first foldable phone models were always going to be niche, beta-style devices for bleeding-edge adopters, models that reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a brand-new design ethos that their makers could then fine-tune down the line.

Samsung and Huawei aimed to score the first points and force rivals to follow suit. But if competitors are learning any lesson, it’s to slow down and get their foldable designs right. Hopefully Samsung and Huawei are taking note, too.

Posted June 15 at 5 a.m. PT. Update, June 16 at 7:44 a.m. PT: Edited for clarity.

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