Foldable Smartphones: the Good, the Bad, the Caveats

I remember back in 2003 when the first Motorola RAZR phones were coming out. They were very thin, aesthetically pleasing, and more durable than the majority of flip phones on the market back in the day. These phones were promptly replaced with solid-bodied smartphones around the year 2007. These “smart” phones, ironically, brought us back to a time when screens were out in the open.

Speculation from several media outlets suggests we’ll be heading back in the pre-2007 direction with “flip” smartphones that have flexible, bendable screens. Samsung and LG seem intent on delivering these kinds of devices in late 2017, and the demand might just be sufficient for a new trend to begin. What I would like to do now is talk about how this might actually be a decent idea and also discuss some of the caveats these phones may have that flip phones did not!

flipsmartphone-fold

Having a “flip” smartphone might sound like some kind of frivolous novelty, but the concept itself has proven quite effective before smartphones ever appeared on the market. This happened for three important reasons:

  1. A flip phone protects its screen. In case you drop your phone, the casing will take the brunt of the impact while the screen remains neatly tucked inside.
  2. Flip phones tend to have a physical response for incoming calls. Swiping to the right does not provide as satisfying a response as actually opening the phone. Psychologically, this presents a satisfying tactile response to input.
  3. Since the casing is always in contact with the outside world, you have less of a risk of accidental screen activation while walking. Wearing pants with thin pocket linings or having very sensitive screens can lead to phones detecting a touch when you don’t intend them to.

Applying this to a smartphone, if possible, should present the same advantages once the technology matures. I make a point of highlighting maturity specifically because it is a rule that a manufacturer’s first attempts at basically anything are always rough around the edges. As manufacturers succeed in perfecting this design, they will make phones that are more durable.

One more thing: Because we are applying this kind of design to a smartphone, its utility will also change. See, smartphones are currently limited to having screen sizes that can comfortably fit in your pocket. A flipping smartphone can double that size without presenting many more complications. So, if you implement this design, you’ll be able to have a phone that doubles as a tablet!

samsung-csc

While it might actually be a decent idea to design smartphones that flip open (as opposed to using a solid body design), there are a few things that raise serious concerns. Let’s look at Samsung’s patent for a second. The idea here is that it’s not a traditional flip phone (with a hinge that rotates). Instead, we have a “foldable” phone with a flexible body and screen. Here are the possible caveats with that idea that stick out the most to me.

  1. There will be more wear and tear on the flexible portion of the phone’s body. Hinges tend to remain intact and functional for longer than the lifespan of the device as a whole. Try bending a piece of flexible polymer a couple hundred thousand times. You’ll notice small tears in the material.
  2. The phone itself will be at least twice as thick as a standard smartphone, since it is folding over itself.
  3. Because the smartphone cannot use a hinge, it will have to constantly stretch and contract all the interior connections in its hardware. This could provide some serious issues after prolonged use.

You can’t design a smartphone to be very useful with a full-blown hinge, so that is out of the question; you’re kind of forced to use a flexible single body. That may be a bit troubling, but manufacturers tend to address these things as time passes, if not during the initial design phase.

As with any new technology, I offer words of caution before buying into it. But as long as manufacturers focus on the caveats discussed earlier, there is real potential in having a phone that could unfold into a fully-functional tablet. To some, this may represent a heartwarming throwback to the days when flip phones were all the rage. To others, there will be a sigh of relief as they will finally have access to a decent-sized tablet that they can stow in their pockets!

Tell us what you think about “flip smartphones.” Is this just a fad, or does it represent something with a solid level of potential? Write a comment with your thoughts!

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