Stop you're folding it wrong... [update]

2019 really has been the year of the folding phone - and not for the right reasons. The idea of a phone-sized device that unfolds to become a tablet (and vice versa) is such a tempting dream that we've been talking about as an industry for the last three years. Arguably 20 years if you include the Nokia Communicators, which unfolded to become a mini-laptop, in effect. We've seen attempts at a folding phone/tablet from Samsung and Huawei and with concepts from others, yet none of these approach the common sense of what Microsoft was patenting and prototyping back in 2016 for its reputed Surface Phone. So why hasn't someone else designed along similar lines? After all, a twin glass hinged unit would be cheaper and far more durable than bending plastic.

Writer's note: this is an update from an article from back in April 2019. If you've read that and remember it then don't worry, there's quite a bit below that's new and updated, but apologies for any repetition anyway!

If 2018 was the year of the notch, 2019 is claimed to be the year of the folding phone - for good or bad, as it turns out. Now, I saw the benefit of notched screens (you get to use the ears either side of the central notch for extra content), and had no issues with the iPhone Xs Max and Pixel 3 XL, for example, the latter used extensively.

And, in theory, I can see the benefit of folding screens, as we'll come to below when looking again the Andromeda/Surface Mobile patents. The sheer geek value in taking a phone and unfolding it horizontally has appealed to most of us throughout the smartphone years. The old Nokia Communicators wetted the appetite, two screens and a full QWERTY keyboard,  there were outrageous designs like my old Nokia N93, which folds in about four different ways, also with two screens but with T9 keypad and centred around a barrel super-camera (for its day, 2006-ish).

Then, more recently, we had the Android-running Gemini PDA, just the one screen, but a true clamshell design. Then the ZTE Axon M, at least in the USA, so I haven’t touched one, an attempt at two separate external screens coming together to form a mini-tablet. It gained universally poor reviews, though, with the large hinge gap proving a barrier to tablet use, with worries over damage to both screens in day to day use, and with many software issues in the unusual form factor. ZTE was onto something though, and I'll come back to this below, obviously.

Samsung, after a six month delay, is now in production with its Galaxy Fold. A small external screen for taking calls and looking up quick things, plus a folding 7.3” AMOLED panel inside. There’s a battery in each half of the phone, as it were, so both halves are the same thickness. The concept’s certainly appealing - a phone sized phone much of the time and then a relatively large square display when you need it - so web browsing, social media, gaming, watching media, and so on. But the display folds around a very tight radius of curvature and this is the obvious weak point, mechanically.

Samsung Galaxy Fold

Then there's Huawei's Mate X, also delayed and yet to hit production, with a single huge 8" folding display that curves around the outside of a hinge. This has the benefit of a larger radius of curvature than in the Galaxy Fold, so there's less likely to be damage from repeated folding, but with the downside that the fragile/soft folding panel is always exposed, so it's susceptible to damage.

Huawei Mate X

The Galaxy Fold was tested by prominent media back in the Spring and found to be appallingly unreliable, with debris and detritus easily getting 'under' the folding display and with the display itself seemingly held together by a fragile layer of peelable plastic. It was a PR disaster for Samsung and the release date was pushed back to... well... now, with production Folds just starting to be tested, hopefully not to destruction. The Fold gained end caps on the hinges to stop dust ingress and a screen protection layer that's now embedded under the bezels and thus less likely to come (or be peeled) off. 

The early Folds failed in a week, I estimate the new reworked Galaxy Folds to last a month. Yes, I'm that pessimistic - physics is very much against its design. Early reviews of the fixed up hardware are still cautious, plus there's still the £1900 price tag to be wary of.

Galaxy Fold

Is it just me, or does this just look.... 'wrong'? The angles, the gap, the whole concept.... 
(photo credit)

The Huawei Mate X may well be slightly more durable, given the larger fold radius, but there are still issues with using plastic with a central crease rather then oleophobic glass. And an even higher price tag, at £2000.

Hinges

The most interesting part of the Galaxy Fold launch (I was there) for me was the brief animation of the special hinge mechanism designed to space the two rotating phone sections. Ditto the Mate X, which also has a special collapsing mechanism to ensure tension is kept equal around the whole of the screen curve as the Mate X is opened out.

Mechanisms, hinges. Lovely. And something that Microsoft has been expert at, with the variable kick stand on the later Surface Pros and also the tilting mechanism in the Surface Studio. 

At which point, I again raise the question to all manufacturers and designers, why not forget fragile, expensive folding displays altogether and go for two standard glass displays but with curved edges that rotate using a double-hinge to come together to give the illusion of a larger tablet display when needed? This is exactly what we saw in the patents for Surface Mobile in 2017 and 2018 and also rendered nicely by designer David Breyer:

Surface Mobile render

Although the tablet mode is marred a little by the join of the two curved screen edges, I think the use of oleophobic glass rather than 'squidgy' plastic more than makes up for 'being able to see the join'. And, after all, you can clearly see the 'creasing' in the Galaxy Fold and Mate X

Patent

And this was Microsoft's patent for the idea, showing the double-hinge above (in flyout) and below (in more detail):

Patent

Yes, yes, very Nokia E90-ish. But clearly showing the way the display wraps around, yet keeping the gap minimal between the two flat(ish) glass panels.

Optical edge effect

In this patent sketch, the optical refraction effect at the display curved edges shows how light can be 'bent' to provide continuous display right to the edge/join.  I don't think that a screen join could ever be removed from sight altogether, but it could certainly be disguised in this way...

A final patent sketch from Microsoft, this time showing again how the double hinge would work in cross-section, including the sprung detent in tablet mode (though I don't see why other detents couldn't provide (for example) a laptop mode, too...

When closed, in similar manner to the Galaxy Fold and Mate X, the Andromeda/Surface Mobile design could either be in dual-screen mode (shown below left) with perhaps only one active, or fully protected (shown below, right), giving no access to the displays for dirt and knocks:

Surface Mobile render

Now, obviously, my points here are illustrated with patent sketches and artist renders alone, but wouldn't you agree that a dual 'flat' screen, double-hinged design like this would be far more practical and likely to survive in the real world than something based on soft and fragile folding plastic? 

And that's before we get into how much we all enjoy using our modern glass-screened, oleophobic-coated smartphones in 2019. To go back to swiping on plastic screens (anyone else remember the resistive touch 'squidgy' plastic screens from the Nokia 5800 and N97 circa 2008?) is going to be a huge leap back in terms of user experience.

Mind you, a high quality hinge with optically refracting curved glass screen edges isn't going to be cheap either. Certainly over £1000 but maybe coming in cheaper than the Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X. Would manufacturers be able to license the patent from Microsoft? Surely the answer's yes here, especially as Microsoft doesn't seem to be using it (though note the event next month, we all live in hope!)

As I postulated back in April, if you're aiming for a Galaxy Fold or Mate X then you're going to be 'Folding it wrong'.

Published by Steve Litchfield at 7:55 UTC, September 18th

Section: Articles
Categories: Comment, Hardware
Platforms: Series 80, General, General