Samsung Launches Its First Foldable Smartphone, You Can’t Touch It Yet, and the Future of Foldables

Published February 24, 2019

Samsung wisely got the jump on the rest of the smartphone industry by holding a product launch in San Francisco on February 20th, 5 days ahead of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) show which starts on February 25th in Barcelona. Called Samsung Unpacked, Samsung wanted to make sure it introduced its foldable smartphone before Huawei and others and also got all the media’s attention on its S10 launch.Finally, it is here, the Galaxy Fold. Samsung described the Galaxy Fold as revolutionary and the future of the smartphone. In introducing this product, Samsung made several critical design choices which other foldable smartphones may copy or may decide differently:

  • Samsung decided on a “Fold-In” design, with a tight radius of curvature for the inner fold of the cover material. This means that the large foldable screen is protected when the phone is folded, but also that it is unavailable most of the time.
  • Samsung also decided to include a “secondary” display, a 4.6”, 21:9 OLED display which is used when the device is folded.
  • Perhaps as a consequence of these choices, Samsung built a dual battery system, 1280mAh and 3100mAh, that combines into a single power source with a capacity of 4,380mAh.

Galaxy Fold

In bringing out what will likely be the first high volume foldable phone, in “Unpacked” Samsung took pains to describe the new approaches they took in the mechanical design, so that the device would be both robust and easy to use, and would last for “hundreds of thousands of folds and unfolds”. The hinge structure has moving gears. One of the functions of the hinge is to keep the foldable display flat when unfolded wile it also enables a “satisfying” click when closed. Given the moving parts of the hinge, it must be protected as dropping the foldable smartphone on the hinge can cause damage and prevent it from working properly. Samsung clams the hinge is housed in a hidden enclosure for a seamless and elegant look. The complexity of the hinge may also lead to yield loss in the assembly process which would be costly.

Galaxy Fold Hinge Structure

One of the opportunities of having a larger display on your smartphone is the potential for multi-tasking, having multiple windows open at a time. Samsung indicated that the Galaxy Fold allows 3-app multi-tasking on the larger screen through the unique UX built just for the Galaxy Fold, which brings the smartphone into a true Windows-like user experience. They call this Multi-Active Window. They also demonstrated App continuity which allows the user to bring up an app like Google Maps in the folded state, enter initial input, and when the device is unfolded, the app automatically shifts to the larger screen.

Galaxy Fold Enable 3 Apps at a Time

App Continuity is a Major Feature in the Galaxy Fold

Samsung clearly intends for this product to reinforce its own brand and its reputation for groundbreaking innovation, describing the Fold as a “one of a kind, luxury device” with “limitless ways to use it”. The stories from popular press on this new product have often highlighted the price of $1980, a new milestone for a high-priced phone and whether or not Samsung had the cache to sell significant quantities of a phone priced this high. We think Android early adopters with an expense account will certainly be the initial target market. It may also enable Samsung to persuade some users to move away from other brands. On CNBC, one of their hosts was disappointed it only folded once, she thought it should fold multiple times like origami. You can’t please everybody.

DJ Koh, Samsung President and CEO, and Head of IT & Mobile Communications Division, described the product launches as bringing in “the Next Decade of Galaxy”, which the company hopes will build on the first decade with sales of more than 2 billion Galaxy devices: “No company has done more to put the smartphone at the center of our connected lives”. Certainly one could argue that Apple would be that company, but Samsung would be a close #2 given its higher smartphone volumes and leadership in display and memory production.

In terms of the product details, it was what we expected as shown below. The 7.3” foldable Infinity Flex display has 2152 x 1536 (QXGA+) resolution for a 4.2: 3 aspect ratio and 362 ppi. While the front display they showed in November was 4.58” 1960 x 840, the final resolution specification was lowered to 1366 x 768 (HD+) or 342 PPI. The change in the front display resolution specification caused the product availability to be delayed from early March to April 26th. Samsung claims they invented a new polymer layer which enabled them to produce a display 50% thinner than the typical smartphone display. Hmm, perhaps they are referring to the cover film which is much thinner than cover glass. In terms of product thickness, when the Galaxy Fold is unfolded, it is just 0.28” thick, which is thinner than a typical smartphone. However, when it is folded, it is 0.67” thick which is slightly more than 2X thicker than conventional smartphones. It is loaded with cameras, 6 in total. There is a triple rear camera consisting of a 16MP ultra-wide, 12MP wide angle and 12MP telephoto with 2X optical soon. There are two cameras when unfolded with 8MP and 10MP capability and a 10MP selfie camera as well. The fingerprint ID is side mounted, “where the thumb naturally rests.” It features 12GBs or RAM and 512GBs of storage and uses a 7nm Octa-core processor and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset and Android Pie. It is available in Space Silver, Cosmos Black, Martian Green and Astro Blue.

Galaxy Fold Specs

Why No Demos and Where Do We Go from Here?

We were of course excited for Samsung to finally make this product available, from late April. However, it was disappointing that there were no demos for the media to touch, feel and fold. While we weren’t there, we couldn’t help but read and listen to the disappointment of others in the media. One of the areas of concern that was not addressed in the presentation was how will the touchscreen feel without the use of cover glass. Is the cover film textured? Will it feel like glass or will it feel like cheap plastic? Will it feel like a $2000 product? This question still needs to be answered.

Given that flexible OLED fab utilization will be low for at least the next few years, the foldable opportunity is too big to launch just one product in one form factor. To become healthy, the flexible OLED industry needs foldable displays to succeed in growing the average sized display in smartphones, tablets and even notebooks and must experiment with different configurations. Lower yields in foldable displays will also help narrow the oversupply. While an in-folding display with a second display on the front was a safe, but expensive choice, as the display is not exposed and protected from drops and scratches, we expect to see other approaches this year as well. The Motorola Razr 4 clamshell idea is interesting as it will produce a 7”+ smartphone in a 3” or so form factor which could be interesting to many people. It will also protect the display from scratches and drops. However, it will have the problem that the display is not accessible unless you open it and it must still deal with the issue of how does the plastic touchscreen fell.

Another approach we expect to see this year from Samsung is an out-folding version which eliminates the need for a second display and second battery. In this type of configuration, the display is always exposed and is more susceptible to scratching and dropping. While a foldable display with a cover film is unbreakable, it may not prevent the product from being damaged when dropped. An alternative approach is ultra-thin strengthened glass which can be as thin or thinner than colorless polyimide plus a hardcoat. The limitation of this material is that a larger fold radius is required, such as 3-4mm. However, this can be within the tolerances of an outfolding design. Certainly, the FlexPai has an even larger radius with cover film. The outfolding design with glass will also provide a more customary feel. However, unlike cover film, it won’t be unbreakable and if/when it does break or crack, it will likely be a more expensive repair due to the larger panel size and thinner material. Nonetheless, we expect to see Samsung test the waters with an outfolding smartphone with ultra-thin cover glass which will have just 1 display later in the year which should reduce the cost and weight by eliminating a second display and battery.

We now have about two months before the first Galaxy Fold devices are available. Samsung, and many other companies, have placed big bets that the Fold and similar devices by other smartphone makers will not only boost the prospects of the display industry, but revive growth in the overall smartphone market. In addition, we don’t believe the industry will stop with foldable smartphones. We expect to see foldable tablets which get up to 12”-13” when unfolded next year and foldable notebooks in 2021 which will not require keyboards. It is certainly an exciting time for the flexible display industry.

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Written by

Ross Young