Mobiles

Smartphones that fold and flip: An Abridged History

It isn't until you return to a gadget trend after a decade that you realize how cyclical life is. As candy bar-style smartphones were now taking over the general gadget zeitgeist, I thought that was the last time I would be flirting with a flip phone provided by Verizon.

First of all, Samsung's flip phones and Motorola Razr set the precedent. Without them, we never would have believed phones could be small enough to fit into pockets.

Samsung was not the only company that tried to make strides in the industry with its foldable AMOLED display. A rollable concept and foldable device, the Readius, were shown off by Polymer Vision in 2006. It primarily functioned as an e-reader.

Nokia presented a concept video for foldable displays in 2008. As the original teaser shows, the Morph is a thin slab of glass that essentially trifold down and latches to your wrist like a slap bracelet. It seemed like the tech was ahead of its time since it was so novel.

A Samsung concept tablet featured a fully flexible AMOLED display with bend, fold, and roll-up capabilities. The display even had some transparency. Samsung hinted that they were working on foldable displays in 2011.

Kyocera released the Echo Android phone around the time Samsung teased us with its foldable AMOLED. A dual 3.5-inch display folded into the other, with software tweaks that allowed you to run two apps simultaneously.

This was another case where another manufacturer was ahead of its time. The split-screen mode wasn't yet available in Android.

The technology for folding smartphone displays was available to Samsung, but a phone with that form factor would take a while to develop. Up until then, foldable smartphones were mostly dual-screen like the Kyocera Echo. In 2017, ZTE introduced the Axon M on AT&T. I still have the original review unit in my gadget closet. 

Despite Samsung's updated flexible display, the Royole Flexpai was technically the first bendable smartphone to market. While initial impressions of the device weren't positive, it was made immediately available for $1,320 from the Chinese electronics brand.

Foldable phones from Samsung were teased relentlessly in 2019, but when they came out, they landed in a smack. This device, which originally had a 4.6-inch display, expanded to a 7.3-inch Dynamic AMOLED display.

Some reviewers unintentionally removed the protective plastic film from the inner display, so Samsung recalled those review units and relaunched the Fold with a fix a few months later.

Huawei isn't a brand you can buy to use in the U.S. anymore, but it made strides overseas with the foldable Mate X. It is still making folding phones for other markets, despite Samsung's initial review devices being mishandled. The expensive bendable phone stole the spotlight from the Galaxy Fold.

Besides Samsung and Huawei, Xiaomi is one of the Chinese smartphone manufacturers to manufacture flexible phones. The company once teased a tri-fold design, but the Mi Mix Fold was its first launch.

As a folding smartphone in 2019, Motorola tried to revive the Razr brand. Verizon had exclusive rights to the 6.2-inch P-OLED foldable resembling Motorola's original Razr flip phone. In addition, the phone had a 2.7-inch OLED “Quick View” display. The phone, however, got poor reviews and was available only with Verizon.

In the aftermath of Samsung's almost disastrous Galaxy Fold launch, the company released its first Z Flip. Motorola also struggled to capitalize on nostalgia for its flip phone from the early 2000s. A fourth generation is expected sometime this summer, after two more iterations.

At CES 2020, TCL showed off its foldable concept device, which was known for its affordable smartphones and TVs. A month later, it teased a slide-out smartphone, which gained more attention for its creative fold.

The Microsoft Surface Duo is not foldable in the current sense. The screen of the device does not bend in the middle, but the two inner displays fold up into an 8.1-inch device. Despite all the software tweaks, Microsoft failed to impress users with the second-generation Duo 2.

In the context of OnePlus' first flagship foldable, the Find N, we wouldn't be remiss if we didn't mention Oppo. Though the device is only available overseas, its existence has normalized the form factor.

To differentiate itself from the saturated sea of Android smartphones, Oppo has tried on a variety of smartphone styles.

Even though we have reached the end of our folding smartphone journey, there's plenty more to come, such as Samsung's other experiments and rumors about stretchy displays. Considering Duo's success, it's unclear if Microsoft has another form factor in mind.

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