Google's philosophy of "Be together, not the same" for Android devices is reaching new heights with the public unveiling of Samsung's foldable smartphone at their developer conference in San Francisco this week. The foldable screen tech, which Samsung markets as "Infinity Flex Display" is planned to enter mass production "in the coming months," though when Samsung plans to have foldable phones in the hands of consumers—and what that device will be called—is presently unclear.
Samsung announced details about the physical specs of the screen during a developer panel on Wednesday afternoon. The forthcoming phone will have two displays, a "Cover Display" and "Main Display," the latter being the one which folds open. The cover display has a resolution of 840x1960, giving it an aspect ratio of 21:9, and a density of 420 dpi at 4.58." The main display is 7.3" with the same pixel density, with a resolution of 1536x2152, giving it an aspect ratio of 4.2:3.
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At the Android Dev Summit, also in San Francisco this week, Google announced support for "screen continuity" which is intended to make transitioning between folded and unfolded views in Android-powered devices with foldable screens more seamless. This is an unambiguous gesture toward mainstreaming foldable displays going forward. In this brave new world of foldable phones, how will this technology benefit real people?
Convertible Android devices have not fared well in the past
The most recent attempt at this can be found in the ZTE Axon M, released in November 2017, which paired two 5.2" 1080p screens together. ZTE's attempt was plagued with problems, foremost of those being the hinge in the middle distracting from the experience. Likewise, weight and battery issues, as well as ergonomic problems—the screens are not level when the device is laid flat—made the phone frustrating to use. Additionally, the time delay between unfolding the device and having the software adjust was a common pain point of the Axon M. (ZTE's near-brush with death as a result of sanctions were a contributing factor, though these happened well outside the launch window of the Axon M.)
The Axon M itself is a retread of a form factor pioneered by the Kyocera Echo and Sony Tablet P. This trio of devices combined physically separate screens, and utilized unique bespoke implementations of screen layout management, as Android lacked native support for that screen design. Samsung's upcoming foldable phone will, fortunately, address those two drawbacks.
Likewise, battery life for the three was considered poor in contemporaneous reviews, which is a concern Samsung addressed during their reveal this week.
ASUS also attempted a phone/tablet hybrid for the productivity-minded, which lasted several iterations, though availability stateside was limited at best. The original ASUS PadFone introduced in 2012 had a 4" 480x800 display, but was sold with a 10" tablet dock into which the phone could slide in. This was followed by the PadFone 2, PadFone Infinity, and ended with the PadFone X in 2014, which was available on AT&T in the US.
Normal Android tablets have a mediocre history
The Motorola Xoom, which shipped with Android 3.0 Honeycomb, was a hastily-assembled product intended to compete against the iPad. Honeycomb was engineered exclusively for tablets, though the tablet-focused design cues (most notably multi-pane menus) introduced in that version had slowly disappeared from Android with successive releases, making the tablet experience on Android more akin to a gigantic phone. The UX pain points are more obvious on 10" tablets than 7", which bodes well for Samsung's upcoming foldable.
That said, an update to the Android product spotlight website on May 31, 2018 resulted in the complete removal of the tablets section. This incident prompted declarations that Android tablets were finally dead. The removal was called a bug by a Google executive, and the disappeared section was restored in short order, though it still touts two Android tablets introduced in 2015, and the new Samsung Galaxy Tab 4. Google itself has moved on from Android tablets, with the new Pixel Slate being powered by Chrome OS, which also has the ability to run Android apps.
Should I upgrade when a foldable phone?
The easy answer is no, though a common maxim can be applied in this situation. Smartphone cameras are not a true replacement for professional-grade DSLR cameras, though the best camera you have is the one you have with you. In the same way, feasibly carrying a tablet in your pocket could make users more likely to actually use tablets.
The durability of this form factor is also likely to be a concern. Applying a case to a foldable phone is a higher level order of difficulty, and super ruggedized cases such as the Otterbox Defender are not likely to be practicable solutions for this form factor. Likewise, any component which requires mechanical manipulation to use is engineered to withstand a finite number of cycles. The number of fold and unfold cycles which a foldable screen can withstand is not yet clear. For a first-generation technology, phones which utilize this display technology are likely to have a more limited lifespan, and be more prone to failure. Accordingly, as this technology matures, the durability of foldable screens will increase. For this reason, it may be a wise move to wait and see how these developments unfold.
The big takeaways for tech leaders:
- Samsung and Google are working together to bring support for smartphones with foldable screens to Android.
- Previous productivity-minded Android devices with unique form factors have not fared well.
- Special report: Harnessing IoT in the enterprise (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
- Samsung's foldable phone is here (Wait, why do I want one?) (ZDNet)
- Android Pie: Cheat sheet (TechRepublic)
- Google now blocks uncertified Android devices from using its core apps (ZDNet)
- Android P will not support these Nexus and Pixel devices (TechRepublic)
James Sanders is a technology writer for TechRepublic. He covers future technology, including quantum computing, AI, and 5G, as well as cloud, security, open source, mobility, and the impact of globalization on the industry, with a focus on Asia.