Tech Tonic with Vishal Mathur: Is the foldable phone making a comeback?

They’re introducing some much-needed variation in design, after about a decade of unimaginative smartphone slabs. But how durable will they be, how dependable, how quick? Take a look.
Some fold like a book, some like a clam. (Clockwise from top) The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3, Huawei Mate X and Oppo Find N. PREMIUM
Some fold like a book, some like a clam. (Clockwise from top) The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3, Huawei Mate X and Oppo Find N.
Updated on Jan 08, 2022 04:08 PM IST
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It’s a clear case of back to the future. Some of the coolest new phones are inspired by what can now be called modern history. As a slice of consumers looks to go smaller and lighter, flip phones or foldable phones are making a comeback.

These devices are finally breaking the monotony that has afflicted smartphone design. There is variation in shape and design, in what has otherwise been an unashamed race to go bigger, with each new model for at least a decade being yet another unimaginative slab (at least on the outside).

So, are we coming full circle? How will size affect processing power and longevity? What happens to the cameras? Here’s a look at the (possible) return of the small phone.

A sharp curve

The two forms of foldable phone now in play are the smaller clamshell, which unfolds vertically (like the Motorola Razr and Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3) and a larger alternative that folds horizontally like a book (these include the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3, Oppo Find N and Huawei Mate X).

Both varieties have been through a steep learning curve. Huawei took time to iron out issues with display failure. Motorola learnt from user feedback about hinge durability and performance. Samsung had to go back to the drawing board after the first-generation foldable exhibited dust ingress in the hinge, which damaged its display.

Fast forward to 2022 and generational upgrades have fixed most of these teething problems. The displays are more robust and can compare with those of non-folding phones. Newer processors such as the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 and Huawei Kirin 9000 are expected to help with longevity too.

As durability and price remain concerns, the marketing blitz has begun. Above, the protagonist of the Korean drama Hi Bye, Mama! with his Samsung Galaxy Z Fold.
As durability and price remain concerns, the marketing blitz has begun. Above, the protagonist of the Korean drama Hi Bye, Mama! with his Samsung Galaxy Z Fold.

While Xiaomi, Vivo and OnePlus have stayed away from this segment, Apple is expected to launch its foldable iPhone in 2023. It’s too early to say what it will look like, but it is likely to be another game-changer from Apple, and competing smartphone brands are already trying to cash in on the market before its launch.

Size matters

With the early mobile phones, it was a race to get smaller. Makers even compromised on processing power and battery life to stay palm-sized. This changed with the arrival of the smartphone, which had to be able to stand in for a PC. These phones had to host scores of apps seamlessly. Emails had to be read and composed, PDFs downloaded, videos edited and viewed.

Consumers also wanted larger screens on which to do all these things, as well as software and cameras with which to create and share their own content. This meant powerful processors (which needed elaborate cooling systems); large batteries; multiple high-resolution cameras. All of which needs space.

Bigger began to mean better; there was the strange phase of the phablet, a phone that was almost as large as a tablet PC. Phones began to outsize Subway sandwiches.

Then the technology caught up and, even without the fold, smartphones began to get smaller. The Apple iPhone 13 Mini launched in September with a 5.4-inch display, for instance, replicates the features and performance of the iPhone 13, which has a 6.1-inch display.

This is a function of component evolution over the years. Displays have become thinner, batteries are denser and smaller; processors require less elaborate cooling systems.

Which is all good news for foldable phones too, although there is a different set of potential issues with this category, still linked to the fold. It’s unclear, for instance, how they will stand up to rough (or even heavy) use, how many accidental falls a hinge will be able to handle, or how time will wear down the foldable display.

As these issues are ironed out, the phones will likely sell on style, sleekness and factors such as cameras.

You can expect to see more foldable phones on screens, for instance, in product placements across streaming offerings and possibly in mainstream TV shows and films too. Already, Korean dramas are awash with them. Samsung is pushing particularly hard. Its Galaxy Z Fold3 is being used by the protagonists of Tale of the Nine Tailed, Start-Up and The Penthouse, to name just a few.

Samsung has also roped in the global sensation BTS, South Korea’s most famous boy band, with special-edition Galaxy Z and S20 series phones offering options inspired by the band’s trademark pastel tone attire and packaging that will feature the young men.

How much will that do to offset consumer reluctance, and the hefty price tag (the Galaxy Z series is priced between 85,000 and 1.5 lakh)? For now, sales figures across this smartphone category are rising fast. Research firm IDC estimates that 7 million foldable phones were sold globally in 2021, up from 1.9 million in 2020.

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    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.

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