The Galaxy Fold was supposed to be The Future™. Samsung, the world’s leading display manufacturer, invested six years and $130 million to birth its ultimate creation: the flexible OLED display. And with the holy grail of display technology under its belt, Samsung would revolutionize the smartphone industry by introducing the “foldable” smartphone—a device that would be a portable, pocketable smartphone when closed and a multi-pane, multi-tasking, big-screen tablet when open. Samsung might have started the modern smartphone era as “that company that just copies Apple,” but after surviving a thousand lawsuits, ushering in the big-screen smartphone, and eventually surpassing Apple in sales, Samsung would finally, indisputably plant its flag atop the smartphone market with the Galaxy Fold, a device that would redefine the modern smartphone.
At least, that was the plan. Things have not gone to plan.
Catastrophe struck, allegedly during the development of the Galaxy Fold. At the end of 2018, Samsung said the foldable display technology it spent so much time and money to develop was stolen by a supplier and sold to two Chinese companies for $14 million. All of Samsung’s R&D work was supposed to give it a sizable head start in foldable smartphones, but that technological lead was suddenly evaporating.
It’s about a year later now and, related to the alleged theft or not, Chinese companies are quickly spinning up rival foldable devices. Motorola, Xiaomi, and Oppo are all hot on Samsung’s trail, but the Galaxy Fold’s biggest competition has been the Huawei Mate X. Huawei announced its foldable a whopping four days after Samsung’s Galaxy Fold unveiling, and Huawei’s phone shipped, in China, on November 15. Samsung and Huawei ended up constantly shuffling their respective foldable release dates around, but at the end of it all, Samsung beat Huawei to market by only 70 days. Samsung has been publicly demoing foldable OLED displays since 2008—a time when Huawei’s smartphone business was still in diapers, by the way—and for Samsung’s market lead to come down to two months shows just how badly things have gone for the company.
After investing so much in this display technology and showing off prototypes for something like 11 years, it would be understandable if Samsung wanted to beat this surprise batch of Chinese rivals to market no matter what. With this background information in your pocket, it’s not impossible to imagine that maybe, just maybe, the Galaxy Fold’s development was rushed.
The Galaxy Fold’s launch event kicked off in February 2019, with all the usual Samsung pomp and circumstance. Once the phone hit the hands of early reviewers in April, though, signs appeared that something was very wrong. Of the limited amount of Folds sent out to the press, two broke within the first few days after regular usage. In one case, the display pixels just started dying along the crease in the display. In the other case, debris worked its way inside the sizable gaps in the phone hinge, landed under the display, and damaged it from behind. Several other reviewers also accidentally damaged their Fold review units by peeling a protective layer off the top of the display, which, thanks to exposed edges, just seemed like a screen protector used for shipping. With so many problems present in the initial shipment of Galaxy Folds, Samsung doesn’t seem like it spent enough time to properly test the device.
After the problems found by reviewers, Samsung cancelled the Fold’s original April 26 launch and refunded any pre-orders. The company went back to the drawing board with the Galaxy Fold, tried to patch up the design a bit more, and finally shipped the device five months later. Samsung reduced the gaps in the phone body, reinforced the hinge area with chain-mail armor underneath the display, and cut down on ingress points with protective dust caps on the top and bottom of the display fold.
The damage to the phone’s reputation was already done, though. Durability concerns about the wild new form factor existed when the phone was announced, and seeing it fall apart in the hands of reviewers only confirmed those suspicions. Carriers were never that enthusiastic about the Galaxy Fold—only AT&T and T-Mobile were originally signed up to carry the phone in the US—and T-Mobile dropped out after the first delay. Samsung Electronics’ CEO, DJ Koh, called the launch delay “embarrassing” and took responsibility for the whole fiasco, saying, “I pushed it through before it was ready.”
And that brings us to today—the Ars review. This one is going to be a little different, since I don’t think the Galaxy Fold has any viability as a serious device anyone should consider purchasing. Should you buy a Galaxy Fold? NO! God no. Are you crazy? The sky-high price, durability issues, nascent form factor, and new screen technology should rule the phone out for just about everyone. (Save your bendy tech dreams for Westworld season three.) Rather than a viable product, right now the Fold feels more like a publicly available prototype device that demonstrates an experimental new form factor.
So while you shouldn’t buy the Galaxy Fold, that still doesn’t answer the question, “Is this form factor a good idea?” Let’s put aside the sky-high price—which will, of course, come down over time—and the durability issues—which will hopefully be fixed in the future with the wild concept of “flexible glass” that Corning is hard at work on. Is Samsung’s current vision of a foldable phone a useful improvement? Unfortunately, the answer here is also a firm “no.” During the initial announcement of the phone, Samsung said the device would be “a powerful smartphone and a revolutionary tablet,” and the Fold is remarkably terrible at being either of those things. Samsung may have delayed the phone to put Band-Aids on the show-stopping design problems, but the overall product still shows a lack of thought and consideration for how actual people will want to use a device like this.
The launch of the Galaxy Fold was a disaster, and while Samsung fought through and got to market, that doesn’t mean the disaster is over. I’m still enthusiastic about the idea of a phone that converts into a tablet, but the Galaxy Fold puts on a master class of how not to do it.
Listing image by Ron Amadeo