There’s no denying that a phone that fits in your pocket and can be transformed into a tablet is great. However, foldable phones are fraught with problems and compromises, many of which have already been solved by boring smartphone designs.
The first smartphones did not seem as boring as now. There were flip phones, slider keyboards, trackballs, flip outside keyboards, stands and buttons as far as the eye could see. Phones didn’t just come in various screen sizes, they also had various form factors.
The iPhone never really participated in this “wild west” era of smartphone design, but Android saw all sorts of different designs. Slowly but surely they all merged into the now standard flat slab. Flip phones are a big change, but they’re giving us a perfect demonstration of why phones got boring.
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The Aspect Ratio Debate Continues
Nowadays, smartphones usually have a screen aspect ratio between 18:9 and 20:9. This change happened around 2017, when phones like the LG G6 and Galaxy S8 moved away from the classic 16:9 aspect ratio. There was some initial doubt about the new taller screens, but it didn’t take long for it to become the new normal.
Foldable phones are currently experiencing their own version of the aspect ratio debate, but the options are more spread out. Even when the indoor screen sizes are essentially the same, manufacturers disagree with the main guidance. For example, the Galaxy Z Fold 4 and the Pixel Fold have 7.6-inch internal displays with similar resolutions, but the Z Fold opens in portrait mode, while the Pixel Fold opens in landscape mode.
A flat-slab smartphone can be scaled up or down quite easily and maintain a constant aspect ratio. That’s not the case with phones that open. When you adjust the footprint of the phone closed, it changes the aspect ratio of the inner screen when it is open. That’s why outer screens are sometimes odd sizes – it’s all about the inner screen.
After nearly five generations of foldable phones, there’s still a lot of debate about which aspect ratio is best for this form factor. Samsung’s approach in the Galaxy Z Fold puts apps in portrait mode most of the time and works well for multitasking. Google’s wider interior screen on the Pixel Fold looks more like a traditional tablet.
The fact is that there will simply be a lot of variety when it comes to foldable phones. The brand you like may not make your ideal shape foldable. It’s harder to make everyone happy, which is a problem that flat-slab smartphones have mostly solved. You can buy an iPhone in three or four different sizes, but will Samsung offer a foldable phone in multiple aspect ratios? Probably not.
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Moving parts are breaking
We can’t talk about foldable phones without talking about how fragile they are. The most recent foldable phone to hit the market, the Google Pixel Fold, for example, has already had its fair share of flaws and screen glitches.
One of the main reasons why smartphones have become boring is the elimination of moving parts. Remember slider keyboards? Physical navigation buttons? Trackballs? Even physical keyboards that don’t slide or open? Basically all of these features have been removed from modern smartphone designs and that has led to much more durable devices.
Slide and flip mechanisms get stuck. Buttons become mushy and unresponsive. All of these things create more entry points for dust and water to get into the phone. By making phones more boring, we’ve been able to get phones that are IP68 rated and have very few points of failure. Modern phones may look boring, but they’re tougher and more waterproof than ever.
Flip phones are the exact opposite: they’re loaded with points of failure. Folding screens are soft and susceptible to scratching and failure over large areas of the OLED. The hinges can leave dust and water inside the phone. Even if dust or sand does not get inside the body of the phone, it can easily get trapped between the “pages” of the screen and cause pressure damage and scratches. Foldable phones are new, but there are so many new points of failure compared to boring old flat-slab smartphones.
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Boring is good… sometimes
As boring as smartphone design has become, there is no arguing against how they become reliable and durable devices with very few points of failure. You can buy just about any vintage smartphone and easily get several years of use with minimal care. We can’t say that about foldable phones yet.
Will foldable phones get to the boring reliability level of regular smartphones? It’s hard to predict how technology will evolve, but a foldable or expandable device will always have more moving parts than a flat slab. There’s always going to be that extra complexity that causes problems.
The good news is that the folding ones do not have to reach the same degree of durability as flat-slab smartphones. A tablet is more durable than a laptop, but that doesn’t mean laptops are bad. Different types of devices have different advantages and disadvantages, and that’s okay.
Even with advances in foldable phone design and improvements in materials, foldables are likely to always be more fragile. But for people who want the equivalent of a mini tablet that they can slip into their pocket and unfold at will, it’s still a worthwhile trade-off.