Last week, a little-known company unveiled the world’s first smartphone with a foldable display, beating Samsung to the punch. Called the FlexPai, it features a 7.8-inch display that it says can bend like a wallet. But does it actually work?
On Monday, we tried the FlexPai, and the phone does indeed fold and unfold. Unfortunately, the novelty wears off pretty quick, and you’re left with a strange hybrid device that still needs a lot of polish.
Why does the world need a foldable phone? The maker of FlexPai, a California-based startup called Royole, is promoting the device as an Android handset that can easily switch into a mini tablet.
Folded up, the FlexPai is essentially a smartphone with two screens, one on the back and one on the front. It’s small enough to fit in a pant’s pocket, but you can then pull the device open for access to a larger screen.
That screen is where the FlexPai shines. Royole, which has a factory in Shenzhen, China, has been developing its flexible display technology for six years. The screens are fitted to a plastic film that’s only a few micrometers thick, but can be folded 200,000 times before the material starts to degrade.
We wondered if Royole might’ve had to sacrifice screen quality to create the bending effect, but it didn’t. The FlexPai’s display, which has a 1,920-by-1,440-pixel resolution, is on par with the screens found in other smartphones. The only difference is that this phone can bend.
The FlexPai does this through the help of a hinge that sits underneath the flexible display, but moving from tablet to smartphone mode isn’t as seamless as you might think.
It’s not like manuevering a flip phone. It requires a bit of force; you’ll probably have to use two hands. During our time with the FlexPai, the device sometimes made an audible cracking sound as we unfolded it.
But the bigger problem is the software. Ideally, the FlexPai should automatically detect when you’re switching from tablet to smartphone mode, and change the screen’s aspect ratio to make the transitions seamless. But the Android OS on board the device had trouble detecting the device orientation.
As a result, the screen would sometimes jump between horizontal and vertical mode. Apps would also pop up in strange positions, making the experience of using the phone a little dizzying. It didn’t help that our fingers would often accidentally touch a virtual button or app on the touch screen, causing a new window to open. You’ll have to use the FlexPai slowly and carefully to avoid errors.
Royole said it’s working to optimize the Android-based OS. The company is also investing $ 30 million to fund app development for FlexPai so that third-party software can fit the alternating screen sizes on the device. But we still aren’t completely sold on the need for a foldable phone.
Sure, it’s cool to look at, and the device can actually work a bit like a 2-in-1 convertible PC. With the help of the hinge, the FlexPai can also prop itself up on a desk, while its wraparound screen lets you project how people will look when you snap photos of them.
However, as a smartphone, the FlexPai is a bit clunky. Do you really want to be unfolding and folding your phone all day? At the very least, the bending effect needs to be more intuitive and seamless. For now, dealing with a traditional smartphone is easier, although we’re curious to see Samsung’s spin on the technology, which it’ll probably unveil tomorrow.
The other challenge facing FlexPai is the price tag. It starts at $ 1,291, making it more expensive than Apple’s iPhone XS. And it isn’t even made out sleek aluminum or glass, but fitted inside a plastic casing. Specs, however, include an upcoming Qualcomm Snapdragon 8-series processor, at least 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage, along with the addition of two speakers in the back.
Royole plans to start selling the FlexPai in China in late December. The company also wants to launch it in the US, but needs a carrier partner. In the meantime, Royole is a making a special developer edition of the FlexPai available in the US next month for $ 1,318. You can pre-order it now from the company’s website.