Foldable Phones Make Waves At Mobile World Congress

Foldable phones are all the rage at mobile tech conference Mobile World Congress, but PAT PILCHER asks are they origami for the one percent?

After months of rumours, bogus renders and leaks, bendy foldable phones are finally here.

And having weathered several years of stagnating innovation and only incremental improvements, smartphone makers are hoping that the convenience on offer with foldable phones (they are as pocketable as today’s smartphones but can unfold to deliver the usability of a tablet) will make them a must-have item for buyers.

There is a downside, however: Initial indications based on US dollar prices of both the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X are that anyone wanting a phone that can fold out into a tablet will have to raid their piggy banks and/or sell a kidney, with the phones commanding steep price premiums.

Here are the foldable phones on show at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

SAMSUNG GALAXY FOLD

Price: Estimated to be $2876

NZ Availability: TBA

Rumours started swirling last year, almost straight after the launch of the Note 9. With a collective “At last!” shouted by many at MWC, Samsung’s foldable phone is finally here and is known as the Samsung Galaxy Fold.

It unfolds into a roomy 7.3-inch screen to deliver tablet-like functionality along with the pocketability of a smartphone by folding over itself.

According to the folks on Samsung’s booth at MWC, the Fold will launch in April 2019, although a slightly later launch date is expected for New Zealand.

Like the other offerings, it may be gee-whiz, but it will not be cheap. Initial prices are expected to start at US$1980 (NZ$2876). The good news is that Galaxy Fold buyers will get a whole lot of phone for their money, as it’s said to be sporting a super-fast CPU and a roomy 12GB of RAM/512GB of storage. It will also come with a triple-lens 16MP+12MP+12MP rear cameras and a 4,380mAh battery which should (in theory) deliver up to 2 days of life with moderate use).

HUAWEI MATE X

Price: $3796

NZ Availability: Mid 2019

The Huawei Mate X was unveiled at MWC, and its screen is on the outside rather than being tucked away on the inside when it’s shut (which is where you’ll find the screen on the Galaxy Fold).

When unfolded, it converts into an 8-inch tablet. When shut, it has screens on both its front and rear and a small grip holding its cameras. It is also as thin as most flagship smartphones. Foldability aside, it packs the zippy Kirin 980 CPU and 5G connectivity (which comes via Huawei’s in-house manufactured Balong 5000 modem). It will also support 2G/3G and LTE.

Given its positioning as a top-of-the-line flagship device, its lack of in-display fingerprint scanner is an interesting omission (there is a conventional fingerprint scanner instead). It seems a tad odd given the Mate X’s flagship sticker price.

Speaking of which, the Mate X is more expensive than Galaxy Fold, though with Huawei saying the price will initially be €2299 (NZ$3796) when it goes on sale in the middle of this year. Huawei has indicated that the price is likely to come down over time and that the initial cost is unlikely to be in place by the time it launches in New Zealand.

OPPO FOLDABLE PHONE

Price: TBA

NZ Availability: TBA

Oppo’s foldable phone is perhaps the least talked about foldable at MWC as they have only showcased a foldable prototype via Weibo. It looks a lot like Huawei’s Mate X in that there is a large OLED display which wraps around both sides of the phone when it’s folded, rather than being  folded away on the inside. It also sports a bar on one side that houses cameras.

At this early stage, little else is known about the phone – even Oppo’s own people at their MWC stand seemed somewhat surprised at its launch.

Key specifications such as price, CPU, cameras, battery, 5G support have yet to get confirmed, but given the sheer amount of hype around foldable phones, expect this information to surface sooner rather than later.

MOTOROLA RAZR 2019

Price: Rumoured to be $2180

NZ Availability: US Only

Motorola made a considerable amount of noise at MWC fuelling rumours that we could soon see the iconic Motorola Razr as a foldable phone. Unlike the traditional rectangular slab that converts to a tablet, Motorola’s effort is said to be a flip phone with a foldable screen when it is opened up.

Rumours have been flying for some time. As far back as February 2017 Yang Yuanqing, CEO of Lenovo (which now owns Motorola) was quoted as saying that, “With the new technology, particularly foldable screens, I think you will see more and more innovation on our smartphone design.”

Motorola has since filed patents for a two-screen foldable smartphone. The patent filing lists two cameras, plus hinges at its top, underside and middle, which will give it the ability to get propped up into tent display mode. Its unfolded screen is said to be 7-inches.

Rumour has it that the Razr 2019 will sell for US$500 (NZ$2180), and while that is unconfirmed and more affordable than both the Galaxy Fold and the Mate X, it’s still a sticker price that will give many pause for thought. The new Motorola Razr’s pricing is  academic, however, as Lenovo has confirmed that it will initially be exclusive to US mobile carrier Verizon, and only 200,000 units will be available. It’s currently unclear whether the phone will even make to store shelves outside of the US.

XIAOMI MIX FLEX

Price: TBA

NZ Availability: TBA

China’s other flagship mobile brand, Xiaomi, talked up the MIX Flex prototype device on a video with the company’s co-founder Lin Bin. In the streaming video, the Xiaomi MIX Flex first gets displayed in an unfolded tablet state and then in the same video, both sides of MIX Flex fold inwards, leaving the middle of its display visible.

It’s a unique design that could give Xiaomi a point of difference in the folding phone market, but little to no information has yet surfaced at MWC on the MIX flex’s specifications or price.

Lin Bin has said that the MIX flex is still only an engineering sample and that they are considering producing a commercially available version soon.

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