The first foldable phone is here and it’s not from Samsung.
Chinese company Royole has (just barely) beaten the Korean electronics giant to the punch with its FlexPai (pronounced “flex-pie”) handset, the first foldable phone you’ll actually be able to buy.
For now the phone is available for pre-order as a developer edition and costs $1,318 for 128 GB of storage, and $1,469 for 256 GB. It won’t actually ship until December but I had the opportunity to take an early look at the FlexPai at a press event in San Francisco.
While the FlexPai is an exciting development for anyone who has been waiting for bendy smartphones to become a reality, it’s painfully obvious that the software has not yet caught up. And without compelling software, I’m still not convinced that anyone really needs a phone that can fold itself in two.
It really folds
Royole CEO Bill Liu said that the company has spent more than six years perfecting its flexible display tech in order to get all the necessary components to work as an actual phone. And, taken purely as a feat of engineering, the FlexPai is impressive.
When flat, the phone has a 7.8-inch display, just a hair smaller than the iPad Mini. Folded up it becomes closer to normal smartphone size, though it’s still significantly wider than most phones. It also doesn’t fold completely flat, thanks to the hinge, which also makes it a bit awkward to hold.
The display itself is made of plastic, which Royole says makes it virtually unbreakable and much more scratch resistant than glass phones. The back of the phone is also plastic, except for the hinge which is made of silicone.
But the materials are not supposed to sell you on the phone as much as the fact that the whole thing folds up. Yes, it feels a bit gimmicky, but the FlexPai does actually deliver on its promise of being the “first foldable smartphone.”
Bending the phone and straightening it back out actually takes a bit of force: it’s nowhere near as effortless as flipping open an old school flip phone. Royole says the display can withstand 200,000 folds before it starts to degrade, which should more than cover the lifespan of the phone.
But on one of the phones I tried, the plastic display was beginning to lift a little in the space over the hinges. It made an audible crunching sound while folding. A Royole exec assured me this was a known issue due to the adhesive used in the engineering samples, and that it won’t be a problem on the final version.
It’s also, well, kind of ugly. At a time when bezels are supposed to be shrinking, the FlexPai’s top edge is downright huge. This is the bezel that holds the cameras — one 20 MP telephoto and a 16 MP wide-angle camera — but it’s just impossibly ugly.
The back of the phone is equally unappealing. Its hinge, which runs right down the middle of the phone, is an eyesore. It’s made of a rubbery-feeling silicone that looks a bit like the spine of a particularly thick book.
But my biggest reservation about the FlexPai is its software. The phones runs a forked version of Android 9.0, called Water OS, which has been customized to support the phone’s different-sized displays.
Royole says it’s still working to improve the software, and from what I saw, it’s very much a work in progress. There was a noticeable delay when rotating the screen or folding or unfolding the phone. When it did finally catch up, there were obvious bugs, and some widgets didn’t render properly on the screen (as evidenced in the photo below).
The bigger problem is that Royole will need outside developers to optimize their apps for its unusual display, which I just don’t see happening. The company is launching a developer program to incentivize third-party app makers, but I’m extremely skeptical that they’ll get many to buy in. And without properly optimized apps, anything you do with the FlexPai is likely to remain buggy and inconsistent.
That could change, especially if more mainstream phone makers like Samsung start making flexible phones as well. But until that happens, it’s very difficult to get excited about a foldable phone that costs more than $1300 and won’t have reliable software.