Do We Really Need Foldable or Dual Screen Phones?

I have an iPhone 11 Pro, you won’t be surprised to learn (and I reviewed it). It’s stunningly polished and does almost everything I want a smartphone to do. Then there’s the larger ‘Max’ sister device, with larger, 6.5″ display. But is there a way, an idea, a concept to fit a 8 or 9″ display in your pocket in a similar physical form factor? I’ve been playing with dual screen (LG V50 DS) and folding (Samsung Galaxy Fold) flagships and have come away a little underwhelmed – the Future hasn’t arrived just yet!

The Samsung Galaxy Fold looks at first glance like the answer to everyone's ultimate futuristic dreams. And it's very cool - but there are too many compromises at present.
The Samsung Galaxy Fold looks at first glance like the answer to everyone’s ultimate futuristic dreams. And it’s very cool – but there are too many compromises at present.

Once upon a time (pre-2010), your data, your setup, your accounts, your media were everything. They lived on your device and when you wanted to use a different device (say, a laptop) then you kind of had to start from scratch, copying things across, and it was a right royal pain. Happily, we’re in the tail end of 2019 now and we’ve had a decade of living in the ‘cloud’ to some degree. My Apple account has a huge amount of the data and settings and media from my iPhone, my Google account ditto for all my stuff from Android, and it’s surprisingly easy to mix and match.

In other words, take a new iPhone, sign into iCloud as usual, then add Google and your favourite social accounts, signing into each with your password and any two-factors, and… you’re essentially done. So, whichever service you want to pluck from thin air, you can almost certainly move between phone and tablet and laptop without any break in content. You can, literally, pick up any of these form factors and carry on doing whatever you were doing on the other form factors. Add in Apple’s Handoff and you can extend this to Maps, Safari web pages, and more.

So, whereas in, say, 2005, the idea of a portable device that had all your ‘stuff’ in it that could transform from pocket-sized phone to tablet, for easier viewing and easier use, would have been incredibly attractive. Sadly, the hardware knowhow to make this happen is only just starting to become available 15 years later and… it’s still clunky as heck. And, I argue, not strictly necessary anymore. Say you’re trying to fill in a document on an iPhone or finish off an email and it starts to get away from you. “I need more screen and a bigger keyboard!” you mutter. But then you slide over to a laptop or iPad or similar and there’s the draft of your document or email and you finish it off happily. There’s no real need to somehow expand your phone screen unless it’s trivial.

And it’s not. Trivial. I spent the best part of a day with the Samsung Galaxy Fold and have also now spent several days with the LG V50 Dual Screen, two of the current interesting options. The former has a single large plastic display that – literally – folds, with a smaller external display for quick access to trivial things, like making phone calls or dismissing notifications. The latter has a second screen in a plug-in accessory, with the two communicating well enough that applications can be bounced between the screens and you can effectively do two things at the same time.

Both are nice enough ideas, essentially prototypes, with obvious flaws. The Galaxy Fold’s display is necessarily fragile and, while it’ll be ok with gentle use, the slightest abuse and it will scratch and perhaps even fail. Plus it’s very thick when folded, and understandably heavy (with two batteries, no less!)

Galaxy Fold
The Galaxy Fold retains a small radius of curvature for the screen, but this does leave an asymmetric end gap (and a place for stuff to get between the two screen halves).
Galaxy Fold
Unfolded, the crease is hard to see head-on, though you do feel it when swiping around. This is the Fold’s star feature, of course – massive screen real estate!

The V50 Dual Screen has a huge ‘hinge gap’, is even thicker and bulkier, and while the displays themselves are tough with Gorilla Glass, there’s the massive challenge of somehow integrating them in software. Right now, the LG Camera application can use both, the LG keyboard can take the other one over, as shown on this page, and there’s a game pad option that a small handful of games can use. And that’s it.

Dual Screen
Demonstrating the Dual Screen best, perhaps, in ‘laptop mode’!!
Dual Screen
The most common use for the Dual screens – not as one ‘whole’, but running two applications side by side!

Interestingly, the most holistic approach to folding devices has come from Microsoft, with its Surface Duo, yet this is still in genuine prototype stage and its hardware and software is not scheduled to be ready until Christmas 2020. The Duo does promise applications which can use one screen or the other or – when dragged to the centre hinge – span both displays in intelligent manner.

Surface Duo
The Microsoft Surface Duo unfolds to show two displays that can be paired within a single application, showing different views, or running two apps side by side.

In fairness, both the Galaxy Fold and V50 Dual Screen are very well made, neither (surprisingly) felt like it was about to fall apart. The Galaxy Fold has the advantage that most applications simply use the large internal unfolded screen and you can also ’tile’ several applications at once, iPad OS-style. But you do have to put up with the very visible mechanical crease in the screen’s plastic – it’s not exactly elegant. And it’s also insanely expensive, around $2000 or local equivalent, which does seem crazy for a device that’s not waterproof, dustproof or even resistant to something tougher than a fingertip.

Fold
Folding the Galaxy Fold like a spectacles case – it’s very solid and feels reassuring – just don’t let grit or anything else hard get trapped!

The V50 Dual Screen has its own advantage of being able to remove the accessory when not needed and then you have a more standard iPhone-like glass slab with the usual characteristics. Plus the Dual Screen is a lot cheaper, less than than the typical iPhone, in fact. But using it side by side with my iPhone 11 Pro, I couldn’t help feel that the latter felt more futuristic and that the flapping, hinged, bulky Dual Screen seemed the design from a decade ago.

Dual
Folded, the V50 in its Dual Screen accessory – it’s Chunky with a capital C!

And therein lies the rub, the folding and dual screen designs of 2019 (and I’m including the upcoming Huawei Mate X here as well) are technology showcases for the relevant manufacturers, demonstrating what they can make (and ship), but they don’t really solve problems from the real world for the masses. In my case if my iPhone or Galaxy S9+ (my two current primary phones) isn’t big enough for the task at hand, I move onto my iPad mini or Surface Pro. And if those aren’t big enough, I have an Macbook and iMac to hand (the latter at home).

Yes, I’m a tech writer, but in this case I don’t think that I have hardware that’s excessive (nothing just quoted is newer than 2015!) – surely most iPhone owners also have an iPad from the last five years, for example. And as I mentioned at the start, it’s child’s play to ‘hand off’ work in progress from phone to something bigger and vastly simpler, cheaper and less clunky than the current folding and dual screen options.

The big question is whether Apple will ever dip their toes into ‘folding’ territory. Maybe in five years. Maybe in ten. When the tech needed to make a folding phone without compromises exists. When thickness and robustness aren’t significantly different from current offerings. So – yes – maybe never. We’ve seen other tech blind alleys come and go – 3D screens, VR, 3D Touch (ouch!) – and it’s entirely possible that two dimensional folding devices fit into that pattern.