Although Samsung (or actually Royale) started it last year, it was only really this year that foldable phones truly took off, with the more mature Galaxy Z Flip 2 and the Motorola Razr 5G. But even before the seemingly futuristic smartphone can really take hold of the market, it seems that another unconventional design might be arriving next year.
Depending on how the first generation solves design and engineering problems, rollable phones could actually offer a more economic and more practical alternative to foldable phones.
That’s how they roll
Foldables and rollables and even the odd “swivable” LG Wing all try to solve the same problem in different ways. People want larger screens to view more content more comfortably but they don’t want to carry even a small tablet in their pockets.
A flexible screen that can be partly hidden is key to solving this problem and a rollable one may offer a better option than what the likes of Samsung, Motorola, and Huawei currently have.
The disadvantages of folding screens are mostly known by now. They can’t be folded flat, at least not yet, and require a minimum radius that balances the stress on the material when curved.
The screen has to be protected by a less rigid material, at most some form of ultra-thin glass or UTG, to maintain its flexibility. And in the case of “innie” foldables like the Galaxy Z Fold 2, a second external screen is needed to allow the use of the device even when folded shut.
In contrast, a rollable screen tackles the same problem from a different direction. Instead of completely folding the screen, it only rolls one or both sides in and out of some hidden compartment. This means that you only need a single screen for the entire device and that a part of it will always be visible and accessible.
Unlike Huawei’s “outie” foldable Mate X, however, the unused part of the screen remains hidden and protected inside an enclosure.
There are other benefits to this kind of flexible phone beyond its economy. Depending on which design the manufacturer goes for, there can be less stress on the flexible screen since it can be rolled and curved at a much larger radius than a foldable.
The manufacturer could also opt to fortify the section of the screen that’s always exposed with a more rigid protective surface. A rollable phone almost sounds like the perfect solution, offering an equally futuristic device with none or few of the drawbacks of a foldable phone.
Back to the Fold
That, of course, is based on the ideal of rollable phones, which might need a few iterations to get right, just like foldables. Although there are a few like TCL, LG, and even OPPO that have already been playing with such screens, putting them in users’ hands in the real world is an entirely different matter, a lesson that Samsung learned the hard way. The design also comes with its own problems, though some may be easier to solve than others.
One problem, for example, is that the frame of the phone needs to also adjust to the rollable screen, unlike a foldable phone whose body remains the same regardless of its position. Specifically, the bezels that protect the screen’s top and bottom have to extend and shrink or deform along with the flexible panel. It seems, however, that OPPO may already have a solution to that.
A more pressing concern, however, will be the mechanism that will roll that display in and out as needed. These will necessarily be more complex than even Samsung’s already complex hinge and will most likely involve motors and moving parts, just like popup cameras. And just like popup cameras, these can easily become points of failure for the device sooner or later.
Rumors claim that LG will come out with its rollable “Project B” phone next year while TCL is also expected to show off an actual product with similar properties. OPPO seems to be the readiest yet it is exercising caution and doesn’t plan on launching a rollable phone commercially yet.
Regardless of who goes first, that first generation of rollable phones could suffer the same fate as Samsung’s and Huawei’s first stab at foldables. That said, it will definitely be interesting to see how far technology will be able to take us in solving that age-old size problem.