Paying to be guinea pigs
Hold off on buying foldable phones – for now
Foldables are the most exciting devices to come out of the mobile technology sector in years. But they just aren't ready for market
Samsung’s Galaxy Fold device was meant to go on sale in SA last week, but that didn’t happen.
Last month the company announced it was delaying the commercial release of the folding phone-cum-tablet after US reporters experienced problems with their review units.
Samsung is to be lauded for addressing the problem promptly, but it shouldn’t have needed to do so.
The appeal of phonelets, tabphones or whatever the nascent category of device is eventually nicknamed, is obvious: phone-like portability with tablet-like productivity when one needs it, all in a single device.
But that all-in-one device needs to provide as good a user experience as one could get from a standalone version of each, or something very closely approximating it.
On that front, the Galaxy Fold was compromised from the outset. I got a little hands-on time with the Fold at the SA launch event for the S10 range and found the outer, 4.3in display not just small by today’s standards, but the bezels surrounding it comically — and, frankly, unacceptably — huge.
Then there was the unmistakable crease in the middle of the interior, 7.3in OLED display. During the preview session I was assured that the crease would be gone in the final production units — but reading some of the early reviews from last month, it’s clear Samsung failed to deliver on that promise.
Not that rival Huawei has done much better, so far.
Though Huawei has sensibly held off on committing to a release date for its Mate X — saying only that it’ll come some time around mid-2019 — it’s been similarly reluctant to let the press actually touch the device (probably thanks to accounts of the hinge feeling "crackly" and "overly firm"). Also, despite having half the number of cameras and displays as the Galaxy Fold, the Mate X is slated to cost $2,600 (about R37,000 before taxes). Yikes.
We don’t know what local pricing for the Galaxy Fold will come in at, but considering a straight conversion of the $1,980 price tag is R28,000 using today’s exchange rate, and allowing for import duties, ad valorem taxes and a mark-up for a bit of profit, a final price of R35,000 is probably still on the conservative side. For the same money you could get a top-spec flagship phone and tablet of your choice and have change.
That’s not to say folding devices are doomed.
On the contrary, foldables are the most exciting devices to come out of the mobile technology sector in years.
The US pre-orders that Samsung received, combined with the hype surrounding both its and its Chinese nemesis’s foldables, make it clear that demand is not a problem.
What is a problem is the rush to release products that are half-baked. In their incessant game of one-upmanship, where first to market trumps ready for market, Samsung and Huawei are essentially asking well-heeled consumers to help them beta-test their new wares.
The Fold’s problems seemed to stem from two things: debris getting under the internal, bendable display, and testers peeling off what looked like a protective layer for shipping.
Neither of those things should destroy a nearly-$2,000 device, and both ought to have been identified — and mitigated — before any units made it to end users.
Having a premium device fail so speedily and publicly makes Samsung look sloppy … which it isn’t. The S10 smartphone range is one of the finest high-end Android offerings out there. The recently revealed A series, meanwhile, includes a handset with an ingenious rotating camera set-up that does double duty as primary and selfie shooter. And its TVs remain the best-selling in our market. But that all takes a back seat to the Fold’s very public and early failure.
Huawei is almost inevitably going to face its own problems with the even pricier Mate X. Its display folds back on itself instead of in on itself, meaning it’s exposed to the elements, loose change and keys in pockets, and anything else that could damage it, whether it’s folded or not. Folding displays have to be plastic — for now, at least — and that makes them fragile in ways glass screens aren’t.
Samsung is due to announce a new release date for the Galaxy Fold any day now. With pre-orders that need to be honoured and who knows how many Folds already built, packaged and dispatched, Samsung has either found elegant workarounds for the current problems the existing Fold faces, or spent a fortune scrapping it and starting again.
Its mea culpa in the wake of the combusting Note 7 debacle worked — it was forgiven and continues to sell phones hand over fist. But another high-profile failure only a few years later paints the Korean electronics behemoth in an awful light. In its race to be the first to market, Samsung forgot the far more attractive proposition of being the best.
I still want a folding phone, but I’ll be waiting for generation two, or three, by which time Samsung is more likely to be offering one with the same uncompromising quality its other wares promise.
• Wilson is the editor of Stuff magazine