Foldables Are Almost Perfect. Now They Need to Get a Lot Cheaper.
2023 was the first year with multiple great folding phones (outside of Asia), but why are they still so expensive?
Samsung has been trying to popularize foldables since the disastrous launch of the original Galaxy Fold in 2019. Several years and iterations later, the company has gotten close to perfecting its two foldable options with the Galaxy Z Fold 5 and Galaxy Z Flip 5. For the most part, Samsung has figured out how to create folding screens that are not only gorgeous to look at but also durable enough that you're not afraid to use them outside.
It just so happens that in 2023, those new foldables were also greeted with actual competition outside of Asia. Competing phone makers refined the overall formula that Samsung has been using and Google committed to the book-style foldable form factor with the Pixel Fold.
Despite all of these positive developments, one thing is still holding foldables back from greatness, and it has nothing to do with design or hardware engineering. It’s their price.
Foldables Either Fold or Flip
Folding phones have largely coalesced around two different form factors. Either they fold open from something smartphone-shaped into something tablet-shaped or they’re a little bit taller than a normal smartphone and flip closed into something more compact.
Samsung introduced the flip concept with the original Galaxy Z Flip in 2020, roughly five months after the Galaxy Fold, and so far it’s the more popular of the two foldable designs that the company sells, according to Samsung’s Head of MX Business TM Roh. This could be because of the lower price of the Galaxy Z Flip — the Flip 5 starts at $999 in comparison to the Fold’s $1,799 starting price — but at the very least it’s a sign that there’s interest in a foldable’s ability to shrink alongside their ability to hide larger screens.
Google finally has skin in the game.
Samsung has built on the flip form factor over time, growing the cover screen on the outside of the device. The larger cover screen is more useful for responding to notifications and functions as a smartwatch alternative if you just want bite-sized information. In 2023, competitors took that idea and ran with it. The cover screen on the Motorola Razr+ wraps around the dual cameras and takes up almost the entirety of the phone when it’s closed. Motorola also chose to be very laissez-faire with what you can do on the screen. You can cram a full-sized app in there if you don’t want to stick to the small-screen app experiences. The Oppo Find N3 Flip, while not available in North America, took a similar approach, except it uses a vertically oriented rectangular cover screen to get even closer to the layout of traditional phone apps.
Not everyone has stuck with the skinny candy bar book-style fold form factor Samsung popularized either. Google released the Pixel Fold with similar passport-like dimensions as the original Oppo Find N 5G. The squatter and wider design is definitely better if you’re interested in using your foldable for reading or watching video. The real sweet spot, though, might be the OnePlus Open, which splits the difference between the Pixel Fold and the Galaxy Z Fold 5 with a 6.8-inch cover screen that’s wider and shorter than Samsung’s, but not as squat as the Pixel Fold’s. Which is the best is a matter of taste, but what’s important here is that there are multiple options available, and all of them have their charms.
Foldables Make Small Apps Big
With One UI, Samsung has made customizations to Android that let the Fold and Flip work better with more apps, even building in custom functionality via a “Flex Mode” that enables new software features when the foldables are bent at a certain angle. Setting up four different apps on the same screen might not look pretty on a foldable screen, but it’s one of the big advantages of carrying around something tablet-sized in your pocket. The path OnePlus took with the Open — a scrolling screen of vertical apps, alongside the usual options for floating windows and split screens — feels like the best way to use the added screen real estate to date.
The key with foldable software nearly five years into the category existing as a thing you can easily buy is that Google finally has skin in the game. As the creator of Android and Samsung’s partner, Google has previously optimized the mobile operating system for a variety of different screen sizes, including the Galaxy Z line of devices. But the Pixel Fold means Google has taken a more active role in getting apps ready for folding screens. The tech giant has not only begun updating its own apps so they look good and are more useful on foldables, but it’s also been pushing developers to better optimize their apps for larger screen sizes so that everyone can benefit. That’s why it’s so great that the Pixel Fold and Pixel Tablet launched in the same year; they benefit from each other’s apps.
But Foldables Still Cost Too Much
Unfortunately, none of that matters if foldables don’t sell. The Pixel Fold launched at $1,799, just like the Galaxy Z Fold 5. The Motorola Razr+ released at $999, just like the Galaxy Z Flip 5. Even OnePlus, which used to be all about flagship features at discount prices, is selling the OnePlus Open for a starting price of $1,699, only $100 off from the Pixel Fold or Galaxy Z Fold. While these could certainly be more expensive given the complexity of making a smartphone with a screen that folds, the price is still out of reach for most consumers.
In terms of foldables growing in popularity, that might not matter. According to Counterpoint Research, the global foldable market increased 10 percent year over year in Q2 of 2023, despite smartphone shipments declining by nine percent. “We believe that the era of the mass foldable phone is expected to start in 2024, mainly led by Samsung and Huawei with their entry-level foldables,” Counterpoint Research senior analyst Jene Park says. Those “entry-level” foldable phones are already launching. Motorola’s other foldable, which it’s simply calling the Razr, starts at $699 and is currently on sale for $499. The Tecno Phantom V Flip hits the same $699 price and has an even bigger, and rounder cover display. The options are out there and even more are bound to come next year.
At best, foldables can go from being a niche of a niche, to just a niche.
The larger issue is, even if foldables do seize five percent (around 70 million units) of the global smartphone market by 2027, as Trendforce predicts, that’s a far smaller number of smartphones than you would think. To put that in perspective, Apple shipped 232.2 million iPhones in all of 2022 according to Statista, and Samsung shipped over 301 million smartphones in the same period.
At best, foldables can go from being a niche of a niche, to just a niche. They might not be the future of smartphones, but they are almost certainly one kind of mobile device that will continue to exist in the future. A good smartphone option that will hopefully get even more affordable. Considering folding screens weren’t even a thing we thought possible a few years ago, that doesn’t seem too shabby to me.