Folding smartphones – durability and price still issues

A Huawei employee demonstrates the features of the Huawei Mate XS device, during a media event in London, Britain, February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Despite the cancellation of MWC, Huawei went ahead with its device launches as planned with the new Mate Xs at its pinnacle.

The Mate Xs is a folding smartphone that looks much like its predecessor and sadly it suffers from all the same flaws (as do its peers) that are going to keep a lid on this segment for some time to come. These flaws are:

Screen durability: 

  • Despite Samsung’s misleading glass claim, all of these screens have a flexible plastic coating on their surface.
  • The Samsung “flexible glass” coating is so thin (which is what enables it to bend) that any sharp object that comes close to it instantly causes it to fragment.
  • This is why Samsung had to put a plastic coating on top to protect it.
  • So what the Galaxy Z Flip ends up with is the same as the Moto Razr, Galaxy Fold and Mate X which is a plastic screen.
  • The problem with plastic is that it is very easy to scratch which is exactly what you don’t want on a device that receives as much abuse as a smartphone does.
  • The Mohs scale measures the hardness of materials (scratch-ability) and tempered glass scratches at level 6 with deeper grooves at level 7 (see here).
  • Plastic, by contrast, scratches at a level 2 meaning that the screen of a foldable phone could end up being 9-13x more scratchable than a regular smartphone.
  • Furthermore, pressing hard with a thumbnail leaves a permanent mark on all plastic screens launched on folding phones to date with the Z Flip being no different.
  • This is why I suspect that Samsung made the sub-optimal design decision to put the screen on the inside of the device with another glass protected screen on the outside.
  • This has resulted in a thicker device when closed unless one makes huge hardware compromises as Motorola has done with the RAZR.
  • At the moment the inward fold is the only way to go as the screen is protected from scratching when it is closed.
  • However, Huawei’s is on the outside meaning that the plastic screen will be subject to the full force of keys, coins, lint, and handbag contents.
  • An outward fold is the right design choice, but I don’t think that the screen will last very long.
  • The Mate Xs has a “quad-layer” screen that Huawei claims will make it more durable, but plastic is plastic and plastic is easily scratched.
  • This will kill the appeal of the device meaning that until this issue is fixed, it will remain a tiny specialist niche.

Second, price: 

  • At 2,500 Euros the Mate Xs is eye wateringly expensive and makes the Z Flip look cheap at $1,380.
  • This is the second flaw with folding phones as they are so expensive that they are unlikely to see any real volume until the cost to make them has been substantially reduced.
  • I suspect that this will be the easier of the two problems to solve and I am surprised that the new Mate Xs has not come in cheaper than its predecessor.
  • 2020 is likely to see much of the Android camp look to cost-reducing this segment which should be reasonably straight forward as these displays improve their manufacturing yields and ship at higher volumes.

The net result is that this latest slew of folding devices does not really solve either of the two big issues that face this segment.

Progress is a little slower than I would have expected but to be fair scratch-resistant materials tend to be hard which means that they don’t fold.

This is going to be a tough nut to crack.

However, the rewards for doing so will be a big replacement cycle as most users will not say no to a bigger screen which is now only really possible if the device folds or rolls somehow.

This is not going to happen anytime soon and so I think that this replacement cycle remains a long way off.

I remain pretty sanguine on the outlook for the smartphone market in 2020 excluding of the inevitable one-off impact from the coronavirus.

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