Everything Samsung Needs To Fix To Stop The Galaxy Fold From Breaking
In the last week of March, Samsung sent out an email with a link to a “rare video asset” from its HQ showing robots folding and unfolding its new phone.
“The new Galaxy Fold has been subjected to several rounds of extensive tests in its state-of-the-art reliability labs,” it read, “to ensure that it’s ready to come to market.”
Samsung suggested people might find the week-long test of 200,000 folds and unfolds “overkill” but that it was vital to ensure the hinge design and Infinity Flex display were durable enough for mass use.
Now in the last week of April, when it was due to go on sale in the US, China and South Korea, the Samsung Galaxy Fold has been delayed – with no new confirmed release date. Review units are being recalled from tech publications and launch events in Shanghai and Hong Kong have been postponed. Human tech reviewers have experienced a host of technical issues in their first few days with the device that the robots missed.
A Samsung spokeswoman directed us to its UK blog post outlining the delay which says reviewers kept telling it the phone needed improvements. "To fully evaluate this feedback and run further internal tests, we have decided to delay the release of the Galaxy Fold," the post says. "We plan to announce the release date in the coming weeks.”
Samsung ran an extremely limited review program for the Galaxy Fold. Our product team was given access to a device during an hour-long hands on session but no review unit, which itself is unusual for a high profile smartphone. At the initial launch at the Galaxy Unpacked event in February, the Galaxy Fold was first showcased half in shadow then hidden behind glass with much of the focus on the more cosmetic question of whether or not you could see the ‘crease’. The issues found in the review process are much more significant.
Roel Vertegaal, CEO of Human Media Lab, Inc who has worked with flexible and folding displays for 15 years including the influential PaperFold folding smartphone, thinks that Samsung’s decision to place the flexible display on the inside, like a book, might be the primary cause of its technical problems: “You can only do what you can do and they may have pushed it a bit too far.”
“If you look at the design, the phone doesn’t actually close and there’s a good reason for that,” he says, “which is apparently that you still cannot crease the screen, like a piece of paper, because you kill the screen when you do that. One of the benefits of folding on the outside, like Huawei’s folding phone, is that you get a much more shallow fold.”
We don’t know yet exactly where the Galaxy Fold, based on display technology in development since 2011, went wrong or how many devices in the limited production are affected. Not all the review devices have failed – CNET’s Galaxy Fold is intact and working – and Samsung says they were “early production models”. Samsung confirmed in the blog post three specific problems that came up during the US-based tech reviewers’ testing: the exposed hinge, the protective layer and substances getting into the device.
The protective layer
The first thing Samsung is looking to improve is the strength of the thin plastic layer on the phone's screen. "We will also enhance the guidance on care and use of the display including the protective layer so that our customers get the most out of their Galaxy Fold,” it says.
This refers to the fact that multiple reviewers encountered major screen problems after removing this “protective layer”. It looked to them to be a standard screen protector that you peel off when unboxing a new phone with a small gap between the edge of the film and the edge of the device.
In regular phones, a thin, rigid sheet of glass is used to protect the display but for this folding phone’s plastic display, Samsung used its proprietary Samsung Display Thin Film Encapsulation technology for OLED displays. It’s named Y-OCTA and Samsung offered it to Apple in December 2018. In this case, the touch sensor module is placed directly onto this thin film – it is part of the display technology, not an optional protective add-on.
T-Mobile has said it will place a big sticker on the device to make it clear this should not be removed but Samsung hasn’t yet answered the question – why is the Fold designed so that the film is even able to be removed, damaging the screen in the process?
Samsung could go down the phone education route with stickers and warnings but that still leaves it open for customers to misunderstand or ignore the advice. It’s worth noting that as part of the original Galaxy Fold package, Samsung offered a 12 month warranty to cover breakage or water damage.
“Whether the problem is with the OLED encapsulation, the drivers on the display or its connections is not clear to us,” says Paul Grey, director research and analysis for technology, media and telecom, IHS Markit. “There were clearly some reviewers inadvertently damaging the displays after mistakenly attempting to remove part of the encapsulation film.”
As for Samsung’s folding phone rivals, we’re likely to see a mix of approaches with anything between eight and ten total layers that make up the display and protection as standard. The Nubia Alpha smartphone wearable from ZTE, which has a curved display and launches this week, has eleven layers. Huawei declined to detail how it planned to protect the Mate X’s screen at MWC and wouldn’t allow journalists to fold and unfold the device themselves.
Credit: Wired/Andrew Williams
Even without the issue of the protective layer, these early production models are vulnerable to damage, particularly around the hinge. "The display seems to have broken in several different ways so even if the film problem is fixed, it looks like there are a variety of underlying issues in the display," says Daniel Gleeson, senior analyst at Ovum.
The official Samsung line on the inner side of Fold’s hinge is this: “Initial findings from the inspection of reported issues on the display showed that they could be associated with impact on the top and bottom exposed areas of the hinge.”
Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman encountered this issue on his review device. He saw a “very small tear at the top of the hinge” and after he “poked at it” the screen got worse. Gurman did remove the protective layer but the devices of two other reviewers at CNBC and The Verge, who didn’t peel the film off, were also damaged around the hinge with one reporting a ‘bulge’ in the display. The CNBC device’s display could be seen with dead pixels in the crease and with one half flickering on and off as a result of the damage.
The screen on my Galaxy Fold review unit is completely broken and unusable just two days in. Hard to know if this is widespread or not. pic.twitter.com/G0OHj3DQHw— Mark Gurman (@markgurman) 17 April 2019
This looks to be an example of where a week-long test of static robots opening and closing the device is not able to replicate real-world use of phones and tablets – prodding with fingers, putting in pockets, placing on desks, drops on the floor. Samsung specifically requested that reviewers do not perform drop tests with the review units.
According to Vertegaal, who hasn’t inspected a Galaxy Fold, these flexible displays are very easily damaged on the edges, where they require extra protection. He explains that unlike an LCD, which has a front plane and a light, an OLED self-illuminates. “That means the top of the plastic has to touch the back so you cannot put glue between them,” he says. “All these screens are constructed like an envelope with glue around them. If that glue starts to go or oxygen can get in, that causes the death of the screen, albeit slowly. That may be what’s causing it.”
It’s almost certainly going to be an issue for folding phones which fold in the opposite direction with the tablet-size display (and hinge) exposed on the outside of the device. This includes Huawei’s Mate X, which is due to go on sale this summer, and prototypes from Oppo and Xiaomi.
Flexible display company Royole, which beat Samsung to launch in China with its folding FlexPai phone, uses a rubbery material on the rear, top and bottom of the hinge. The downside? This looks very ugly up close, compared to the thinner, sleeker Samsung Galaxy Fold.
Substances getting into the phone
The final major issue relates to the gaps in the hinge design. The Galaxy Fold is not IPX rated for water or dust resistance. It’s one of those features that now come as standard for flagship phones (with the exception of OnePlus) and that buyers might not even consider when missing from the spec sheet. Samsung’s blog notes, quite cryptically: “There was also an instance where substances found inside the device affected the display performance.”
No reviewers have reported specific dust or water damage so far, though the Wall Street Journal did note that dust and dirt attach themselves to the edge of the device. OnePlus has defended its decision in the past by pointing out that adding this additional protection costs money that will be passed on to customers.
The lack of waterproofing is not particularly worrying at this stage but for a device like this, dust could be more dangerous. Huawei also refused to confirm the water or dust resistance of the Mate X at MWC but said it is working to the standard IP rating for its smartphones.
Vertegaal says he doesn’t doubt that we’ll see water and dust resistance in future models – “it’s just a matter of engineering the enclosures correctly” – and that it’s not necessarily cost cutting. “These phones could be cheaper. It’s because someone has to build the factory and they’re only making say 10,000 of these.”
Samsung Galaxy Fold reviews on Engadget and The Verge detail the issue of ‘jelly scrolling’ in which there is a perceptible lag on one half when viewing say a web page on both ‘sides’ of the larger, 7.3-inch inner display and scrolling vertically. A Galaxy Fold teardown posted to Weibo shows cables labelled ‘L’ and R’ running through the hinge.
“We’ve dealt with that but I find it very strange,” says Vertegaal. “The only reason you usually get desynchronised scrolling is if you have two screens or one processor doing the left side of the screen and the other to do the right side.”
This is actually the level of issue that might not be a complete deal breaker for early adopters and that you might expect on an experimental, first-generation device. Some Android users have encountered it on the Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 tablet so it’s far from a Fold-specific problem. Still, this is a $2,320 smartphone, not a $645 tablet.
The scale of the Galaxy Fold’s display and durability issues isn’t known but considering that this has been contained to a pre-launch PR failure, the decision to delay the Galaxy Fold was the correct one, even if it means that Huawei could sneak its own Mate X release ahead of Samsung. The Galaxy Fold still has the potential to be a brilliant device if Samsung can fix the major issues.
“The situation is more broadly indicative of the pressure that handset vendors feel to offer new, differentiated products with novel technologies as fast as possible,” Grey says. “It also reflects Samsung’s historic and continuing aggressive approach to bring new technologies to market at the earliest opportunity.”
The consensus among commentators is that after teasing its folding display technology for years, Samsung was on the verge of rushing out the device, under pressure to release its folding phone before Huawei in particular. "I do think that Samsung has rushed out the Fold. The bigger the innovation, the greater the potential of failure," says Gleeson, "and Samsung will doubtlessly iterate and improve on this."
Evangelists of flexible and folding displays are keen to downplay the pre-launch hiccups even if they’re surprised to see everything Samsung appears to have failed to design for. “Kudos to Samsung for trying to be the first on the market, these things happen,” says Vertegaal. “To their defence, this is an emerging market, we’ve been experimenting with it since 2004. This is a first foray into a product where it has to do all these things that make it super robust and nobody’s done that yet.”