The closest thing we actually got to a foldable phone from Samsung in 2013 was the Samsung Galaxy Round. This was far from the prototypes and concepts we’d seen, but as the world’s first curved screen smartphone it was a big step in the right direction.
That was followed up by the Samsung Galaxy Note Edge, which curved in a now more familiar direction, one which Samsung has since fully embraced with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and other phones with curved edges.
In May 2016 Project Valley got a new name – the Samsung Galaxy X, which was believed to be the name it would release under.
According to reports at the time it would be ready for release in 2017 and would have a foldable 4k display, so that the resolution would remain high even when the phone was folded.
We were sceptical about that launch date at the time, and were right to be, as we’re now in 2018 with no sign of it.
But that’s not quite the full story so far. At SID 2016 Samsung showed off a roll-out display – but one which didn’t have a touchscreen layer, which would be pretty vital for a smartphone.
Then in June 2017 “people familiar with the matter” reported that we might see two foldable phones from Samsung in 2017 – backing up those previous Galaxy X reports.
Supposedly one would fold out from a 5-inch handset to an 8-inch tablet, much like the concept video Samsung showed back at the beginning of our story, while the other would fold in half like a cosmetic compact, along the lines of a folding phone patent we’d already seen.
This 2017 launch didn’t happen, but Samsung was clearly on the right track, with another patent looking to solve one of the biggest problems with folding phones – the ability to fold without damaging any internal components.
The patent described an “artificial muscle”, which would move in time with the screen bending to protect other components.
We’ve seen plenty of early glimpses that claim to show off the Samsung Galaxy X. One came from a patent spotted by GalaxyClub, highlighting a long device, with a shape more like a remote control than a smartphone, but one which could fold down to half the size.
The shape doesn’t seem particularly practical, so we doubt this is the form the Galaxy X will take, but it’s vaguely along the lines of the phone-to-tablet convertible we’ve been hearing about, and a similar design has popped up since.
Samsung and LG are the major players – along with Chinese manufacturer BOE – when it comes to flexible OLED displays. Both firms have curved OLED screens in production, with applications ranging from monitors and TVs to curved smartphones such as the LG Flex and Samsung Galaxy edge ranges.
On the pure display side, LG may be further ahead than Samsung. The company revealed a 65-inch rollable OLED TV at CES earlier this year, and has been investing heavily in its flexible display division, with a total $13.5 billion budgeted up to 2020.
However, Ron Mertens of industry news and consultancy firm OLED-Info says that Samsung is already well on the way to production of a folding smartphone.
“According to my information, Samsung has already presented its first prototypes – in private meetings at CES,” he says. “It is likely that it will show these again at MWC – but I would guess it won’t be public (again, only in private meetings). Mass production is slated for November 2018, so the actual device will be introduced in December 2018 or a bit later. It will probably be high-end, a limited edition one (maybe like the Galaxy Round a few years ago, Samsung’s first flexible OLED device).”
Professor Roel Vertegaal, developer of the ReFlex flexible phone prototype at the Human Media Lab of Queen’s University in Canada, says that, according to its roadmap, “Samsung was going to put out a flexible phone in 2019, so it may well be happening [this year]. I personally thought that it was going to be delayed a little bit because of their issues with the Note … so it could be 2020. One other thing that I’ve understood is that they’ll put out a foldable phone first, and then a flexible phone second.”
Samsung has been steadily working on its flexible phone tech since 2011, leading to the development of the curved-screen Galaxy Round in 2013, the launch of the Galaxy Edge range in 2015 and, in 2016, the display of a rollable OLED screen as part of ‘Project Valley’, the development codename for the Galaxy X. It’s been reported to be on the verge of release ever since.
“[Flexible phones] are built to withstand pressure, they are built to curve in your pocket, they are lighter,” Vertegaal says. “And when you drop them, there is no damage to the screen – you cannot break the glass.” Beyond that, once production ramps up, “in principle, the technology is plastic and it should just be printable, which means that flexible screens should be a lot cheaper.”