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The talk of the tech world this year is definitely the advent of the folding phone, with every journalist and their editor certain that it’s the next direction in the world of smartphones. They’re far from perfect though, and there are plenty of forks in the journey to the mainstream for foldables. You’d expect to see inflated prices and evolving technical issues at the cutting edge of tech, and people who jump in and adopt early understand the compromise, but the issue of durability of folding phones is gaining traction. With these problems arising, it’s also become evident that getting your folding phone fixed isn’t easy and definitely isn’t cheap. 

This new-fangled smartphone has been mired in issues of missed and delayed launch dates, a lack of stock to meet demands, screens that scratch and crack very easily, and problems getting decent repairs. Are these all indicators that the likes of Samsung, Huawei, and Motorola have rushed out their quirky new phones a little too quickly? Here, we’re going to take a look at the issues that have cropped up so far, how much they cost to fix, and the response from the manufacturers to see what we can figure out.

Will folding screens actually last?

How long folding screens are realistically going to last is the big, bad unknown for folding phone makers. When the Galaxy Fold was presented to the world at 2019’s MWC, without anyone being allowed to actually get their hands on it, the questions started and haven’t yet been properly answered. The review units were delivered just after the conference and one of the big issues that kept coming up was the screen. There was a protective layer over the screen that reviewers had tried to peel off, and Samsung blamed this for the scratched up displays. There were issues reported by reviewers for CNBC, the Verge,and Marques Brownlee, and the problems didn’t stop there. Samsung recalled handsets and the April 25 release date was pushed back by quite a few months. 

Dark clouds gathered for the Galaxy Fold: AT&T and Best Buy canceled pre-orders and other stores followed suit with no set date given for the relaunch. The CEO of Samsung admitted with embarrassment that the launch had been rushed, but in July confirmed a new release date of September that year. Scratchy screen problems had apparently been resolved with a bigger protective layer that wrapped underneath the phone’s frame, the hinges got a protective capping, and the space between the body and hinge on the phone when shut was made a lot smaller to prevent stuff like pocket lint getting inside. 

Following September’s relaunch there have been around half a million Galaxy Folds sold, with some minor faults reported. However, the big problems of the previous incarnation all seem to have been fixed up, but we are still in the very early days of this new style of phone. The handsets have only been getting regular use on a large scale for six months or less, although there have been plenty of people who have run headlong into a love affair with the Galaxy Fold in this time, too. 

Image credit: Andro-news.com

The Motorola Razr offers a clever twist with a retro design and a change in form from the Galaxy Fold. It wasn’t long before problems cropped up though, with reports of hinges making strange noises and lacking the smoothness you’d expect from an expensive new phone; if you were looking to be able to relax and settle into an easy life with your new folding phone, you’d come to the wrong place. Not a whole lot of review units got distributed; a lot of media outlets had to buy one off-the-shelf to be able to see what it was all about. When places did get their mitts on one, the reviews were shaky with screens that got bumpy, an imperfect hinge, and most startlingly, InputMag’s phone screen separated from the top layer and a huge crack appeared across the display after only one week. A little bit of scandal ensured; the reviewer tried to send the faulty phone to iFixit to get checked out, but since they’re in partnership with Motorola that put the kibosh on the idea.

Image credit: akket.com

Keeping foldable fans on their toes, Samsung brought out the Galaxy Z Flip right after the Razr’s debut. This was more like what the market had been demanding. Questions about durability soon started to get asked, however, with reviewers only getting a twenty-four-hour head start on the release date of February 14. Suspicions were raised because normally tech reviewers get to spend a few days with a new phone, all in advance of the official release. Controversy was also stoked with rumors that the screen was, in fact, not glass as Samsung has claimed. Turns out there has been a polymer screen placed on top of the glass screen of the Galaxy Z Flip.

No one can really put their hand on heart and commit to how long these phones are going to last. What you can be sure of is that they’re not as durable as a standard smartphone. Water-resistance is limited or non-existent, the screens are easily dinged up, the hinge is a liability for things getting stuck, and in general, it’s a potential problem area. Even with all these issues, there aren’t exactly a plethora of options for decent protective cases on the market either. 

For those that take the plunge and buy one anyway, what do you do if disaster strikes and your phone breaks?

Fixing for an expensive drop

Image credit: habr.com

Everyone knows that repairs to modern smartphones aren’t simple, with whole chunks of phone needing to be replaced to repair a simple crack, but that’s nothing when compared to getting a folding screen fixed. iFixit is a well-used, online repair manual that rips phones to pieces to see how easy they are to fix and grades them on their easiness, or otherwise, to repair. A low number means a high difficulty to fix and the Motorola Razr scored just one out of ten. Not exactly a shining beacon of easy fixes, the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Galaxy Z Flip both came in on two out of ten. For some context, the iPhone 11 scored a reasonable six and the Pixel 4 XL a four out of ten. 

“People should absolutely be concerned about the durability of folding phones,” Said iFixit’s Olivia Webb in comments to Digital Trends. “In fact, that was a conclusion we made about both the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip and Motorola Razr in our teardowns—both of these phones are very cool and fun, but dust and debris get inside so easily. It’s clear that they’re not hardy enough to last the regular wear and tear of peoples’ lives.”

If you decide to go it alone with your phone repairs, there’s a definite danger you’re going to do some irreversible damage. In general, most people do prefer to leave fixes to the professionals, which normally means returning their phone to the manufacturer. But what happens when you get a crack on the screen, or land up with another problem that standard warranties don’t cover? What’s the damage to your wallet going to look like?

Repair costs:

No matter how big a fan of foldables you are, that type of money is going to give you pause for thought. With huge prices for fixing your phone up, you might go back to the idea of a fix-it-yourself solution, so what are the consequences?

“The folding form factor is so new that I don’t think we’ve seen any non-OEM replacement parts to offer to potential DIYers. It’s hard to say what the cost would be, but it probably won’t be cheap,” explains Webb. “Even the non-folding OLED displays that we stock are relatively expensive compared to the value of the phones that they belong to. The folding screen repairs themselves are possible (though complicated) to DIY, but the reality of folding OLED manufacturing costs right now might mean that the DIY option won’t save you much money.” Having paused for thought, now might be the time to move swiftly on….

Are the manufacturers listening?

As you’d expect, every folding phone manufacturer gives a standard warranty for their devices, meaning you’re covered for material defects and faulty workmanship. Major flaws should be covered by this, so the theory goes, but if you’ve ever tried to claim under warranty you’ll know it’s not always a done deal on what they’ll cover. If the manufacturer is able to somehow show the defect has come about because you’ve misused the device, you’re going to be pretty stuck. 

“Since folding screens are inherently more prone to cosmetic damage, it’s highly likely that there will be a spike in consumers demanding replacements for damage that they don’t feel was their fault,” says Webb. “Samsung and Motorola have probably considered this problem at length, and it may have led them to offer one-time “cheap” screen replacements.”

Samsung has done just that, with a discounted one-time fee of $150 for a new folding screen on the Galaxy Fold and a $120 fee for the Z Flip. Once you’ve exhausted this offer, you’re going to be shelling out the prices listed earlier. Although it’s not fully clear what’s going to qualify under the warranties for these phones, Samsung has released some literature on terms. A quick read tells us that to fall under warranty it must be a fault not caused by “abuse or misuse, including use for other than personal purposes as recommended by Samsung, such as use in a hazardous, commercial, or industrial setting”. Reading into it, you might not want to be taking your Z Flip to your construction site every day.

Something positive

Probably the biggest threat to your phone, and precious life held within it, is when it gets dropped by accident. Who doesn’t know that gut-wrenching feeling of picking up your face-down phone off the concrete, waiting to see if your screen is still in one beautiful, perfect piece? Many people now, sensibly, opt for a protective case, yet the design of the folding phones on the market don’t lend themselves too easily to have cases made. There are a few more coming to market for the Galaxy Fold, so we can hope that trend continues with the others. 

“The new trend of folding devices is not going away anytime soon and as a leading rugged case manufacturer, we plan on supporting these devices going forward,” Urban Armor Gear’s Makailynn Clark told Simon Hill at Digital Trends. “So far, every folding phone has been slightly different so there isn’t a one size fits all solution when tackling case design. We are currently in the works on a handful of different designs that will not only provide protection but are sleek and don’t add unnecessary bulk to the device.”

Taking into account everything we’ve just said, it’s possible that, even without a protective case, the design of folding screens might actually add a level of durability to them. 

“Folding displays scratch pretty easily, but they’re actually more shatter-resistant than a normal phone—and that’s just a side effect of how folding displays are currently made. They’re more flexible and pliable, so they’re less likely to shatter on impact,” explains Webb. “Couple that with the fact that the screen may fold closed and be protected while it is not in use (depending on the design), and there’s a good case to be made that folding phones have the potential to be “tougher” in that regard.”

There’s little doubt that durability is one of the key elements of folding phone design that is going to be beefed up in coming incarnations. You can be assured that there are going to be plenty of protective cases hitting the market in the coming months, too. As it stands though, to look at a folding phone is to stare into an abyss of fragility and no one really knows whether they’re going to make it past the first couple of years. The price tag still sits at around double that of a comparable non-folding phone, all to get that boast-worthy folding glass; is it really worth it when you look at how expensive a small accident could be? You may want to hang fire on buying a folding phone just yet and let the tech firms refine their product some more.

Simon Hill originally wrote this for Digital Trends.

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