Samsung’s nearly $2,000 Galaxy Fold could still be one of the most creative devices to come to market in recent years. Right now, though, it looks like the phone flapped its folding wings too close to the sun.
Originally slated to hit stores on April 26, Samsung had to postpone releasing the device after screens on review models sent to news outlets and bloggers began malfunctioning after only a couple of days. A closer look at its construction shows a quick fix for the Fold might not be so easy to engineer.
Samsung said Monday that initial tests of the review units revealed issues with the hinge that allows the Fold to open and close, and one instance where “substances found inside the device affected the display performance.” On Wednesday, repair company iFixit shed more light on what might be causing those problems.
iFixit got its hands on a Fold—it’s not clear how, since they aren’t available anywhere for sale—and opened it up to find out how it works. The teardown showed two major areas where debris can enter the device: on the top and bottom of the inside crease where the two sides of the screen meet, and on the back of the spine. The 7 millimeter void at the edge of the display may sound tiny, but flat devices like iPhones don’t have any gap whatsoever. It was “really surprising to my team to find that amount of open space,” says Sam Lionheart, the lead teardown engineer at iFixit.
Louise Matsakis covers cybersecurity, internet law, and online culture for WIRED.
Samsung seems to have left those areas exposed intentionally, in order for the folding screen to maintain a full range of motion. But they also make it easy for crumbs to get inside and for the phone to be damaged when it knocks into something. The problem is reminiscent of Apple’s Macbook and Macbook Pro “butterfly” keyboards, which also tend to malfunction after particles get lodged under the keys. Problems with keyboard design, like holes in a smartphone, aren’t issues a software update can fix, which means there’s a greater chance of lingering issues.
Lionheart says one potential solution would be to create a small plastic cover to go over the top and bottom of the phone where the two sides of the folding screen meet. That would prevent debris from getting under the display, as well as protect it from getting booped, say, when shoved in a pocket. But such a cover might be difficult to engineer in a durable way. “That’s the kind of thing that over time, as you open and close the phone, that area is going to be stretched out,” she says. According to iFixit’s teardown, Samsung appears to already be using silicone seals internally to protect the Fold, but they’re moot with the display still exposed.
The thin sheet of plastic Samsung did design to go on top of the folding display is already causing issues. Some reviewers mistook it for a disposable screen protector, and tried to remove it. The protective layer is necessary because the polymer screen underneath is easily scratched, a problem that will hopefully go away in the future when folding phone screens are made from glass. And even when the film was left on, the phone was still prone to malfunctioning.
There’s no way to completely seal off the Fold since, unlike the solid slab of an iPhone, its design requires a degree of flexibility. That means if Samsung were to engineer a speedy patch, it might only create problems later down the line. A partial solution might inadvertently trap particles that do get inside the phone from making their way out. “The more you protect something, the harder it is for the dirt to get back out,” says Lionheart.
Samsung’s troubles may be indicative of problems that could plague folding phones in general, says Nick Cronan, founding partner of Branch Creative, the design firm behind gadgets like the Nextbit Robin. “What they’re trying to do is fundamentally challenging. They’re an amazing company and they still can’t get it right,” he says. “The technology is not there yet. It just isn’t.”
And that’s before you even get to the fundamental awkwardness of the Fold—the parts that don’t break but could potentially annoy. Cronan points to the ripple in the middle of folding display as an enduring issue that will be difficult for Samsung to get around. For almost $2,000, he says, “it should be dead flat when it’s open.”
Cronan also notes that the Fold is already incredibly thick, like an overstuffed binder, because Samsung likely can’t make it bend any further without the hinge failing. Other smartphone makers working on folding phones like Xiaomi and Huawei have chosen to avoid that problem by designing the screen to bend the other way. Instead of collapsing in on itself, their displays thinly fold around the rest of the device. (But that also means they could be fragile, too.)
It’s not clear how long Samsung will be forced to delay the launch of the Fold, and the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In its statement Monday, Samsung said that it was taking “measures to strengthen the display protection,” and that it would announce a new release date in coming weeks. Even when the phone does come out, it will likely remain a delicate, niche device.