Rollable phones look amazing. But don’t get too excited just yet

Imagine if your phone or tablet could change the size of the screen depending on what you are doing? That’s the future Motorola and Samsung envision, as both companies showed off concept devices capable of expanding or shrinking their screens with the touch of a button.

Motorola launched its concept at Mobile World Congress this week, while Samsung exhibited a series of shape-shifting prototypes at CES in January. Such concepts prove that phone makers are thinking about the next evolution of personal devices beyond today’s static touchscreens. They’re even looking beyond foldable phones, which have only been widely available for a little more than three years.

But as eye-catching as these concepts are, it will likely be a long time before you carry one around. High prices, technical and durability challenges, and a lack of compelling use cases will likely mean these concepts won’t turn into real products anytime soon. And if they do, there are still good reasons why you should wait before buying one.

Rollable phones are eye-catching

Motorola’s rollable phone in small (left) and large form (right).

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

Concept devices with expandable screens have appeared before, but they’re getting attention again this week at Mobile World Congress thanks to Motorola and its parent company Lenovo.

Motorola showed off its palm-sized prototype that expands with a double press of a button. And even better, the screen unfolds automatically when you use certain apps like YouTube, according to my colleague Andrew Lanxon, who got to see the device at the conference. The phone can also switch between small and large mode depending on what you’re doing in an app. For example, the phone can stay small when you’re browsing your inbox, but it can automatically expand as you write an email, Lanxon writes.

When the device is in its compact form, the screen wraps around the bottom of the device to provide a secondary display on the back of the phone. I can’t think of many reasons to use this extra screen other than as a viewfinder for taking selfies with the rear camera, as Lanxon did during its demo. In any case, it is exciting to see how Motorola thinks about using that technology.

Take a look at the phone in action.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

Although phones with rollable screens are in their infancy, they may have some notable advantages over today’s foldables, according to Ross Young, CEO and co-founder of Display Supply Chain Consultants. The tray could be smaller since it will be located on the edge of the device rather than in the middle, he said via email. Rollable phones are also likely to be thinner than current devices like the Galaxy Z Fold 4, which look like two phones stacked on top of each other when folded.

But these advantages are likely to result in additional technical challenges. The motors and sliding mechanisms probably require more power consumption, says Young.

“Some brands told us there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said.

It’s not the first time Motorola has shown a concept like this; the phone maker also showcased the technology at Lenovo’s Tech World conference last year. But its arrival at MWC underscores Motorola’s ambitions in this area.

Motorola isn’t the only company interested in making phones with screens that can roll, slide and expand. Almost two months ago, Samsung showed its own vision for what futuristic phones and tablets could look like. The star of the show was the Flex Hybrid concept, which looks like a laptop when closed but can switch between 10.5-inch and 12.4-inch screen sizes when opened.

Samsung showed off its display concepts at CES 2023.

David Katzmaier/CNET

LG also made a splash rollable phone concept it teased at CES 2021, though the company shut down its mobile phone business shortly after. Chinese tech giant Oppo has developed a rollable phone concept with a 6.7-inch screen that transforms into a 7.4-inch tablet size.

At the same time, foldable phones – which are generally considered to be the forerunners of future rollable devices – are still only a part of the overall smartphone market. Foldable phones are estimated to have accounted for just 1.1% of smartphone shipments in 2022 and are expected to account for 2.8% in 2026, according to International Data Corporation. But that hasn’t stopped phone manufacturers from looking ahead.

“They have to continue to innovate to differentiate themselves,” said Brad Akyuz, managing director and mobile analyst at NPD Group. “That’s the only way they can just get ahead of the competition.”

But don’t count on buying one anytime soon

The word “concept” is decisive; these devices are not products. Instead, the proofs of concept are intended to illustrate the direction these companies may take when developing future smartphones. That means we don’t know when, if ever, rollable phones from Motorola, Samsung, or other device makers will launch.

The foldable phone market can serve as a blueprint. Samsung demonstrated flexible display technology as far back as 2013, but it didn’t release its first foldable phone until 2019.

Whether or not a rollable phone is coming in the near term, analysts believe it will be several years before the devices become a fixture in the tech world. Akyuz pegs it at around three to four years, while Bill Menezes, director of market researcher Gartner who covers the telecom industry, estimates three to six years.

Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 4 (left) alongside an iPhone (right)

James Martin/CNET

There are a number of reasons why, all of which reflect the challenges the foldable phone industry is going through. The prices must be reasonable, and the phones must be durable enough to withstand daily use without worry.

They should also offer compelling features that significantly improve the way you use your mobile device to make them worthwhile. Although today’s foldable devices have different designs that make our phones more compact when closed, the overall experience is the same as using a standard phone. Samsung is trying to solve this with a feature called Flex Mode, which splits compatible apps across the top and bottom of the screen when folded in half. But this feels more like an optimization than a completely new way of using the phone.

“A foldable phone isn’t really that much different than a flat phone concept,” Menezes said. “When you open it, you’re still scrolling through to get to different applications, or different screens or tabs.”

Even if a company like Motorola or Samsung releases a rollable phone in the near future, you probably shouldn’t buy it. First generation products can be expensive, prone to damage and not as polished as later iterations.

Take the 2019 Galaxy Fold, for example, which Samsung delayed the launch of after a small number of reviewers reported issues with the screen. That phone was also priced at $1,980, while the much-improved Galaxy Z Fold 4, which just launched in August, starts at $1,800. Samsung’s smaller foldable, the Galaxy Z Flip, has also matured; the first version had a small screen that barely felt useful and lacked 5G.

Samsung’s 2019 Galaxy Fold

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Now, more than three years after the launch of the Galaxy Fold, demand for foldable devices is beginning to accelerate. Although IDC’s report suggests that foldable devices make up only a fraction of the smartphone market, shipments are estimated to have grown by 66.6% in 2022 compared to 2021. NPD Group’s Connected Intelligence Mobility Survey also suggests that interest is growing. While 51% of respondents said they were unlikely to buy a foldable phone at all in 2019, only 36% said the same in 2022, according to survey data shared with CNET.

“I think this is the future, I don’t think we can deny it,” Akyuz said. “But as we’ve seen with the collapsible category, it’s just going to take some time to get there.”

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