Rollable phones look like the future — so where the heck are they?

Oppo X 2021 rollable phone
(Image credit: Oppo)

Update: Samsung's could also be getting in on the sliding phone screen game.

Oppo is showing off a prototype for a new phone with a rollable screen. And while the Oppo X 2021 is impressing those who've got to handle the new device, don't expect this rollable phone to shake up the race to build the best foldable phones any time soon.

Oppo would be the first to admit the X 2021 isn't ready for prime time. Instead, the Chinese phone maker seems to be building up buzz for its rollable phone and to show how much farther along its rollable concept is when compared to similar devices from other phone makers. Still "farther along" isn't the same as "ready very soon."

It wasn't supposed to be like this for rollable phones.

We started 2021 with LG's CES keynote, highlighted by an on-stage demo of its rollable phone. LG promised the device would ship this year, but that was before the Korean electronics giant decided to shut down its phone business, the LG Rollable included. Now the only way you'll get your hands on that device is if you're an LG employee in South Korea that took advantage of the company's fire sale prices.

Oppo certainly seems determined that its rollable phone won't suffer the same fate, and a hands-on by Jon Porter of The Verge sounds a largely positive tone about the phone's prospects. But Porter begins his hands-on by noting the Oppo X 2021 is far short of the company's own goals for the number of times you can extend and retract the rollable display. Even more significantly, Porter writes, "it’s clear that hitting this arbitrary number is far from the only challenge Oppo is facing in bringing this device to market."

Oppo X 2021 rollable phone

(Image credit: Oppo)

Like the LG Rollable, the Oppo X 2021 enlarges its screen real estate by rolling out more display. That's in contrast to the current line of foldable phones, like Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold 2, where the device unfolds to reveal a larger interior display.

In the case of the Oppo X 2021, you press a button on the phone and the right side of the device starts extending outward. The extension takes the Oppo X 2021 from a 6.7-inch phone to a 7.4-inch tablet that's more ideal for viewing photos and video.

What the Oppo X 2021 has going for it

That's the same process that current foldable devices from Samsung offer. So what edge does the Oppo X 2021 bring to the party? From the hands-on demos we've read about, Oppo's rollable approach brings three clear advantages.

There's no crease: One of the knocks against the initial wave of foldable phones is that there's a visible crease on the display where the phone folds in half — especially when the screen is black. That's less of a concern for a rollable device, since there's minimal bending going on — the screen just rolls out.

Porter noticed a "slight rumple" on the left side of the Oppo X 2021's screen, but found that is was barely visible. While creases haven't been a showstopper with phones like the Z Fold 2 or Galaxy Z Flip, they do grate on phones that cost well over $1,000; even at this stage, a rollable phone seems like a more polished experience.

There's different aspect ratios: The Oppo X 2021's transformation takes the screen from a 19.9:9 or so aspect ratio to something approaching 4:3 when in tablet mode. And as Porter notes, there's nothing preventing rollable phone makers from making their devices stop at any point in between. That would let you configure your screen to best suit the format of the content you're viewing.

Foldable phones offer something similar. Samsung's Flex mode lets you partially open the Z Fold 2 or Z Flip to turn half the screen into a control panel. But that's limited when compared to the adjustable aspect ratios a rollable screen could potentially offer.

This is an actual working phone: LG may have claimed that the LG Rollable would be ready this year, but it always restricted any demos to on-stage displays carefully managed by company executives. TCL has shown off a rollable concept phone as well, but it's not been operational. Oppo's phone may still be a concept, but it's a working device the company was confident enough to hand over to journalists.

Oppo X 2021 challenges

That's not to say the Oppo X 2021 — and other rollable devices — don't face significant hurdles.

The phone sounds pretty bulky: The Oppo X 2021 is 0.42 inches thick. That's substantially thicker than the 0.29-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max, not exactly the slenderest of smartphones. Oppo's rollable phone phone also weighs in at 9.8 ounces, when even the best big phones tip the scales at around 7 to 8 ounces.

You're willing to take on extra bulk for a larger screen, but it sounds like the Oppo X 2021 might be hard to tout around as an everyday device.

The durability's not there yet: As mentioned, Oppo wants you to be able to extend and retract its rollable phone 200,000 times. Right now the prototype is good for about 100,000 cycles. That may sound like a lot, but you can ask Samsung about how the original Galaxy Fold fared when it was pushed toward a release without all the durability issues nailed down.

There's also the question of apps being redesigned to work with Oppo's adjustable display, something Samsung has struggled with for its foldable phones. Such features are limited to Oppo's own apps with the current X 2021 concept.

And like foldable phone makers, Oppo will have to make the case for a rollable phone and why it's a better choice than one with a conventional design — especially with the rollable phone likely to cost a premium. Sure, we're all bored with the candy bar-shaped phones that have dominated for more than a decade, but right now the design delivers an optimal experience. It's going to be up to Oppo and any other rollable phone maker to establish that case for a new device, no matter how innovative its approach.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.