Samsung's Bendable Phones: Game-Changer or Gimmick?

If you have ever stared at your smartphone display and shouted "Why won't you bend?" at the unresponsive glass, your moment is around the corner. Samsung reportedly has a pair of smartphones with bendable screens in development that could unfurl into your eager hands as soon as 2017.

A still from a 2014 Samsung concept video shows off a foldable phone.

A still from a 2014 Samsung concept video shows off a foldable phone.

That's the word from Bloomberg, citing "people familiar with the matter" in its report on Samsung's forthcoming phones with bendable screens. According to Bloomberg's report, the screens on the new phones will use organic light-emitting diodes — that's OLED to you and me — and could make their debut at next year's Mobile World Congress in February.

It's certainly no shock that Samsung is working on smartphones with bendable screens. Rumors of a foldable phone from Samsung have been circulating in one form or another for years, and other manufacturers have been working on their own OLED displays that can bend, fold and scroll. Phones with curved displays like Samsung's own Galaxy S7 Edge are forerunners of devices with more flexible screens.

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But Bloomberg's report goes into greater detail on what Samsung has in the works. One device is rumored to fold in half "like a cosmetic compact," Bloomberg says. The other is a 5-inch phone that you can expand out into an 8-inch device.

It certainly sounds eye-catching, and you can understand why phone makers are eager to shake up the look and feel of smartphones, which these days still mirror the design of the original iPhone, though in larger and thinner forms. With the pace of global smartphone sales slowing down, manufacturers likely see innovative new designs as a way to get us excited about mobile devices again.

"It is entirely understandable why Samsung is investing in this area: any unique hardware Samsung can deploy that comes out of its labs gives Samsung an area of differentiation that rivals — especially lower priced rivals assembling ever more polished flagship phones — cannot match," said Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at Current Analysis.

The question is, will it work? A compact phone that can transform into a tablet-sized screen sounds useful enough — particularly if you find the confines of a smartphone restricting your productivity. But a phone that folds open with a flexible display sounds like an interesting party trick at best and a glorified flip phone at worst.

"I'll remain skeptical until I see how it is implemented," Greengart said. "A roll-up or foldable display has long been a fixture of futurist videos, but it is not clear whether consumers really want them or what tradeoffs are involved. Differentiation is good, but only if it's differentiation that consumers value and are willing to pay for."

Others question the durability of a bendable design. We abuse our smartphones, and a bendable screen will be just as susceptible to everything else we subject our phones to," said Ramon Llamas, research manager for wearable and mobile phones at IDC.. "And what happens if a display gets hyper-bent? Can it be repaired?"

As someone who's a fan of small smartphones, I don't necessarily see the phone's display as the path to a more innovative tomorrow. Personally, I'd prefer smartphone makers focus on things that make it easier for me to use my mobile device — batteries that can go 24-hours without a charge, say, and the ability to charge my phone without having to find a cable or a charging pad. I'd also like to see phones that increase durability without  adding extra bulk.

"I think this is something that Samsung can flex its development and innovation chops, but it’s going to appeal to a small niche of users," argued Llamas.

Do rumors of a foldable smartphone from Samsung have you counting down the days to 2017? Let us know in the comments.

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.