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Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1. (Picture: Mark Gurman/Bloomberg)

CES reminds us that foldable screens aren’t going away

From Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold to a TCL foldable phone prototype, it looks like flexible screens might take off in 2020

This article originally appeared on ABACUS
In 2019 we saw the first wave of consumer devices with flexible displays, including Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and Huawei’s Mate X. But if you, like many skeptics, are still unconvinced that flexible screens are what the future needs, maybe gadget makers at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show can sway you.
Lenovo says the bendable PC it showed off last year will finally hit shelves in mid-2020, starting at US$2,499. The ThinkPad X1 Fold unfurls into a 13.3-inch tablet or folds halfway into a mini laptop. To type, you can either bring up the virtual keyboard or snap on a physical Bluetooth keyboard. 
Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1. (Picture: Mark Gurman/Bloomberg)

Meanwhile, Chinese TV manufacturing behemoth TCL debuted a smartphone line under its own brand name that includes a foldable prototype. Just like the Samsung Galaxy Fold, the flexible display bends inward, but there’s no screen on the outside.

Beyond the show floor in Las Vegas, Samsung is teasing new “innovative devices” for its event next month in San Francisco. It’s widely expected to include a new foldable phone that bends like Motorola’s clamshell Razr.
A TCL Mobile representative holds a foldable version of the new TCL 10 series phone during CES 2020. (Picture: EPA)

Even with all the talk of foldable devices being a fleeting gimmick, could bendable screens actually take off in 2020? Industry analysts are optimistic in the long run.

“I tend to think the skepticism was about the price, durability and uses cases at this point,” said Kiranjeet Kaur, senior research manager at IDC.

“Right now is a period when different players are experimenting with different devices and designs. And once that is figured out, I don’t see any reason why foldables won’t have a future, even if they don’t get a mass-market label anytime soon.”

Samsung teased a clamshell foldable phone back in October. (Picture: Samsung)

Counterpoint research analyst Sujeong Lim agrees that users are mostly concerned about prices and the bulkiness of foldable devices. But she thinks there’s genuine demand for portable devices that fold out into bigger screens.

“More use of cameras and photos, popularization of video content, gaming and multitasking make users demand bigger displays,” she said, adding that screens larger than 6 inches accounted for nearly 70% of total smartphone sales in the third quarter of last year. 

“Now that the display has reached its limit in terms of its current form of innovation, I think it can be solved with a foldable phone.”

It’s true that one big complaint about foldable devices has centered around their high costs. For most people, US$2,400 (which will get you a Huawei Mate X) is a high price to pay for experimental technology.

Prices could come down soon, though.

TCL’s foldable phone is still pretty much a concept device, judging from the comments of reviewers who have played with it. But if a consumer edition does come to fruition, it’s expected to be far more affordable than existing competitors. After all, TCL is known for making high-quality budget TVs.

Even Samsung, whose first foldable phone cost an eye-watering US$1,980, could soon introduce a much cheaper successor. The clamshell phone expected to be unveiled next month might retail for as low as US$845, according to The Korea Herald. That would make it cheaper than Motorola’s US$1,500 Razr.

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As the supply of components ramps up and the technology matures, prices of foldable phones will drop to a level comparable to other premium flagships within three years, according to Lim. That will make it much easier for consumers to embrace these new devices. She cited a Counterpoint survey that shows American users have a high level of purchase intention for foldable smartphones.

“I believe foldable phones are the next generation technology that will lead the smartphone market after 5G,” she said. 

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