Will a sliding body and rolled-up display be better than foldables?
CES is very often the home of vaporware product demos, and that certainly seemed to be the case when LG briefly teased a rollable-smartphone prototype, called simply “LG Rollable,” during its press conference. Pie-in-the-sky flexible display prototypes have been a regular fixture at CES since 2008, after all. After the main press conference, LG Electronics President and CTO I.P. Park said of the device, “We’re hoping to see it out in the market early this year.” Not just this year, but early this year? OK LG, we’re listening!
Like concepts that have already been shown off from Oppo and TCL, a rollable phone works kind of like a paper scroll, where two halves would be pulled apart to reveal more of the flexible screen, which can be hidden in the body of the phone. LG only showed a combined 10 seconds of the LG Rollable to start and end its press conference, but the footage shows a phone with two sliding halves and a “growing” display. It looks exactly like the Oppo and TCL designs, except allegedly it will be a real product.
From what we understand about rollable phone design, the display is connected to the bottom of the phone, then it rolls around the top half and into the back of the phone. As the motorized top section rises out of the phone, it pulls out more of the display from the back. Most people are accustomed to perfectly flat, hard-glass displays, but the plastic, flexible displays we saw in early, flexible smartphones had almost no rigidity on their own. In a rollable phone, most of the rigidity looks to be from the tension the rolling mechanism puts into the display. The Moto Razr flip phone works on the same principle: opening the phone pulls a sliding, floating display tight over a back panel, sort of like a drumhead.
For a product that is supposed to be out soon, we’re disappointed that LG’s footage uses a simulated display instead of showing the actual screen. The picture is crystal clear, with perfect contrast and no glare at all, and the presenter tries to hold the phone as still as possible, which would help with motion tracking in post. There also doesn’t appear to be a front camera on the device, either in the display or on the bezel. Inserting a fake display image is standard practice for an advertisement, but we would have liked to see a working prototype. Many plastic, flexible-display phones have had all sorts of weird bumps and creases in the display area, but we can’t make any judgments about the screen flatness here since we aren’t seeing the actual display surface.
Here are some other things we’ve harped on with these flexible phones: the two aspect ratios and whether they are appropriate and useful for an Android phone. When closed, the LG Rollable looks like a normal smartphone with what looks to be a pretty standard 19:9 aspect ratio. When open, we measured a 3:2 tablet screen. 3:2 is not typically seen on Android tablets, but it was famously chosen on the original Chromebook Pixel, and it earned fans for better website viewing. There really aren’t any Android tablet apps anymore, so any flexible phone should probably settle on something that will be useful for split screen. With 3:2, you’ll get two fatter-than-normal Android windows, but it might be workable.
Four seconds?!? I want it now!
In the video, the motorized closing process in the video takes an awfully slow-looking four seconds. LG could have slowed down this process for the benefit of the video, but the company also has to be concerned about pinching fingers in the sides of the phone. If motorized closing really does take four seconds, that will be a big change from the snap-shut hinges on a Samsung foldable or the instant-off of a slab phone. Imagine just wanting to put a phone in your pocket but having to wait four seconds for the whirring motors to gently close it.
Part of the justification for a slow opening and closing procedure might be to minimize stress on the display. Flexible-display smartphones have been a durability nightmare, with first-gen devices from Samsung and Motorola suffering from numerous public failures like dead touchscreens, broken hinges, and dead panels. A rollable phone wouldn’t have a single stress point like one of Samsung’s creased foldables. Instead, the device would massage the flexing stress across the entire top of the display as it unrolls. It’s not clear if that’s better or worse.
If it launches, the LG Rollable would be LG’s first phone with a moving, flexible display (we’re trying to not count the ridiculous, banana-shaped LG G Flex from 2013, which had a curved, unmoving, “flexible” display behind rigid glass). LG often views Samsung as its main rival, since both companies are Korean, both have significant display manufacturing capabilities, and both make smartphones. Samsung’s display and smartphone divisions have blasted ahead of LG in the flexible display smartphone race, though, with Samsung hitting the third-generation of the Galaxy Z Fold this year, while LG doesn’t have an entry on the market.
Today, LG produces a rollable OLED TV, but a report from Nikkei Asia says LG isn’t actually using its own display tech in the LG Rollable. Instead, the report says LG is partnering with Huawei’s frequent display supplier, the Chinese display manufacturer BOE. Samsung spent years and over a hundred million dollars developing its flexible display technology, and in 2018, South Korean prosecutors say that technology was stolen by a Chinese supplier and sold to other unnamed Chinese companies. A report from Nikkei Asia from around that time pegs BOE as a recipient of that stolen Samsung technology, and today, BOE and Samsung are the two main vendors of flexible displays for smartphones.
You also have to wonder why LG, Oppo, and TCL are all demoing what looks to be essentially the same rollable phone concept. If one of those companies came up with the design, it likely would have patented the design and snatched up the exclusive rights. Multiple companies doing the same thing suggests some supplier came up with the idea and is trying to sell it to multiple companies. Maybe that supplier is BOE, and maybe LG is just the first one to decide to commercialize it.