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What Galaxy Fold's breaking screens mean for the future of foldable phones

CNET logo CNET 22/04/2019 Jessica Dolcourt
225-galaxy-fold © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. 225-galaxy-fold

There was little doubt that Samsung's Galaxy Fold and other foldable devices to launch in 2019 and beyond would face some growing pains, but mostly we assumed they'd have to do with dents on the foldable plastic screen and long-term wear and tear on the seam or crease where the phone bends in half. Nobody was prepared for a total meltdown of review units before the Galaxy Fold's April 26 US sale date, least of all the reviewers like me who were lucky enough to get early access to see the Fold in action.

In light of last week's reports of breaking Galaxy Fold screens, the conversation has taken a turn from general excitement in seeing the world's first major foldable phone, to finger-pointing and concern. Twitter, Reddit and other social networks have exploded in frenzied dialog that casts blame on everyone from Samsung for rushing the Galaxy Fold to the reviewers themselves, two of whom may have hastened the meltdown of their foldable review units by peeling off something it turns out they were never supposed to peel off. 

CNET's Galaxy Fold review unit is undamaged.

Samsung's troubles underscore just how risky and fragile the concept of a foldable phone really is. Foldable phones represent a new type of device that's meant to maximize screen size without expanding the overall size of the device. After using the handset in its fully-opened tablet mode, you just snap it closed to carry around, using a smaller exterior screen for minor tasks like tracking your messages, maps navigation and answering or dismissing calls. Samsung no doubt wanted to lead the way, burnishing a reputation as an innovator in the smartphone's transition to the next big thing. 

a close up of a cell phone: galaxy-fold-screen-film © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. galaxy-fold-screen-film

Now, it isn't even clear if Samsung will postpone its launch in some countries to deal with the problems. Until Samsung and other brands can steady buyers' fears, the future of foldable phones hangs precariously in the balance.

The turmoil came after four early reviewers of Samsung's  foldable phone posted photos of their bulging, "broken," "unusable," "flickering" Folds, causing a ripple of sensation across social media sites like Twitter and Reddit. You might even say that the internet is freaking out.

Photos of the damaged phones ranged from a fully blacked-out screen to a bubbled device and one with a portion of the screen white and the other half blacked out. That leaves those curious buyers and those who preordered the phone waiting for answers: What went wrong, if issues will affect all foldable phones or just this early run and where buyers can turn if something happens to their Galaxy Fold. 

On the Galaxy Fold, glass isn't the screen. It's the bodyguard.

When you think about breaking phone parts, your mind will no doubt leap to the glass screens and backing on a premium phone. This is why cases exist, after all. But on the Galaxy Fold, glass isn't the screen. It's the bodyguard. 

The Fold uses a horizontal clamshell design where hard glass halves close like a book to protect a tender plastic display inside. Samsung even includes a case in the Galaxy Fold box as extra armor for the glass exterior, in case you drop the phone.

Samsung is aware of the issues and has said it's looking seriously into the matter. "A limited number of early Galaxy Fold samples were provided to media for review," the company said in a statement on Wednesday. "We have received a few reports regarding the main display on the samples provided. We will thoroughly inspect these units in person to determine the cause of the matter."

There may be a specific reason that some of the phones came to harm. Two reviewers experienced a total screen failure when they removed a thin plastic film that runs along the Galaxy Fold's screen. There's a narrow gap between this film and the bezel-edge of the display, which has led to confusion about the nature of the film. 

It isn't immediately obvious if the plastic layer belongs to the phone or if it's the film you commonly see on devices to keep screens smudge- and lint-free during shipping and storage.

Bloomberg's Mark Gurman found out the hard way that the latter wasn't the case. He tweeted this about his review unit last week: "The screen on my Galaxy Fold review unit is completely broken and unusable just two days in. Hard to know if this is widespread or not."

YouTube reviewer Marques "MKBHD" Brownlee had a similar experience after peeling the layer off his Galaxy Fold review unit. 

"PSA: There's a layer that appears to be a screen protector on the Galaxy Fold's display," he tweeted. "It's NOT a screen protector. Do NOT remove it."

But the protective film isn't the only source of Samsung's early troubles. CNBC's Todd Haselton experienced screen flickering on the left side of his review device. The Verge's Dieter Bohn also had issues, with Bohn's screen forming a bulge beneath the surface.

These reports of a faulty Galaxy Fold are a nightmare situation for Samsung, the first major brand to sell a foldable phone. The Fold, which has a 4.6-inch screen on the outside, a bendable 7.3-inch screen on the inside and a nearly $1,980 price tag, is a major risk for the tech giant.

Intense criticism at the outset could hurt future sales, and shake consumer confidence in the concept of foldable phones in general. The Galaxy Fold's chance to lead the emerging category could come under fire if buyers turn their backs on the innovative design, or opt for a rival model like Huawei's Mate X, TCL's upcoming designs or a rumored foldable phone like the Motorola Razr.

As far as we know, the Galaxy Fold will still go on sale in the US on April 26 with AT&T, T-Mobile and select Samsung Experience stores. It's also available for preorder online. I've reached out to T-Mobile and AT&T asking for a comment on how they'll support Galaxy Fold buyers if something goes wrong. 

T-Mobile replied: "We're finalizing options for our customers, please stay tuned." AT&T did not respond to a request for comment.

Samsung replied:

We are taking all necessary measures to ensure that information about protective layer is clearly delivered to our customers. Materials in the Galaxy Fold box, including the quick start guide, will include information about the protective layer. Samsung.com will have a dedicated Galaxy Fold FAQ for consumers to learn more about caring for the Galaxy Fold, including information about the protective layer.  Retail representatives and customer care are trained with information about the top protective layer.

We went hands-on with the Galaxy Fold, and here it is

a close up of a hand holding a cellphone: As phone companies compete to release phones with foldable screens , Samsung is finally ready to introduce its Galaxy Fold to the masses. Available April 26, the phone opens up like a book and has secondary display that serves as its "cover."

As phone companies compete to release phones with foldable screens , Samsung is finally ready to introduce its Galaxy Fold to the masses. Available April 26, the phone opens up like a book and has secondary display that serves as its "cover."
© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc.

What is this film layer thingamajiggy everyone's talking about?

Let's address the film layer first. I had received my review unit on Monday morning, then shot an unboxing video, and worried that I had forgotten to take off this plastic layer -- what would the YouTube viewers say?! 

Turns out, what looks like a paper-thin sheet of plastic covering the foldable phone's 7.3-inch display is a protective layer that's crucial to helping keep the phone damage-free.

You can see the edges of that layer here, on my review unit:

OK, so now we're clear: whatever you do, don't peel back this film. It's part of the screen and bad things happen when you remove it.

But again, the protective layer isn't the whole story, because two other reviewers, Haselton and Bohn, said that they didn't remove the film, and still had problems that rendered the Fold unusable. So what's going on?

What's the deal with the Galaxy Fold's screen?

The Galaxy Fold has a completely different screen setup than any other phone. There's a 4.6-inch display on the outside that's covered with Gorilla Glass -- that's the same as other Galaxy phones like the S10 and S10 Plus . But inside, the screen is made of a plastic (polymer) material that Samsung calls its Infinity Flex Display.

Samsung created this with a new process and specific adhesives to withstand the screen's bending and flexing without breaking. The screen protector layer is meant to remain in place to prevent damage to the display below -- that's the thing that actually makes your "screen" light up. Without the hardness of glass to cover the delicate display, the Fold is more vulnerable, something that's become vividly apparent.

Is there something different about the review phones?

Yes. Reviewers received early production models. That means these aren't the final review units, and could be prone to certain issues that Samsung might have the opportunity to fix before the Fold reaches buyers' hands.

For example, I was told that my review unit is an unlocked European version that doesn't support US services like Bixby Voice, Samsung Health and Samsung Pay. Likewise, I was warned that call quality might be compromised because the phone isn't optimized to US bands.

While I'm fully testing this review unit of the Galaxy Fold, I am withholding a rating until I receive the final production model CNET ordered.

Did Samsung say you're not supposed to remove the film?

It isn't clear if Samsung thoroughly briefed every reviewer who received a phone about the screen protector layer. There was no instruction in my box -- no literature at all, in fact -- but also no other indication, like a pull tab, that you should remove it.

However, I almost did anyway. As a reviewer, I like to experience the phone as "clean" as possible. That means everything I can peel off is going to come off. I emailed Samsung for more information about this layer on Tuesday. A spokesperson responded, "Galaxy Fold is manufactured with a special protective layer. It is not a screen protector -- do not attempt to remove it."

The company further elaborated its position:

"A few reviewers reported having removed the top layer of the display causing damage to the screen. The main display on the Galaxy Fold features a top protective layer, which is part of the display structure designed to protect the screen from unintended scratches. Removing the protective layer or adding adhesives to the main display may cause damage. We will ensure this information is clearly delivered to our customers."

Samsung added this statement as well: 

"The protective layer is part of the display structure designed to protect the screen from unintended scratches. The main display of the Galaxy Fold is made with a new, advanced polymer layer and adhesive that's flexible and tough enough to endure repeated folding actions. Because the main display is made with polymer, the extra protective layer is in place to guard against impact. It's built into the display which is why it should not be removed by force. Consumers who notice that the protective layer is not integrated on the display should contact Samsung customer care at 1-800-SAMSUNG as soon as possible to avoid any additional damage to the display."

Desmond Smith, director of creative content and a tech evangelist at T-Mobile , tweeted that the carrier's final production models will come with a warning on the wrap that goes over the Galaxy Fold's screen:

But peeling off the Fold's screen layer isn't the only issue

While removing the plastic film caused a problem for some, it isn't entirely clear what the protective film does or how its removal relates to the screen's behavior. Remember that two of the reviewers kept the protector on. Bohn suspects that a piece of debris may have become lodged under the screen to create the bulge he felt, and a slight distortion on the Fold's surface.

Haselton, meanwhile, observed a persistent screen flicker over the left half of the screen. We know that two batteries, one on each side, work in concert to form a single power source. I'm not an electrical or chemical engineer, but I wonder if that could indicate a battery issue. Hopefully we'll all find out one way or another.

At any rate, the Galaxy Fold's risky design has created some inconsistencies that could damage its early production phones and its reputation.

Why are bendable screens made of plastic in the first place?

Right now, glass doesn't bend so well. That's something that Corning -- the maker of Gorilla Glass, which covers most high-end phones -- is working on. Don't expect bendable glass to save second-gen foldable phones, though. It won't be ready for some time.

If I ordered the Galaxy Fold, should I cancel it?

If you're genuinely interested in owning the Galaxy Fold, I suggest the wait-and-see approach. We don't know how widespread the issue is, and if it affects a bad batch or the entire lineup. I'm not saying don't be concerned, but let's see what develops. My own review unit hasn't experienced screen abnormalities at this point, but I'm keeping a close eye on any issues.

The reported problems make the affected Galaxy Fold unusable, but so far reviewers haven't indicated any truly dangerous behavior, unlike reports after some batteries in the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7 were found to overheat and sometimes catch fire.

Samsung won't want another PR disaster on its hands. I'm confident it would fully refund a broken Galaxy Fold if it did happen to you. Regardless, we'll hopefully get a more concrete explanation before the Galaxy Fold officially goes on sale April 26.

What is Samsung doing to fix the problem?

Samsung is well aware of the issues, and is working with reviewers to replace broken devices to investigate what went wrong (see the statements above).

In addition, we've asked Samsung what it thinks happened, if buyers can feel assured that their Folds won't break, if Samsung will provide a refund if people cancel their order, and how Samsung will make it clear what future Fold owners should and shouldn't do to protect their phones.

So far Samsung hasn't addressed these specific questions, but has said that Fold owners should contact Samsung customer care (1-800-SAMSUNG) if they experience any problems. We hope to get a few more details before the foldable devices go on sale. In the meantime, here's how it's going with CNET's Galaxy Fold so far.

Originally published April 17 and updated frequently. 

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