At Mobile World Congress 2019, the big trend was foldable smartphones, flexible displays and 5G connectivity. I’m sure you would have read this multiple times so far but that’s the real deal. Both Samsung and Huawei had their foldable smartphones, the Galaxy Fold and Mate X, in a glass casing but there was one other company offering more hands on time with its foldable smartphone. Yes, I’m indeed talking about Royole and its FlexPai foldable smartphone. Royole came into picture for the first time last year when it announced the FlexPai in China.
The smartphone had two things going for it: a flexible display and a confirmation that it is powered by Snapdragon 855 mobile platform. The announcement came even before Qualcomm officially launched the chipset at Snapdragon Summit in December 2018. Since the launch, the company has constantly been in focus and gathered large attention at CES as well.
While Samsung did not allow anybody to touch or experience its Galaxy Fold, Huawei did better by showing the device to select people in a closed briefing. Royole, a little known Chinese company, beat those two major smartphone makers by not only having half a dozen devices in its booth but by also encouraging people to tinker with it. It takes courage not only to remove the headphone jack but also to demonstrate a foldable smartphone which has a high rate of failure, especially when handled by a number of people attending a massive trade show like MWC.
I’m more impressed by the company’s approach than the device itself. The FlexPai from Royole has a folding design similar to that of Huawei Mate X where the display folds inwards as opposed to outward folding mechanism seen on the Galaxy Fold. I must say that the mechanism felt really clumsy and the place where the display folds in two seemed to have developed some kind of lines due to constant folding and unfolding. It was not easily visible with some wallpapers but some made them very much apparent.
Like all foldable smartphones announced so far, the FlexPai is powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 SoC coupled with 6GB or 8GB of RAM and 128GB or 256GB storage. I could not try any power intensive application but the user interface alone seemed really fast. Royole has built a custom interface on top of Android 9 Pie called Water OS (not sure if it means Hydrogen + Oxygen OS) to enable transition between two sides of the display. Royole says the display is equivalent to 8-inches diagonal when unfolded and shrinks down to 4-inches when folded.
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The display is claimed to be flexible AMOLED with a resolution of 1920 x 1440 pixels and they did not seem very much impressive. The two displays are held together using a hinge which looks similar to that of a conveyor belt. Royole claims the hinge is rated to be folded for over 2 lakh times and during my hands on time, the folding experience ranged from holy cow, what the hell to OMG! Did I just break it. When you fold the device, the two corners meet and make a snap sound, which is equivalent to that of a glass breaking when it is dropped. Royole folks kept insisting me to try again suggesting their confidence in the device not breaking apart.
The user experience is definitely crude. There was a moment when the company demonstrated a video on the large 8-inch display and then folded it but the video did not correspond to change in display aspect immediately. The app icons also do not always react to whether you have the display folded or unfolded. This is one area where I believe Huawei and Samsung will perform better. The FlexPai has dual 16-megapixel and 20-megapixel cameras which acts as both front and rear camera modules.
Every time you use it as rear camera, both the photographer as well as their subject can see the picture. It is backed by a 3,970mAh battery and Royole claims to have a proprietary charging mechanism that can charge this foldable smartphone from zero to 80 percent in an hour. When the FlexPai was showcased at CES, it drew a lot of criticism but I personally want to commend the company for being bold and showing its device to consumers. It may not be perfect but at a retail price of RMB 8,999 (around Rs 95,000) in China, it is the only foldable smartphone most people can buy right now.