Folding phones have a durability problem, and they’re tough to fix

While folding phones are generating major buzz and being heralded as the future of smartphone design, they have a few hurdles to jump before they’re truly ready for prime time. Sky-high prices and technical growing pains are not unusual for new directions in tech, and most early adopters understand that, but evidence that foldable smartphones have a major durability problem is rapidly mounting. To make matters worse, folding phones are proving extremely difficult and expensive to fix.

Delayed launches, limited stock, cracked and scratched screens, and repair issues are tarnishing the shiny appeal of this emerging smartphone category. It looks as though manufacturers may have rushed folding phones onto the market before they’re ready. The big question is this: Are these problems bad enough that you shouldn’t buy a folding phone? We took a closer look at the issues that have arisen, the cost of repair, and what manufacturers are doing to see if we can find an answer.

Folding screens present major durability issues

The question of how durable a folding screen can be has been hanging over the first wave of devices like a stench. We had an inkling that there might be a problem when Samsung showed off the Galaxy Fold at MWC last year but wouldn’t let people touch it. Not long after that, the first batch of review units went out, and several reports cropped up of issues with the screen. Samsung was quick to blame the removal of a protective layer that some reviewers had mistaken for a screen protector and tried to peel off. There were no issues with the Galaxy Fold sent to Digital Trends, but CNBC, the Verge, and Marques Brownlee all ran into trouble, and it soon became apparent the problems were even more widespread than that. This prompted a recall and a months-long delay to the original April 25 release date.

With no clear date for a relaunch and AT&T, Best Buy, and others canceling pre-orders, things looked bleak. Samsung’s CEO was embarrassed and admitted they had rushed the release, but by the end of July, Samsung declared it had fixed the Fold and everything was set for a September launch. Samsung fixed the original issues by extending the protective layer under the frame of the phone, putting a protective cap on the hinges, and reducing the gap between the phone body and hinge when it’s closed to lessen the risk of anything getting in there.

Since the relaunch, Samsung has sold around 500,000 Galaxy Folds. While there have been a few reports of problems with the redesigned Fold, it seems Samsung has fixed the major flaws. You may still be wary, given that it’s fairly early days — most owners have only had the device for less than six months — but that has been enough time to convert those like our own Andy Boxall into a Galaxy Fold evangelist.

Any notion that we could relax and trust in folding phones was promptly killed off by the new Motorola Razr.

With a clever retro design and a different form factor from the Galaxy Fold, the Motorola Razr got everyone excited again, but doubt set in with the first round of reports about an unsettlingly noisy, stuttering hinge mechanism. Any notion that we could relax and trust in a new folding phones release was promptly killed off. Motorola was sparing with the review units, with many outlets having to buy the phone to review it. The first round of reviews reported bumpy screens and issues with the hinge, though the biggest problem was encountered by InputMag as the top layer seemed to separate from the screen and a crack formed in the middle of the display, right on the crease, after just a week of use. Motorola then successfully stopped them from sending the phone to iFixit for analysis, as it came to light that iFixit and Motorola have a partnership.

folding the new Motorola razr
Riley Young / Digital Trends

Hot on the Razr’s heels came Samsung’s second try in the shape of the Galaxy Z Flip. Our first impressions and indeed the general buzz from reviewers everywhere has been glowing, but Samsung took the unusual step of only allowing reviewers to test the phone for 24 hours starting on the day of its release on February 14 — just three days after unveiling it. This inevitably raises suspicions about its durability as most phones are loaned out to reviewers for several days and done so before they’re released. There was also some controversy about whether the Z Flip’s screen is really glass as Samsung claimed. After a few reports of scratches, it emerged that the Z Flip’s glass screen has a polymer screen protector on top.

It’s hard to say how well folding phones will age and how long they’ll last, but it’s clear they’re a great deal less durable than your average smartphone. There’s limited-to-no water resistance, susceptibility to screen scratches, the risk of things getting stuck in the hinge, and the mechanism itself being a potential trouble spot. There are also very limited choices in protective cases for the outside of theses devices so far.

What if you decide to take the plunge anyway and buy a folding phone? What happens if it breaks?

Foldable phones are difficult and expensive to fix

Modern smartphones are generally quite tricky to repair, but the first few phones with folding screens have taken things to a new level of complexity. The popular online repair manual, iFixit, tears down phones and assigns them a score based on how easy or difficult it is to fix them, with lower scores being the most difficult to repair. The Motorola Razr got a repairability score of one out of ten; the Samsung Galaxy Fold only did slightly better with a score of two out of ten; the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip matched that with another two out of ten. To give that some context, the iPhone 11 managed six out of ten while the Pixel 4 XL scored a four.

The Motorola Razr was described by iFixit as the “most complicated phone-based contraption we’ve ever taken apart.”

“People should absolutely be concerned about the durability of folding phones,” Olivia Webb of iFixit told Digital Trends. “In fact, that was a conclusion we made about both the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip and Motorola Razr in our teardowns—both of these phones are very cool and fun, but dust and debris get inside so easily. It’s clear that they’re not hardy enough to last the regular wear and tear of peoples’ lives.”

“It’s clear that they’re not hardy enough to last the regular wear and tear of peoples’ lives”

With repairs being so tricky, the danger that a do-it-yourself fix will damage something important is high. Furthermore, most people turn to the professionals when they want their phone fixed and the first stop is usually the manufacturer. So, if you get a crack in that screen or it develops some other fault that’s not covered under warranty what will you have to pay?

Repair costs:

Those prices are enough to give the most fervent folding phone fan some pause. So, perhaps a do-it-yourself fix could save some money. What if you do decide to attempt a repair on your own?

“The folding form factor is so new that I don’t think we’ve seen any non-OEM replacement parts to offer to potential DIYers. It’s hard to say what the cost would be, but it probably won’t be cheap,” explains Webb. “Even the non-folding OLED displays that we stock are relatively expensive compared to the value of the phones that they belong to. The folding screen repairs themselves are possible (though complicated) to DIY, but the reality of folding OLED manufacturing costs right now might means that the DIY option won’t save you much money.”

On second thought, perhaps it won’t.

What are manufacturers doing about it?

All the manufacturers offer standard warranties with their folding phones that cover defects in materials and workmanship. That should cover you from major flaws, at least in theory, but in practice the issues that are accepted under warranty vary. The problem is that manufacturers won’t accept warranty claims if they determine the defect was caused by misuse and it can be difficult to prove this one way or the other.

“Since folding screens are inherently more prone to cosmetic damage, it’s highly likely that there will be a spike in consumers demanding replacements for damage that they don’t feel was their fault,” says Webb. “Samsung and Motorola have probably considered this problem at length, and it may have led them to offer one-time “cheap” screen replacements.”

Indeed, Samsung offers a special one-time repair cost for folding screens of $150 for the Fold or $120 for the Z Flip, but after that, you’re looking at the higher prices listed above. It’s also not entirely clear what kinds of damage will qualify, though Samsung has provided some literature on terms which indicates qualified repairs for anything not deemed “abuse or misuse, including use for other than personal purposes as recommended by Samsung, such as use in a hazardous, commercial or industrial setting.” If you work in a construction zone, the Z Flip may not be the phone for you.

Looking on the bright side

Perhaps the biggest threat to your phone’s well being is accidental drops. All of us have dropped a phone at some point and held our breath as we picked it up to survey the damage. Protective cases are the answer for many, but the complexity of folding phones has meant far fewer protective options are available, though we are seeing more Galaxy Fold cases rolling out.

“The new trend of folding devices is not going away anytime soon and as a leading rugged case manufacturer, we plan on supporting these devices going forward,” Makailynn Clark of Urban Armor Gear told Digital Trends. “So far, every folding phone has been slightly different so there isn’t a one size fits all solution when tackling case design. We are currently in the works on a handful of different designs that will not only provide protection but are sleek and don’t add unnecessary bulk to the device.”

The good news is that, even without cases, there might be some elements of the folding screen design that actually boost durability.

“Folding displays scratch pretty easily, but they’re actually more shatter-resistant than a normal phone—and that’s just a side effect of how folding displays are currently made. They’re more flexible and pliable, so they’re less likely to shatter on impact,” explains Webb. “Couple that with the fact that the screen may fold closed and be protected while it is not in use (depending on the design), and there’s a good case to be made that folding phones have the potential to be “tougher” in that regard.”

In time, manufacturers will undoubtedly find ways to make folding phones more durable, and enterprising case makers will offer additional protection, but right now folding phones look alarmingly fragile and we have limited data on how gracefully they’ll age. Considering you can easily pay double the price of a comparable non-folding phone just for the benefit of that folding screen, and factoring in the high cost of repair if something goes wrong, it may be sensible to hold off on buying a folding phone right now.

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