CES is very often home to demos of vaporware products, and that certainly seemed to be the case when LG briefly teased a prototype rollable smartphone called simply “LG Rollable” during the press conference. After all, pie-in-the-sky flexible display prototypes have been a fixture at CES since 2008. After the main press conference, LG Electronics President and CTO IP Park said of the device, “We hope to see it in the market early this year.” Not just this year, but early this year? OK LG, we’re listening!
Similar to concepts already shown by Oppo and TCL, a roll-up phone works a bit like a paper roll, pulling two halves apart to reveal more of the flexible screen, which can be hidden inside the phone’s body. LG showed just a combined 10 seconds of the LG Rollable to start and end the press conference, but the footage shows a phone with two sliding halves and a “growing” screen. It looks exactly like the Oppo and TCL designs, except that it will – allegedly – be a real product.
From what we understand about the design of a rollable phone, the screen connects to the bottom of the phone and then rolls around the top half and into the back of the phone. As the motorized top section lifts out of the phone, it pulls out more of the screen at the back. Most people are used to perfectly flat hard glass screens, but the plastic flexible screens we saw in early flexible smartphones had almost no rigidity on their own. With a roll-up phone, most stiffness seems to come from the tension that the roll mechanism exerts on the screen. The Moto Razr flip phone works on the same principle: when you open the phone, a sliding, floating screen is pulled tightly over a back panel, kind of like a drumhead.
For an upcoming product, we’re disappointed that LG’s images use a simulated screen rather than show the actual screen. The picture is crystal clear, with perfect contrast and no glare at all, and the presenter tries to keep the phone as still as possible, which would help with tracking movement in the post. There also doesn’t seem to be a front camera on the device, neither on the screen nor on the bezel. Inserting a fake display image is standard for an ad, but we would have liked to see a working prototype. Many plastic phones with flexible screens have all sorts of weird bumps and folds in the display area, but we can’t make a judgment about the flatness of the screen here, because we don’t see the actual display surface.
Here are some other things we’ve been hammering on with these flexible phones: the two aspect ratios and whether they’re appropriate and useful for an Android phone. When closed, the LG Rollable looks like a normal smartphone with a fairly standard 19:9 aspect ratio. When opened, we measured a 3:2 tablet screen. 3:2 isn’t usually seen on Android tablets, but it was famously chosen on the original Chromebook Pixel, and it earned fans for better rendering of the website. There really aren’t any Android tablet apps anymore, so any flexible phone should probably settle for something useful for split screen. At 3:2 you get two Android windows that are thicker than usual, but it might be workable.
four seconds?!? I want it now!
In the video, the motorized closing process in the video looks very slow four seconds. LG could have slowed down this process for the sake of the video, but the company should also be concerned about fingers getting caught in the sides of the phone. If motorized closing actually takes four seconds, that’s a big change from the flip hinges on a Samsung foldable or the instant-off of a flat phone. Imagine you just want to put a phone in your pocket, but have to wait four seconds for the buzzing motors to gently close it.
Part of the justification for a slow opening and closing procedure could be to minimize screen tension. Flexible screen smartphones have been a sustainability nightmare, with first-generation Samsung and Motorola devices suffering from numerous public outages, such as dead touchscreens, broken hinges, and dead panels. A rollable phone wouldn’t have a single stress point like one of Samsung’s crumpled foldable phones. Instead, the device would massage the bending stress across the entire top of the screen as it unrolls. It’s not clear whether that’s better or worse.
When it launches, the LG Rollable would be LG’s first phone with a moving, flexible screen (we’re trying not to count the ridiculous, banana-shaped 2013 LG G Flex, with a curved, immobile, “flexible” screen behind hard glass). LG often considers Samsung its main rival as both companies are Korean, both have significant display capabilities and both make smartphones. However, Samsung’s display and smartphone divisions have led LG in the race with flexible display smartphones, with Samsung reaching the third generation of the Galaxy Z Fold this year, while LG has no access to the market.
Today, LG produces a rollable OLED TV, but a report from Nikkei Asia says LG isn’t really using its own display technology in the LG Rollable. Instead, the report says LG is collaborating with Huawei’s frequent display supplier, Chinese display manufacturer BOE. Samsung has spent years and more than $100 million developing its flexible display technology, and in 2018 South Korean prosecutors say the technology was stolen by a Chinese supplier and sold to other unnamed Chinese companies. A report from Nikkei Asia at the time identifies BOE as a recipient of that stolen Samsung technology, and today BOE and Samsung are the two main suppliers of flexible displays for smartphones.
You also have to wonder why LG, Oppo and TCL are all demonstrating what appears to be essentially the same roll-up phone concept. If one of those companies came up with the design, it probably would have patented the design and taken away the exclusive rights. Multiple companies doing the same thing suggests that a 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 to decide to commercialize it.
List image by LG