CES 2019: Hands On With The First Foldable Phone

By Tegan Jones on at

In the last few months of 2018 it seemed like the mobile world was dominated by the foldable arms race. Samsung was always at the forefront of the conversation, but there were other contenders who might get there first, including Huawei.

In the end, a small company called Royole beat everyone to it, releasing its foldable to the commercial Chinese market at the end of last year. It also made an appearance at CES 2019, so I pushed my way through the crowds to ensure I got my hands (and butt) on it.

I was only able to spend about 5 minutes with the FlexPai, so think of this as some early first impressions.

Just The Specs, Please

The Flexpai is a 7.8-inch tablet/phone hybrid device with 1920 x 1440 AMOLED display.

Under the hood it has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor and two options for RAM - 6GB and 8GB. When it comes to storage there are 128GB and 256GB models, though it also has a MicroSD slot for up to 256GB of additional expandable storage.

There are two cameras, with the front facing coming in at 16MP, with the rear sporting a slightly larger 20MP lens.

Its currently running Android Pie as well Royole's own operating system that has been developed specifically for foldables - Water OS. The reason behind this is that there is no current Android OS that can accomodate foldable hardware.

It is also powered by USB-C and has a fingerprint scanner option for unlocking.

What Was Good About It?

It sure does fold!

Hearing about foldable phones for months is quite different to experiencing one first hand.

I'm not ashamed to admit how in awe I was, spending a good chunk of time repeatedly folding it, enjoying the satisfying "snap" sound it made when it folded completely over.

It's an absolute marvel of engineering and I loved using it.

Once its folded you're left with 2 x 4-inch displays for multi window functionality. You even have an option for dual SIMs - only for each side of the device.

For those who like to watch content on their tablets, a notification bar pops up alongside the hinge when you receive a new message or email. This means that you can stay abreast of incoming communication without being completely interrupted.

It Seems Quite Sturdy

The device can be folded to a full 180 degrees to convert into a smartphone. Apparently it can be bent over 200,000 times before the screen will begin to wear out.

And because the screen isn't made of glass, it apparently has less of a chance of being scratched or breaking.

We were even told that it could be sat on, so I slid it into my back pocket ready to stress test that theory.

This action made the Royole reps a little nervous (maybe they thought I was going to steal it) so I repeatedly backed myself up against a nearby wall instead.

I wasn't particularly gentle and the FlexPai held up just fine. It also felt surprisingly comfortable in the pocket. I expected it to be bulky and perhaps not even fit. I was wrong.

Battery Life

A Royole rep told Gizmodo Australia that it can get around 12-15 hours of battery, conditions depending. You can even turn off one side in order to conserve power.

To be fair, it's not like we actually got to test this. And while we are likely to see beefier battery lives in 2019 flagship phones, this doesn't sound bad at all for such a large device.

What's Not So Good About It?

The OS Was A Little Wonky

We found that the device had some issues switching between horizontal and vertical viewing - especially after unfolding.

The delay time was incredibly noticeable. It struggled to keep up, meaning that it often rotated in a way you didn't want to, and even suspended apps without warning.

The user experience here was wasn't great and I could see myself getting annoyed quite quickly if I was using it every day.

I know it's early days for foldables, and retail units will ship with more updates, but this definitely needs some work.

The Hinge

This has nothing to do with the engineering - I just wasn't a fan of the look and feel of the rubber hinge.

It was a slightly different colour to the rest of the device, which made it stand out in a less-than-positive way. It was also looking a bit grubby from constant use during the show.

It made me wonder how grotty it's going to look if it's used over a long period of time.

The Gaming Plan Is Questionable

We were told that the Flexpai is great for gaming because of how multiplayer would work in tent mode. For example, you could have two people on either side of it for a game of chess.

This is all well and good in theory - but how many developers are going to create products for such a niche device?

Plus, the examples the rep gave were of rather old games like Battleship and checkers. There's nothing wrong with them, but they aren't going to be enough of a draw card for the modern gamer who is likely to be interested in this multiplayer functionality.

When Can I Get It?

Interestingly, we were told by a Royole rep that the FlexPai was currently only available for commercial sale in China, but that the plan was to launch in the U.S. and Europe later this year.

But if you take a look at the company website, you can pre-order it now for $1,318 ( £1,027) for the 128GB model and $1,469 ( £1,145) for the 256GB one. Well, in parts of the Northern Hemisphere, anyway.

After going through the cart process I discovered that it is currently shipping to the Canada, Mexico and the U.S. And despite the fact that it is said to be on pre-order, there is a note that says:

"Due to the overwhelming response since the launch of FlexPai, for orders placed after January 1, 2019, please anticipate 60 90 days to ship."


Gizmodo Australia is gobbling up the news in a different timezone, so check them out if you need another Giz fix.