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The straight truth about Samsung and LG's flexible smartphone displays


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They'll bend our concept of smartphone design a little—but not much more than that.

In a press release, LG announced that its flexible AMOLED panels were entering mass production. The move comes as rumors mount about Samsung soon releasing a Galaxy Note 3 variant with its own curved display, said to be called the Galaxy Round. In consumer electronics, new tech demos are often far more interesting than the products that will come from them—if they ever grow up to become real products at all. We've been covering flexible displays for a very long time. In that span, the technology has matured from theory to prototypes, and it may soon be in products you and I can afford (unlike this). So should we expect Samsung and LG's new bendy-curvy panels to usher in an era of radical phones we can fold into our pockets or roll up like a magazine?

In a word: no. And here's why.


Samsung's CES 2011 flexible display demo.

Traditional AMOLED displays are made by applying a chemical substrate to a thin piece of glass and then layering the electronic components that control the display atop that. Flexible displays use a thin, bendable plastic instead of that glass, but they are awfully similar otherwise.

The plastic gives the screen some bendiness, but the electronic bits become the limiting factor in flexibility. Those bits are able to tolerate some deformation—within reason. If you saw "flexible displays" and had visions of folding up a phone like a high-tech square to stuff it in your breast pocket, this isn't the display innovation you've been looking for. At a radius of curvature of 400 mm, the Samsung display has a reported maximum deflection of just 18 degrees, or 5 mm. LG's own panel has an even more modest radius of curvature of 700 mm.

This means we'll be seeing very little other than wide, gentle curves, with a deflection not exceeding 18 degrees. That's far from right angles and even farther from smartphone pocket squares. LG's release also foreshadowed what is sure to be a major upcoming marketing point by describing its panel as "unbreakable." Be they curved or sloped or straight, without any glass to shatter, the flexible display phones ought to suffer fewer costly repairs if—OK, let's be honest, when—dropped. The displays may even end up much lighter and thinner than their glass-encumbered counterparts, so there should be more room for the battery.


LG's bendy AMOLED display.

LG and Samsung both have accomplished a lot so far, and phones are only one area where the technology has a lot of potential (think cars, wearables, and helmets). But instead of expecting a radical, bendable departure in phone design, take note instead of what Samsung previewed at a small press event at CES 2013. That prototype device, as reported by The Verge, featured a flexible 5-inch display, one of whose long edges spilled over the side of the handset. The result was a standard smartphone experience with the exception that when the phone was turned off, that edge portion became a hub for glanceable information. It's a simple curve that begets added functionality.

It's not a revolution, but it's definitely a start.

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