“Buckle your seatbelt, the future is about to begin.”

Those were the words of Samsung’s CEO DJ Koh on stage at Samsung Unpacked, the launch event for a phone that’s going to shape the way we use smartphones for the next decade.

Koh was actually talking about the new Galaxy S10 range when he said the above, but it’s far more pertinent to today’s real showstopper: the Samsung Galaxy Fold.

It might sound overzealous, but the Fold is going to be one of the iconic devices of the next 10 years, something that sets the tone for not just phones but portable electronics in general. 

Koh alluded to the problem on stage tonight: that there’s a belief there’s nothing left in the smartphone world to inspire users. That’s probably true with the current form factor.

There’s no magical, pinch-and-zoom interface that the iPhone brought. There’s no incredible battery life or awe-inspiring camera. Everything is the much-maligned black rectangle.

But what we saw on stage tonight in the Galaxy Fold, a handset that folds outwards to show a large 7.3-inch screen, was the Promethean phone that we’ll look back on in years to come, a device that sparked a change in the desires of phone buyers.

There’s a hankering for something new, something innovative, the next ‘big thing’ that’s never satisfied in phone buyers – and a handset that folds out, that’s both a smartphone and a tablet in one, is just the thing for that. 

This claim sounds like jumping the gun a little bit, and that’s understandable. The Galaxy Fold is an ugly device when folded down in ‘phone mode’, after all – the 4.7-inch screen sits between two huge bezels, which are even more pronounced given most phone manufacturers are trying to remove them altogether, Samsung included. 

The thin screen dimensions make the phone look longer than it really is, but it has to be that way to accommodate the large screen inside, the thing that really sets this Galaxy Fold apart. 

The main draw is being able to start a task on the ‘phone’ screen and seamlessly open up the phone to continue on the large ‘tablet’ portion – it looks so impressive, but that doesn’t mean design compromises weren’t made. It looks thick when folded down, in a world of thin smartphones.

Bezel-haters, look away now…

We’re talking about a phone that no member of the media got to touch or test – while the handset on stage looked slick and fluid, it could still be full of bugs. That would make sense given you’ll have to wait at least two months to own one, and the demonstrator might have been under strict instructions to only show certain, working elements. 

Were that to be true though, it would draw an interesting parallel with the first demo of the iPhone, where Jobs reportedly had to press buttons in a very specific order to stop the phone from crashing.

Perhaps you’re wondering why Samsung is being given the credit for changing the way smartphones. After all, it’s offered a very restricted demo of a too-thick phone with an ugly front.

It’s not the first to bring out a flexible smartphone, and in a month it’ll be joined by a host of other smartphone manufacturers in showing off a foldable phone. 

But Samsung has been working on flexible displays for years now, and was the first to demo the technology on stage last year (albeit in a weird, silhouetted fashion).

It’s also got the reputation – if the biggest smartphone manufacturer in the world brings out a radical new concept, people outside of early technology adopters are going to sit up and take notice. 

The flexible phone concept needs to be drip-fed into the mainstream, and only brands like Apple and Samsung are capable of doing that at the moment (although it will be interesting to see the impact Huawei has when it shows off its flexible phone next month).

Ouch.

It’s a bold claim to say the Galaxy Fold will be the genesis for the next wave of smartphones, but it seems inevitable that in the future we’ll all be sporting these flexible devices.

Not today though. Not this year. Probably not for half a decade, really. The Samsung Galaxy Fold seems likely to get a limited release worldwide, given the brand didn’t outline big plans for a global release on stage.

What it did say was that the Samsung Galaxy Fold price would start at an eye-watering $1,980 (around £1,500 / AU$2,700). That’s too expensive, and one wonders if it’s on purpose, a way to ward off the masses from buying – and then decrying – a new form factor that needs a few kinks worked out. Early adopters are usually far more forgiving because they have what they want: the new thing.

Even if it was slightly staged, that demo was impressive. The speed of the device was night and day compared to the buggy experience of the world’s first foldable phone, the Royole Flexpai

That was a phone that folded outwards, only had one screen, and got confused easily between open and closed modes. It’s also expensive, and it’s certainly not going to be a mainstream device. 

What the Flexpai did do is bring that buzz, that feeling of something new and groundbreaking. Seeing a display curve and fold was simply incredible, and Samsung possesses the marketing clout and reputation to get the world to take notice.

So sure, the Samsung Galaxy Fold isn’t going to sell in the millions. Perhaps it won’t even sell in the tens of thousands – but that doesn’t matter. In a decade, when we’re all using flexible electronics as part of our daily lives, it was days like today that put us on that path.

The ‘three app’ multi-tasking does seem too much for a smartphone

There’s no reason to believe that just because it’s created the Galaxy Fold, Samsung will ‘win’ the foldable war. Apple will certainly have something to say when the technology is mature enough, and there are reams of technologically-capable Chinese brands who will want to bring out something even more impressive.

That doesn’t stop the notion of a phone that opens up to a tablet being super cool right now. You might not buy a foldable smartphone today, but today’s launch could well be the reason you own one in the future.

All image credit: Samsung

Last August, Motorola announced what might still wind up being the world’s first true 5G phone — the Verizon-exclusive Moto Z3 with an optional 5G Moto Mod. It’s a snap-on module that the company promised would give you an insanely fast 5Gbps cellular connection, faster than most landlines these days. But Moto Z3 buyers had to take the company’s word for that, because the 5G Mod wouldn’t be available until “early 2019,” when Verizon’s 5G NR network is due to launch in the United States.

Well, the 5G Moto Mod just crossed the FCC today, and it came with a surprise in tow — a document that has more details about how it’ll work than I thought the company would ever publicly reveal.

And one of those details is sure to surprise some people, even if it’s not necessarily something anyone should actually worry about. Namely, the 5G Moto Mod will feature proximity sensors that shut off any of its four millimeter wave 5G antennas if your fingers get too close.

Here’s a portion of Motorola’s description:

As mentioned in the device description, capacitive and proximity sensors are used to disable transmission from a given mm-wave antenna array module when a user may be located in close proximity to the module and in a direction in which the module may transmit. The control mechanism is a simple one in which, if proximity detectors indicate the potential presence of the user within a roughly conical region in front of the module where power density may approach the MPE limit, that module is disabled from use by the modem. This terminates and prevents transmission from the module in question until the condition is cleared.

Before you react to that, a few things you should know:

  • Millimeter wave radiation is considered non-ionizing — it doesn’t have enough energy to tear apart living tissue.
  • You’ve probably already encountered millimeter wave radiation if you’ve gone through an airport body scanner. The FDA says there are “no known adverse health effects” from that kind of dose.
  • The FCC has millimeter wave exposure limits already, and that’s what Motorola’s system is complying with.
  • Motorola goes on to say that the proximity sensors aren’t the only way that it’s shutting off these antennas — the Mod will also automatically pick an antenna with better signal strength if your fingers are blocking others.

But it’s pretty interesting that Motorola felt the need to include such a system, and I’m curious if other 5G devices will have one as well.

We’d previously learned that the 5G Moto Mod contains practically all the guts of a high-end smartphone inside, including its own Snapdragon 855 processor, X50 5G modem, 10 antennas, and its own 2,000mAh battery so it doesn’t need to drain your connected phone, but the FCC filing reveals one less-exciting spec as well: the Mod appears to be 7mm thick at its thickest point, meaning it’ll more than double the thickness of your admittedly fairly thin 6.75mm Moto Z3 phone.

 FCC
13.75mm total – 6.75mm phone = 7mm. Looks like the Mod tapers down to 5.97mm at the edges, though.

We still don’t know how much the 5G Mod will cost, or quite how fast a connection you’ll be able to get in Verizon’s first 5G-equipped cities at launch — our early hands-on was hamstrung — but it’s worth noting that Motorola’s now only advertising a conservative estimate of 300 to 500Mbps, compared to the 5Gbps it’s theoretically capable of.

Oh, and I’ll leave you with one final tidbit I spotted in the FCC filing, though you might want to take this with a grain of salt: A sentence that reads “It functions only when it is snapped onto a 5G Mod-compatible smartphone device, such as the Moto Z3 Pro.”

The rest of the filing is pretty clear that the Mod was only tested with the existing Moto Z3 — I cross-referenced all the numbers to confirm — but I have to admit it was weird to see Motorola avoid launching a new high-end flagship phone last year. It wouldn’t be completely surprising if a “Pro” version of the phone arrives alongside the Mod when it shows up for real. Maybe we’ll hear something at Mobile World Congress next week?

This week’s Qualcomm Snapdragon Technology Summit was supposed to be the coming-out party for blazing-fast 5G cellular networks — the first time that journalists would be able to see real, consumer 5G devices running on real 5G networks from Verizon and AT&T.

That’s only partially true. A handful of 5G devices are here on the beautiful island of Maui. But journalists aren’t being allowed to try 5G in any meaningful way. They can’t touch the Samsung phone, or the AT&T hotspot, or the Verizon hotspot, or run an actual speed test on Motorola’s 5G modded phone. There are demos, like a VR headset plugged into a computer connected to Wi-Fi that’s also technically 5G, but we can’t peer behind the curtain to verify that 5G is actually working.

Why the cloak and dagger? It’s because the networks aren’t anywhere near as fast as 5G is supposed to be. They’re slower than the Comcast internet connection I have at home.

While Qualcomm’s newly announced Snapdragon 855 processor will theoretically be capable of multi-gigabit speeds, and even today’s most LTE networks can cross 400Mbps in some areas, the single 39GHz millimeter wave 5G network here in Maui is currently running at a measly 130-140Mbps, network provider Ericsson tells The Verge.

 Photo: Sean Hollister / The Verge
Ericsson 5G base stations, overlooking the Verizon demo room.

Ericsson set up the network for both Verizon and AT&T here in Maui, and representatives for each side told me the same thing: Because they threw together a network here with just 100MHz worth of spectrum, and only a few days to test and optimize it, the speeds aren’t what they should be.

These 5G networks should have more like 400 to 800MHz worth of spectrum in the real world, says one Ericsson rep. As the devices are able to latch onto more of that spectrum simultaneously, both speeds and latency should improve, said another.

To AT&T’s credit, it’s not trying to hide the slow speeds. “I’ll tell you straight up that the speeds aren’t as eye popping as I’d like them to be,” AT&T assistant vice president of mobile broadband Glenn Couper tells me.

“It’ll be multi-gigabit when it’s live, production, tuned, optimized,” Verizon director of architecture Chris Emmons assured me.

But Netgear, which is providing AT&T’s first 5G mobile hotspot, suggested you might not see those gigabit-plus speeds everywhere. “It varies market to market — some markets they may have a couple hundred megabits of bandwidth in the 39GHz, others can go all the way up to 5Gbps,” he says.

 Photo: Sean Hollister / The Verge
Netgear’s hotspot will be the first AT&T 5G device. The company had two in Maui, but only let journalists take photos of this one with the screen off due to non-final branding. (They showed me a 5G logo on the other one.)

None of the other 5G-hopeful companies at Maui contests that the speeds are slow here on the island. Each one independently offered a very similar comment, suggesting that they’d been prepped in advance for this very question.

  • Samsung rep, onsite: “We’re only talking use cases here, we’re not trying to show any speeds.”
  • Verizon, via email: “The intent of the live 5G networks at the tech summit is to demonstrate 5G user experiences rather than peak speeds.”
  • Qualcomm, via email: “The intent of the live 5G networks at the tech summit is to demonstrate 5G user experiences rather than peak speeds.”
  • Ericsson rep, onsite: “What we’re showing here is not the actual performance measurements, but what you can use it for.“

And each company also pointed me to the multi-gigabit speeds they’d previously claimed they’d seen in behind-closed-door demos as proof that things will be better in the real world.

 Photo: Sean Hollister / The Verge
Verizon, similarly, wouldn’t let us take pictures of its chunky mobile hotspot with the screen on, or connect to it ourselves.

But Maui was supposed to be the real-world test, or so we thought. With just four weeks left before AT&T is scheduled to launch its 5G network in the United States, we can’t yet bring you first-hand proof that 5G is actually delivering on its promise of speed.

Samsung may be just days away from taking the wraps off its very own foldable smartphone-tablet hybrid, but consumer electronics company Royole has stolen a bit of its thunder with its very own flexible display device. Called the FlexPai, the 7.8-inch hybrid device can fold 180 degrees and transform from a tablet into a phone, albeit a bulky one.

At an event in San Francisco this evening, Royole brought out a working version of the FlexPai that we actually got to hold, and the folding feature works as advertised. Granted, it feels miles away in quality from a high-end modern flagship, but it is still the first real foldable device I’ve seen in person, and not just in a concept video or prototype stage.

The FlexPai will be available as a consumer device in China with a base model price of 8,999 yuan, or around $1,300. You can also pay that amount of money in USD for a developer version if you live in North America. That gets you 128GB of storage, but you can double it for an additional $150 and add an additional 2GB of RAM for a total of 8GB.

 Image: Royole

As for the other specs, the device is going to come with a 2.8Ghz, eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, the display resolution is 1920 x 1440 when fully expanded, and it comes with a 3,800 mAh battery. Both the consumer model and the developer version are up for preorder on Royole’s website right now. Royole says the Chinese consumer model and the developer version are slated to ship in December.

 Image: Royole

It should be said that this device is very much a first-generation product. The software seemed extremely sluggish, apps continuously opened accidentally, and the orientation kept changing randomly when one of the Royole representatives was demonstrating the folding process. That, to me, indicates that the company’s custom Water OS (a fork of Android 9.0, Royole says) is probably not the most robust operating system just yet.

 Image: Royole

Still, this is much more about the hardware innovation of making a virtually unbreakable AMOLED display, with a reasonable enough battery that can sustain the folding process. Royole says the screen can withstand being folded 200,000 times. (What happens after that was not made immediately clear.) We don’t know how it will stack up against Samsung’s version, or whatever competing display makers like LG are working on. But it certainly bodes well for the imminent foldable / flexible display trend that we’re already seeing working devices like this hit the market.