The Shenzhen based electronics company was founded in 2012 but it's not just about foldable smartphones. It is a specialist in flexible electronics in general. It even struck a deal with Airbus to produce flexible electronic technologies for aircraft applications.
Apart from the FlexPai, Royole also gave us a look at other use cases of foldable displays. This included smart speakers, car interfaces and even purses. The FlexPai was the only production ready device on display, however.
The FlexPai was heavily criticised by several reviewers, so I was particularly interested to try it out. How bad could it really be, right?
The FlexPai has an all-plastic body, with a rubber coated hinge in the middle that lets the display fold in half outwards. Magnets are present at the back of the smartphone that snap the two ends together. Royole said the hinge is rated to be folded 200,000 times, while the all-plastic build increases durability.
The AMOLED display at the front has a resolution of 1440 x 1920 and it spans 7.8-inches when unfolded and 4-inches when folded outwards. The display has a low pixel density and isn't very crisp. I even noticed a few unresponsive, purpled-out pixels around the hinge area.
Considering the device is about five months old and was used extensively, this seems to be a worrisome shortcoming of foldable smartphones. I'll be on a lookout for such artifacts when Samsung and Huawei foldable smartphones become available to the public.
The foldability of the smartphone is a novelty for the first few times and it quickly becomes a nuisance after that, especially because everything is so slow, buggy and unconventional.
Let's talk about the slow part first. The smartphone is powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 chipset paired with up to 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. It runs Royole's custom UI called the WaterOS based on Android 9 Pie.
While these look like typical, high-end 2019 flagship specifications, the device is far from fast. Every swipe has a noticeable delay, every app stutters—the experience extremely unpolished. This can be attributed to a heavy and unrefined UI and lack of OS optimisation in general.
The FlexPai has two cameras in 16MP+12MP configuration. The cameras are capable of taking images comparable to mid-range smartphones. But I would hold further judgement on that as I haven't really tried it in various lighting scenarios.
The camera interface was a whole different story. Since the camera app can be opened when the device is folded or unfolded, it opens up a whole new bunch of challenges.
The app offers a regular, run-of-the-mill experience when the FlexPai isn't folded. However, if you wish to use the app when it is folded, the device requires you to enable another auto-rotate button, adding to the chaos. Yes, there are two rotation locks simply because of an added dimension when the device is folded. You will have to enable this for other apps as well, including video and photo apps.
The transition from the folded to unfolded forms isn't seamless either. I tried doing this three times and the app crashed twice. The viewfinder also appears to be stretched in the folded mode.
The good thing is the viewfinder mirrors itself on both ends of the fold. This means the subjects get to see themselves while the picture is being clicked.
I didn't get a chance to receive or make calls with the smartphone. I couldn't spot an earpiece in the device so it'll be interesting to know how a user would have to hold it to take calls.
It also took me time to get used to the placement of the power button and the volume rockers. Since there are so many ways to hold the foldable phone, you will end up finding the button in different places.
Summing up, the FlexPai is a very crude and rudimentary rendition of the first generation of foldable smartphones. Samsung and Huawei have both shown that the real potential of foldable smartphones can be unleashed only with proper software optimisation.
However, the FlexPai has somehow outlined a few things early adopters of the technology should look out for, including button placement, app optimisation, seamless transition from one foldable form to the other and the durability of the display especially around the hinge area.