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On the Samsung Fold and Flip, a foldable screen that turns out to be fragile

The Samsung Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3: the only two foldable smartphones sold in France, and the two most popular in the world.  Several other brands have put smartphones on sale with this type of screen, but they are only marketed in China.

In April 2019, in a world preview, the American press tested the Z Fold, the very first Samsung smartphone that can be folded out as a tablet. From the first days, two copies broke in the hands of journalists. The marketing of the smartphone was then postponed for a few months, casting doubt on the robustness of this mobile with a new kind of flexible screen, equipped with a hinge made up of dozens of small parts.

Three years later, doubt still hovers with the third generation of this smartphone. Can the Z Fold 3 really withstand 200,000 folds, as claimed by the South Korean manufacturer, whose robotic tests bear little resemblance to everyday tests? We wanted to check it in real life, with the cooperation of Samsung, which lent us a sample over time.

A big crack

Unfortunately, time proved our skepticism right: one morning in the seventh month, when we unfolded the mobile, we heard a loud crack: the screen had come off to its full height, right in the middle, all along the hinge. The next day, it had reattached itself, but left a bubble in the middle of the display and, on one edge, a long unsightly mark. Two imperfections that affect the readability of texts and images very little but greatly spoil the pleasure we take in handling this huge screen. Especially since this damage could worsen over time.

We may have some responsibility for this incident. During these seven months of living together, our Z Fold 3 suffered several falls of 30 to 40 centimeters, caused by our clumsiness – well helped, it is true, by the high size of the mobile, which makes it protrude from pockets and slip when we sit down. If the perimeter of our Z Fold showed very slight shock marks, its screen seemed to be in perfect condition so far: its hinge unfolded perfectly, its surface suffered no marks.

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After retrieving our test copy, Samsung replied that the problem was “protective film that aims to protect the screen from scratches, like on a traditional phone”. Adding: “If it is possible to install a new one yourself, we encourage users to contact a Samsung authorized center to do so. »

The maneuver is anxiety-provoking: removing the protective layer from the very first Fold was thus strongly discouraged under penalty of damaging its screen. Also, in the Z Fold 3 user manual, Samsung specifies that you should not press “on the screen or on the underscreen camera with a hard or sharp object, such as a pen or your fingernail”which seems natural when trying to remove a screen protector.

We wanted to check for ourselves that this protective film was easy to remove and then, after removing it, examine the screen it covered to check that it was still in good condition. Samsung, however, refused to return our Loan Fold to us.

The Samsung Z Flip, the little brother of the Fold, which folds up to take up less space in your pocket. The Samsung Z Flip, the little brother of the Fold, which folds up to take up less space in your pocket.

This misadventure does not seem to be an isolated case. The Samsung community site has around forty reports of flexible screen problems: breaks, cracks, bubbles, detachments… Concerns affecting all generations of South Korean foldable mobiles, whether it’s the Fold, which folds out like a tablet, or its little brother that folds up like a compact, the Flip.

Samsung did not wish to communicate its return rates to the workshop, so it is difficult to determine precisely what share of Flip and Fold buyers are affected today. Three years after the release of the first model of these promising smartphones – which we had praised for their exceptional aptitudes for work and leisure – the South Korean manufacturer seems however to continue to struggle with reliability problems without managing to solve them. completely resolve. Integrating a flexible screen into a smartphone adds a point of fragility to those from which any smartphone already suffers.

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Read also: We tested… the Samsung Fold 2, more mature than the first version

Engineering Challenge

It must be said that the scientific challenge is real, as the adhesive manufacturer 3M explains in detail on its website. In a video presenting its solutions intended to precisely avoid the appearance “bubbles, breaks” et “layer take-offs” on flexible Oled screens, we learn that the screens are composed of seven superimposed layers, not to mention the ultra-thin glass that equips Samsung mobiles. Each must be resistant, but not only. Because when you fold a flexible screen, the layers below fold more quickly than those above. If all these layers were stiff as paper, their divergent trajectories would prevent the screen from bending. A certain level of flexibility is therefore necessary.

Z Fold 3 screen damage. Z Fold 3 screen damage.

According to 3M, designing materials that have the right balance between stiffness and flexibility is one thing, but the real challenge is to ensure that they maintain these qualities when it is very cold, very hot or, even worse, when the temperatures fluctuate sharply. Another difficulty: ensuring perfect adhesion when unfolding the mobile for the first time after several days.

In the medium or long term, these scientific challenges may be met. In the meantime, Samsung seems to have tightened its after-sales service policy. If the purchasers of the first Z Fold could replace its screen once without giving the slightest justification, the owners of the third generation are not so lucky: in some cases, this replacement turns out to be paying and recurring testimonials point to the reluctance of the after-sales service to take charge of the repair of the Fold or Flip screen free of charge when they have suffered an impact. On the Samsung site, several customers show their dissatisfaction at being presented with a bill of 600 euros, just a few months after having paid 1,800 to afford this high-end mobile.

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