A flame that burns twice as brightly burns half its length. That was my brief experience with the Pixel Fold, which was a great little device until the screen was gone, along with my hopes and dreams. I hardly used it, but it was beautiful.
I didn’t do anything to deserve this. The phone sat on my desk while I wrote about it, stopping occasionally to poke the screen, take a screenshot, or open and close it. It hasn’t been dropped or exposed to a great deal of grit, and it hasn’t gone through the years of normal wear and tear that phones are expected to survive. This was the lightest possible use of the phone, and it still crashed.
The flexible OLED screen died after four days. The bottom 10 pixels of the Pixel Fold died first, forming a white line of 100 percent brightness pixels that caught on at the bottom of the screen. The entire left half of the foldable display stopped responding to touch as well, and after an hour, the white gradient started growing upwards across the screen.
Samsung, BOE, and every other company that makes foldable screens build these flexible OLED screens the same way. The OLED panel is covered in “ultra-thin glass” that’s thin and flexible enough to withstand the folding process, though it’s not very durable. Since glass cannot withstand the slightest possible damage, the entire screen is covered with a protective plastic layer. This essentially kills the static, slippery glass surface we’re all so used to, but the inner glass layer provides some much-needed structure to what could otherwise be a very squishy plastic.
This layer of plastic is essential for OLED to survive, but it doesn’t extend to the edges. Every company that makes these screens leaves a margin around the perimeter of the screen where there is no plastic layer, just a raw, exposed OLED panel looking out on the world. We typically expect a fold-over break along the crease, which is where the screen perceives the most stress. But died due to the exposed OLED gap.
The smallest part of something I got in there, and when I closed the screen, the pressure of the other side of the screen was enough to puncture the OLED panel. He didn’t see or feel anything when the device was closed, but the screen pixels were starting to go blank. After going through the device with a magnifying glass, I think I’ve found where the hole is.
The exposed strip of the OLED panel is located between the edge of the screen protector and the raised bezel surrounding the phone. So even if you’re careful to wipe down the screen, the exposed OLED perimeter acts as a gutter for any debris that falls on the phone. Even when I look at the dead, flickering folding now, it’s easy to spot lint and other junk trying to accumulate in the OLED’s dead zone. This seems to be what killed the phone, as I can see a near microscopic nick mark near where the screen started having problems.
Another problem could be the Pixel Fold’s almost flush edges. We usually discuss the width of the edges of the device, but here, we are talking about their height. The bezels on some foldable devices have a slight rise, so when the screen is closed, there remains a small gap between the two halves of the screen to protect against a small bit of debris smashing in between the halves. The Pixel Fold’s edges are nearly flush with the screen protector, so when you close the phone, the two screens almost touch. If you stick a wet piece of paper into the Pixel Fold and close it, both sides of the screen will get wet. When I locked the device to a small spec of something guttered, it was enough to kill the screen.
Some other designs, like the Oppo Find N2, have longer bezels, which gives you more space between the screens when closed. Some quick measurements show a bezel height of 0.3mm for the pixel height and a bezel height of 0.8mm for the Find N2. For a design like the Find N2, getting something inside the Find N2’s screen might not kill it since there’s plenty of clearance, while the Pixel Fold’s screen died from what felt like nothing at all.
Manufacturers still want to eliminate the significant durability issues of flexible OLED screens, believing that if they push devices to market, everything will work. However, that wasn’t the case, and any time you see a foldable phone on sale, you won’t have to look far to see reports of dead screens. I’m sure we’ll see several reports of broken Pixel Folds once the unit reaches the general public. Corning might offer us a foldable exterior glass cover, but until then, buying anything foldable seems like a gamble.
The scary part for Google customers is that a broken Pixel Fold means dealing with the company’s unhelpful support team. Horror stories are repeated regularly on the /r/GooglePixel subreddit, where users have contacted Google Support”Hilariously inept“And the”nightmare“to deal with, begging the company to improve. It’s one thing to charge regular glass smartphones, but these fragile foldable devices will put more strain on Google’s support network.
The durability issues of foldable devices are a real shame because the Pixel Fold is such a nice device. We’ll have a full review soon.