We are referring to the rumored Samsung Galaxy Tab Fold – the company’s first foldable tablet. According to recent leaks, it is very much possible for the device to make its debut as soon as next year. But how exactly would a foldable tablet work? We need not look further than the Galaxy Z Fold 4 to find out.
It does not take a lot of mental gymnastics to see the parallel between the Galaxy Z Fold 4 and a potential foldable tablet. But before we explain why, let us examine what purpose foldables serve in 2022.
Foldable devices in 2022
In short, we have seen that there are two main “takes” on foldable smartphones – the clamshell design (of the Flip lineup) and the notebook one (of the Fold series). In essence, users are offered the choice between two “modes” of operation – one that prioritizes portability and another one that sacrifices the latter in favor of productivity.
However, even the Fold still accounts for the fact that smartphones tend to be a user’s primary device. Hence, for the sake of keeping the Fold as compact as possible, Samsung has, for now, resorted to adopting abnormal and inefficient aspect ratios on both screens.
This decision has made the Fold a narrow, chunky candy-bar smartphone, which unfolds into a small Kindle-sized tablet. The Fold, unfortunately, is neither particularly good at playing the role of a conventional smartphone, nor at serving as a viable tablet alternative. The Fold is a jack of both trades and master of none. Coincidently, the fact that it costs as much as a smartphone and tablet combined is what makes the Fold such a niche device.
Because the emphasis of foldable smartphones (and any smartphones for that matter) is on portability, users have 2 choices – (1) a small device that unfolds into a medium-sized one i.e Flip or (2) a medium-sized devices that unfolds into a big one i.e. Fold – with both options having less-than-ideal aspect ratios. Foldable technology has thus far expanded the portability of technology, much more so than its capability – because it has (almost) only been used in smartphones… for now.
Why foldable tablets would work differently
The aforementioned trade-offs are necessary when we are considering foldable smartphones. Nevertheless, the prospect of foldable tablets gives us a completely different option – a device, with reasonable aspect ratios, that is big when folded and even bigger when unfolded. For example, a tablet with a cover screen that is roughly the size of an iPad Mini, which when unfolded approaches the size of an iPad Pro. Now this has some true potential.
Or, even more ambitiously, a foldable laptop/tablet hybrid which has no less than 3 modes of operation. Firstly, a folded one, with a big cover screen for consuming media and simple tasks. Secondly, when completely unfolded, it could become a giant canvas for maximum creativity and productivity. And thirdly, in Flex mode (reminiscent of that on the Fold), the device could seek to emulate a laptop.
It should be noted that we have already seen a foldable tablet – namely, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold. Unfortunately, the device, being a first-generation experimental product, was far from perfect, but there is a lot Samsung could learn from it.
The main issue with the X1 Fold was the hardware – the device was bulky and was plagued by a myriad of technical problems (much like the first Galaxy Fold). Samsung could well fix this given its foldable supply chain is the best there is and that the Korean tech giant has unparalleled experience with foldables.
The more important second problem of the X1 Fold was software – how do you truly make the most out of the foldable form factor? How do you justify using this cutting-edge expensive technology? Essentially, how do you escape from the trap of manufacturing a very expensive gimmick that is bad at some things and worse at everything.
This is what Samsung needs to consider carefully before launching a foldable tablet. Luckily, the Fold 4 is a good starting point. The latter’s Flex mode gives you no less than 3 distinct ways of making full use of the foldable form factor.
Flex mode as a laptop replacement
The most obvious use of Flex mode is transforming the Fold 4 into a mini laptop of sorts. The lower part of the screen can be adjusted to display either a keyboard or a trackpad. The upper one, on the other hand, can be used for displaying content as a typical laptop screen, while gaining the benefit of a touchscreen input.
There is a small caveat, however. Because the Fold 4 has a relatively small foldable screen, users have to choose between a trackpad and a keyboard. Additionally, the trackpad option is not particularly usable given how small each individual half of the display is.
This, naturally, does not apply if the inner screen of a potential Galaxy Tab Fold is 10+ inches. This would allow users to freely have both a keyboard and a trackpad at their disposal. In fact, the bigger the foldable screen is – the better, One of the main issues with the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold is that its screen is relatively small, which makes using it in “laptop” mode, far from ideal.
At any rate, this is the most straightforward application of a foldable screen and by far the least interesting one. In my view, a wireless trackpad/keyboard is a much more elegant solution, which also happens to be more usable. But the option is still there.
Flex mode as a TouchBar alternative
This is when things start to get interesting. Keyboards are not as useful of an input device as they used to be before touch screens changed everything. This is why companies have sought ways to facilitate some form of touchscreen input even on more conventional laptops. Barring the “make the display touchscreen” approach, the option with much more potential is adding a second touchscreen panel to the keyboard. Apple has done this with its TouchBar MacBooks, but a much more ambitious take of this concept would be the ASUS Zenbook Duo 14.
This laptop has a much bigger touchscreen display which can be utilized in a number of novel ways. There are many times when you will not be needing a keyboard. In cases like these when typing is neither necessary nor an option, the alternative of having a touchscreen panel that can adjust to what you are doing seems much more appealing.
For example, in the Calculator app, you have a dedicated control panel on the bottom of the display that can be used for input. This way, the upper half of the screen remains unclustered and can be used solely for displaying relevant content.
The potential of this application is practically limitless. So long as there is sufficient software optimization, there is no application that cannot find a use for a second display and an additional form of input. This way, the second part of the foldable can be usable in more ways than simply emulating the bottom half of a laptop.
Flex mode as a way of next-level multitasking
The last interesting use case is the new approach to multi-tasking that Flex mode enables. Let us take a plain example – on the upper half of the screen, you could be watching a YouTube video, while on the bottom one – taking notes. The horizontal position of the bottom half makes it ideal for typing, while the vertical angle of the upper one – perfect for watching videos. Both tasks can be done more efficiently because of the foldable form factor.
Then consider potential S Pen support and you might be looking at one of the best devices for students, period. Once again the possibilities are limitless, and there are many combinations of apps that come to mind. More importantly – this is something neither a tablet, nor a laptop can do.
And this is the major caveat when it comes to foldables. Trying to become better laptops, tablets and laptops is a losing game for them. The main goal should be to make foldables good at something that no other piece of technology can do – in addition to serving as a viable alternative to other devices in the process.
The additional benefits
The more unique use cases of a potential Galaxy Tab Fold are not all that a foldable tablet has to offer. It should be remembered that the main reason why the Fold is a semi-efficient tablet/smartphone hybrid is portability concerns. With a foldable laptop/tablet hybrid, this would not be such a major problem.
A Galaxy Tab Fold has the potential to serve no less than three purposes. Firstly, it can become a small tablet like the iPad Mini when folded (presuming it retains Samsung’s design philosophy and comes with a cover screen). Secondly, it can be used as a (very) big tablet when unfolded like the iPad Pro. Thirdly, it has the potential to serve as a small laptop in Flex mode. And it has to do all three of these things if it seeks to be successful.
The key to success
This last part is very important. The tablet market works rather differently and “jack-of-all-trades” type devices do not tend to fare well. By taking a look at Apple’s iPad sales, we can see that both the Mini and Pro models are more successful than the iPad Air. The latter is packing a Pro-level chip (i.e. the M1), but has an inferior display, both in terms of size and quality. Hence, we can draw the conclusion that tablet users prefer devices that excel at one particular thing – like the iPad Pro and iPad Mini – and are relatively less interested in those that are stuck between two extremes. Of course, the entry-level iPad remains on top in terms of sales, but that is mainly because of its much lower price tag.
Essentially, you either (1) have to do one thing very well or (2) be cheap. Neither of these are an option for the Galaxy Tab Fold. Thus, it has to do most things rather well and offer something that no other device can. Only then can Samsung’s first foldable tablet truly justify its existence. And its price tag.