Royole FlexPai full review

While the phone industry wrestles with notches, pinhole cameras, and full-screen displays, there’s another massive smartphone revolution waiting in the wings: flexible displays. And while Samsung is expected to reveal its own in February, it’s been beaten to the punch by a little-known company called Royole.

Royole is one of the companies that’s developed the flexible screen tech itself, but is making its proper smartphone debut with its own device, the FlexPai. We tracked it down at CES 2019 to give it a bend ourselves and see what it’s like.

Price and availability

Royole announced a price of $1,318 for the developer version of the FlexPai, with $1,469 for a model with extra RAM and storage, either of which you can buy right now - though there's a wait time of a few months.

If you want to buy a consumer version you’ll have to import it, as the FlexPai will initially be exclusive to China, which honestly isn't too surprising. We're not sure exactly when the consumer model is coming out, but it's expected to be very soon.

Royole says that it’s talking to mobile networks in both the US and Europe to try and get them to stock the phone though, so it’s possible the bendy phone will appear in a shop near you some time this year, but we wouldn’t hold our breath - we suspect this will remain a China exclusive for good.

Weird flex, but OK

So yeah, the Royole Flexpai folds. The full screen is a 7.8in AMOLED, essentially making this a proper tablet, but it’s made out of a flexible plastic that means you can fold it over to get something closer to the average smartphone size - albeit one with a display that then wraps round to the back.

It is undeniably cool, and it’s a bit mad to think of the tech that’s gone into it. But it’s certainly not without downsides. For one, the plastic screen feels cheaper than the glass you’ll be used to from other devices, especially in the bit that folds - when expanded to tablet size you can basically feel the slack in the screen that it needs to be able to fold.

Perhaps more worryingly, the sample we got to play around with was showing signs of screen burn-in, with app icons still visible against the white background of the settings app. It’s hard to say for sure if you can expect the same problem in the release models, but it’s hard not to worry that this is a sign that the FlexPai has been rushed to market a little, and that the tech might not quite be there yet.

The design also requires a squidgy rubber section on the back of the device where it folds, which is mostly hidden when folded but is undeniably unsightly when you have it set up as a tablet. We also found that when folded out the screen actually doesn't quite go perfectly straight again - there was always a slight bend to the body, which detracts even further from the feel.

There’s a very satisfying click when the phone folds into place though, thanks to some sturdy magnets that serve to hold the screen in place. You don’t have to fold it all the way though, and you can fold it part of the way to then prop the phone up in landscape mode for watching videos or doing work.

The software is unsurprisingly a bit janky right now too. The FlexPai runs Android 9 with Royole’s Water OS on top, and in our time with the phone it lagged and glitched every time we folded the phone, with the camera app in particular struggling.

Still, notches were a bit awkward at first too, and it’s certainly likely that Royole will be working hard to correct the bugs. There are some nice touches in there too, like the chance to use the folded over edge of the display for some custom shortcuts for various apps - details that suggest there could be real usability benefits to phones with this sort of design.

The foldable design also neatly gets around the constant question of where to put the selfie cameras - the FlexPai puts its dual lens camera on what would be the rear of the device when folded - in a large bezel that essentially serves as a grip - and you can just flip the phone round when you want to take a selfie or a video call.

Below the fold

All of that fancy folding wouldn’t count for much if the FlexPai couldn’t cope as a phone though, and luckily Royole has gone all-out to help justify that extravagant price.

For one, it’s one of the first phones to be announced with the Snapdragon 855 processor, so it should be a nippy little thing once the software kinks are worked out. That chip is backed up by either 6 or 8GB or RAM, along with 128 or 256GB of storage, expandable via microSD.

Royole isn’t ready to make firm promises about battery life yet, which is a bit of a question mark for us. The 3,970mAh capacity would normally get you close to two days in any other phone, but we can’t help but suspect that the big display here is going to drain power fast, so it may not last as long as you’re used to.

Beyond that there’s USB-C charging, and the usual array of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for connectivity, though sadly even at this size Royole decided to drop the headphone jack.

Verdict

‘Fun but flawed’ is really the only sensible reaction to the FlexPai right now. The foldable display tech is genuinely impressive, but you can’t escape the feeling that it’s not quite there yet.

Laggy software, a plasticky finish, and worrying evidence of screen burn mean that right now the FlexPai feels like a sign of where phones are going - but proof that they’re not there just yet.

Still, this is pre-release hardware with revolutionary tech, and the final version could be more polished - but we’re still holding out more hope for Samsung’s effort, which we should see very soon.

Specs

Royole FlexPai: Specs

  • Android 9.0 Oreo with Water OS 1
  • 7.8in 1920x1440 flexible AMOLED touchscreen, 308ppi
  • Snapdragon 855 octa-core processor
  • 6/8GB RAM
  • 128/256GB storage
  • Dual lens rear camera - 16MP + 20MP
  • Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth
  • 4G LTE
  • Dual nano-SIM
  • USB-C
  • 3,970mAh non-removable battery
  • 190.3 x 134.0 x 7.6mm
  • 320g

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