What if screens didn’t have to be flat? It’s a question designers and engineers have been asking for years as they imagined tablets you could roll up like a newspaper, or mocked-up smartwatches that were just screens coiled around our wrists. Displays could be even larger while devices shrank; they could be more durable and more flexible; they could even be on all four sides of a smartphone instead of just one. It would change how we think about screens, and how we interact with the devices we use every day.
While everyone dreamed, LG went to work and built its first-ever curved phone, the G Flex; it and the Samsung Galaxy Round are the only smartphones of their kind. The G Flex is a high-end smartphone in every way, but its 6-inch screen doesn’t lay flat — it bends. And it flexes.
Bendable, foldable, flexible screens have long hovered on the horizon; now, LG’s hoping that it can make them a reality. Is the sci-fi dream of a moldable display about to come true?
Learning the curve
At first, I almost didn’t notice the gentle concavity of the G Flex. Its curve is subtle and vertical, the top and bottom of the phone curling forward ever so slightly. Put it face-up on a table, and the top and bottom both rest slightly aloft; flip it over and you’ll see the screen glow in the small gap between it and the table. It’s flat enough that it doesn’t wobble, but pronounced enough that it makes a half-decent catapult.
The G Flex exists almost entirely to show off LG’s curved OLED display, the 6-inch, 720p screen that is the centerpiece of its design. I’ve certainly never seen anything quite like it, but once the novelty wears off, it’s not entirely clear why a curved screen like this is a good idea. LG says the curve makes the phone feel more comfortable against your face, provides a more immersive video-watching experience, and makes the screen less prone to glare because of the way light reflects off it. The last part seems to be true — there’s noticeably less glare off the G Flex, especially in sunlight, than with most other big phones. If movies are more immersive, however, it’s due to the sheer size of the display. And I don’t care what it’s made of: a 6-inch smartphone is never going to feel comfortable on my face while I make a phone call.
Samsung’s horizontally curved Galaxy Round is much more ergonomically awkward than the G Flex, but it comes with some clever optimization for its form factor. Tip the phone over to the side and you’ll see notifications or battery levels — it’s a small innovation, but at least it’s an attempt to do something unique. LG offers nothing: there’s a strange, laggy animation on the lock screen that moves as you tilt the phone, but that’s neither relevant to a curved screen nor at all cool. We’re given no reason to want a curved display — just proof that LG can make one.
Ultimately, the curvature may not be what makes phones like this useful. It’s the fact that in addition to bending, the screen can flex. With enough pressure I can effectively flatten the phone, only to have it pop back into shape when I let go. I stepped on the phone, sat on it, bent it in my hands, and loaded heavy things on top of it, and it never creaked or snapped under the pressure. This is a phone you can stick in your back pocket (as long as you have big ones) and sit on without worrying about it. And from what we’ve seen, the screen itself is even more flexible – LG just made a slightly more rigid chassis to go along with it.
The 6-inch display is otherwise fairly unremarkable. Most high-end smartphones have screens both smaller and higher-res than the G Flex with its 720p; this one just doesn’t look that sharp in comparison. It’s an OLED display by necessity: it’s made of plastic substrates so it can flex and is then bonded to the glass panel on the front. The screen does have great viewing angles and solid color reproduction — it’s a good display, just not a great one.
The display is something new and different, even if it’s not yet obviously better. But that’s really where the G Flex’s uniqueness begins and ends. In almost every other way, the G Flex eerily resembles a phone we’ve seen before.