“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke.
A decade and more of writing about smartphones can leave you jaded but I am inclined to believe that many would agree with me: smartphones are rarely ever exciting anymore. Ever-increasing charging speeds, even more megapixels, higher refresh rates, and more Gigahertz than you know what to do with — these are necessary evolutionary steps but these inevitable, incremental improvements are not transformative experiences.
Foldables, and by extension, rollable phones challenge that status quo. However, so far, even the best foldable phones have been more curiosities than must-haves. Be it the unwieldy size, unsightly creases, or lack of software optimization, foldables have so far been interesting but not nearly good enough for mainstream adoption, even with the second generation of hardware releases like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 and Huawei Mate X2.
The nondescript nature of rollables makes them the perfect carrier for future user experiences.
Enter the Oppo X 2021 — the Chinese company’s rollable concept phone. Unlike the current crop of foldable phones, the Oppo X 2021 looks nondescript kept on a table. The extra thick bezel over on the right might draw a curious glance, but by and large, the phone isn’t all that different from existing super-sized phones. And therein lies its beauty.
For foldable and rollable phones to go mainstream, the devices will need to demonstrably enhance usability in a way that conforms to regular users, instead of the other way around. And unlike foldables that double up in thickness when closed down, create an unsightly bulge in pockets, or need two hands to open up, rollable phones are entirely self-contained beasts with none of those disadvantages.
If you didn’t know what hides beneath the surface, the Oppo X 2021 could pass off as any other smartphone. However, a quick swipe up on the power key later, two motors whir into action and what unfurls is something straight out of science fiction.
We managed to get our hands on one to test for a painfully short amount of time. Here’s what we found.
So, what’s it like to use the Oppo X 2021 rollable phone?
I’m sure I must have unrolled the display at least a hundred times over the two days I had with the phone. The sheer act of seeing a display rolling out and expanding the canvas is magical. I just couldn’t get enough of watching the transformation as content seamlessly flowed and readjusted itself to the new dimensions. Oppo’s fantastic transition animations further help the cause and even a few minutes with the Oppo X 2021 is enough to convince you that rolling displays are more than a neat party trick.
As smartphone displays have gotten larger, they have gotten longer to accommodate everyday ergonomics. However, that long aspect ratio can make for an awkward reading and viewing experience. The Oppo X 2021 rollable phone solves that problem. Call it the honeymoon period of trying out a new piece of tech, but the extended screen real estate had me spending more time watching content on the phone, taking notes, and finally working through my long pending reads in Pocket.
It takes just about two seconds for the display to unfurl from 6.7-inches all the way to 7.4-inches and the Oppo X 2021 works beautifully well as a mini-tablet when extended out. A 0.7-inch increase in size might not sound like much, but it drastically changes how you use the device. Not only does it add almost 50% more screen area, but the transformation from a 19.5:9 panel to a screen that is very nearly 4:3 makes it a perfect drop-in replacement for an e-reader or a small tablet like an iPad Mini.
The quick swipe-up gesture to unroll the screen is convenient enough to reach, and I found myself unrolling the display every time I was reading long-form content. Oppo has done a top-notch job at managing the weight distribution which makes it easy to hold the rollable phone in one hand.
It also helps that the screen itself is very good and lacks the unsightly creases we’ve come to accept on foldable phones like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2. There was a slight imperfection along the edge, but it was nowhere as bad as the creases we’ve seen from many foldables and you get used to it within minutes. The P-OLED display used here lacks the Ultra-Thin Glass from Samsung’s devices, but in my brief time with the phone, Oppo’s screen laminate seemed to hold up well. Notably, fingerprints and smudges weren’t a significant concern.
The rest of the construction is rather good too, especially considering this is a prototype device. Oppo is using a 2-in-1 plate that sits below the display and gives it structural support. Meanwhile, over at the back, a plastic plate reveals itself as the aluminum shell separates out. It’s all rather well thought out and not once did the Oppo X 2021 feel flimsy or delicate.
And before you ask, yes, the display will automatically roll up if it detects an obstruction. For sake of testing, I applied a bit of pressure to the side of the phone with the display extended, and the screen automatically rolled up to prevent damage. Similarly, the screen did not unroll when I held it down from the side despite activating the slide-out gesture. It’s an expensive component and clearly, Oppo has thought out scenarios where protecting the most vulnerable components is critical.
The Oppo X 2021 rollable phone is great… for a concept
For all its positives, the Oppo X 2021 rollable phone concept is far from perfect, and it’s hard to gauge just how many of these issues are due to it being, well, a concept. To start with, there’s the thickness and weight of the phone. At 10.7mm thick, the Oppo X 2021 is a bit of a chonky boi, but it’s the 278g of weight that is harder to ignore.
That weight mostly comes down to the motors. In fact, most of the issues with the phone boil down to the dual motors. For one, they are loud. Thinking of discretely unrolling the display in a meeting? That’s a no-go.
The dual motors in the Oppo X 2021 need more refinement than the rollable display.
Those motors also place an astonishingly high toll on battery life. The battery gauge wasn’t entirely accurate on the prototype device I used, but a dozen or so rolls and unrolls brought battery life down by 50%.
That early prototype feeling extends to the gesture area on the power button. On more than one occasion, I found myself awkwardly stroking the power button waiting for the magic to happen with no joy. Elsewhere, the phone is also missing out on essential features like a front-facing camera, biometric unlocking, and, for that matter, volume buttons.
Then there’s the reliability concerns for a phone such as this. Over two days of use, I could already see dust accumulating along the sliding frame. Unlike conventional phones that are solid unibody designs, foldable and rollable phones are bound to have some components open to the elements. Samsung had to engineer a whole system to tackle dust build-up in the Z Fold 2’s hinge, and it remains to be seen how well a rollable device like the Oppo X 2021 would handle real-world conditions over time.
The Oppo X 2021 is a peek into the future of smartphones
While standard unibody slabs will continue being the bread and butter of the industry, bending and rolling displays are pushing things forward in new and interesting ways. As a demonstration of bleeding-edge technology, Oppo’s rollable concept phone does its job. It whet my appetite for something new and got me hyped up for the future of rollable display tech. In fact, my time with the Oppo X 2021 has me convinced that rollable phones have distinct advantages over foldables.
The Oppo X 2021 gets the closest yet to combining the smartphone and tablet experience into one device.
The discrete, familiar design, when closed, nudges it towards mainstream adoption. Add to that the lack of a crease or the flexibility of dynamic aspect ratios to suit movies, games, or reading and you can see how the form factor offers the most potential. Having tried out almost all the foldable smartphones on the market, I can safely say that the Oppo X 2021 gets the closest to combining a smartphone and tablet experience in a singular device, and that’s largely due to how usable the phone is.
Sure, it has its kinks to iron out, but by letting users try out the Oppo X 2021 outside controlled laboratory conditions, Oppo proves that rollable phones are much closer than we expected. And I, for one, can’t wait to get my hands on a final version.