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Samsung's review phones fail, delivering a PR nightmare

Samsung scrambling to sort out Galaxy Fold phones after complaints

Devices with flexible displays have been more fragile because they expose the screens to broader angles of impact, says Kyle Wiens, chief executive of iFixit, a company that offers instructions for people to repair their devices.

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FOR Samsung, a tech company that stakes its reputation on shipping flashy new smartphones with eye-catching features, it was a nightmare come true.

One of its latest phones, the Galaxy Fold, generated lots of attention this year for an exciting new feature: It could be folded and unfolded like a book to decrease or increase the screen size. The nearly US$2,000 price tag was also eye-catching.

The device made its way into the hands of a small number of gadget reviewers this week, just before its public release. And then things went awry.

First, one reviewer said one side of the device's screen had died on Day 1. The next day, another critic said his device had become unusable. Then another reviewer reported different problems with the screen.

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With that, the Galaxy Fold's reputation was sunk, and Samsung was left scrambling before the device could even reach consumers.

"They are constantly throwing new ideas against the wall, and this one broke upon impact," said Kyle Wiens, chief executive of iFixit, a company that offers instructions for people to repair their devices.

Samsung Electronics said on Thursday that it would investigate possible problems with its new foldable phones.

There was also no further information about how many of the samples provided to reviewers had been described as damaged or malfunctioning.

"We will thoroughly inspect these units in person to determine the cause of the matter," the company said in a statement.

The company added that the main display has a top layer designed to protect the screen from scratches. Removing it, or adding adhesives to the main display, can damage the screen, the company said.

Some reviewers had reported removing the top layer of the display, causing damage to the screen, Samsung noted. "We will ensure this information is clearly delivered to our customers," the company said.

The South Korean company, the world's largest handset maker, unveiled a prototype of the Galaxy Fold at a conference for software developers last year.

It shared further details about the device in February. When folded, the viewable screen measures 4.6 inches. When unfolded, the device has a 7.3-inch display, about the size of a tablet screen.

Samsung declined to provide an early review unit of the foldable phone to The New York Times after multiple requests.

In a review published on Wednesday in The Verge, the site's executive editor Dieter Bohn said that after "normal use" , he had detected a bulge in the hinge area of the screen on the phone he was provided.

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"Whatever happened, it certainly wasn't because I have treated this phone badly," he wrote. "I've done normal phone stuff, like opening and closing the hinge and putting it in my pocket." He said an object might have become lodged in the device through a tiny gap.

"Or maybe it was pieces from the hinge itself breaking loose and working their way up into the screen. I don't know," he wrote. "I just know that the screen is broken, and there was no obvious proximate cause for the bulge that broke it."

Mr Bohn added: "We've seen worries about scratches on expensive phones and debris breaking the keyboard on expensive MacBooks, but a piece of debris distorting the screen on a US$1,980 phone after one day of use feels like it's on an entirely different level."

Mark Gurman, who reports on technology for Bloomberg, wrote that the device he had reviewed had a "very small tear" at the top part of the hinge. "The screen on my Galaxy Fold review unit is completely broken and unusable just two days in. Hard to know if this is widespread or not" he said on Twitter. He published a review and posted some of his observations on Twitter, saying he might have contributed to the problem by removing the protective film. The review also said the inner screen had stopped working.

"There is a very small tear at the top part of the hinge and after I poked at it, the screen got worse. I thought perhaps it was another removable layer."

A review of the device by CNBC demonstrated the display problem within two days, even without removal of the protective film.

Huawei, the Chinese technology company, has introduced a competing foldable device, the Mate X. It will cost about US$2,600 and be available around the middle of the year outside the US.

Mr Wiens of iFixit said he wasn't surprised by early reports of the Galaxy Fold's fragility. Some of Samsung's other recent phones, like the Galaxy S8 Edge, use a similar flexible display technology to wrap the device's screen around the edges of the phone. Devices with flexible displays have been more fragile because they expose the screens to broader angles of impact, he said.

If anything, he said, the Galaxy Fold is a cautionary tale about the risks of being an early adopter of new technology. Mr Wiens said Samsung should postpone releasing the product.

"These flexible devices are going to be very fragile for a long time," he said. "I think we're years, not months, away from solving this problem."

The Galaxy Fold officially goes on sale on Apr 26 in the US. It is to be launched in Singapore in the second quarter of 2019. NYTIMES

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