A closer look at LG’s flexible OLED smartphone display

LG has confirmed that it has begun mass production of a flexible 6in OLED display for smartphones. According to LG, these displays are both bendable and unbreakable (if LG would like to send us a prototype so that we can test the latter claim, that’d be lovely). LG’s flexible OLED display will apparently hit the market inside the “G Flex,” a 6in curved-screen smartphone that’s expected to be announced in November. Unfortunately, curved smartphones are virtually useless – and actually worse ergonomically than normal flat smartphones.

Back in June at SID 2013, LG showed off a 6in OLED display that could be easily bent with a light touch of the finger (pictured above). A few days ago, a rumour emerged that LG was working on a 6in “G Flex” smartphone that would be announced in November. And now, trying to ride the news cycle wave, LG has confirmed that it has indeed begun mass production of the new display. It hasn’t confirmed the existence of the G Flex, but if the display is being mass produced, it makes sense that there’s a device coming. Fellow chaebol and LG’s biggest competitor, Samsung, has also confirmed that it will be releasing a curved display smartphone in October.

This curved display breakthrough comes as part of a move towards building OLEDs on plastic substrates. Historically, OLEDs use a glass substrate, which is both rigid and heavy. Building OLEDs on plastics, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), results in displays that are both lighter and reasonably flexible.

At this point we’re not generally talking about OLED displays that can bend through 90 degrees, like a piece of paper, but rather a few degrees for every few inches of display. In the image at the top of the story, you are probably seeing the maximum bending radius of LG’s display. While we can’t speak specifically for Samsung’s flexible OLED display, it probably has very similar specs to LG’s.

In practice, neither the LG or Samsung flexible displays will actually be used in a flexible device. While LG claims that its display is unbreakable, that’s obviously a lie, and bending it by more than its large bending radius of 700mm would result in a whole lot of dead pixels. If either LG or Samsung produced an actual flexible smartphone, it would likely break the first time that you sat down with it in your pocket. Instead, these flexible displays will be used to make smartphones that have curved, rigid displays – much like the Nexus S, but slightly more concave.

The theory, as far as we can tell, is that a concave smartphone is a lot more comfortable to hold against the side of your face when making calls. Beyond that, though, a curved display doesn’t improve smartphone usability. If anything, it actually detracts from the smartphone experience. Can you imagine watching a TV show on your smartphone, where the edges are curved around slightly? Or playing a game, where the on-screen controls are on the curved left and right edges? How will a curved smartphone look and feel in your trouser pocket? With the curved display laying flush against your face, will it get really greasy?

Curved smartphones are a nice idea, but in practice they leave a lot to be desired. Still, they’re an exciting stepping stone towards fully flexible devices, which will actually be really cool.