Hands-on with the Oppo X 2021: The first rollable phone in New Zealand

For some people, a smartphone that's always stuck as one particular shape is about to become totally boring and pretty much obsolete.

Foldable phones have returned to the market in recent years, but now rollable tech is upon us, promising a superior expandable smartphone option.

Korean tech company LG unveiled its rollable phone in January, but China's Oppo had already showed off its version late last year - and now has one of the prototypes in Aotearoa.

We here at Newshub got to have a play with it.

So what is a rollable phone?

A rollable is basically a standard, rectangular smartphone that can expand its screen out for a larger display on demand, without any folding.

The Oppo X 2021 has a standard 6.7-inch, 1175x2592 display which can expand out to a 7.4-inch, 1785x2592 display simply with a swipe along its side.

It does so using proprietary technology called the Roll Motor powertrain - two drive motors built into the handset that generate a constant force output.

"OPPO engineers designed an axis with a slider on the display side of the phone from which the display extends and retracts," the company explains. 

"The display moves along this central axis and the slider ensures it follows a smooth arc. After extensive testing, the central axis diameter was fixed at 6.8mm - a magic number that makes it possible for the display to bend with virtually no trace." 

Rolling the screen in and out is done by swiping the side of the device on a button that's about where the volume control is on an iPhone.

It took me a few goes to get the hang of it, but very quickly I was practically hypnotised watching the screen go in and out, back and forth. Depending on what you have on the screen at the time, you can even keep using the touch controls as it moves.

You can't see a crease. While looking at the screen itself, you can't see any moving parts - it's all futuristic and almost appears magical. Tilting the phone on its side makes it a bit clearer how the trick is pulled, as shown in the image above.

It's really impressive tech - but just like foldable phones, this is kind of a niche thing.

Why would people want a rollable phone?

Oppo NZ Managing Director Morgan Halim told Newshub the company believes combining a mini-tablet and a smartphone into one device is going to become increasingly popular with consumers - and he reckons rollable is preferable to foldable.

"We're trying to do it a bit differently. Currently the expandable phones out there are foldable, but the Oppo rollable gives customers a more natural experience," said Halim.  

"This is a product of our global research and development iteration of what an expandable smartphone should look like and what the experience of using it should be like.

"I'm quite excited about what it could bring in the future when we're able to get it to the mass production stage."

He said while the prototype had two settings - 6.7-inch and 7.4-inch - in the future the technology will allow a range of different sizes to be optimised for whatever the user is doing with their phone.

That seemingly magical feel of how it expanded I mentioned earlier - he also explained a bit more of how that works.

"We have a Warp Track high-strength screen laminate for the screen, so when you roll it out or in, the feel of the screen doesn't change because of the way we created the laminate at the back of the screen. It's made from high-strength steel that's only 0.1mm thick. So it gives flexibility, but when you touch it it feels like a real screen, not a flexible display."

The Oppo X 2021 is still just a prototype and there's no release date announced for it - but considering we in the media are already allowed to get our hands on them, they can't be too far off.

Halim said Oppo has a track record of only releasing to market only when the technology is mature enough to do so. 

"Right now this is a concept and we're getting a lot of feedback from people looking at the product and playing around with it. So we'll continuously improve it and once it's ready, we'll be excited to announce a release - hopefully we'll be able to move to mass production soon."

The device's name has 2021 in it which strongly suggests it'll be on shelves before the end of the year.

It'll be interesting if Oppo's is indeed the first rollable phone available for the public in New Zealand, or if LG - or another company - beats them to it.