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(Pocket-lint) - Plenty of smartphone makers have been dabbling with the idea of 'the next big thing'. Heck, even LG teased a rollable phone before it then pulled out of the market entirely. Oppo, meanwhile, is the first company to deliver a real, actual, viable rollable product: the Oppo X 2021 concept. 

Being a concept device means this isn't final stage material by any means, but instead of seeing an inanimate slab of plastic - as we have from other makers in the recent past (well, pre-pandemic anyway), such as TCL - the X 2021 shows that Oppo can create a genuine alternative to the foldable. And, we must say, we rather like it.

Having handled the Oppo X 2021 for over half an hour - and actuated the rolling mechanism probably about 3,000 times (we exaggerate, but frankly it's exciting to have something this futuristic in hand) - here's what we make of this next-gen hardware.

Our quick take

At this stage, given the Oppo X 2021 is a concept device, we can't really delve into the details of specific hardware or functionality - that's all up for change as and when it becomes a real consumer device that you can actually buy.

But all that stuff is besides the point anyway. What the Oppo X 2021 proves is that a rollable device is, finally, a viable alternative to a foldable in the big-screen handheld smartphone market - and a glimpse of what to expect from the future.

The rolling mechanism is a little noisy in this guise, but it's delivered really well in terms of maintaining a flat and rigid screen, appears to protect itself from dust and therefore harm from scratches, and it's the first time that we've felt this rollable format has real potential.

So will the rollable replace the foldable as the dominant phone of the future? The Oppo X 2021 concept is the most impressive example to date, showing that perhaps we won't be unfolding the future, but unfurling it instead...

Oppo X 2021 rollable concept phone review: Rock 'n' roller

Oppo X 2021 rollable concept phone

  • The rollable mechanism is a really viable alternative to a foldable one
  • Screen rigidity is really strong - flatter than a foldable
  • The swipe/double-tap power button (used to action the rollable feature) isn't totally reliable
  • POLED panel has reflective issues

Design & Display

  • POLED (Plastic Organic Light Emitting Diode) display
    • Standard: 6.7-inch, 1175 x 2592 resolution
    • Unrolled: 7.4-inch, 1785 x 2592 resolution
  • Power button swipe/double-tap to action
  • Dual driver motor mechanism
  • 8.4mm thick design

When we first saw a rollable phone - not this Oppo one, mind - we were a little concerned that dust a debris would catch on the screen and cause scratches. Prototypes have often displayed such evidence, such as that we've seen from TCL. The Oppo X 2021, however, has dust- and water-resistant protection meaning that the edge - the one where the rollable screen is rolled away - is designed to keep dust out and, therefore, scratches at bay.

Will that play out in the real world over time when you're unrolling and re-rolling the screen? Well, it's up for debate. It's the biggest fear that we'd have about such a device. But then foldable alternatives have plenty of concerns about them too, from visible creases on the screen, to mechanism breakages, and so forth.

The Oppo X 2021 is rather clever in avoiding prevalent creases, that much we can say. Although its screen isn't 100 per cent flat in every aspect, as you might spot in our pictures and embedded hands-on video up top, it's better handled than various foldables we've seen - from the Moto Razr to the Galaxy Z Flip.

That's because Oppo uses a two-in-one plate, which is made of flexible metal and positioned behind the screen, so the panel is always positioned on this rigid surface. There's no flex when you prod it, it's much like using any 'normal' phone whether in its standard or unrolled position.

Getting the Oppo X 2021's screen from its 6.7-inch standard to 7.4-inch unrolled format is perhaps the most fun thing about this device though. A double-tap or swipe of the power button will get the dual motors to spring into action, seeing the screen expand or retract. It's great fun to watch. However, there needs to be more work on the swipe-based mechanism as that wasn't always consistently responsive in our use.

Pocket-lintOppo X 2021 rollable photo 6

That 7.4-inch unfurled scale might not sound too massive, but this is the diagonal measure that we're talking about here. Believe us, unrolled and the Oppo X 2021 is a big device. Not unwieldy, just satisfyingly large to consume content on we should imagine. And watching as it mechanically moves between its two scales is great fun - content dynamically adapts, too, dependent on source - and something our tech-geek selves couldn't help but smile about.

The panel is a Plastic OLED, however, just as you'll find on any foldable device. It has to be to allow the mechanism to function - glass doesn't fold around corners as a malleable substance just yet, right? The issue with POLED is the reflective qualities of that plastic coating. In brighter light it'll catch strong highlights from surrounding sources, making it less than ideal for outside use. But this is a problem for any device that uses this tech. Here's hoping there will be future advances in this technology - whether that's a third-party sussing out some scientific genius, or Oppo's own R&D department.

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Pocket-lintOppo X 2021 rollable photo 29

Because the screen folds back behind itself the Oppo X 2021 concept isn't a particularly small device even in standard format. At 8.4mm thick it doesn't sound too dramatic, but think of it like a gaming phone size equivalent, really. Perfectly handleable, just not as deft as some of the more slender (and obviously not-rollable!) devices you could buy.

To recap

What this concept proves is that a rollable device is, finally, a viable alternative to a foldable in the big-screen handheld smartphone market - and a glimpse of what to expect from the future.

Writing by Mike Lowe.