For years, we’ve been conditioned to think that our smartphones should look a certain way: slab-like rectangles that seem to get bigger and bigger every year.
But as those screens have expanded, some of us have struggled to fit them into hands and pockets, and others wondered if they could help us become even more productive. To solve both of those issues, companies including Samsung, Huawei and Motorola embraced flexible, bendable screens for smartphones, and after years of tinkering, they might finally be ready for a wider audience.
This week, Samsung unveiled a pair of new foldable devices called the Galaxy Z Flip 3 and Galaxy Z Fold 3. Thanks to advances in screen technology, you won’t have to pay an arm and leg — well, maybe just an arm. Samsung cut the price of its entry-level foldable device to $1,000, which means a folding phone could finally compete with Apple and its iPhone 12 Pros.
The first commercially available folding phones emerged in 2019, and in addition to being ludicrously expensive — think $2,000 — they also felt so experimental that few of us bought into the idea. Those who did had to live with lingering concerns over durability and software that wasn’t quite where it needed to be.
Since then, some of the software kinks have been ironed out, and companies have found ways to make these naturally fragile devices more resilient, but they’ve remained too pricey to appeal to a broad market. Samsung, though, hopes its unusual price cuts could help to jump-start a foldable craze around the world.
“We feel like we’re now in the realm of what people expect to pay for more traditional, high-end smartphones,” said Stephen Hawke, Samsung’s senior manager of mobile computing product strategy.
Pretty soon, you’ll have a big choice to make: Should you stick to a traditional smartphone, like an iPhone? Or should you take the plunge on a flippy, foldable device that just might fit into your life a little better? I spent a little time with both of Samsung’s very different folding phones. Here are my initial takeaways.
Big phones can get smaller
In nearly all of my conversations with other smartphone owners, one complaint almost always came up: Phones are getting too big.
When it’s open, the Z Flip 3 is definitely a big phone: It has a tall 6.7-inch screen that looks and acts the same as a regular smartphone screen. (The only sign that the Z Flip 3 is unusual is the crease that runs midway down the display.) But here’s the fun part: You can channel your mid-2000s, flip-phone-owning self and snap that big screen shut, at which point the Z Flip 3 becomes a small square that slips into pockets and crammed purses without much fuss.
The Z Flip 3 has other qualities going for it, too, like a pair of high-quality 12-megapixel rear cameras and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor that helps the phone run as fast as some of the most expensive Android devices out there. There’s a 1.9-inch outward-facing screen, too, so you can read incoming messages and control your music without having to open the phone. And it comes with 5G support for the nation’s wireless carriers, though you may still be hard-pressed to see the difference most of the time.
Samsung also reinforced the phone’s flexible screen and the metal housing around it to better withstand wear and tear. It is water-resistant to the point where it should be able to shrug off an accidental dip in your bathtub. (Just be sure to fish it out as soon as you can.)
Fast performance is always helpful, and so is the fact that you probably won’t need to baby this phone as much as earlier models because of Samsung’s design changes. The draw here is that you get basically everything a regular, too-big smartphone has to offer in a package that collapses down to half its usual size.
Big phones can get even bigger
Samsung’s other new folding phone, the Galaxy Z Fold 3, couldn’t be any more different. If the company’s $1,000 foldable is all about portability, the Z Fold 3 is all about flexibility.
This phone costs $1,800 to start. That’s about $200 less than what last year’s model cost at launch, but it’s still a bitter pill for most people to swallow. Still, it helps that the Z Fold 3 is actually two gadgets in one — a phone and a small tablet.
When it is closed, this phone is absolutely enormous — for readers of a certain age, “chonky” might be the best way to describe it. Still, it has a narrow touch screen that stretches from edge to edge, so you can take phone calls, text your family or waste time on Instagram as you normally would. It’s not always pleasant, but the full smartphone experience is there when you need it.
But when you open the Z Fold 3, it becomes a tiny tablet with a 7.6-inch screen that’s much better for watching videos or reading e-books. Let’s say you need to edit a document — you can prop the Z Fold 3 open like a laptop and type on a large keyboard that takes up half the screen. Samsung’s software doesn’t always make it clear or easy, but you can also run multiple apps side by side on that big screen.
This year’s Z Fold 3 has the same 5G support, high-powered processor and durable design changes as its cheaper sibling, but it does come with two more tricks that add to the phone’s appeal. For one, instead of using an ugly notch or a tiny hole for a camera to peer through, Samsung actually put a camera under that big, folding screen. Your selfies and video calls won’t look any better for it, but it’s a hint at where the future of smartphone design could lead us.
More important, this foldable phone also plays nice with certain versions of Samsung’s S Pen stylus. You’ll have to pay at least $50 extra for a compatible pen, but the additional cost might be worth it if you prefer to jot down notes — it only seems fitting, since the Z Fold 3 already opens up like a notebook.
As polished as these new phones sometimes feel, they still come with caveats. Some apps still aren’t built to work correctly on phone-tablet hybrids like the Z Fold 3, though Samsung is trying to fix this issue with its own software. Meanwhile, relatively few apps offer anything new or different on models like the Z Flip 3, but that also could change if flip-phone foldables become more popular.
For all the work Samsung has done, it can’t resolve these issues by itself. As ever, we’re locked in a waiting game until software developers — and regular smartphone shoppers — decide that folding phones are worth the investment.