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Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff
The big screen
The included Galaxy Buds
The noticeable screen divot
The potential fragility of the screen
The Samsung Galaxy Fold is not a folding phone, it's a foldable tablet that can double as a very thick phone. Comparing it to either just a phone or a tablet is wrong, because, as one of the first on-the-market flexible screen mobile devices, it is somewhat singular. The big screen doesn't disappoint, offering excellent browsing, gaming, video-watching, and productivity experiences, and the small screen on the front is an excellent at-a-glance compaction. It's too expensive, but the Galaxy Fold proves folding mobile tech is here to stay.
Here’s what the Samsung Galaxy Fold is not:
Samsung Galaxy Fold is, in truth, a folding tablet that can also serve as a beefy (like a too-thick candy bar) phone. It’s also the beginning of what I now realize will be a long and interesting journey in foldable devices.
That, at least, should’ve been clear to early reviewers who literally tore their Galaxy Folds apart, misidentifying a permanent screen covering for a thin sheet of disposable plastic and found that eating a sandwich on the same table as you placed the Galaxy Fold was an invitation for crumbs to invade every poorly-sealed crevice.
Samsung took a big step back to reassess how they built the first Galaxy Fold and, before it even hit the market, they rebuilt the screen, pushing the protective layer under a black plastic lip and strengthening the flexible AMOLED with a layer of bendable metal underneath. On the other side of the Galaxy Fold, Samsung added protective lips to the metal spine, essentially sealing off what had been open space between the body and the Fold’s delicate components. Finally, they added a pair of little plastic T-bars at the top and bottom edge of the screen, right at the hinge, thereby closing off another avenue of debris entry.
These important changes cleared up the majority of major criticisms leveled at the Galaxy Fold review units, but they didn’t entirely assuage Samsung’s concerns. As they handed me the Fold, I was reminded to not use a stylus on the screen (hence, no included S-Pen), put undue pressure with a finger or, heaven forbid, use a fingernail.
It was a stark reminder that the Fold’s screen is not protected by hard glass. It’s definitely strengthened plastic, but I could scratch it if I use it wrong or abuse it.
Those admonishments were fresh in my mind as I unboxed the Samsung Galaxy Fold for the first time and removed yet more documents that reminded me that Samsung will, for the first year, replace a broken screen for just $149 and has developed a custom concierge service just for the Fold. Then I gingerly unfolded the device for the very first time.
I needn’t have worried. In a normal usage scenario, the Galaxy Fold held up just fine. In fact, I grew to truly enjoy using the $1,980 device and am now convinced that there is a place in our mobile universe for foldable screens.
Before we go further, I want to make clear that, while the Galaxy Fold is extraordinarily expensive, it’s also unlike any pocket-sized mobile device I’ve ever used before.
It’s that fat smartphone I mentioned with a sharp, if slightly cramped 4.6-inch smartphone screen and 10mp selfie camera (they call it a “Cover Camera”) on the front (or outside) and an excellent three-camera array on the back that basically matches what you get in a Samsung Galaxy S10 (12 MP wide, 12 MP 2X telephoto, and 16 MP Ultra-wide). However, it’s also a 7.3-inch tablet with a high-resolution HDR10+-capable AMOLED screen and yet another 8 MP selfie camera along with an 8 MP depth camera. The Galaxy Fold is truly two devices in one. Plus, it ships with an excellent pair of Samsung Galaxy Buds Bluetooth headphones (a $125 value). There is no 3.5 mm headphone jack.
If the Galaxy Fold were just a phone, it would’ve been considered ridiculous. It’s over a half-inch thick, weighs 9.7 ounces, and has a small screen that stops almost an inch from the top and bottom edges. However, this is a device for someone who wants the screen real estate of a tablet in the space of a smartphone. The outside screen is there for quick access and glanceability (this is the place where the right-swipeable Bixby screen with cards of need-to-know information really comes in handy). It's also a fully-functioning smartphone display, which means you can use it all the time, if you choose.
Based on my experience, however, you’ll spend 70% of the time with the device unfolded—it’s hard to stop using that big screen everywhere once you’ve started. And when you’re done, you fold it up and drop the Galaxy Fold back into your front pocket.
This is a Samsung Galaxy, so much of the setup will be familiar to anyone who’s owned a Galaxy smartphone in the last few years. It’s Android 9 (sorry, not 10, yet) with a distinctly Samsung flavor. There are a host of Samsung apps to replicate what comes with Android, like Mail and the Gallery, and many others, like the Camera, Health, and Bixby, that are integral to the Samsung experience.
There’s facial recognition, which I set up quickly with a single scan of my face and that works exceedingly well, and a thin fingerprint reader along the left edge. I registered my index finger, but the placement is actually better suited for your thumb. In either case, it’s also a very effective authentication scheme.
What’s notable, though, is that the facial recognition works with both the outside and inside cameras. I can look at the small display and unlock the phone or unfold it and access the Fold just as quickly.
I can even use Bixby to unlock the Fold with my voice, I did have to train it by saying "Hi Bixby" five times, but then it worked smoothly. Bixby has always been good at managing on-device functions, but its Bixby vision can now recognize multiple objects at once and is also getting better at general interest questions like, "What's the capital of Nevada?" It's obviously still not as strong as Google Assistant, but I'm starting to see a case for using Bixby all the time on your Samsung devices.
Like any good mobile device, there are tons of features to cover, but, since so much of that is virtually the same as the Samsung Galaxy S10 (or 10+), I want to focus on the large, flexible display, what it means, what it offers and where, if anywhere, it falters.
When I flipped open the Galaxy Fold, I was immediately struck by how the screen nearly matches the 7.9-inch Apple iPad Mini in screen real estate. Unlike the iPad, there is no bezel, so you get a better screen-to-body-size ratio. There is that unsightly trapezoid cut-out in the upper right-hand corner to accommodate the Galaxy Fold’s front-facing camera and depth-sensing system, but most of the time, I really didn’t notice it.
When the screen is dark, there is an unmistakable bend that runs the length of the screen; you can feel it when you run your finger along the surface. Fortunately, I found I barely—and sometimes not at all—noticed that divot when playing full-screen videos on Netflix or playing video games like Call of Duty in landscape mode.
This is a convertible content consumption device, which is why I’m so glad Samsung includes its Samsung Galaxy Buds. These comfortable AKG-backed Bluetooth headphones offer rich sound and decent battery life (6 hours on their own and another 7 hours of charge from the included case). I spent a lot of hours playing games and bingeing TV shows on the large, attractive screen.
Once you have a larger screen, it makes sense to start making the most of it. Samsung makes it pretty easy to run split-screen apps in a format it calls Multi-Active Windows and to even add a floating window app on top of that. However, by the time I had three apps running at once, I realized that I was defeating the purpose of the larger screen. Personally, when I’m on the go, two apps are the most I really need to see at once.
I’m far more impressed with the App Continuity which lets me start with, say, a web page (or pretty much any app) on the small outside screen, unfold the device, and continue with the same app in a full-screen format—and not simply stretched—but using all the extra real estate.
This works especially well in maps. One evening, I started a trip downtown by using the 4.6-inch screen but as I started to navigate, I flipped open the Fold and continued with a much larger map that put my trip in context. This is exactly how a multi-screen device should work.
There were no great surprises in any of the Samsung Galaxy Fold’s camera capabilities, but I did notice how the introduction of a second set of selfie cameras didn’t in anyway limit or adversely impact utility. Essentially, I could shoot how I wanted and when I wanted.
On the go, I mostly shot photos with the camera folded, holding up the chunky Fold and using the 4.6-inch display as my viewfinder. I didn’t like using the external cameras while the Fold was unfolded. I just worried to much about dropping and damaging the device. I mean, I tried it that way, and the 7.3-inch viewfinder was cool, especially the ability to add extra shutter buttons so I didn’t have to reach across the screen to take a photo, but there’s really no need to use it that way.
Image quality across wide, ultrawide, telephoto, Night, and Live Focus images matched what I found on the Samsung Galaxy S10+, which is to say that image quality is generally very good-to-excellent across a wide range of shooting styles.
Night mode did an excellent job of illuminating a dark subway.
Live Focus continues to improve on the Samsung platform, though there were a few odd anomalies around my head.
Ultrawide shots are suitably dramatic, but lacked a bit of clarity.
Both the front and rear cameras can shoot in Ultra HD, which at 3840x2160 (up to 60fps) is lightly lower than true 4K.
Samsung packed the Fold with a Qualcomm 7nm Octa-Core processor, 12GB of RAM, and 512 GB of storage. Benchmarks are mostly in line with what I saw on the Snapdragon 855-running Samsung Galaxy Note10+, though the OpenCL scores, an indication of graphics performance, were considerably lower. I can’t say I noticed any difference during actual gaming, though. In fact, the Galaxy Fold has the same game-enhancing Game Booster technology as the Galaxy S10+, which redirects resources and minimizes interruptions during gaming activities.
Gaming is a different experience on the unfolded Galaxy Fold. As my son noted after playing the just-released mobile version of Call of Duty, he kept medaling over other online players because he had the advantage of this huge screen to work with while the rest of his opponents were probably squinting at tiny smartphone screens. Score one for the Galaxy Fold.
Samsung took advantage of the extra space and put two batteries in the Galaxy Fold, one on each side of the chassis. Combined, they gave me about a day of battery life with mixed use. Your mileage may vary. I did notice that the camera side of the phone got a little hot during operation.
Wireless charging is supported, but only on one side of the phone. Obviously, you’ll probably have the phone folded up when you charge in this fashion. I was also pleased to see the inclusion of wireless PowerShare, which let me charge either my Samsung Galaxy Active 2 smartwatch or the included Galaxy Bud case by activating the feature in the settings and then placing either one on the back (the side with the three cameras) of the Galaxy Fold.
Ultimately, the Samsung Galaxy Fold convinces me that there’s a future for fungible mobile devices. Why carry a single screen smartphone when you can carry one with two or three screens that still fits in your pocket? Samsung’s decision to build a folding screen tablet (or phone) instead of using two screens was a risk that almost didn’t pay off but, in the end, I think Samsung has taken the first major step on the long road to a new kind of device.