Samsung sure believes that foldables are the future of mobile computing hardware. After all, it has made the boldest bet on the technology, more so than any company on the planet with investments going back into the 2000s and the prototypes emerging in the 2010s. And now after two generations of Galaxy Fold phones, and largely having the market to itself in 2021, it is making the biggest push towards democratising the technology at the risk of even side-lining its long-adored Galaxy Note line which in the books of some people is more important than its iPhone countering Galaxy S line. For the last couple of years, Samsung’s phone business has been withering in the wake of renewed competition from Apple and cannibalisation from Chinese makers, something that was best reflected a couple of quarters ago when Xiaomi took over it as the leading smartphone maker on the planet albeit for a short period. Xiaomi will be back soon if its Galaxy S line of phones doesn’t start firing soon. And chances are that’s not going to happen as it lacks differentiation and is expensive; Samsung just doesn’t have the brand to pull off what Apple does with surgical precision year after year. But Samsung can beat Apple and every other smartphone maker in the world if it nails foldables and makes them mass market before anyone else.
That’s the attempt being made with the new Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3. Samsung has taken baby steps and bit by bit iterated upon the fallible design and software that was not refined into something usable in day-to-day use and delightful for a power user with the latest Fold and Flip series of gadgets. They are also positioned in such a way that they will attract very different users — the Fold is for the consummate multitasker and screen addict while the Flip is for the fashionista and someone who craves minimal and compact elegance. After all, one phone remains a gargantuan monstrosity in the pocket while the other one can be forgotten because of the petite size when folded and then only to expose a screen larger than an iPhone when flipped.
Samsung has added water resistance to these phones now and made the frame of the Z Fold 3 80 per cent stronger than its predecessor. Sure, it is a nice thing, you float in the pool, do a bit of email and word processing while watching chipmunk videos on YouTube, all at the same time without fear of destroying your super-expensive phone. Close it up, and you can make calls like a boss like all dons from the 2000s did so using a Nokia communicator. On Flip 3 as well, that hinge does feel rock solid and you can snap the screen open in one motion. It is also a very comfortable phone generally in terms of size of the screen and pocketability while also adding a very useful outer screen.
But by the third generation, Samsung should’ve figured out the dust resistance bit. Especially when you’re selling this phone in India, especially when your target audience for the phone will be globetrotters who will have beachside houses in the Bahamas, Ibiza, Dubai and even Goa — how can you let them not lather sand on these things? Sure, right now there is no competition but you don't let go of this flaky kind of customer as the moment Apple joins the party, they will jump ship. Samsung is running out of time to perfect the design of these foldables — it should’ve achieved this in 2021, it hasn’t, but rather made just a “good” step forward. Now, it has to hope that Apple doesn’t have something up its sleeve for 2022.
Regardless of this minor critique of the technology and its pace of improvement, Samsung has to be congratulated on the well-engineered products these are. Samsung has improved these phones holistically. For instance, on Fold 3, the outer screen is larger which makes it easier to use as a standalone smartphone, though still weird because of the narrow size of the screen and icons. It even gets a 120Hz refresh rate and Corning’s Gorilla Glass Victus for added strength. In the case of the Flip 3, you now get the latest chip in the Snapdragon 888 which wasn’t the case with the Snapdragon 855 when it first came out in 2020. This is now a true flagship-class phone.
In the case of the Indian market, it is such a god sent a gift that these phones use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chipsets instead of Samsung’s inferior Exynos 2100 chip. This helps performance massively as these phones feel smoother than the Galaxy S21 Ultra series of phones. They get less warm when pushed to the limits with high-resolution gaming or even doing heavy multitasking with numerous apps running at the same time in a multi-window type set-up. This is something that cannot be done on the standard S21 Ultra to such an extent as the Fold 3 and yet the Fold 3 comes out ahead. There are some serious technical chops here. It also helps that the Fold 3 gets 12GB DDR5 RAM while the Flip 3 gets a still sufficient 8GB RAM. In day-to-day usage as well, the Samsung One UI user interface felt smoother than the Exynos powered standard Galaxy S models. And when I replaced One UI with the Microsoft launcher which also accounts for dual-screen like paradigms, it did a very neat job on the Fold 3. Generally, Samsung’s software on the Fold 3 has made a major step with the dock like system on the side which enables it to do iPad style multitasking but now with up to 4 apps at the same time. For once, the preloaded Samsung apps and the Microsoft apps also work well and aren’t seen as unwelcome roadkill because these apps are tailor-made for these phones and you can’t get a comparable experience with some other apps.
The cameras on both the Flip 3 and Fold 3 haven’t progressed much further from what they were in 2020. Both get the 2020 grade Galaxy S20 level primary cameras, while the Fold 3 gets three cameras on the back, the Flip 3 gets a dual-camera system. Compared to flagship phones of 2021, these cameras don’t stand a chance. They also don’t stand up too well against the 2020 flagship cameras as Samsung didn’t fare too well. But I also said that Fold 2 had one of the best Samsung cameras in 2020 thanks to the Qualcomm chip which does superior processing. So yes, the processing has progressed further but when one accounts for the gains in camera technology in the last couple of years, this is starkly a middling camera system that does decently in all conditions largely -- excelling in good lighting, falling a little short in poor lighting, and doing averagely with portraits and doing above average video at 4K resolutions. The Fold 3 also gets optical zoom which isn’t present in Flip 3.
But there are things that these cameras can do that no other phone camera can do just because of their Foldable nature, something Samsung hasn’t harnessed. Sure, these cameras, the primary ones, are optically stabilised, but these phones don’t need to be propped up on a tripod or selfie stick or some kind of mount like the big Fold 3 can be propped like a vertical tent making it an incredibly stable camera system for recording stable video over an extended time. I propped up the Fold 3 recently at a gig right next to the DJ console where the phone was aimed at the DJ. Mind you this was near a lot of gear, subwoofers and the main console -- so a lot was going on but the Fold 3 shot a clip for more than an hour video without much jitter that too in a low light scenario with strobe lights blinking away in the background. The Flip 3 was even more impressive as it unfolded in a laptop-style tent where it was right next to the DJ console focussing on the performer giving almost Go-Pro like footage.
On the Flip, the back screen can also be used to take selfies which you cannot do on Fold 3. The new in-display selfie camera on the main screen of the Fold is also quite gimmicky. It has poor resolution and hence you will be mostly using the other selfie camera which is on the outer screen. It also can be easily viewed so can become a distraction for the content.
Samsung can harness this form factor and do some very unique video related things with the Fold and Flip form factors. It hasn’t marketed it for this kind of purpose but without needing to outfit a massive camera module, Samsung can do something unique for the camera crazy audience. This is important as people really use the camera as a major element of the smartphone experience and if the Fold and Flip lag behind standard phones then this will be a drawback in their wide adoption and that kind of either hobbles Samsung’s big bet on the technology or gives it rivals like Apple time to come up with a more compelling a camera experience which would make its head start in the segment pointless.
This review is also notable for the fact that for the first time I have used a Foldable for a significant period. This means I can give more accurate battery figures which are surprisingly good on both these phones and I can also give you a better picture of what it feels like living with these phones. How comfortable are they to carry around, how durable they may be?
Well, the battery life on both phones is nothing special when compared to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but it is decent enough that both phones should last a single workday -- 12 hours -- on a single charge. Charge times of both the phones are dramatically different owing to the size of the battery itself. One has a 4,400 mAh battery while the other one has a smaller 3,300 mAh battery. These phones get charged within the 90-minute mark and also offer niceties like wireless charging and reverse wireless charging. Despite so many screens being there the battery life is decent and that’s despite the size of the battery becoming smaller than previous generations of the phone.
Carrying around the Fold 3 remains problematic as its 14.4mm plus thickness when folded is not something that you will not feel in the pocket. It also risks the phone coming out of the pocket more but that’s where the new armour aluminium frame comes in handy. This phone will not break unless you put your mind towards breaking it. The Flip 3 is the polar opposite and yet it also feels as sturdy as any other phone, even with the hinge feeling very smooth and rigid mechanically. These phones aren’t innocuous toys the first generation foldables were in 2019.
The Flip 3 is going to be the phone for most people as it is the more normal phone. It also gets a more normal 6.7-inch screen size which now gets the 120Hz refresh rate and size similar to the big boy iPhone. It can be used in quirky ways as well by using it almost like a mini laptop for playing games or even doing makeup with the selfie camera turned on. The Fold 3 has a form factor problem as with the screen unfolded it is a two-handed experience with its 7.6-inch canvas. Its folded 6.2-inch screen remains weirdly narrow, but people can get used to it if they don’t have thick fingers. To use Fold 3 you need to be okay using the narrow 6.2-inch most times.
Samsung has also elevated the experience on other fronts -- the Fold 3 gets dual speakers now, which sound excellent. The phones support 5G and generally the call quality on both devices was excellent. Samsung’s mastery of haptic feedback also comes into play on these phones. Fundamentally, these are fantastic gadgets for different kinds of people. The screens are lovely, if you can ignore the creese, and adapt to the weird sizes, the performance is flagship level, the battery life is okay, the build quality is excellent and the day-to-day trade-offs are fewer and the software is well-tuned and customised for the unique experiences these phones promise. The only true compromise comes in the case of dust resistance and flagship-level cameras, something which Samsung can and should sort out quite quickly before the competition wakes up.
These compromises currently mean despite the friendlier price tags these phones aren’t for everyone. However, Samsung surely knows that and will likely get limited units even if the number has increased from last year so that when they sell out, it seems like they sold loads. But that’s the thing; these numbers are increasing quite rapidly and that means Samsung is indeed on to something.
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3: Rs 1,49,990
Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3: Rs 84,999
First Published: IST