Galaxy Fold review: The potential and peril of foldable phones have never been clearer
Wednesday - 24/04/2019 12:02
Samsung's foldable phone will live and die by its screen.
I knew from the moment I held it that the $1,980 Galaxy Fold, the world's first major foldable phone, would be something different, something special. Feeling the screen open and close was such a visceral action that felt natural and right. And after doing everything from watching videos and reading the news to writing emails on that enormous 7.3-inch screen, you'll never want to go back to "only" a 6-inch display again. The promise -- and peril -- of a foldable phone are real. And it's all in the screen, center crease or no.
We knew there would be growing pains, but nobody expected the screens on some reviewers' phones to malfunction so quickly, or for Samsung to postpone the Fold's April 26 sale date for weeks -- until June 13 for AT&T's preorder buyers -- while it investigated what went wrong. That sucked, because the incidents cast a pall over the Fold and over the concept of foldable phones in general. I had been super excited to be one of the first in the world to try the Fold, but the screen meltdown let all the air out of the balloon.
Because the Galaxy Fold is so important as the first real phone of its kind, and because of the alarming screen developments, I've taken my time making this evaluation as thorough as possible to avoid any knee-jerk reaction. We all deserve better than that. I've used the Fold every day for more than a week in every way a person can use a phone, even (gasp!) to make calls. I ran two overnight battery drains tests, peered at its screen from every angle and typed until my hands ached.
Although the early production review unit that Samsung gave me never so much as flickered, CNET will hold off giving the device an official rating until we've fully tested a final production Galaxy Fold. The fact that the Fold suffered now five screen meltdowns before it even reached customers' hands deeply concerns me.
That Samsung somehow missed proper quality control before releasing this device will stir up memories of the Galaxy Note 7 battery flame-out. If reviewers hadn't caught the screen problems on the Fold, a lot of unhappy customers might have shelled out $2,000 for a device that gives more headaches than glimpses of the future. And, of course, we have to wonder how this will affect other foldable phones, such as the Huawei Mate X and the (rumored) foldable Moto Razr. Will the true foldable revolution stall a few years while waiting for Corning's bendable glass?
I should mention that Samsung is recollecting all review units. While it's likely the company wants to do some damage control before more issues develop, reviewers were also told at the outside that we'd have a limited, 10-day review period before having to give the phones back.
Read: The Galaxy Fold's screen malfunction: Everything you need to know
After a week, I'm still divided about the Fold. The world doesn't need foldable phones. We can get along perfectly fine without them. But we should want them -- not as the Fold is now, but as it could be. I hope the Fold's early misfortunes don't deter Samsung and others from trying again. The brand is already rumored to be at work on two more separate designs. Maybe one of those will be the ticket.
The Fold's screen problems, while real, also distract us from evaluating where this device works well and where it doesn't. We need to be able to let the drama settle and really look at what the Fold has to offer. So that's what I'm going to do.
Let's agree that the Galaxy Fold is a testbed device for developers and the earliest adopters to buy, and for the rest of us to ponder over -- and then let's put that aside and dive into the details. Are you with me?
What the Galaxy Fold is best at:
Screen viewing, e.g. reading and watching videos
Opening and closing
Grabbing people's attention
What the Fold isn't so good at:
Protecting the internal screen
Typing, especially on the small exterior screen
Long-lasting battery life
Being around water
Why we care about the Galaxy Fold in the first place
The promise of a foldable phone is all about the screen. Specifically, about giving you an expansive, uninterrupted display to watch videos, play games and read on, then put away in your pocket.
Companies have made foldable phone concept sketches and prototypes for years, but the Galaxy Fold marks the first time there's been enough critical mass in interest and technological know-how to make a commercial device possible. Samsung isn't alone. Huawei's Mate X and TCL's commitment to a future foldable are making this new bendable design more real every day.
Even Google's in on the action, pledging Android support so that its software will switch from one screen orientation to another as you fold and unfold the display. A little-known company sold the first foldable phone, the Royole FlexPai, but Samsung's Fold is the first "real" foldable phone for most people.
All foldable phones will start off ultra-expensive -- the 4G version of the Fold starts at $1,980, and the Mate X costs about $2,600. UK and Australian prices haven't been announced, but $1,980 converts to about £1,500 or AU$2,750.
There may still be kinks to work out on release. But if Samsung and its rivals can fix major problems that the Fold's seeing now, and enough people wind up clamoring for the design, then foldable phones have a chance to change the way people use their devices. A foldable phone could one day make tablets obsolete.
Read: Galaxy Fold "loss" could be Mate X's and foldable Motorola Razr's gain
The screen's about as soft and tender as a young shoot, and just as easily mangled.
My Galaxy Fold's 7.3-inch screen: No breaks, but a dent
The Galaxy Fold has a small 4.6-inch screen you can use when it's closed, but it's the 7.3-inch internal display that's your real living space. While you get chemically hardened Gorilla Glass on the outside, this inner screen is made from plastic, not glass -- because we don't have bendable glass yet. That means the screen's about as soft and tender as a young shoot, and just as easily mangled.
The Galaxy Fold's body count is up to five among early reviewers. My review unit is still 100% usable, without bumps or distortion, but if you look at it closely, over on the left side there's a small divot. You can see it clearly in our review video.
It's likely that something vicious in my purse marked up the screen when I tossed the Fold in open to finish a benchmarking test while getting off a train. It almost looks like the half moon of a fingernail. I'm not even sure when it happened, but it does speak to the fragility of this type of design.
Premium on the outside, cheap feeling on the inside
It's the bendable screen inside that makes the Galaxy Fold so unusual, but there's a lot about the overall design that radiates its status as first-generation and unfinished.
It looks and feels premium on the outside when closed up tight, thanks to glossy glass surfaces, luminous color and a gleaming, dressed-up hinge. Samsung had to go this route in order to justify the phone's high price. A magnetic closure helps the Fold feel securely closed.
I don't expect plastic bezels on a $2,000 "luxury" phone. Do you?
But when you open it up, the interior feels and looks toylike, with plastic bezels and a large notch to match the plastic screen.
The plastic film that's caused such a ruckus is only one problem. Two reviewers took it off (I thought about doing so, myself), which caused the screen to immediately malfunction. Samsung later said it's not a screen guard, but an integral part of the phone's structure. With a thin border between this protective layer and those plastic bezels, it's hard to tell -- there's enough room to easily slide in a fingernail or tool to give this film a tug.
Another bother is the dust and lint that like to collect in this gap. More worrisome, perhaps, are small twin openings between the screen and the hinge, one on either pole when the Fold is open. You can see how something could work its way in there.
On the bright side, opening and closing the Fold feels awesome. The Fold is a phone you have to understand on a physical level that words and photos don't do justice. You have to feel how much force you need to throw into it to close the device and open it again. To gauge the smoothness of that big hinge as the "wings" open and close. It isn't hard, but you do need to be deliberate, and I like the little bit of exertion the Fold demands from you. And that clack when it does close! Extremely satisfying.
The Infinity Flex display is made of a type of plastic because bendable glass isn't available yet.
It's not just me that thinks this. I've passed the Galaxy Fold around to co-workers, friends, perfect strangers craning to get a look -- even my septuagenarian parents -- and you can see their faces light up the first time they bend and unbend the screen. It's such an "aha!" moment. (My mom called the screen color "pure and glowing.")
I do love that I can actually zip the Fold into the pocket of a short-waisted, fitted leather jacket. When I've finished a session of use, I can simply close it up with a snap and stash it away.
Let's be real about the screen crease
Before the Galaxy Fold screens began acting up, this seam running down the phone's plastic Infinity Flex display was the thing worrying people most. It was ugly, they said, while fretting over long-term wear and tear. Would the crease get worse? Would it get in the way?
Yes, the crease is there, and it's highly visible in certain light for the simple and enduring reason that foldable phones have screens that bend in half. Until we find a material that fluidly self-heals when bending and unbending, we're going to have to put up with some amount of creasing. Foldable screens with outward bends such as the Mate X and FlexPai have an obvious ridge, too. So does your elbow.
If you're not navigating games in the center of the screen, the crease probably isn't in your way.
When I press down on the 7.3-inch screen when the Fold is opened, I can feel the hinge mechanism underneath, but I don't really feel it if I'm swiping lightly. It doesn't much get in the way with the few games I've played so far, and when I'm immersed in what I'm doing, like reading the screen or watching a video, everything else just fades away.
I'd rather not have a crease, but at this point, it's the least of the Fold's screen worries.
The notch sticks out like a sore thumb
As much as I like the Fold's looks, some of its design elements are real head-scratchers. First, there's that notch. It's a roughly inch-long cutout on the right side of the 7.3-inch display, housing two cameras and some sensors.
I'll be honest with you, it looks pretty ridiculous and unnecessarily large. I get that Samsung wanted to center the cameras, but when you shine a light onto the notch, you see that the lenses and two sensors take up far less room than they need to. When you play video, the notch is a big thick bump off to the side. It doesn't ever obstruct the action of a scene, but I don't think it needs to be quite so big.
The Galaxy Fold's notch is taking up quite a lot of space.
In some apps, like YouTube and games like Riptide Renegade, the screen in line with the notch blacks out to create wider bars on either side. You don't notice the notch so much, but you also don't get the full-screen experience.
If you hate the notch enough, you can artificially black out part of the screen using some display settings (Display > Full-screen apps > Advanced settings > Hide camera cutout). That'll just make the bezel look thicker.
The Fold's 4.6-inch screen is too small and narrow
Samsung's foldable phone is tall and narrow when closed, and the 4.6-inch exterior display feels small floating in the middle of the body, surrounded on all sides by a fair bit of empty space. This design gives the screen the impression of being smaller than it is. The alternative, I suppose, would be to have an even taller screen, which might present some of its own challenges formatting common apps.
When it's folded up, the Fold feels a bit like a flip phone or older candybar phone, making it convenient for placing calls. It's less convenient to launch the camera by double-pressing the power button, or unlocking the phone when it's folded up. Those buttons are on the second camel hump when the Fold is closed, so you have to reach across one layer to press them. That leads to inaccuracy.
Talking on the closed-up Fold is comfortable and makes sense.
The Fold gets one of my favorite new Samsung features, Wireless PowerShare. This lets you charge up another device you put on the Fold's back. That went well for smaller accessories such as the wireless Galaxy Buds. But the S10 Plus, a wider phone than the Fold, had to be situated just so or it'd slide off.
When the Fold is completely closed, there's an air gap -- the opening closest to the Galaxy Fold's hinge where the two halves meet don't fully touch. It's honestly smaller than I feared it would be, and while it's noticeable, it doesn't stand out. I could easily slip in a credit card. Then I slipped in another. The Fold stayed folded, mostly because of the tension created by the magnets.
The Fold's hinge moves smoothly, but a large mechanism here also makes the width of the phone's "wings" quite narrow. Closed, it looks like a sandwich. On the right side, there's a volume rocker and a power button, and the fingerprint reader doubles as the Bixby button. I've accidentally pressed it numerous times.
Life is different with a 4.6-inch screen.
There's no headphone jack, which is OK if you use the free Galaxy Buds wireless earbuds that come in the box, but bad if you have wired headphones you'd rather use. The Fold isn't water-resistant, so you need to take care you don't drown your investment.
When it comes to the real business of a phone -- using apps -- the more compact configuration is a bit more of a challenge. Although the Fold's screen is much smaller than any phone you're used to, you can still access all your installed apps. Samsung preloads a large clock widget, which you can tap to get into your clock app (handy for setting an alarm), and you can change this widget up if you'd like.
There's also the Google Search bar, and space for three app icons. You can make folders, so that helps put more on the page, and of course there are multiple home screens, so you can quickly get to your apps. The app tray is also easy to invoke by swiping up from the bottom, as you would on other phones.
Typing on that tiny screen can be a challenge.
Font size and icons are both miniaturized, which feels like a throwback to the days when we all hunched over our phone screens hunting and pecking our way through our apps. As I tried responding to tweets and messages while on the go, it became clearer and clearer that this screen and its virtual keyboard, are too small to be useful. I can almost type accurately when I'm immobile, but once I started walking or being bounced by a train or bus, the mistakes grew to the point of being unreadable.
Maybe it'd be easier to type on the 4.6-inch screen if the Samsung keyboard supported tracing. I could switch to Gboard, the virtual keyboard I prefer, but then I'd lose the split-screen keyboard when I open the Fold. I scoured the settings and it doesn't look like you can use different inputs on the front and interior screens the way you can set different wallpapers.
My solution was to use voice input, but Samsung's default software only mangled my words more. I was able to turn it off in the settings, which fell back to Google's voice input, my preference all along. That helped tremendously.
I have smaller fingers, so it this was hard for me, but it's certain you'll struggle if you have bigger hands. I'd definitely rely on Google Voice or Bixby to do certain things, like place a call, search for store hours or turn Wi-Fi on and off.
The one thing I will say is that the Fold is easy to use one-handed when folded up, especially if all you want to do is follow maps navigation or snap a quick photo.
The Fold doesn't close perfectly flat.
'App Continuity' works as advertised
When you open the Fold, any app you have open on the outside will also unfurl on the inside. This is called App Continuity, and it's something Samsung and Google worked on together to make sure that the Fold doesn't experience lag.
This works as expected and without delay. But if you want the app on the inside screen to follow you to the smaller exterior one, you'll need to select those apps in the Display settings. This is because you may not want every app to dog your heels. You might decide that, for most apps, closing the phone means closing out what you're doing.
Right now, WhatsApp, Microsoft, Spotify, Amazon Prime Video, Samsung and Google apps have all been optimized to use the design. If the app doesn't support App Continuity, it still works, but you'll need to resize the app for full-screen -- otherwise you'll see black bars on either side.
The split screen keyboard is helpful.
The moment you start typing, you'll notice that Samsung splits the keyboard to make it more comfortable on the larger screen. My hands still stretched across the screen and got tired, but I never felt like I was going to drop the Fold and I still preferred it to typing on the smaller screen.
I'm not the world's biggest fan of the Samsung keyboard, and it's irksome that you can't trace to type in split-screen mode. I'm sure that third-party virtual keyboard replacements will rise to the challenge.
Multitasking: There's an art to using three apps at once
Multitasking is one of the Fold's biggest selling points. Being able to use up to three apps at the same time is, after all, one advantage of using a larger screen. But multi-active windows, as it's called, is complicated and a little confusing, so bear with me and I'll do my best to explain it.
Most of the time, you'll open an app the way you normally would, either by tapping the icon on your home screen, picking it from your Recents tab, or swiping up from the bottom to select from the app tray. Now say you want to chat with someone while you're playing YouTube videos. You swipe from the right side of the screen (where the edge display is on other Galaxy phones) and launch an app that way.
You can use up to three apps at once.
You'll notice that opening the second app scooches the first one over to the left so the second one can load as a tall, narrow panel. Then, if you add a third app (same way you add a second), the secondary panel divides in half to make room for the third panel. You can slightly resize these windows, close them out, and drag and drop to reposition them using blue "handles" at the top of the app. For example, if you want your third app to become your main window, you can drag it over into that position.
I noticed right away that the more apps you have open, the smaller the font. So you may not really want to use all three at once all the time. But if you want to quickly open the calculator while you're reading a news story, you don't have to stop what you're doing to switch focus. You can also turn the phone to landscape mode to change the orientation, which makes the windows wider and shorter.
To load an app on the main window, you swipe up to access the app tray. To open an app on one of the other windows, you flick from the app tray on the right and launch an app that way. One more pro tip: You can also build out your multiwindow screen by dragging and dropping icons from the Recents tab.
Closed, the Fold looks like two phones stacked one on another. You can see the fingerprint reader/Bixby button below the lock button.
Everything I just described happens in a perfect world, but there are limitations. You'll never have the option to open some apps as secondary or tertiary panels, and that really sucks. I'm hoping Samsung will work with top app developers to make this happen.
Interestingly, I noticed that some apps might open not as a panel, but as a pop-up (see my embedded Tweet above). In this case, I opened Netflix to start a download, and then opened Google Drive to find a file while I waited. I had expected Drive to open as a panel, and was surprised to see it as a window in a window, a lot like the picture-in-picture view that lets you see Google Maps navigation as a thumbnail while focusing on something else entirely. I expanded the pop-up and moved it around using the same "handles."
Speaking of the Netflix download (two episodes of the British period spy drama Traitors), the image didn't naturally fill the screen and I didn't see an onscreen control to expand it -- just black bars on the top and bottom. Samsung will definitely want to work with Netflix on formatting, because this is not an ideal arrangement. You can force the app to expand if you dig around in the display settings, but that didn't change anything for Netflix.
The Galaxy Fold comes in black, green, silver and blue.
The Fold's six cameras are as good as on the S10 Plus
The Galaxy Fold has a total of six cameras: three on the back, one on the front and two inside:
10-megapixel camera for quick shots and selfies (outer screen)
10-megapixel camera (inner screen)
8-megapixel RGB depth sensor (inner screen)
12-megapixel main camera (backing)
16-megapixel ultra-wide angle (backing)
12-megapixel telephoto lens (backing)
You might get stared at taking photos with the Galaxy Fold open, but you can fine-tune your shot.
Taking photos while the Fold is closed up is workable, but not awesome because it's hard to tell if your photo is in focus, and it's much harder to move tiny sliders for Live Focus (portrait) shots. But if you're honestly taking a quick pic, or don't want to draw attention to yourself by unfolding the Fold, then it's totally fine. You can either share the photo right away, or open the Fold for fine-tuning.
It's a lot easier to take selfies from the closed position than from the open position, and it's also more private -- you don't have everyone and their dog watching you check your teeth on your 7.3-inch screen.
I'm intrigued by the 8-megapixel depth-sensing camera on the inside, since it's essentially going to be used for selfies, not for AR experiences in front of you (or else it'd be on the rear). Perhaps if Samsung magically turns on secure face unlock using the depth-sensing camera, this would be one way to open the Fold before unlocking it. It could be used to verify online payments. Until then, the fingerprint reader is fast and easy enough to use open or closed. I'll get into that in a little more detail below.
Solid battery life and performance, but scrolling can get weird
Samsung promises all-day battery life on the Galaxy Fold's 4,380-mAh power source (which is split into two batteries, one for each side).
As always, how long you get depends on how you use the phone. In my tests, the Fold certainly went from morning until night, but I did need to plug it in again at the end of the day. The Fold will last longer closed than it will if you continually use it open, for the simple reason that the larger screen demands more power.
The Galaxy Fold uses the same Snapdragon 855 processor as the Galaxy S10 phones, and I'm happy to report that benchmarking test scores fall right in line. Using apps on the big and little screens felt fast. App continuity, which shuffles apps between the inner and outer screens, is a completely new trick, so there's a fraction of a delay there that I won't hold against Samsung and Google at this early stage.
What I will point out -- and I know I'm not the first reviewer to do so -- is a weird effect called "jelly scrolling" that makes the text scroll at different rates on the Fold's left hemisphere versus its right side. When you scroll quickly in either direction, blocks of text look like they slant up or down. It's not going to get in your way, but the two sides clearly aren't aligned. Just one more thing for Samsung's to-do list.