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Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is an ambitious but flawed first attempt at what could be the future of smartphones

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Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is an ambitious but flawed first attempt at what could be the future of smartphones

Samsung has been flaunting its flexible display technology for years, but the company finally showcased the culmination of those efforts with the Galaxy Fold, its $1,980 foldable smartphone that goes on sale April 26.

The Fold features a 4.6-inch cover display on the front, which unfolds like a book to reveal a larger, tablet-sized 7.3-inch screen. Cameras are located on the front, back, and inside of the device so that you can take photos whether the phone is open or shut. The device supports facial recognition, so you can unlock the device just by looking at it, but there’s also a fingerprint sensor located along the side of the device near the volume keys and the button that launches Bixby, Samsung’s virtual assistant. It comes with a case and Samsung’s new $129 Galaxy Buds in the box.

With the Galaxy Fold, Samsung is first in a category it clearly believes will represent the future of smartphones. It’s a welcome change of pace for a market that’s felt stagnant in recent years, with many new smartphone models bringing incremental upgrades like camera enhancements and larger screens.

But being first can come at a price. A small number of reviewers reported that the screen had broken after just two days of use, a troubling sign for a device that’s slated to launch in a matter of days. I’ve been using the Galaxy Fold for four days, and have not encountered any screen issues or other malfunctions with the device.

Read more: Samsung responds to reports of its $2,000 folding Galaxy phone breaking, saying it’s investigating and will clearly warn people not to remove the screen’s protective layer

Regardless, the Galaxy Fold feels like an ambitious first attempt that’s a compelling but difficult-to-justify purchase at nearly $2,000. It’s enough to prove that foldable phones are much more than just a gimmick, but there are some clear growing pains that Samsung and likely other foldable phone makers will need to work out before this becomes the new norm.

Here’s a look at what it’s been like to use the Fold for a few days.

Display

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Of course, the Galaxy Fold’s main attraction is its giant, foldable screen, which is almost the size of an iPad mini but can also fit in your pocket. That super-sized, 7.3-inch display has a resolution of 2,152 x 1,536 with an aspect ratio of 4:2:3, making the Fold quite possibly the best smartphone I’ve ever used for entertainment on-the-go.

It’s almost as big as the iPad mini’s 7.9-inch display and both larger and sharper than the Nintendo Switch’s 6.2-inch screen, so it feels like the perfect device for gaming, reading, and watching video. In a side-by-side comparison, the Galaxy Fold’s screen looked even crisper and more detailed than the newest iPad mini, which has a 2,048 x 1,536 resolution.

But the Galaxy Fold has a characteristic that neither of those devices have: a crease that runs down the center of the display. This crease, which is where the front and back panels of the phone meet, isn’t very noticeable when you’re watching a movie or playing a game. But you can definitely see it when you’re doing just about anything else: reading, web browsing, using social media, and checking email. You can also feel this crease when you swipe over it across the display.

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The Galaxy Fold’s front screen measures 4.6 inches with a resolution of 720 x 1,680. I didn’t find myself spending much time on this screen considering it felt too small and cramped for most tasks.

The cover screen is best for just checking the time or quickly glancing at your notifications. I’ve tried to send text messages when the phone is folded, but I often found myself making typos, since the keyboard is so tiny.

Design

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The Galaxy Fold isn’t subtle by any means; it essentially looks like two skinny smartphones stacked on top of one another bound by a hinge when closed. The names Samsung has given to some of the color choices — “martian green” and “astro blue” — are indication enough that this phone was intended to make a statement.

But it’s this unconventional design that makes it possible to cram a tablet-sized screen in your pocket. And even though it’s thicker and longer than most phones, it’s not as awkward to carry in your pocket as you might think. Two of my male colleagues were able to slip the device in their pockets easily without having it protrude. That wasn’t the case for a female colleague, however, as the photo below demonstrates.

Business Insider/Dylan Barth

But it’s probably fair to assume that other large-screened phones don’t fit comfortably in women’s’ jeans pockets either — an informal study published by data journalism website The Pudding in 2018 found that the pockets in women’s’ jeans are 48% shorter and 6.5% narrower than mens pockets.

The Fold, when closed, is also surprisingly comfortable to use for making phone calls since its not as wide as most of today’s smartphones. Its elongated shape feels similar to that of a landline phone, making it feel natural to hold up to the ear.

As much of an engineering marvel as the Fold may be (screen issues aside), there are some aspects of the design that can make it a challenge to use. It’s not easy to close with one hand, for example, and I often find myself accidentally covering the speaker when holding it in landscape mode as a tablet. I also unintentionally tapped the Bixby key when opening and closing the device quickly on occasion. Because the tablet screen is larger and wider than that of the average smartphone, it’s nearly impossible to type or navigate apps with one hand.

User Experience

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If you’re not quite sure what to do with a phone that has two screens — including one that’s abnormally large — the Fold has a feature to help you put that extra screen real estate to good use. The 7.3-inch tablet screen is capable of running three apps at a time, a capability that’s not entirely new for the company. Samsung has long offered the ability to run two apps at once in split-screen mode on certain Galaxy phones, so it makes sense to see an evolution of this feature on an even bigger device like the Fold.

It’s certainly a useful feature, but not one that I found myself taking advantage of particularly often — simply because I don’t even use split-screen mode on other Samsung phones, and developing new habits takes time. But there are definitely a few use cases that I found to be convenient.

For example, I was able to launch Slack and then swipe in from the right to pull up my work email at the same time, allowing me to make sure I didn’t miss anything on my commute home with just two quick gestures. After checking an email about an upcoming meeting, I was able to then swipe in from the right and launch Google Maps to see where that meeting was while keeping my email and work chat up on screen.

It’s helpful, but in my experience, the best way to make the most of the Fold’s massive screen is to dedicate all of it to a game or movie, or to split it in half for some quick multitasking.

Because the Galaxy Fold is designed to be opened and closed — as its name implies — many apps translate seamlessly between phone and tablet mode. This worked well when I opened apps like Google Maps, Facebook, Google Chrome, Gmail, and “Asphalt 9.” Even apps that don’t technically support this continuity feature will remain open when you unfold the device. When reading an article in Business Insider’s app, for example, the app remained open but reverted back to the main page rather than the story when I opened the device.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

Given its large display, the fact that the Galaxy Fold does not come with or support Samsung’s S Pen stylus feels like a missed opportunity. I could imagine the Fold being useful for jotting down notes or sketching considering its 7.3-inch screen provides an even larger canvas than the Galaxy Note 9’s 6.4-inch display.

But Samsung typically reserves the S Pen for its Note devices only. Plus, the display technology used for the Fold is completely different than that of Samsung’s other phones, so it would likely take some additional engineering to get the S Pen to work. Samsung developed a new foldable adhesive and fabrication process not found on its other devices for The Fold’s screen that makes it nearly 50% thinner than the typical smartphone display.

Battery and Performance

The Galaxy Fold may have a larger display than any other smartphone, but it also has impressive battery life to back it up. The Fold’s 4,380mAh dual battery lasted for two entire days— not just the work day, but from the moment I left my home in morning to just before I went to sleep.

That’s certainly more battery life than I typically get from most of the smartphones I review, which can usually get me through about a day and a half depending on how I’m using them. Battery life will always vary depending on how you use your smartphone, and during my time with the Fold, I used it for checking Facebook and Instagram, sending messages, browsing the web, reading, watching Netflix, and playing games like “Asphalt 9” and “South Park: Phone Destroyer” with the brightness set to less than half.

The Galaxy Fold runs on a 7-nanometer 64-bit octacore processor and has 12GB of RAM, ensuring that it’s plenty powerful enough to run multiple apps at a time. I didn’t notice any stutter or lag when running multiple apps, or when playing power-hungry games like “Asphalt 9.”

Camera

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The size and shape of the Galaxy Fold’s inner screen gives the phone a much larger viewfinder for taking photos than any other smartphone I’ve used. I often unfolded the device to take pictures since it can be difficult to see details on the phone’s small cover screen. (That’s also true when using the front-facing camera, so don’t plan on being inconspicuous when taking selfies with the Fold). While the Fold provides a larger perspective for framing up your shots, it’s also much less subtle than snapping a photo with a conventional smartphone and often requires the use of both hands.

In terms of camera quality, you can expect results that are very similar to those of the Galaxy S10. The main camera system located on the back of the phone consists of a 16-megapixel, ultra-wide-angle lens, a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens, and a 12-megapixel telephoto lens for zooming, as does Samsung’s flagship smartphone. That means the Fold is capable of taking photos with a wider field of view than most phones and can achieve a digital zoom of up to 10x. The Fold’s camera can stand up to competitors, too: in a side-by-side comparison, photos taken on the Fold were just as vibrant, colorful, and detailed as those shot on the iPhone XS Max.

There’s a 10-megapixel front-facing camera on the Fold’s cover and a second 10-megapixel camera above the tablet’s screen when the phone is unfolded. So it’s possible to snap a selfie whether the phone is open or shut, although I almost always found it easier to take photos with the phone unfolded.

Conclusion

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With the Galaxy Fold, Samsung has proven that foldable smartphone designs aren’t just for aesthetics or a marketing ploy, there’s an actual utility behind them. If Samsung set out to create a device that can truly serve as a phone and a tablet, it’s certainly achieved that with the Fold.

But that doesn’t mean you should buy it. The Fold is a promising glimpse at where smartphones are headed, but it’s also clearly a first attempt. For a device like the Fold to truly be worth the money and time you’re investing in it, Samsung needs to prove the screen malfunctions that plagued some review units are no longer a problem.

It’s also unclear how durable the phone will be over a prolonged period of time, since reviewers have only been using them for less than a week. Buyers will have to simply trust Samsung’s word that the device will withstand 200,000 folds and unfolds even despite the issues that have emerged so far. This is why being first isn’t always best, although if and when foldable phones do catch on Samsung will likely be remembered as having paved the way as it did with phablets.

But perhaps most importantly, the benefits that come with having a giant screen you can fold and stuff in your pocket likely aren’t worth the near-$2,000 price for most people. That’s more expensive than purchasing a smartphone and a tablet separately, and it’s pricier than some laptops. Samsung knows this too, which is why it’s marketing the phone as a luxury product.

My experience gives me confidence that we’ll one day see foldable phones with more durable designs that are less expensive as well as more attractive and practical to use. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold may be the first foldable phone you can buy, but it doesn’t mean you should. And it almost certainly won’t be the last.

Have you preordered the Samsung Galaxy Fold? We want to hear from you. Contact this reporter at [email protected]

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