Today, buying a Samsung Galaxy Z Flip (or any foldable phone) is basically like gambling. Do you want to throw $1,380 at a phone that isn’t a sure thing? Go ahead and roll the dice then, because there’s no guarantee how long a novel folding screen device will survive.
Literally, it’s possible that something as simple as the temperature outside could cause the foldable screen to fail, as it did on the Motorola Razr we’ve been testing for just over a week. Or maybe your fingernail will scratch or puncture the display. But let’s go easy on foldables because they’re still new, right? The phone folds in half! All of these problems will be solved over time!
I wish I shared the same optimism and enthusiasm as some of my fellow journalists, reviewers, and YouTubers do. I want foldable phones to work (read: not break) as much as anyone who loves technology. I love gadgets because they’re the actualization of concepts that only existed in movies, graphic novels, and my imagination when I was a kid. For better and worse, gadgets have changed the way we live, work, and communicate. I’m all for practical innovation.
Hell yes, show me a hologram that projects into mid-air. Transport me to another world with virtual reality. Absolutely give me a phone that folds in half so that I can stop wearing cargo pants.
But reality has limits. Making a real product is different than making a concept rendering that doesn't need to adhere to the laws of physics. I’m not an engineer or a designer, but I’ve spent the last decade talking to a lot of people who are, and I have lived with and reviewed enough products in my lifetime to understand that challenges that often seem easy to overcome are often the hardest to solve.
What I dislike the most about foldable phones isn’t that they’re expensive or challenge the status quo of smartphones, but that companies are using customers basically as beta testers and spinning their enthusiasm and optimism as “elite” or “premium” or “early adopter” status. What real purpose does a foldable phone really serve other than making it smaller? The Z Flip has a few interesting ideas about ways to give the hinge more functionality (more on that later), but none that I think are really game-changing.
Samsung can say the $1,380 price tag for the Z Flip makes it clear the phone isn’t for anyone but those who live on the bleeding edge of technology. I don’t buy this for a second. Not when you can buy a Galaxy S20 Ultra for $1,399 (on March 6) or a spec’d out iPhone 11 Pro with a very high assurance that they will have little or no significant durability issues and also out-perform their folding counterparts.
I know this sounds outrageous, but $1,400 is no longer a lot to pay for a premium smartphone. It’s the norm for a high-end phone and that money gets you the best and most reliable mobile technology that exists today. So why does a $1,400 foldable phone have so many trade-offs? It’s so disappointing.
Better build (maybe)
Questions around durability have become the most critical topic when it comes to folding phones. It doesn’t matter if there’s a processor that runs circles around an iPhone or if there are a dozen cameras strapped to the backside. If a foldable phone breaks when you’re using it normally, it’s dead on arrival.
The Galaxy Z Flip — at least according to Samsung — shouldn’t have the same issues that doomed its first foldable, the Galaxy Fold. At Unpacked, Samsung made sure to highlight all the ways it improved durability in the Z Flip. The display is made of “Ultra Thin Glass” instead of plastic (it’s better, but still pretty prone to scratching). The “hideaway hinge” has fibers inside of it to keep particles out. The hinge doesn’t creak when the phone is folded. There are two little bumpers on the bottom corners to absorb hard closures. The foldable display can handle up to 200,000 folds before it breaks; 100,000 more folds than the Razr.
It’s reassuring to hear that Samsung put durability first this time around. But at the same time, how do we really know how durable the Z Flip will be over time? Even after Samsung “fixed” the Galaxy Fold’s fatal flaws, reviewers still managed to damage it after a single day. Our Razr’s display, which showed no signs of impending damage and which I naively wanted to believe would withstand 100,000 folds because we’re not forcibly folding it like a FoldBot, inexplicably broke after a week.
Obviously, I’m not dunking the Z Flip in water to test for water-resistance when Samsung explicitly says the phone isn’t IP-rated. But barring drops and impacts, how can I be sure the Z Flip display won’t break out of the blue or when I need my phone the most? Sure, a regular smartphone display could break for no reason too, but it’s very rare to see a slab smartphone exhibit screen issues or general hardware functionality problems in this era of smartphones. Foldables, on the other hand, seem to be based on tech that’s not quite ready for consumer use, but is being made available to consumers for purchase anyhow. You feel like you’re doing the job of testing this technology instead of the company that made it.
Compared to the Razr or the Galaxy Fold, the Z Flip is without question the most robust and polished foldable phone yet.
Compared to the Razr or the Galaxy Fold, the Z Flip is without question the most robust and polished foldable phone yet. The Z Flip’s glass body and metal frame don’t feel cheap. It’s sturdy and dense, and the materials are as high-quality as Samsung’s other flagship phones when unfolded; it’s barely wider than my iPhone 11 Pro and I had no problems gripping it with one hand to text or scroll through Twitter. I can’t stress how well-built the Z Flip looks and feels compared to the Razr and its cheap plastic back. And the buttons — they’re so much better on the Z Flip than the Razr.
No doubt learning lessons from the Galaxy Fold, the foldable “glass” display on the Z Flip opens and closes with one smooth and virtually silent motion. There’s none of the ear-splitting creaking and cracking that the Razr makes when you open and close it. I’m confident you’ll be able to discreetly unfold the Z Flip in a movie theater without anyone shushing you.
I get that the “Ultra Thin Glass” display’s scratch-resistance has been called into question and, to be fair, Samsung does include warnings against pressing too hard on the screen. As far as I can tell, there’s no visible damage on our Z Flip’s display after days of tapping and swiping on it with the same amount of force as I do on regular phone screens.
The T-shaped caps on both sides of the hinge are doing an effective job at keeping particles from getting inside and underneath the screen. There’s still a gap when the Z Flip is folded up, but truthfully, it’s so narrow (thin enough to fit a piece of paper through) that no pocket lint or dirt ever got inside. The aforementioned bumpers on the bottom corners of the phone add an extra layer of protection.
And lastly, whatever gears are inside of the Z Flip’s hinge aren’t openly exposed like they are on the Razr. It’s crazy Motorola shipped a phone with such a thin and flimsy screen that you can literally lift it up with a fingernail. As solid as the Z Flip feels I have to remind you that no review for any foldable phone — no matter if the reviewer spent a weekend, or a week, or a month, or longer — will be able to tell you how long the device you get will last. It’s like carrying a ticking time bomb every day. The fact that Samsung is literally telling you that the Z Flip will eventually break after a certain number of expected uses (folds) should give everyone a little pause.
Not to mention, the expectation that your foldable phone won’t last as long as possible is bad for the environment since it’s indirectly promoting e-waste to a certain extent. I don’t expect a Galaxy Note 10 to last forever (it’ll eventually get slow), but if I really wanted to use it for 10 years, I probably could, so long as I took good care of it. The same isn’t applicable for a foldable phone like the Z Flip because once the screen reaches its maximum number of folds, it’s dead forever.
Companies can fold and unfold screens in their pristine labs, using mild force to simulate human hands doing the same thing, but reality is uncontrollable. I could lightly fold and unfold a screen several hundred times a day and nothing might happen and then more aggressively another day (perhaps fewer times) and it ends up being too much. With a regular smartphone, there’s at least more consistency to durability since you’re not actively trying to stress its most important part, the touchscreen.
Last year’s specs
Durability concerns aside, the Z Flip is a fine phone. It’s like a larger Galaxy S10e that folds in half, and I like that because, of all the S10 models, it actually has the best balance of practical features (like having a perfectly functional, physical fingerprint sensor instead of an in-display reader that fails often). The 6.7-inch AMOLED display looks decent. To my eyes, it’s dimmer than displays on most flagship phones like my iPhone 11 Pro and OnePlus 7 Pro, but it’s not so dull that it’s hard to see outdoors. The 22:9 aspect ratio is very tall, but not comically so; the body proportions feel better balanced than super skinny phones like Sony’s Xperia 10, which is basically like using a TV remote.
Let’s talk about the crease because there’s no avoiding it. There’s a very visible crease at the fold and I hate that it’s there — I hate it even more that I feel it every single time I swipe over it — but I’ve accepted that there’s no way to make a foldable phone without a crease. Even a piece of folded paper has a crease. If you can’t stand creases, you shouldn’t waste your time considering foldable phones. Just get an iPhone or Galaxy or OnePlus. Easy.
In terms of specs — well, the Z Flip isn’t packing any of the performance or features the S20 phones have. Everything is last-gen: Snapdragon 855+ chip, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage (there’s no microSD card slot), 10-megapixel selfie camera, and a dual-camera system on the back (12-megapixel main + 12-megapixel ultra-wide). These aren’t bad specs (they sure beat the Razr’s terrible midrange chip and mediocre cameras) and performance is good. (I still really like Android 10 with Samsung’s One UI 2.0). However, why does a $1,400 phone that’s coming out in the same launch window as the S20 phones not come with the latest and greatest specs? Are you really just paying for a hinge and a bendable screen? I hate to say it, but yes.
In no specific order, here are some notable things I really like on the Z Flip:
- It’s really like having a Game Boy Advance SP; the double phone thickness didn’t bother me at all.
- The side-mounted fingerprint sensor can be programmed to pull down the notifications shade with a swipe.
- The tiny screen is useful for showing things like the time, battery life, and volume level, and you can swipe to the right to see notifications previews that scroll horizontally, ticker-style.
- The hinge is super smooth and closes with a satisfying clap. This is the best hinge on any foldable, period.
- Almost all of my Android apps worked perfectly with the 22:9 aspect ratio display.
- Battery life is solid! I got about 5-6 hours of screen-on-time on a single charge. The phone also supports fast charging, wireless charging, and Wireless Powershare.
- You can use the ultra-wide camera for selfies.
And stuff I don’t like:
- Flipping the phone open with one hand is still tough. Even with my bony fingers I still have trouble sticking my thumb between the two halves and popping it open without having to shimmy the phone down.
- The tiny screen is awful for taking selfies; the widescreen doesn’t show you the full image at all. The Razr’s larger 2.7-inch cover screen is better for selfies and previewing notifications.
- No idea why, but Android 10 sometimes lags for like half a second. I noticed this when pressing the back button and with system gestures turned on. (Yes, the Z Flip is running the latest software.)
- It’s impossible to keep this phone fingerprint-free. Maybe get a skin (there’s a glossy case included in the box, but it’s shiny so it still picks up prints.)
- The phone’s “Flex Mode” for things like watching YouTube videos on the top half while seeing comments on the bottom, propping the phone up like a mini laptop/tripod for video calls and taking selfies all felt gimmicky. Also, nobody is going to prop the Z Flip on their knee; I tried and it kept falling off. I also tried watching videos with the Z Flip on my chest hoping I’d never have a phone fall on my face again and all I got was a neckache.
The cameras are comparable to the ones on the S10 and Note 10. That is, photos are way sharper and more vibrant than the Razr’s dull, lifeless pics, but still more saturated when compared to the iPhone 11 Pro. They’re good cameras. I just wish they came with the S20's same 8K video recording or 108-megapixel sensor. On the bright side, you do get the Single Take mode, which shoots a bunch of photos and short videos from both the main and wide camera simultaneously.
Like the S10's cameras, the Z Flip takes classic Samsung-y photos. Colors are more saturated (particularly in reds and blues) and tend to have cooler tones compared to the more lifelike colors produced by the iPhone 11 Pro.
As you can see in the photos above and the 100 percent crops below, the dynamic range on the iPhone 11 Pro's camera is just better. The Razr photo doesn't even come close to the Z Flip or iPhone 11 Pro; its muted colors and softer image quality are below acceptable for a premium smartphone.
Both the Z Flip and the iPhone 11 Pro have 12-megapixel ultra-wide cameras. In almost every shooting scenario, the shutter on the Z Flip is just a half-second slower than the iPhone 11 Pro. Again, you can see the Z Flip photo below is slightly more saturated and has more mushed highlights.
Moving indoors, I took these comparisons in Grand Central Terminal. The grand hall is one of the trickiest (and as such, best) places to test a phone's cameras because there's light coming from multiple directions. There's the light streaming through the glass windows, projection lighting on the upper sides, lights from chandeliers, and illumination from the clock in the center. And, lots of people moving everywhere.
How does the Z Flip handle such a chaotic scene? Like an S10! Autofocus is quick. Details are sharp. But dynamic range still falls short compared to the iPhone 11 Pro. The Z Flip photo looks good, but the walls are too orange compared to real life. There's nothing wrong with the look, but I have to wonder why Samsung refuses to tone down saturation just a little bit.
The Razr photo is again terrible. It's way softer. The HDR (see the window in the middle) lags behind the Z Flip and iPhone 11 Pro and the lighting along the walls is blurrier and more blown out.
At 100 percent crops, you can see the difference in the details. In this shot, the iPhone 11 Pro actually seems the most evenly exposed. However, the Z Flip's autofocus produced sharper details (see text that reads "East Balcony"). There's also more aggressive image smoothening happening in the Z Flip photo; the iPhone 11 Pro photo is grainier because it's not blending the highlights together. The Razr — oof. The clock is completely overexposed with none of the digits readable.
The Z Flip performs pretty well in low-light and at night. The HDR goes a little overboard here, dialing up the shadows and contrast, but it's still not bad. Perfectly shareable to Instagram or Twitter with a little light editing.
Lastly, some selfies. At first glance, they all look decent. Compare them side-by-side and zoom in on the pixels and the differences jump out. The Z Flip loses all details in my hair, turning all of the strands into one black patch. But look at the iPhone 11 photo — there's definition and tones.
It's not just that the iPhone 11 Pro is better at processing hair correctly, but skin tones, too. On the Z Flip, you can clearly see there's more image processing to smooth out my skin, which results in lost details. Sure, I look a year or two younger in the Z Flip photo, but the iPhone 11 Pro accurately captures what I really look like. You can make out the pores in my skin and the separation in my eyebrows. My eyes also have more life to them thanks to the wider dynamic range. And do I really need to explain the Razr photo? Just yuck.
A cloudy future
It’s wild how much progress Samsung has made with foldable phones in a year. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold — a poor experience that failed to capture the imagination of anyone except blindly optimistic tech enthusiasts — is in the rearview mirror. Distant, but not forgotten, and an important stepping stone for foldables.
The Z Flip is here, but it’s still not ready for primetime. After spending several days with it, I thought maybe Samsung had figured this whole foldable phone thing out and perhaps I was being too pessimistic about the form factor.
But our Razr phone breaking pulled me back to reality. Because we live in reality. And in reality, my phone needs to work. I need to know that it is engineered to last and endure even the harshest conditions. A novel folding trick that turns heads at a party and fits better in my pockets is useless to me when I need my phone to work. I appreciate that Samsung tried to give the fold some utility like a micro laptop (at 90 degrees, the phone can be propped up for making video calls, or watching videos in bed, or vlogging). But these use-cases don’t really justify the high sticker price. I can do all of these things just fine without “Flex Mode.” And also, in reality, I prefer not having to worry unnecessarily about whether or not my screen will be functional when I unfold it.
One thing I am certain of: the Z Flip is superior to the embarrassingly bad Motorola Razr in almost every way. The only thing I like on the Razr more is the larger outside screen. If you don’t care about the foldable display risks or paying an insane amount of money, the Z Flip is the best foldable phone that exists today. But considering how the alternatives have all been failures or vaporware so far, it may be better to wait some more.
Realist me remains skeptical foldable phones will ever be more than a short-lived fad.
Realist me remains skeptical foldable phones will ever be more than a short-lived fad. (Prove me wrong phone makers!) I keep waiting to be convinced that there’s a meaningful purpose for a foldable phone other than “it folds in half!” Samsung is on the right track with the Z Flip. The hardware is getting better and all that’s left is a killer use case. As it is, the Z Flip is an expensive toy and not a smartphone you can rely on day in and day out. It’s still too expensive and its durability is uncertain. If bleeding edge tech is a way of life for you, then this phone has your name written all over. But if you need a phone you can count on that gives you the best of everything, trust me: you can do better.