Smartphones have been getting more expensive year after year, and all the while upgrading has become less worthwhile. Each new Galaxy or iPhone is only marginally better than the one that came before, and they’re all flat glass slabs. For all their flaws, foldable phones like the Galaxy Z Flip are trying to do something new, and that’s exciting. The Z Flip is the first foldable that ably does all the boring smartphone things while innovating on the hardware side. The technology is still far from perfect, but this is the most fun smartphone I’ve used in years.
It’s a tough time to launch expensive new gadgets, but this phone gives me hope that foldables could be almost as transformative as the original iPhone. I apparently believe this so passionately that I talked myself into spending $1,400 on a Galaxy Z Flip, which is the first phone I’ve purchased in years.
Returning to the Flip
I started writing about technology in 2008, which was in the very early days of the iPhone and Android. Back then, Android smartphone makers were trying absolutely anything. There were phones with flip-out secondary screens, slide-out keyboards, Sidekick-style hinges, and more. More than a decade of experience has shown smartphone makers what works, and diverging from that formula has often led to disaster. Phones today are better, but they’re also a snooze.
After a decade of covering mobile technology, I have grown accustomed to getting review units and simply moving from one loaner to the next. I bought the Z Flip because Samsung didn’t want to send me one, and it’s just a fascinating piece of hardware. The Galaxy Z Flip stole the show from the S20 family at Samsung’s 2020 Unpacked event with its slick form factor and next-generation flexible display technology.
There was a time when flip phones ruled the world, and going back to this form factor has been amazing after all these years. I’ve become so accustomed to pocket-busting phablets that sometimes I forget I even have the Z Flip in there. Open it up, and there’s a huge 6.7-inch OLED panel. The ultra-thin glass display makes the Z Flip feel much more sturdy — it’s almost indistinguishable from a “regular” smartphone when it’s open, and that’s what makes it so cool. The crease isn’t even very noticeable.
Unlike the foldable Moto Razr, Samsung engineered a hinge that remains open at various angles. That lets you prop the phone up in “Flex Mode” to access apps in different ways. For example, the gallery app fills the top half of the fold with the image, and you can swipe on the bottom half to navigate. Similarly, YouTube keeps the video on the top half in Flex Mode and puts the comments and other content on the bottom. The software optimizations are admittedly minimal right now, but we’re still in the early days of foldable tech.
I still have to switch phones frequently for reviews, but the Z Flip is increasingly the phone I want to go back to when the review is done. There are compromises, but I’m willing to put up with them.
You might think all that praise is leading up to a recommendation that you run out and buy a $1,400 smartphone. Nope. For most people, buying a Z Flip would be a real mistake. It’s cool technology, and possibly a sign of long-overdue innovation in the smartphone market. At the same time, it’s ludicrously expensive and includes several notable drawbacks.
Perhaps most notably, there’s a hinge that will probably be the first thing on the phone that fails. While Samsung seems to have worked out the kinks with its foldable hinges, laboratory testing can never tell us how a device will hold up in real life. Maybe the Z Flip will open like a rusty door in 12 months — we just don’t know yet. There’s also no way to make foldable phones water-resistant right now, so no IP rating here.
Samsung also markets the Z Flip as having foldable glass, which is technically true. There’s a layer of glass in the display, but it’s not the top layer. The surface is plastic, which can scratch and dent much more easily than glass. Even your fingernail is hard enough to leave marks. The display also doesn’t work with in-display fingerprint sensors right now, and the form factor limits where you can place one. Samsung chose to integrate it with the power button on the right edge, and it’s just passable.
Smartphones have been getting more expensive for years, and now even flat phones like the Galaxy S20 Ultra cost as much as the Z Flip. And the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the global economy into disarray. It’s going to be harder than ever to convince people to spend this much on a phone, and that alone might delay progress on folding phones.
The engineering and materials are fundamentally more expensive than flat phones, so you’d expect them to be priced higher. However, we can expect more niche side projects like the Z Flip and Huawei Mate X. It’ll be years before the new flagship Galaxy phone is just foldable instead of flat, but I think we’ll get there. In the meantime, if you’re dead set on spending $1,400 on a smartphone, I’d recommend the Z Flip over the S20 Ultra.
- iFixit Tears Down Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, Gives It a Measly 3 Out of 10 for Repairability
- Huawei’s Mate X Foldable Phone Launches at $2,400
- PCMag Review: Samsung Galaxy Z Flip