Samsung unveiled the latest entry in its foldable smartphone portfolio at it’s unpacked event on February 11th. Before we dive into the detail, lets first check in on the state of foldable phones in 2020.
The story so far
Unless you live under a rock, even if you don’t particularly follow the news in the tech world, you probably heard about last years Galaxy Fold. The Galaxy Fold was Samsungs first attempt at a foldable phone. The idea was great in principle. Take a tablet sized device and build it in a way that means it can fold down to the size of a traditional smart phone. When Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Fold, they demonstrated the ways in which they optimised the software to take advantage of the folding display. They also described how they engineered the device calling their patented folding screen the ‘Infinity Flex’ display. The Infinity Flex display was made out of a polymer material (plastic) that enabled the device to fold. The tech press were intrigued by the device. It was a new experience compared to the black rectangles we’re all accustomed to. Unfortunately for Samsung, the glitz and glamour didn’t last long as early reviewers unanimously came to the conclusion that the device had an engineering flaw. Dust was able to get under the display and into the mechanical, folding hinge causing damage to various components, display included.
Whilst the Galaxy Fold was the first foldable phone to ship, it wasn’t the only foldable to be announced in 2019. The Huawei Mate X was announced with an outward folding display and at the end of the year, Motorola announced the return of the Motorola Razr. The Motorola Razr was a totally different animal to either the Galaxy fold or the Mate X. Rather than a foldable tablet, it was a phone that folded down into a smaller shape, akin to the flip phones of the mid 2000’s.
Samsung hit some stumbling blocks with its first foldable phone but it isn’t giving up. Will the newly announced Galaxy Z Flip overcome the fate and shortcomings of the Galaxy Fold? Let’s find out.
Samsung decided to go back to the drawing board with the Galaxy Z Flip. Following in the footsteps of Motorola, they have designed the Z Flip as a folding flip phone. Consumers already have questions about foldable phones. Are they the future? Are they reliable? Are they even worth the price? But Samsung is now asking us to answer a different question. Do we want a folding phone? Or a folding tablet?
The Galaxy Z Flip has a premium design. The design language is reminiscent of other devices in the Galaxy Range. Glossy, loud colours, anodised aluminium sides and thoughtful button placement. The device features a folding 6.7 inch ‘infinity flex display’ made with custom designed folding glass. Over the weekend controversy broke out when tear down YouTuber Jerryrigseverything questioned if the Z Flip really did contain glass (spoiler alert, it did). You could be forgiven for thinking the display was made of plastic though because the thin layer of glass is coated in a plastic, protective and none removable film. Whilst you won’t actually feel glass when using the Z Flip, the glass does provide higher optical quality for a sharper, more vibrant image. Either way, we’re definitely moving in the right direction and it is great to see Samsung making progress with their engineering in foldable screens.
On the outside of the Galaxy Z Flip, you’ll find a small 1 inch display for displaying the time, notifications and…..for use as a selfie view finder. My opinion is that nobody is going to have practical use for this as a view finder. Samsung should have followed in their own foot steps and included a larger cover display like on the Galaxy Fold or of course the Razr. On a more positive note, Samsung has engineered a much improved hinge design. The hinge can be adjusted to multiple angles and is free standing. Samsung has also done special work with their software to take advantage of the special hinge (we’ll get into that shortly).
The Z Flip has pretty decent specifications including a Snapdragon 855+ (last years flagship chip), 8GB of ram, a 10 megapixel selfie camera and dual rear facing cameras. The rear facing cameras include a 12 megapixel wide angle lens and a 12 megapixel ultra wide lens. A 3300 Mah battery comes along for the ride, as do Bluetooth 5.0 and support for the latest WiFi standard. 5G doesn’t make the cut and that is unfortunate. The Galaxy fold from 2019 did support 5G and so it seems unusual that 5G isn’t offered on the Z Flip, even as an optional model.
Whilst most of the specs of the Galaxy Z Flip are great, what isn’t so great is the price of the hardware. If you want to be an early adopter in the foldable phone era, it’ll cost you. $1379 to be exact. That makes the absence of 5G harder to forgive. I mean sure, 5G service availability isn’t great right now but at this starting price, you’d hope a premium device launching in 2020 would come somewhat future ready.
As previously mentioned, Samsung have done special work to adapt the software for the free standing hinge of the Z flip. You can place the device on a surface and by using voice or hand gestures, the device can take a selfie. A third party example is Youtube. The Youtube app shows video on the top half of the display, with the comments section in the lower half and a keyboard to quickly share your own comment. Third party developers can choose to take full advantage of this free standing mode but how many will? I Guess that’ll depend on sales and the future of this form factor. If other manufacturers follow Samsung, we may see more app support for free standing folds.
The Z flip is an alternative take on the first tentative steps of big tech to make foldable phones a reality. On the one hand we have foldable tablets, in the other foldable flip phones. My view is that both styles of folding device will exist independently, at least for a time. Consumers will pick what they prefer and I think companies will respond accordingly. Personally, I think folding tablets will eventually win the battle but it’ll take time to see what consumers truly prefer. Samsung and others need to focus on three big things in the interim,
1. Continue to improve the engineering to increase consumer confidence in the durability of these devices.
2. Bring down the cost. Foldable decides wont take off until the cost becomes more accessible to the masses.
3. Make something great before Apple does.
Samsung is great at generating new ideas. They’re great at manufacturing and marketing, sourcing and operations. Samsung isn’t so great at being first. Samsung often race to be first and this inevitably leads to failure. Whenever they rush a product or feature, the implementation is often poor or half baked. Apple is rarely first, but when they’re ready to ship a product, they make sure it is a truly great experience (for the most part…). Samsung should temper their desire to be first and take extra time to get foldable devices right. They could be on to a gold mine.