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Best foldable phone 2021: Samsung leads the pack

Samsung released the Galaxy Fold in 2019 as the first widely available foldable smartphone. Since then, it has released improved models and variations, continuing to provide compelling foldable experiences.

Decades ago when mobile phones started appearing in the hands of average consumers, a dominant form factor was the flip phone. It was handy to close your phone to end a call and also shut the display to protect the screen when you threw your phone in your pocket or bag. We've seen technology advance so far that devices we used to see in science fiction movies are now available for everyday use by all consumers.

Foldable displays are an engineering marvel and while Royole was first out of the gate with the FlexPai in late 2018, Samsung has been the dominant player in foldable phones. LG demonstrated its foldable display technology, but with its recent exit from the smartphone sector, we can only imagine what might have been. TCL recently showed its foldable and rollable device, which looks to be a productivity workhorse of the future.

While the future looks flexible and use cases for foldable phones are still being developed, let's look at the best foldable phones that are available now.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3

Third time's the charm

z-fold-3-in-phantom-green.jpg
Image: Samsung
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 
  • Main Display: 7.6inches, 2208x1768 pixels 
  • Cover Display: 6.2inches, 832x2268 pixels 
  • RAM/Storage: 12GB/ 256GB 
  • Cameras: Three rear 12MP, 10MP cover screen, 4MP under main display 
  • Battery: 4400mAh 
  • Price: $1799.99 

The 2020 Galaxy Z Fold 2 set the bar for foldable devices that also serve as mini-tablets. At first glance, the Z Fold 3 may appear to be just a minor update to the Z Fold 2, but at a starting price of $200 less, Samsung provides S Pen support and IPX8 water resistance. These were two features many have asked for, and Samsung delivered once again.

In addition to a couple of new features, the cover display resolution and refresh rate were updated. Hence, you get a high-resolution display with 120Hz support constructed of Corning Gorilla Glass Victus. The main display has improved panels and a screen protector that provides an 80% increase in its durability. The three main cameras are basically the same, but the new under-display camera is a step forward in mobile technology.


Pros:

  • An innovative engineering marvel
  • Armor Aluminum material for a lighter and sleeker phone
  • High IPX8 water resistance
  • S Pen support
  • Improved software optimized for foldables

Cons:

  • Still expensive, but $200 less than last year
  • S Pen purchase separately

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3

A compact foldable priced to compete

galaxy-z-flip-3.jpg
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 
  • Main Display: 6.7inches, 1080x2640 pixels 
  • Cover Display: 1.9inches, 260x512 pixels 
  • RAM/Storage: 8GB/ 128GB 
  • Cameras: Two rear 12MP, 10MP selfie 
  • Battery: 3300mAh 
  • Price: $999.99 

Like the Z Fold 3, the Z Flip 3 is the third generation Flip device from Samsung. One significant improvement is the increased size of the cover screen display from 1.1 to 1.9 inches. The other major change is the IPX8 water resistance that gives you peace of mind when you are flipping open and closed out in the weather.

The $200 price drop on the Z Flip 3 means you can now join the foldable sector for $1000, which is competitive to other flagship smartphones and gives the Z Flip 3 the potential to seriously challenge other manufacturers while expanding the adoption of foldable devices.

Battery life was a concern with the last generation model, so we'll have to see how the processor, Android 11, and Samsung software enhancements impact the battery life on the Z Flip 3.


Pros:

  • High-quality materials, fit, and finish
  • IPX8 water resistance
  • High refresh rate main display
  • Affordable price for a foldable
  • It folds into a pocketable form factor

Cons:

  • No telephoto camera

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2

Still great with major price cuts

image-3.jpg
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus 
  • Main Display: 7.6inches, 2208x1768 pixels 
  • Cover Display: 6.2inches, 720x1680 pixels 
  • RAM/Storage: 12GB/ 256GB 
  • Cameras: Three rear 12MP, 10MP front, 10MP selfie 
  • Battery: 4500mAh 
  • Price: $1799.99

Samsung conducted market research and performed surveys after the original Galaxy Fold release. It found that 34% of Fold users were using two apps at once compared to just 4% doing so with other typical smartphones. Fold users increased their video consumption by 71% compared to usage on their previous phones. This level of multitasking and video consumption shows that people were using the Fold in a manner similar to tablet users. 

The Z Fold 2 was the best foldable in 2020, and we have seen software updates that have improved usability for split-screen and foldable views since its release. It's a bit thicker and heavier than the new model, but still an amazing device to help you get work done on the go.


Pros:

  • A stunning achievement in engineering
  • High-quality materials, fit, and finish
  • 5G and excellent RF performance
  • Optimized cover and inside displays
  • Improved software for multitasking

Cons:

  • No dust/water resistance
  • Expensive

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5G

Fold to make it more pocketable

best-foldable-phone-2.jpg
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus 
  • Main Display: 6.7inches, 1080x2636 pixels 
  • Cover Display: 1.1inches, 112x300 pixels 
  • RAM/Storage: 8GB/ 256GB 
  • Cameras: Two rear 12MP, 10MP selfie 
  • Battery: 3300mAh 
  • Price: $1199.99 

If you don't care about the water-resistant feature and rarely use the outside display, then you may be able to save some money with last year's Z Flip 5G. This phone is designed to be your pocketable companion that then opens up into a large display smartphone. The focus is clearly on providing a small phone that can be big when you need to use it, but its effectiveness for productivity is a bit questionable.

The Z Flip 5G improves on the original Z Flip with 5G radio support and slight improvements to the hinge mechanism. It is a very well-constructed device, but the battery life won't get you through a day.


Pros:

  • High-quality materials, fit, and finish
  • 5G and excellent RF performance
  • It folds into a pocketable form factor

Cons:

  • No dust/water resistance
  • Expensive
  • Barely acceptable battery life

Huawei Mate X2

Limited availability, cool Galaxy alternative

huawei-mate-x2-header.jpg
  • Processor: Huawei Kirin 9000 
  • Main Display: 8inches, 2480x2200 pixels 
  • Cover Display: 6.45inches, 1160x2700 pixels 
  • RAM/Storage: 8GB/ 256GB 
  • Cameras: Four rear 50MP, 16MP ultra-wide, 12MP telephoto (3x optical), 8MP SuperZoom (10x optical) and 16MP selfie camera  
  • Battery: 4500mAh 
  • Price: Unknown 

Huawei's first big foldables, the Mate X and XS, were interesting in that they incorporated a foldable form factor with displays opposite of what Samsung tried with the Fold. The displays were positioned on the outside and were always exposed, but the designs looked amazing. This year we see Huawei with the Mate X2 that offers a foldable experience similar to the Z Fold 3.

Huawei is known for its amazing camera technology and partnership with Leica, which continues on the Mate X2 with four rear cameras and a selfie camera.

ZDNet's Sandra Vogel spent some hands-on time with the Huawei Mate X2 and came away impressed. There are limitations on using the phone without Google Mobile Services, and it is currently limited to availability in China.


Pros:

  • High-quality cameras
  • Impressive engineering design
  • Large main display

Cons:

  • No dust/water resistance
  • Not readily available

Motorola Razr (2020)

Second generation of an iconic design

best-foldable-phone-3.jpg
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G 
  • Main Display: 6.2inches, 2142x876 pixels 
  • Cover Display: 2.7inches, 800x600 pixels 
  • RAM/Storage: 8GB/ 256GB 
  • Cameras: One rear/back 48MP quad-pixel with OIS and 20MP selfie camera 
  • Battery: 2800mAh 
  • Price: $1399.99 

Motorola's first attempt at a foldable phone using its iconic design influence was fairly disastrous, and I thought we would not see a second generation. The original's battery life was terrible, the hinge loosened quickly, and there were many reports of the display falling apart.

Like Samsung, Motorola incorporated design improvements, and in late 2020, released the Motorola Razr (2020) that also brought in support for 5G networks.


Pros:

  • Sleek, compact form factor
  • It can be used with the display closed
  • Water repellent features

Cons:

  • Backglass easily scuffs
  • Expensive

Royole FlexPai 2

World's first foldable brand launches a successor

best-foldable-phone-4.jpg
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 
  • Main Display: 7.8inches, 1920x1440 pixels 
  • Cover Display: 6.2inches, 720x1680 pixels 
  • RAM/Storage: 8GB/256GB or 12GB/512GB 
  • Cameras: 64MP main, 16MP ultra-wide, 8MP telephoto and 32MP selfie 
  • Battery: 4450mAh 
  • Price: $1710 (approximate) 

Royole launched the world's first available foldable display phone in late 2018 as the Royole FlexPai. In late 2020, the FlexPai 2 was revealed. Royole took the opposite approach as Samsung with the foldable display on the outside, so the viewable area is always exposed. Unfortunately, it is only available in China, so we cannot test or purchase the phone.

The Royole FlexPai 2 may not be considered a large smartphone and is really more of a foldable tablet. The four cameras are arranged along the left side in the bezel area, so the viewfinder appears on the back of the device when pointing the cameras at your subject. Royole has a split-screen system, similar to Samsung's Fold 2 approach, so productivity can be optimized with the big screen.


Pros:

  • Big display
  • A capable triple camera system
  • Software for multi-app usage

Cons:

  • No dust/water resistance
  • Not available outside of China

How did we choose these foldable phones?

Given that foldable display technology is still fairly new, there are not many options available for foldable phones. We tested the Samsung Galaxy Fold models, two of the Galaxy Z Flip models, the first-generation Motorola Razr, and the new Mate X2. We also relied on other professional reviewers for opinions and experiences using the devices.

As foldable display technology continues to evolve over the years, we will consider the design, durability, software capabilities, and more in our process to consider phones for this best list.

Which foldable phone is best for you?

As shown in the list above, a couple of foldable phones offer a phone and mini-tablet experience while the others offer a big phone/small phone experience. The first decision you must make is what else you want and a standard phone form factor.

After figuring out your intention for the foldable, we can look at your use case. If you want water resistance, then two Samsung foldables are available for you. If you love using a stylus with your device, then the Z Fold 3 is the clear choice.

Price is a factor, but with Samsung launching its latest generation foldables at a starting price of $200 less than last year, the price difference is not as high as we've seen in the past.

Are there alternative foldables worth considering?

The foldable phones in this article are centered on folding display technology. With that in mind, Microsoft's own take on foldables is worth a look: