Galaxy Fold hands-on: I'm almost sold

Many aspects and features of the device are subservient to the execution of the folding display and can be improved, but overall, the Galaxy Fold is a worthy first generation of a category that is enticing and exciting.
Written by Cho Mu-Hyun, Contributing Writer
Image: Cho Mu-Hyun/ZDNet

Samsung's Galaxy Fold smartphone is a curious mix of new and old while being full of ironies.

It's new, because of the obvious folding display -- quite an impressive feat and gorgeously executed. But old, because of its choice of design and screen sizes -- the inner, larger screen which is 7.3-inches in size feels like a throwback to the company's tablet heydays when that category used that size very often. And when folded, the device's 4.6-inch cover display looks curiously like the handsets of analogue times that you could find in older catalogues.

It's truly ironic because Samsung itself practically ended the reign of the two screen sizes with the introduction of its sleeper hit, the Galaxy Note, which made larger screen sizes for smartphones trendy. Reception for the Galaxy Fold's two screen sizes are up in the air and will be a crucial factor in influencing the company's next course of action.

Overall, the Galaxy Fold is a bold idea that has been executed very well by Samsung. The company continues its reign as the king of smartphone hardware and this new folding phone reaffirms that. But seeing and touching the device, its obvious that Samsung is prioritising the 7.3-inch folding screen as the "main event". This has forced it to accommodate the phone's design and the placement of key components, such as camera modules, around the folding screen, leaving plenty of room for improvement and fine-tuning.

I am sold on Samsung's months of hype and would certainly buy it. But, that is, only if it was cheaper than its $1,980 price tag.

Hinge and protective cover are secure

Samsung took the backlash about its faulty review units to heart it seems. The bottom line here is that hinges and cover glass won't be problem anymore and the South Korean tech giant delivers on months of anticipation when it comes to durability.

The polymer cover is tightly aligned where the bezels are surrounding the folding screen and I couldn't spot a slit that could fit my fingernails to unravel the screen. The top and bottom hinges are only slightly altered but are clawed in between the two folded sides to make it a more rigid folding and unfolding experience. Aesthetically, little has changed since the review units were sent out, but the sides of the device seem more securely in place when slightly ajar or folded. The review units must have been designed so that the folding and unfolding experience was prioritised, but I think consumers will care little about the increased rigidness as there is no previous generation device to compare with.

Long term durability remains to be seen but after spending over an hour with the device, where I folded and unfolded the device hundred times -- it's hard resist -- there was no visible sign of malfunction.

Folding execution is excellent

Folding and unfolding the Galaxy Fold, for lack of a better expression, is pretty awesome. When unfolding the device, the hinge locks the two sides into a perfect tablet position and the 7.3-inch AMOLED screen is a beauty to behold. It fits in one hand perfectly, allowing me to take photos of the device with the other hand. It is reminiscent of holding a Kindle or the good, old 7-inch tablets of the past, like the Nexus 7, but the bezels are thinner than back then and the resolution of the screen is in line with today's standards. 

When folded, the two sides stick together via magnets underneath, and it feels like a heavy remote controller or an old style handset when holding it. It slid down and out of my front pants pockets pretty well and I feel its weight and length will prevent it from falling out.

There is a protrusion in the middle of the spread Infinity Flex display that is noticeable under lighting but it isn't as bothersome as zoomed in pictures of the area suggest. I didn't notice the protrusion when watching videos or playing games and the 7.3-inch feels infinitely larger than any smartphone out there. 

The Galaxy Fold is the perfect size for gaming; the device is heavier than your average smartphone but feels just right as a console controller, like a Nintendo Switch, and the screen is immersive as you can grab the screen from both sides naturally. The one minor downside to the experience is that the two sides are not offered in a free-stop hinge like notebooks. When the sides are ajar, they are loosely locked to a certain angle. This is obviously done to protect the integrity of the folding display screen. I'm assuming the angle it is locked into is the least stressful position for the display. 

Image: Cho Mu-Hyun/ZDNet

App continuity and multi-tab use

Multi-tab functionality is now a pretty common feature on any smartphone. But with the decline of tablets, not many of us actually get to enjoy it on a big screen. The Galaxy Fold's 7.3-inch display puts multi tab to full use as it supports up to eight tabs, but four seemed optimal and big enough. Past tablet users who loved the big screen and multi-tab combo will appreciate the Fold's wide screen -- it delivers on the big screen but is far more portable than over 10-inch devices. I liked and used the Galaxy Tab 4 for its split-screen and multi-tab functionalities and despite the size difference, the experience is near identical as I naturally have the Galaxy Fold closer to my face when using it.

The app continuity feature is fun too, especially when taking pictures. You can take pictures with one hand with the folded set-up with your better half, when you are on a date. When some friends are around and they want to join the fray, you can unfold the phone with the camera app still on to take the group shot. When using multi-tab, the "main tab" on the left side corner gets automatic preference to pop on the cover screen when folded.

Design needs fine-tuning

When it comes to the Galaxy Fold, the folding experience took priority above everything else, and it shows. The polymer cover is a great example of where design can be improved. The satisfaction from touching the device's display is slightly less than that from using the glass surface of a conventional smartphone.

Another design issue is the dual camera that is placed at the top right side of the front display when the device in unfolded. The camera lenses are placed horizontally on an inward protruding bezel that is shaped like a small bar which ends up eating up the screen on the left and the right half of the bar is empty. This empty space can be explained by the triple camera placed on the side's rear, so I am assuming the printed circuit board design forced this aesthetic. But Samsung has introduced punch-in-hole design and bezel-less phones, making the Galaxy Fold's design aesthetic feel outdated at times. 

The device is also pretty thick. While this is obvious when it is folded, this is true even for when it is unfolded. 

It also feels heavy. The official specifications say the device weighs 276 grams; it is definitely all there. A lot of this weight can be explained through splitting the batteries into two as the extra circuits needed to connect the two sides electronically. I can't help but wonder how long the Fold's battery will last with all these extra requirements and this needs to be tested.


Image: Cho Mu-Hyun/ZDNet

Pricing needs to drop ... and it can

The reasons as to why the Galaxy Fold is expensive are myriad, but the core reason is really the flexible display panel. For conventional smartphones, it is usually the display, SoC, and the camera modules -- taken together as most flagship phones today have triple camera set-ups -- that are the most expensive components. But the other parts of the Galaxy Fold, such as the octa-core processor are not why the foldable device is priced $500 to $1,000 more than current flagship models. Even the more complicated printed circuit board or the two batteries or memory would not add that much cost to the final price tag.

I also doubt the factory yield rate for Samsung's Infinity Flex Display is currently up to the company's usual high-standards, which is also why the display has exacerbated prices. 

The other factor is volume. The South Korean tech giant initially set a goal of selling a million Galaxy Fold units this year before postponing the rollout from April to September. This would have set-up a perfect foundation for a second-generation launch thanks to better cost control, sufficient consumer feedback, and new know-how acquired in the production process. 

We will have to see how the initial reception is for the Galaxy Fold, which is likely to sell fewer batches. Samsung has plenty of leverage in cash, distribution, and brand power to bulldoze through these setbacks and its relaunch of the Fold show its determination to push forward. Yield rates for the flexible display are also bound to increase over time, especially for commercially tested plastic AMOLED. These various factors combined means a lower price is certainly possible for future iterations of Samsung's foldable smartphones.

The evolution must continue

The Galaxy Fold is really a Samsung phone to the core. What I mean by that is its first launch in April was reminiscent of the reception the Galaxy Note received. Omnia was mocked and the first Galaxy S was famously labelled a copycat by its archrival Apple. By the launch of the Galaxy S3, these jibes really stopped. The first Galaxy Note wasn't treated gently either, but the Galaxy Note 2 was a hit that put the Note brand firmly in the flagship category and the series has been credited with making larger screens hit the mainstream.

And like its other products, the Galaxy Fold doesn't go too crazy. It remains practical -- that is probably why Samsung went with the "tested" 7-inch and 4-inch range of screens to differentiate it from its 6-inch smartphones. Usability remains high for the Galaxy Fold. But what is actually new besides the folding factor?

This brings us to the question of dedicated UX or apps just for the Galaxy Fold -- there really isn't much. And while the 4.7-inch cover display brings back memories, reminiscent of the first iPhone or the Galaxy S, I feel it will be disproportionately used less than the main folding screen. As ZDNet's Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan pointed out, the Galaxy Fold is a device that can do a bit of everything, but may struggle to find use cases.

I feel this is a question Samsung itself is still asking with the launch of the Galaxy Fold. That being said, I wouldn't mind losing the cover display and just having a "folding tablet", which the device is close to being for now. The South Korean tech giant still has many legacy features it can apply, such as the S-Pen which I feel will go perfectly with the folding device concept. 

The company also said it wanted to roll out many different form factors. I wouldn't mind a Galaxy Fold and Galaxy Fold Plus so to speak, which Samsung has rolled out with its S and Note series. Not just for the bragging rights, but a lot of the tested features and the enormous boost in portability the folding factor brings tempts me to purchase the Galaxy Fold. That is, if only $500 was shaven off its price tag.

Image: Cho Mu-Hyun/ZDNet

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