Galaxy Z Flip hands-on: Stronger hinge with practical benefits

Like its cousin the Galaxy Fold, the Galaxy Z Flip is all about the folding experience but it is far more portable and durable.

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Image: Samsung

Samsung's new foldable phone, the Galaxy Z Flip, feels like a version of the Galaxy Fold that has been trimmed down to the bare essentials. If the Galaxy Fold was about folding a tablet into a phone, the Z Flip is a phone that folds. 

In terms of the folding experience itself, the Galaxy Z Flip is an upgrade from its predecessor. The clear distinction between the two form factors, however, still feels like an ongoing experiment Samsung is testing. 

Free stop hinge

Despite its name, you actually can't flip the Z Flip open as you did with old flip phones. This is due to the new, rigid hinge that feels far more durable than Galaxy Fold's. It is by far the new foldable phone's most impressive feat. Overall, thanks to Samsung's attempts at improving durability, the folding and unfolding experience feels both smoother and sturdier than its predecessor. The hinge also disappears when the Z Flip is completely opened, giving it a cool symmetry that was somewhat lacking in the Fold.

Likely due to this durability, the new hinge is also a free stop hinge, which means it can be opened and locked in at any range of angle, much like premium notebooks. This allows it to be part-open on flat surfaces. This is a key difference to the Galaxy Fold which had the sides locked to a certain angle when ajar.

Thanks to this, when using the Z Flip, users can take selfies or video chat while half of the phone is in an upright position. The screen is automatically split into two 4-inch screens when the display is folded at an angle, with the top half being used for content and the bottom for additional information -- a feature dubbed Flex Mode. 

Read more: You can win a Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra*

The improved hinge is a small but important upgrade that will most likely be carried onto the rumoured Galaxy Fold 2, which I feel could further capitalise on the feature thanks to its screen size. It could also work as a productivity booster for business users if executed well. A Samsung representative told me that their research also showed that some people preferred to watch movies on 4-inch screens. 

Another strength of the Galaxy Z Flip's free stop hinge is the portability it has created. A Samsung representative said they are calling the Z Flip a flip-device and the Fold a book-device. But clamshell seems more appropriate. It is exactly what the folded Z Flip resembles. And when folded, it is surprisingly thin. 

You can also hold the phone by the palm of your hand. While the Z Flip weighs 183 grams, similar to conventional smartphones, it is far lighter than the Galaxy Fold. I feel the Z Flip can even fit in some front pant pockets.

It's still early days but the free stop hinge and features such as Flex Mode appear to be the South Korean tech giant's attempts at addressing the question of "Why do we need a foldable phone?". It's not a completely convincing answer -- yet -- but if these incremental yet practical upgrades continue down the line, who knows? 

The glass screen 

Samsung says it used ultra-thin glass instead of polymer for the 6.7-inch display this time around, but visually, it's hard to notice a difference. There is a polymer screen protector atop the glass screen anyway so there isn't any noticeable difference in the feel of the device compared to the Galaxy Fold. The Z Flip is rather thin when unfolded so this is also likely thanks to the glass, and consumers will have to take Samsung's word that it is more durable. Still, like the Galaxy Fold, what is offered is a gorgeous AMOLED display that meets the high standard of Samsung's flagship phones.

There are two oddities however, the screen is vertically very long and the crease is noticeable. It has a 21.9:9 ratio, which people aren't accustomed to and while the crease is not bad, it's not great either like for the Galaxy Fold. But as the Z Flip is vertically-oriented, you end up touching the crease more compared to the Fold when you swipe up and down the screen. And being short horizontally, I just found myself looking it at it more than I did for the Fold. 

Read more: Samsung Galaxy Z Flip: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

There is also no cover display this time around, only a small 1-inch screen for notifications. You can, however, use the screen to see yourself while taking selfies when the phone is folded. The dual camera on the rear can also be activated even when folded by double-clicking the heart rate monitor on the side.

An ongoing evolution

Unlike the Galaxy S20 series, which provides 5G connectivity, the Z Flip only supports 4G LTE. A Samsung representative said the choice to not provide 5G capabilities was due to various concerns such as the thickness of the device. I think pricing was also a concern and the fact that 5G connection may still be shaky in some areas also contributed to not adding 5G to the device.

The foldable phone will go on sale on February 14 in the US and South Korea, which is earlier than the S20 series. It seems Samsung wants the product out on the market as soon as possible without any hick-ups, an effort to make up for the lost time caused by the delayed launch of the Galaxy Fold.

The Z Flip is an improvement, but it still feels like an ongoing evolution. And while it may not be the device that ultimately solidifies the foldable phone as a separate category, it is a step forward in that direction for Samsung. If anything, it shows when it comes to hardware, the South Korean tech giant is unmatched. 

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