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Samsung Galaxy Fold review: Most innovative phone of 2019 nears Holy Grail of One Device
After the Samsung Galaxy Fold disaster in April, I wrote off the device as a possible purchase, with the intent to wait until the next generation of foldable phones. Who was I kidding? I've been covering mobile devices for more than 18 years and am the consummate early adopter so this revolutionary device is perfect for people like me.
After nearly two weeks with the Galaxy Fold, using it every day and showing it off to more than 50 people, it's the most exciting phone I've tried out in years and I've changed my mind about people other than myself purchasing this phone. At first, I said no one should buy it, and while it is a very expensive phone, if you have some disposable income and your mobile phone is your primary computing device then don't be afraid to give it a try.
I saw a few lucky members of the tech press receive a review unit and was devouring every word and video, with the hope of seeing significant improvement in the device due to Samsung's redesign. Somehow, the Best Buy website appeared on my computer, and I searched for availability in Washington State. Unlocked models were not available until Oct. 4, and the website showed there were none available within 250 miles.
Undeterred, I broadened my search to all of the state and found an AT&T Cosmos Black Samsung Galaxy Fold unit in Kennewick, Wash. This was an 8-hour roundtrip to purchase and pick up the phone, so I posted a couple of questions related to unlocking AT&T locked models on Twitter. Max Weinbach, from XDA Developers, provided some great information and confirmation that I could unlock the Fold, so I talked to my wife about my plan (aka received concurrence to spend $2,000 on a phone) and made the trip to Eastern Washington.
As a professional engineer with machine design classes in my educational background, I cannot tell you how excited I was to purchase the phone after watching the Samsung video showing the precise watchmaking approach to the hinge mechanism. Samsung is pushing the boundaries of engineering with this phone, and it's thrilling to be a part of it now with my device in hand.
The Galaxy Fold comes in a fairly simple black box, with the word Galaxy written in a way that the last three letters are folded over. Slide this outer sleeve up and off to reveal another black sleeve with a soft white box inside. Remove this inner sleeve, and then you can start opening up the soft white box.
Taking off the top of this white container reveals the opened Galaxy Fold with a sticker on it. This white text on a black sticker offers five care instructions for the Fold. These include warnings to avoid pressing hard on the display, using sharp objects, making sure your display is free of anything before closing it, informing you there is no water or dust resistance, and more. Yes, it is a rather fragile product, and it does cost a lot of money. However, it's also an amazing piece of engineering technology, and hopefully, with care, it will last for a long time.
Peeling off this sticker and picking up the Fold reveals Galaxy Fold Premier Service details, such as 24/7 call support and one out-of-warranty screen replacement for $150. There is also a white piece of paper that states that you are unfolding the future.
The retail package includes the fantastic Samsung Galaxy Buds ($129.99 value), an old Samsung charger (not the 25W or 45W fast chargers), and a carbon fiber shell case. Unless there is some technical reason the batteries cannot be charged quickly, Samsung should have included its most powerful charger for the $2,000 price.
While I like the look of the Cosmos Black Galaxy Fold, the carbon fiber case eliminates fingerprints and offers a surface that is a bit easier to hold while also protecting the outside from scratches. It's a very thin shell that attaches using what appears to be a micro-suction tape. I'm ordering some skins soon for the front since dust does tend to collect around the edges of the front display just under the included case.
The device I purchased is an AT&T model, but since I paid full price for it, I was able to get it unlocked for $45 using a service online. There is still some AT&T bloatware on it, see the software section below, but I've uninstalled or disabled most of the apps. I unlocked it after just a couple of days and have been using it without any problems on T-Mobile in the US and on O2 in the UK.
Samsung Galaxy Fold specifications
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
Main display: 7.3 inches, 2152 x 1536 pixels resolution (362 PPI), Dynamic AMOLED Infinity Flex Display, 4.2:3 aspect ration
Cover display: 4.6 inches, 720 1680 pixels resolution (399 PPI), Super AMOLED, 21:9 aspect ratio
Operating system: Android 9.0 Pie
RAM: 12GB LPDDR4
Storage: 512GB internal storage, UFS 3.0
Cameras: 12MP rear f/2.4 telephoto, 12MP f/1.5 & f/2.4 super speed dual pixel dual aperture camera, and 16MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (123 degrees field-of-view). 10MP f/2.2 and 8MP RGB depth camera above the main inner display for front-facing shots. 10MP f/2.2 front-facing camera on the cover.
Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax (2.4/5GHz), Bluetooth 5.0 LE, ANT+, GPS/Galileo/GLONASS/Beidou, NFC
Battery: 4,380 mAh non-removable with fast wireless charging. Two batteries compose this capacity. Wireless PowerShare is also available.
Dimensions (Folded): 62.8 x 160.9 x 17.1mm (Hinge) -- 15.7mm (Sagging)
Dimensions (Unfolded): 117.9 x 160.9 x 7.6mm (Frame) -- 6.9mm (Screen)
Colors: Space Silver and Cosmos Black
There is no dust or water-resistant rating and in the box. Samsung provides crystal clear instructions and guidelines on how to be careful using your new device. I baby my phones and rarely drop them, never having purchased or used the Apple Care+ service, so I'm pretty confident in my ability to keep this phone safe for at least the next year. While you do need to use care with the Fold, I think it's a bit more durable than anticipated and think Samsung is playing it a bit safe after April's failure.
The Galaxy Fold is very heavy at 276g, especially when you compare it to the Note 10 Plus at 196g. I've been using PDAs and smartphones for a long time though, and today's modern phones are lighter and much better built than the devices I was using a decade ago. I like the heft, as it gives the device a very dense feel when in the closed mode, and have come to appreciate the density of it in closed mode.
It also appears to be a very long phone when in the closed mode, but that is primarily due to the fact it is closed and only 62.8mm wide. The Fold is 160.9mm long, while the Note 10 Plus is 162.3mm, so it's just a bit shorter than the Note 10 Plus. The closed mode reminds me of the Nokia Communicator from years ago, and it's a great feeling when making phone calls.
Samsung Galaxy Fold first look: in pictures
In the closed mode, we see one front-facing camera and a narrow, tall display. The substantial stainless steel hinge is on the left side of the front. It is distinctive and a work of art that serves as the backbone for the folding display. There are also speaker openings on the top and bottom of the front piece. The speakers sound good with audio, clearly better than the Note 10 Plus, and also support Dolby Atmos with equalizer options.
We have three cameras and a flash on the back with the long volume button and power button along the edge of the back. The power button is like the Note 10, where it is a power button first, but can be programmed to launch Bixby (or something else) through the settings. Below this button, we have the side capacitive fingerprint sensor similar to what we see on the Galaxy S10e. The USB-C port is at the bottom of the back piece with mic openings on the top and bottom.
Get ready to then be amazed as you open up the Fold. Powerful magnets keep the phone securely closed so you need to apply a bit of pressure as you pry open the front and back. After a couple of days, you will develop a method for opening it that works best for you. I separate the two halves near the bottom.
After releasing the magnets, each side pops out about 45 degrees and then you slowly pull the two sides down until it snaps soundly into a flat position. The Fold is also held in this flat position by springs, as we have seen in the teardowns, so you don't have to worry about it flopping around. You can feel the quality of the mechanisms to make the fold happen.
I'm still blown away by the plastic OLED and folding capability of the display. Yes, you can see and feel the center crease, and with this approach by Samsung, compared to Huawei's external folding design, I don't see how you could ever have a folding display without such a crease, but maybe Samsung's future designs will address this through more mechanisms behind the fold.
While you can see the crease when the Fold is angled away from you, in bright lighting situations, or when the display is off, when the display is on and you are using it in typical lighting environments, the indent is not that obvious. I barely notice it, and yet it is a compromise you have to be willing to make to accept this stunning approach to a folding phone.
I never saw the first Fold, but understand Samsung added a small frame piece around the display while also extending the top plastic to the edges and tucking them in. There is no way to find and peel off the top layer on this remodeled Fold.
There is a rather large cutout in the top right corner for the dual cameras, and so far, it has not bothered me at all. Apps, movies, games, and such mostly cut the display straight down from this notch, so I'm not sure it's a design feature to worry about.
The Samsung Galaxy Fold launches with Android 9 Pie with the Samsung One UI. One UI is a great update to previous versions of the Samsung Experience and is my favorite non-Pixel flavor of Android. One UI offers a clean user experience with gesture-based navigation options too. I finally moved away from the standard three-button Android navigation controls and am embracing gestures on Android as I did with iOS. While I use gestures, I still like Samsung's layout with the back button on the right side.
If you keep the three-button approach, these appear at the bottom of the right side when the Fold is opened. If you choose the gestures, then these appear along the entire bottom of the display, giving you bigger swipe targets across the entire width of the unfolded device. The navigation bar method you choose appears on the cover display as well.
Thankfully, Samsung still includes its apps, such as email, calendar, contacts, image gallery, music player, and web browser software. All of these offer more than the stock Google apps, and while others move to purely stock Google apps, there is still value in these Samsung applications that offer more for the enterprise.
These Samsung apps also tend to have better support for the large display of the Galaxy Fold. For example, using the Samsung email app lets me have a list of my emails on one side with the email content on the right side, thus making the Fold a more productive device. I'm also a huge fan of the reader mode in the Samsung Internet Browser.
Unfortunately, I had to purchase the AT&T model, so it has a bunch of useless bloatware loaded on it, as it seems Samsung can't break completely free from carrier control. I won't go into a rant here about that, but how can the most popular manufacturer of mobile phones give in to carriers when Apple doesn't include anything from the carriers out of the box.
App continuity is one major software feature that we see on the Galaxy Fold, while the rest of the UI and system is mostly the same as other modern Galaxy phones. You can manually select which apps you want to appear on the displays when you open and close. There are a few apps that I have installed that do not yet support app continuity, but nothing essential at this time.
In addition to app continuity, Galaxy Fold users also have access to some advanced multitasking functionality. Open up one app and then slide your finger over towards the center from the right side to reveal a new utility. It appears similar to the Edge Panel controller seen on S and Note series devices, but it's a launcher for multi-tasking.
With one app open, select another from the right task switcher and drag it on the right side of the display. Grab another shortcut and then drag and drop it on either the top or bottom of the right side. The ability to view one app on the left side and two on the right is provided by default. Grab another app icon and drag it to the center of the display. It will appear in a small box over the top of the other apps. Grab more apps and do the same thing. You will find that you can have eight apps open on the display at the same time.
When you open up a ninth app, it will force another to minimize and appear as an icon on the display. You can then switch between these icons to switch between apps. It's an enjoyable experience to explore what apps are optimal for this multi-window approach. You cannot open up multiple windows of the same app, but maybe that is something developers might offer in the future.
Price and availability
Unlike most Samsung phones, there are very few options for the Galaxy Fold, with a single RAM and storage capacity model. There are two colors -- Space Silver and Cosmos Black -- with AT&T and unlocked models, both priced at $1,980 each.
Strangely, you cannot buy this phone from Samsung's website, so you must visit Best Buy, AT&T, or Samsung Experience stores that have the device in stock. There are only a few of these Samsung stores available in the US.
I may be ridiculed for driving eight hours to purchase this nearly $2,000 phone a couple of weeks ago, but it was in stock, and I did save a bit on sales tax. After nearly two weeks, I am thoroughly enjoying the Fold experience and it's almost as if Samsung made a custom phone to perfectly match my desires and specifications.
It's a heavy phone and a big phone, both of which work well for me and my hands. I love the heft and think it helps justify the price with the stainless steel spine, lovely glass, and soft plastic OLED display completing the high-end feel and design of the Galaxy Fold. It is pretty incredible for a first-generation device that offers technology not yet seen in any other device and in many regards it's worthy of a perfect 10.
The main star of the show is the 7.3-inch large display and I thought I would use it most of the time. It turns out that the 4.6-inch outside display works very well and lets you use it as a communicator with one hand. It's handy to use while walking, talking on the phone, and I've spent more than a quarter of my time with the Fold using the outside display.
This phone has already gotten a lot of attention in the two weeks I've had it. I showed it off to the engineers in my office, took it on the local New Day Northwest TV show, showed it to a few long-time mobile tech experts in the UK, and have let family, friends, and neighbors test it out. There is not a scratch on the display, nothing in the hinge, and the Galaxy Fold looks and functions as perfectly as it did on day one. That's a heck of a lot better than it did the last time it was released.
I'm now debating if I place the Galaxy Fold on my 10 best smartphones list or not, and to be honest, I think it deserves to be No. 1. However, at $2,000 it still isn't a phone that everyone should buy, but everyone should at least see it to appreciate what Samsung has done and where the future of smartphones may go.
Plugging in an HDMI cable starts Samsung DeX, see our Executive Guide, and it works like a champ with apps optimized for the external display. You can even use the large 7.3-inch display of the Fold as a massive touchpad to control the DeX experience on the external monitor. I've been able to use DeX as a home computer with very little compromise and even found it more powerful than an iPad.
The Galaxy Fold offers a glimpse of the future and will likely only be purchased by those of us who have a smartphone addiction and want to test out the latest and greatest. I love the big screen and think it truly can serve the role of both phone and tablet. With Samsung DeX, it could also serve as a capable home and office computer, so a vision of the future powered by one device may be getting closer and closer to reality.