Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 review: Room for improvement

  • Editors' rating
    8.7 Outstanding

Pros

  • An innovative engineering marvel
  • Armor Aluminum material for a lighter and sleeker phone
  • High IPX8 water resistant design
  • Extensive S Pen support
  • Software optimized for foldables

Cons

  • Still expensive, but $200 less than last year
  • S Pen is separate purchase, no silo
  • Battery life is just OK
  • Cameras not as good as other Samsung phones

Regular readers know I'm a fan of Samsung's foldable phones and have spent a few thousand dollars the past couple of years picking up the Galaxy Fold and then the Z Fold 2, but in both cases, I went back to a standard smartphone after a couple of months. There were a couple of major reasons for my limited period of ownership, but it looks like the new Galaxy Z Fold 3 addresses my issues, and it may indeed be true that the third time is the charm.

I've now had the chance to try out a Phantom Black 128GB Z Fold 3 for a couple of weeks, and despite the sheer fun I've had with the Galaxy Z Flip 3, the Z Fold 3 is clearly the device for me. I have larger hands, am a major fan and user of the S Pen, commute for more than two hours a day on a train, and spend many hours a day with my phones.

See also: Best foldable phone 2021: Samsung leads the pack.

Samsung does not include either of the two S Pen options with your Z Fold 3 purchase. Two S Pen options are offered for purchase. The S Pen Fold Edition ($49.99) is a small S Pen that does not support Bluetooth and does not need to be charged up. Simple Air Actions are supported, and it comes with a sleeve case. I purchased the Z Fold 3 Flip Cover with S Pen ($79.99), including a Foled Edition S Pen with a case with a silo for the S Pen on the spine.

You can also purchase the S Pen Pro for $99.99 that supports Bluetooth. There is actually a small switch on the end of this longer S Pen to switch between Z Fold or S Pen mode. In addition to the Z Fold 3, this S Pen works with all other S Pen enabled devices in S Pen mode. The S Pen Pro charges up via USB-C with a 50-minute charge providing up to 16 hours of battery life.

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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 specifications

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
  • Main display: 7.6 inches, 2208 x 1768 pixels resolution, Dynamic AMOLED Infinity Flex with adaptive 120Hz refresh rate
  • Cover display: 6.2-inches, 2268 x 832 pixels resolution, Dynamic AMOLED, Corning Gorilla Glass Victus
  • Operating system: Android 11
  • RAM: 12GB LPDDR5
  • Storage: 256GB internal storage (512GB available) UFS3.1
  • Cameras: 12MP rear f/2.4 telephoto with 2x optical zoom, 12MP f/1.8 wide-angle camera, and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera. 10MP f/2.2 cover camera. 4MP under display camera on the main display.
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.2, GPS/Galileo/GLONASS/Beidou, NFC, UWB
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, Barometer, Fingerprint Sensor, Gyro Sensor, Geomagnetic Sensor, Hall Sensor, Proximity Sensor, Light Sensor
  • Water resistance: IPX8 rating
  • Battery: 4400 mAh non-removable with fast wireless charging. Wireless PowerShare is also available.
  • Dimensions (folded): 158.2 x 67.2 x 16mm and 271g
  • Dimensions (open): 158.2 x 128.1 x 6.4mm
  • Colors: Phantom Black, Phantom Silver, Phantom Green

In the past, we saw different color phone options at press events, but then when they were available to purchase, many color options were restricted to certain countries. Thankfully, you can buy any of these three colors in the US as an unlocked model, with the only limitation being that the 512GB model is only available in Phantom Black.

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One of the positives of this year's release is that it is priced $200 less than the previous Fold devices. While this is great, keep in mind that the original Galaxy Fold also came with $170 Samsung earbuds in the box. With that first Fold, Samsung also provided a cool shell case with the charger and Samsung earbuds. You only get a USB-C cable in the box this year.

Also: Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 review: A stunning foldable

Hardware

At first glance, one may think that very little has changed on the Z Fold 3. However, there are several rather significant improvements that we'll look at a bit closer in the review:

  • S Pen support: The cover screen doesn't support this functionality, but as demonstrated at the Unpacked event, there were serious efforts from Samsung and Wacom to enable S Pen functionality on the main display.
  • Water resistance: I hoped that this would be possible, but I am still surprised at the level (IPX8) that Samsung was able to achieve through the use of rust-resistant materials, long-lasting grease, and sealing of various design elements. I dipped the review unit in the fresh, clear water of a local river, but I really just wanted to have a device I could use in light rain without worry. I recommend you do not ever try to use the phone in water for video recording or other activity unless it is contained in a secure waterproof case or bag.
  • Under display camera (UDC): The UDC is positioned on the right side of the main display with the intention to provide users with an unobstructed view on the big display. In most cases, you can barely see the UDC, but if you have a white screen, you can see the pixels over the camera pretty clearly. This UDC is primarily for video conferencing, and for this role should prove more than adequate.
  • 120 Hz refresh rate on cover display: Samsung improved the cover display with a higher refresh rate so you now can enjoy a smooth display experience on both the cover and main displays. It's tough to go back to a 60 Hz display after using 120 Hz displays, so I appreciate the upgrade here. The higher refresh rate is likely contributing to the average battery life, though.
  • Armor Aluminum body: Samsung developed a new material to use with the hinge and main panels of the phone. I immediately felt the reduction in size and weight of the Z Fold 3 when compared to the Z Fold 2 and understand the material also offers increased strength.
  • New main screen protector: The big main display uses a new screen protector and updated panel design. Samsung advertising that it is 80% more durable than its previous foldables. You have to look very closely to even see that there is a protector over the flexible panels. While the main display still has some softness (that's the nature of current foldable display technology), it doesn't feel as soft as the Z Fold 2.

The cover display is the same size as the one on the Z Fold 2, but it now has matching 120 Hz refresh rate performance and is constructed of the latest type of Gorilla Glass. Samsung includes a screen protector on this display, and it feels perfectly fine with a small cutout for the front-facing camera. I replaced this with third party protectors on my Z Fold 2, but I don't plan to do this unless this one gets scratched up over the next few months. The display is bright and looks fantastic with high resolution and great color.

The main display is also the same size as the one found on the Z Fold 2 with the same resolution and performance. It has a new screen protector and panel design to make it more durable. I've never had an issue with either the Z Fold or Z Fold 2 displays, but I appreciate the work to improve it here. The colors look fantastic, and opening up a 7.6-inch display on the phone is a fabulous experience. The dip in the middle of the display is still visible and apparent, but it doesn't affect the display's usability. You can run your finger over it to drag-and-drop and other actions. You may notice it at first, but over time it becomes nearly invisible. Given the foldable display technology, I'm not sure we can ever get away from having some crease where the display folds.

The primary new function of the main display is the support for using the S Pen. If you try to use an S Pen from a Galaxy Note or Samsung tablet, a pop-up appears to inform you that the S Pen is not designed for the Z Fold 3, and it will not go away or let you use the S Pen with the device. The two S Pen models that are designed for the Fold 3 have retractable and softer S Pen tips so that the S Pen will not damage the foldable display.

When you bring the S Pen close to the display, a small white dot will appear, and the S Pen Air Actions button will appear on the display. All of the typical S Pen functions are present on the Z Fold 3. I've enjoyed using the S Pen on Note devices since the Note 3, and one thing that has always limited my use was the size of the display. So far, the large 7.6-inch main display is proving to be perfect for S Pen writing, and I cannot wait to see how it works after months of use. I love that you can simply press in on the button on the S Pen and then double-tap anywhere on the display to launch Samsung Note. With the S Pen to text function enabled, you can quickly delete, join, space, and insert text on the display.

The S Pen is not supported on the cover display, and maybe we'll see this capability in a future Fold. However, given that it's a long, narrow display, I'm not sure there is much additional functionality one would gain with S Pen support, other than quick screen off memos. When you have a large 7.6-inch canvas to work with, then that is the primary display to use with the S Pen.

Another new aspect of the main display is the under-display camera (UDC) that Samsung incorporated in order to try to provide a large display experience with no interference. ZTE was first to launch a phone with a UDC, see our first take review, and the first one demonstrated the technology, but selfie shots were clearly compromised. ZTE just recently announced the Axon 30 with its second-generation UDC, we are testing this phone now, and it is clearly much better than the first generation. The UDC on the Z Fold 3 has a performance similar to the Axon 20 when it comes to selfie shots. However, there are other cameras on the cover display and on the back of the Z Fold 3 that you can use for high-quality selfies. The UDC is designed for video calling, and in my experience using Google Duo and Teams, it is perfectly capable.

Samsung still has that nearly perfect side button that serves as the power button and capacitive fingerprint sensor. Bixby is still an option for this power button, but you can change the functionality in the settings. The Dolby stereo speakers sound great while listening to audio and watching movies. Given the Flex Mode support for video apps, I've been watching shows using the speakers on the Z Fold 3 and not a headset. In Flex Mode, the stereo speakers play audio out of each side, and it's an awesome experience.

The camera array on the back is pretty traditional and doesn't have the flair we saw on the S21 series. I'm honestly a bit disappointed that the rear camera hardware is the same three 12MP cameras we saw on the Z Fold 2, especially since we've seen better cameras on the Note 20 Ultra and then the S21 Ultra. I understand some trade-offs have to be made for price, space, and more, but I am hoping to see camera improvements in the Z Fold 4.

Software

The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 5G launches with Android 11 and Samsung One UI 3.1. The 1 July 2021 monthly Android security update is present in our review unit. Samsung has a good track record of timely Android security updates, so I imagine the retail units will have the August update.

Samsung continues to provide all of the optimized Flex Mode, App Continuity, Multi-View/Standard View, App Pair, Drag & Split, and other advanced software enhancements we saw on the Z Fold 2. In addition, Samsung now offers Galaxy Labs in the settings where you can force apps to perform the way you want them to on the Fold 3 even if developers don't yet have full support for the foldable device. Labs options include multi-window for all apps (allows all apps to open in Pop-up View or Split Screen View), auto-rotate apps, customize app aspect ratios, App Split view, Flex Mode panel, and a toggle to pin your favorite apps.

I use Flex Mode quite a bit since the hinge supports propping up one side at any angle you desire. I recommend you have the back, with the triple rear cameras, in the up position because then the front display will lie flat on a table, and the UDC will be to the left on the upper half of the display. Once you open up the Z Fold 3 part of the way and open up an app compatible with Flex Mode, then the content will appear on the part of the display propped up with controls on the bottom half of the display. You can also use App Pair and have two apps open in this Flex Mode landscape orientation. Some apps, such as Microsoft Office, will also have a keyboard appear on the bottom half of the display as you enter text in Office apps. With the S Pen, you can even take notes on the bottom half of the display as you watch videos showing on the upper half of the display. With Microsoft Teams, you can even use the Whiteboard function with an S Pen on the Z Fold 3.

After using the previous two Folds, I've become quite familiar with App Pairs and have several apps set up to be used side-by-side. One cool new function here is that you can pin the Taskbar to the right side of the display, with your selected apps appearing as small shortcuts that are always visible and quickly accessible. Some of my favorite app pairs include Garmin Connect/Strava, Google Discover/Telegram, Outlook/Messages, Bible/Evernote, Outlook/Gmail, Instagram/Twitter, and Samsung Internet/Samsung Notes.

Also: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 review: Foldable perfection nearly achieved

One thing that bothered me with the Z Fold 2 was some apps, such as Instagram, are not optimized for the large 7.6-inch display, so the app opens up and appears in the middle of the display with wide bars on either side. In Labs, you can now customize the aspect ratio, and by selecting the Full Screen option, Instagram now looks like it was designed for the Z Fold 3. Again, I encourage you to explore the Labs.

We saw extensive camera modes with the Z Fold 2, and these options are also present on the Z Fold 3. With the Z Flip 3 closed, launching the camera opens up the viewfinder and all controls on the Cover Display. Angle the Cover Display up, I typically go to about 75 degrees, and then you can take selfies or capture content from the 10MP cover camera without holding the phone. This is a good way to capture a group of people with this camera using this front-facing 10MP shooter.

Launch the camera with the Z Fold 3 fully open and then initiate a folding action. Bringing the Cover Display up about 35 degrees switches the camera app into Capture View Mode. With the 10MP Main Screen hole-punch camera selected, the viewfinder appears on the upper part of the display with all controls positioned on the lower part of the display. You can tap the small double arrow icon to flip to a fullscreen viewfinder experience even with the display in Flex Mode. In addition to the camera controls on the right half of the lower display, thumbnails of up to five previous captures can be viewed on the left half of the lower display. One thumbnail appears at a time, but you can swipe through content. This can help you capture the perfect shot as you check previous captures. Video content even plays live in the thumbnail.

Tap to flip to the three rear cameras to realize the full power of Flex Mode for camera usage. The interface looks the same with the viewfinder on top and controls/thumbnails on the bottom, but you can use the three high-performance cameras to capture content. You can even jump around your phone to the other side and be a part of the picture or video with a timer set or even raise your hand to start a timer.

Auto-framing is an option if you want to set your Z Fold 3 down on a stable surface and record video content without moving your phone around. With this option enabled, the software shifts the view to stay centered and in focus, going wider or closing in depending on how many people are in view. When there's only one person in the video, the software can follow their motion to keep the video centered.

Note the small split square icon in the upper left of the viewfinder. Tap this icon to turn on Dual Preview and fully open up the Z Fold 3. With this option enabled, your Cover Display turns into a secondary viewfinder so that your subject can see themselves and help you capture the perfect content that pleases you and the subject. This is an innovative way to help you capture perfectly framed content.

Although I am not much of a selfie photographer, using high-quality rear cameras to capture selfies results in much better results than with the default front-facing camera. Launch the camera with the Cover Display closed. In the upper right above the viewfinder, tap the Selfie icon. A pop-up appears that directs you to open the Z Fold 3 up all of the way. After unfolding it, you will see the viewfinder and camera controls appear on the Cover Display with all of the options for the three rear cameras available at your fingertips. This mode is a bit different from Dual Preview because the controls are available on the Cover Screen and the Main Screen remains off.

Also: Galaxy Z Fold 2 vs LG V60: Dual screen experiences that boost productivity

Drag and drop between two apps are still supported on the Z Fold 3 when two apps are open in App Split View. This functionality is limited to Samsung native apps and Microsoft Office apps, and select Google apps. Images, tables, hyperlinks, selected text, and other content can be dragged between these supported apps. I've created several App Pairs for these apps that support drag and drop, so I am excited to see how my efficiency increases with this new capability on the phone.

Multiple instances of the same app can also be opened up in App Split view for selected applications. Apps that support multiple instances include Microsoft Office, Samsung apps, and even Google Chrome. This kind of advanced functionality is sure to help you optimize your productivity with the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3.

Another interesting function we see in the Z Fold 3 is called Drag & Split. When you have a supported app open in fullscreen view on the Main Display, tapping and holding on selected content and then dragging to the other side will switch you into a Split View mode with that selected content open in the same application on the other display. Samsung Internet currently supports drag & Split, Samsung Notes, My files, Samsung Messages, Microsoft Office, OneNote, OneDrive, WPS Office, and Watcha.

Conclusion

Daily usage experiences

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It's obvious that the Z Fold 3 has some hardware improvements that make it the most refined foldable available from Samsung. Samsung sent along an S Pen Fold Edition at the beginning of last week, so I've spent more than a week with the S Pen in hand and a week before without an S Pen. I ordered the S Pen Fold Edition and also the S Pen Pro using some launch offers and discount codes, so will continue to put the S Pen through the wringer in the weeks ahead.

The cover display offers a bit of an awkward experience because it is a narrow, tall display. I use it for quick actions (checking notifications, responding to messages, and checking my calendar) but spend most of my time with the main display. When you are paying lots of money and making trade-offs to own the Z Fold 3, you really need to be using that big main display to justify the compromises made. Samsung did a fantastic job with optimization of the software for the big display and foldable technology. 

I highly recommend you spend an hour or two diving into the settings, flip some toggles, and try out some of the advanced functions and features. There is a LOT to unpack here, and part of the joy of the Z Fold 3 is discovering new ways to use your phone every week. Developers may continue to tweak their apps to offer native Flex Mode support, aspect ratios that work by default (hey Instagram), and Drag & Split support.

I first pre-ordered a Phantom Green Z Fold 3 but then found other coupon codes and another old Samsung tablet lying around, so I canceled it to take advantage of the Samsung pre-order specials. I then ended up going with a 512GB Phantom Black version because it is supposed to ship sooner than the other colors. One thing to be aware of, the Samsung pre-order launch discounts and trade-in offers are pretty amazing, and if you are thinking of this phone, then you should either get in on the launch specials or wait a few months until the price drops a couple of hundred dollars.

Samsung brought everything I wanted to see in this version of the Galaxy Fold, so I had to purchase one and put my money where my mouth is. I ended up selling my iPhone 12 Pro Max and 11-inch iPad Pro to pay for the Z Fold 3. I acknowledge that battery life is not that great, and as much as I use my phone, especially with the new S Pen functionality, I must charge it up during the day. That's a trade-off I'm willing to make to enjoy the many other benefits of the Z Fold 3. Nice work Samsung, now let's improve the battery life and also try to get better camera hardware in the Z Fold 4.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 review: The best folding phone