I thought I didn’t want a folding phone. Now I’m not so sure.
My first cell phones were of the flip variety. You might even call them folding phones. They usually hid a keyboard and 2.3-inch screen inside a clamshell design. Some of them had a second, tiny screen on the outside that often showed me the caller’s number. These were good phones, until something better came along.
I’m now perfectly content with my single-screen slab phone, which offers a large, rigid display and ample power. Why would I want to backslide to the folding era?
After spending some time with the first viable folding screen smartphone, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold ($1,980), I’m open to rethinking my stance.
Samsung’s dual screen device surprised me. Folded, it’s much narrower than I anticipated, which makes the external 4.6-inch dynamic AMOLED screen (720×1680) operational with just one hand. I found that I could easily reach from edge to edge and from top to bottom of the small screen — granted, though, I have large hands and long fingers).
On the back is virtually the same triple-camera configuration (16MP ultra-wide camera, 12MP wide-angle camera, and a 12MP telephoto camera) as you’ll find on the Samsung Galaxy S10+. On the inside, carved out of a small, somewhat trapezoidal space in the upper right-hand corner, is a 10 MP selfie camera and an 8MP depth camera. I didn’t have enough time to test all these lenses, but I think it’s safe to assume they’ll perform similarly to those on the S10+.
At 263 grams, the Galaxy Fold is heavier than the 6.4-inch Galaxy S10+ (175 grams), but it doesn’t feel like a brick. Folded and unfolded, it is surprisingly comfortable to hold. Obviously, the Galaxy Fold is roughly twice as thick as say, a Galaxy S10, but that’s what happens when you essentially fold a full-thickness phone in half.
If you were hoping for a phone that folds its flexible display perfectly flat, the Galaxy Fold will disappoint you. There is a small gap at the hinge to accommodate a tiny flexible screen curve. I can live with it since I know there’s no way Samsung could make a folding screen capable of sustaining 200,000 folds with a sharply folded edge in the middle.
Samsung’s hinge mechanism is an impressive piece of engineering and branding. When folded, the Galaxy Fold’s half-inch thick, chrome hinge is wide enough to accommodate the word “Samsung.” Unfolded, the hinge somehow slips away inside the body, allowing the front and back of the fold to meet neatly in the middle.
I was able to unfold the phone with one hand, which revealed the 7.3-inch (2152×1536), tablet-sized display. Unlike the screen on the outside, there’s no glass on this flexible, dynamic AMOLED screen. Samsung developed a special polymer for the display, which apparently needs a raised bezel running around the edge to hold it in place. If you’re accustomed to phone and tablet displays with perfectly flat bezels, this might throw you a little bit, but I almost didn’t notice it was there. Overall, the display looks fantastic, but from certain angles I could discern (and feel) the slightest wave in the center of the display. It did not impact how anything looked on the screen.
As much as I liked the large Android display, it’s not the reason, at least alone, that I think the Galaxy Fold has some potential.
What impressed me most in my relatively brief time with the device is how Samsung made two screens into one continuous system. The Galaxy Fold is a $1,980 two-for-one-device that also manages to combine the two distinct screens into one cohesive system.
App activities like maps that you start on the smaller 4.6-inch screen automatically appear on the larger screen as soon as you unfold the phone. And if you adjust the settings, you can have apps start on the large screen and continue to the smaller one when you fold the phone. As I did this a few times, primarily with Google Maps, I marveled at the smooth transition between screens. It’s a little like those old folded maps we kept in our glove compartments. The small screen is when you have just a small portion of the folded map showing and the large screen is when you unfurl the map, but without all the fuss of trying manage all that giant, unwieldy paper.
Of course, if you hand me a big screen, I expect tablet functionality. I watched as a Samsung rep showed me how to separate the screen into three separate apps (chrome, calendar and maps), and then added a handful of additional app windows (up to five) that I could drag freely around the screen.
With the device folded, I launched the rear camera, using the 4.6-inch screen as a viewfinder. Then I unfolded the phone and it automatically switched the viewfinder to the 7.3-inch display. I didn’t even have to reorient the screen and device.
You do not have to unfold Galaxy Fold to use it. The external display functions as a complete touch-screen Android smartphone. Yes, the screen is small and narrow, but how much screen real estate do you need for email, texts, and scanning social media?
I examined the gold edges of the Galaxy Fold, noting the lack of a 3.5 mm headphone jack (it ships with Galaxy Buds), and existence of the fingerprint-reader/Bixby combo button. I hit that button more than a few times, accidentally launching Bixby, which I immediately exited. The phone even ships with a nifty two-piece Galaxy Fold case.
Samsung promises that the unusual dual-battery configuration (they split the battery between the two chassis halves) provides all-day battery life, but, for now, I have no way of testing their claims. It also supports wireless charging and Wireless PowerShare. Inside the phone is a 7nm 64-bit octa-core Processor. Sorry, but there wasn’t time to run benchmark tests or, this being an international model, test out network connectivity.
As I placed the Samsung Galaxy Fold back in its box, I realized that I could no longer dismiss the folding phone concept as both retrograde and a desperate cry for attention. This felt, instead, like a third way: there’s the slab, the old-school flip, and this new path: two screens, one purpose and, maybe, all the flexibility you need.
All Rights reserved for Lance Ulanoff