Samsung Galaxy Z Flip in action.
If I must narrow down one thing I’m thankful to the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip for, it’s that it’s finally convincing the masses—including mainstream tech journalists—that foldable phones are here to stay.
You see, even though Samsung’s first foldable device, the Galaxy Fold, and Huawei’s Mate X made their debuts over a year ago and respectively dropped many jaws, apparently only hardcore gadget nerds and enthusiasts such as myself actually went out and paid for one. Apparently, the consensus among mainstream tech journalists was that they were not worth buying.
The Z Flip, however, has won over even skeptical fans and cynical tech journalists, garnering headlines and statements like “finally, a foldable phone worth buying” and “I’m now convinced [foldables] are here to stay.”
And it’s about time. Quite frankly, I have been baffled by the skepticism. I can understand not wanting to shell out that much cash for the first generation, but to dismiss foldable devices as just fads? No way. Who wouldn’t want a large screen that can shrink its footprint to be pocketable? If I were a betting man, I’d wager that in a few years Apple will have a foldable device on its own, maybe an iPhone that turns into an iPad.
So what is it about the Z Flip that’s winning people over? It’s smaller, cuter, cheaper, and has a screen that feels more like glass than plastic. But most important of all, the first batch of review units did not break in the hands of the world’s most high profile tech reviewers like the previous device.
For me, I like the Z Flip a lot—it’s a very polished smartphone—but I still believe that if we’re going to deal with the increased fragility and higher cost of foldable screens, I want them to go bigger, not smaller.
It actually wasn’t entirely accurate to call Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X as “foldable phones,” because they were really small tablets that folded into a pocketable size. The Galaxy Z Flip, conversely, is really a foldable phone. When fully opened it is roughly the same size as a 2019 flagship smartphone, and then it closes like a clamshell into a petite little square like a portable makeup compactor, or a stack of coasters.
Clamshell form factor.
The Z Flip’s hinge feels sturdy.
There is a tiny screen on the outside that shows time and notifications, and can work as a weirdly … [+]
There is a tiny screen on the back of the phone next to the dual-camera system which allows the users to see time and notifications without needing to open the device. It can also serve as a viewfinder for selfies, but it’s so small it’s a weird experience.
This small screen that doesn’t do much is perhaps the biggest flaw of the Z Flip. It certainly is my biggest gripe. The Z Flip is a phone that is virtually useless when folded close. Even when notifications come in—say an email—you only see the first few words of the subject. To see more of the email you must open up the device. On all the other foldable phones right, including Motorola’s new Razr with a similar clamshell form factor, there’s a big enough screen on the outside that users can at least check their email or WhatsApp messages without needing to unfold the device.
For someone who uses their phone for work and play such as myself, I unfold the Z Flip probably like 50 to 60 times an hour. Anytime I get a WeChat message or a Twitter notification, I can’t just glance at the phone and see, I must flip it open.
The improved hinge
There are two areas the Z Flip improves upon the Galaxy Fold. The first is the hinge, which now folds shuts a bit more flush than Samsung’s first foldable outing. There is still a small gap in the Z Flip’s hinge, but it’s not as noticeable as the Fold’s. Still, Huawei’s Mate X still has Samsung beat because its hinge folds almost entirely flat.
The hinge also allows the Z Flip’s top half to stay upright in a 90-degree (or wider) angle, this allows users to place the bottom half of the phone on a desk and still have the screen be propped up. This makes it an ideal phone for hands-free video calls or video watching on the go without needing to find something on which to prop the phone.
The Z Flip screen stays upright.
The Z Flip’s hinge (top) is improved over the Galaxy Fold’s hinge.
The glass or plastic controversy
The second improvement is the foldable OLED panel, which Samsung claims is made of an “ultra-thin” glass. It certainly feels less plasticky than the Fold’s screen, but a teardown by popular YouTuber JerryRigsEverything showed the display appears to be plastic. Samsung disputed those claims, but the reality is none of this matters much to consumers. The screen feels like glass, and even if it were not, the display is protected at all times when the phone’s not in use anyway due to the clamshell design.
It is worth wondering if Samsung’s marketing is misleading, but that’s a topic for another post.
The screen itself is fine, with resolution of 2636 x 1080. It’s neither the most hi-res nor the smoothest screen (only 60Hz refresh rate), but the colors are vibrant and viewing angles are good. There is still a crease along the middle where the folding happens, and while it’s not that noticeable to the eye, I do feel it a lot more than on the Fold or Mate X because the Z Flip’s crease runs horizontally instead of vertically.
Probably meant for last year
The specs of the Z Flip are not absolutely top notch, but they’re close enough. The phone runs on a Snapdragon 855+, which is about half a year old and has since been replaced by the 865, but in terms of tangible performance differences between the two chips, there are virtually none except for the 865’s native 5G capabilities.
I think the reason the Z Flip is running on an older chip is because it was meant for release last fall, but the Galaxy Fold’s delayed launch pushed the Z Flip to this month.
The cameras on the Z Flip are also something from last year. Instead of the 108-megapixel sensor and periscope zoom lens that Samsung is offering in its S20 Ultra, the Z Flip instead has a pair of 12-megapixel wide-angle cameras that perform very similarly to the Samsung Galaxy Note 10’s.
I thought the Note 10’s cameras fell a bit short of peers (Apple’s iPhone 11 or Huawei’s Mate 30 and Google’s Pixel 4) last fall already, now that we’re another smartphone cycle down the line, it’s safe to say I’m not impressed.
Don’t get me wrong, the cameras aren’t bad at all: Samsung’s autofocus is still among the fastest, and photos during the day have an aesthetically pleasing high-contrast vibe, but at night the camera over-exposes often, and the shutter speed is so slow there will almost always be motion blur if there are pedestrians in the shot. Using night mode doesn’t help because Samsung’s night mode is slow and among the worst of the big brands’ night mode.
Taking bokeh images with a Samsung phone is also annoying because the focal length gets so close, I often have to step back five feet just to get the depth-of-field effect.
a wide-angle image taken with the Z Flip.
A photo taken during the day with the Z Flip.
Take a look at the collage below: the image on the left was captured with the Z Flip’s wide-angle camera, and the image on the right with its main camera. The image on the left overexposes the sign, while the image on the right also overexposes the lights and has motion blur due to its slow shutter speed. It’s not a bad shot, but I can get these types of images with a $500 phone; the Z Flip costs $1,400.
A wide-angle image (left) and a standard image (right) taken at night.
As mentioned, you can also use the main camera for selfies when the Z Flip is closed, or when the device is opened, there is a dedicated 10-megapixel selfie camera. The actual selfie camera is fine, but if you want the best quality you’d want to use the main camera to shoot.
The 3,300 mAh battery sounds small in 2020, but it’s almost enough to power the Z Flip for all day for me. From my days of testing, I found that near the end of a long day I would need to pull out the trusty portable battery or find a charger, but there is fast charging and wireless charging so it’s not too big an issue.
Software: One UI 2 is good
The Z Flip runs Android 10 with Samsung’s One UI 2 on top. Samsung’s software skin used to be hideous but ever since the company rolled out One UI last year, I’ve been a fan. I like the aesthetics and the fact the software accounts for one-hand use.
Samsung has also finally gone with a swipe gesture navigation that is more in line with what Android 10 is using (and also what Huawei and Xiaomi have been using since late 2018) instead of the original Samsung version that was not as intuitive. You now swipe up to go home, swipe from the sides to go back, and swipe up and hold to toggle between apps. Yes, it’s basically like the iPhone’s navigation gestures.
Not for me; but I’m glad everyone else is loving it
The smartphone market is getting increasingly saturated (mostly because Chinese brands pump out so many similar phones), so it’s praiseworthy in my opinion anytime a company releases something that’s different. In a market filled with glass rectangle slabs, the Z Flip (and the Motorola Razr) stands out from the pack.
The Z Flip (left) next to the Galaxy Fold. I prefer the larger screen,
But the phone isn’t for me. As I said, I want my foldables to go bigger, like the original Galaxy Fold. I don’t see a point in me folding and unfolding a device just to get a screen that’s no bigger than any of the other 25 phones on the market. The Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X change the entire smartphone user experience for me—anytime I unfold them, I get more screen, which allows me to multi-task or read more text or see more of a document. The Z Flip unfolds to become…just another phone.
Still, I can definitely see its appeal. Several women have told me they love the Z Flip’s compact size because women’s pants usually have shallow pockets. Samsung seems to know this too—unlike the Galaxy Fold, which Samsung marketed as a premium luxury device for businessmen, the South Korean tech giant seems to be pushing the Z Flip as a phone for millennial influencers—a group that includes many women.
The $1,400 price tag doesn’t seem to be holding the device back—the Z Flip is still selling out everywhere I’ve checked. I’ll be returning mine, however.
I’m just glad the Z Flip is winning over early detractors of foldable phones, because this tech is the future. Just you wait, in another few years, all our portable screens will bend and twist to give us more portability.