Ever since the original iPhone in 2007, the tech industry has hyped up a lot of Next Big Things. From VR to smartwatches, none has in any way challenged the dominance of the smartphones at the centre of our modern lives.
The best way to oust the smartphone, then, is to try and reinvent it. The Samsung Galaxy Fold literally folds in half. Because why not?
A technology at least eight years in the making is here, but is it what every smartphone will look like from now on? Or is it an amazing piece of engineering that in reality is impractical and too expensive? After we went hands-on with the phone, we’d say it’s somewhere between the two.
Yes, it folds. But should it?
Price and availability
You probably already know by now that the Samsung Galaxy Fold is not cheap. It costs from £1,800 / $1,980. But c’mon, look at it – you can see why.
In the UK Samsung has a partnership with EE, where you can register interest in buying one on contract.
This registering interest method is down to the very limited quantities Samsung is shipping at first. It has already done a first round of pre-order invites, with more to follow from 26 May.
Doing things by halves
The design of the phone is the phone. The Galaxy Fold has a 4.6in AMOLED display on the outside when it’s closed that acts like a normal Samsung phone running Android. Except for the huge bezels.
But open it like a book and you have a tablet-sized 7.3in plastic OLED display. It’s quite something.
Samsung has opted for the book-like opening and hinge design to protect the inner screen, therefore needing an outer one to operate the phone when you can’t use two hands. This is the opposite approach to the Huawei Mate X which we also had hands-on with, whose outer display folds back on itself and is constantly exposed.
Foldable phones are an utterly new form factor in 2019 and it is impressive. But the Galaxy Fold’s outer screen has comically large bezels and the 4.6in display looks tiny considering the size of the phone overall. Folded, it is the thickness of two regular smartphones but narrow enough to hold in one hand, at least.
The internal display runs a maximised version of Samsung’s One UI Android skin, and as you might expect from Samsung the AMOLED is very high quality. Blacks are deep, colour balance is great and brightness is first class.
But this is a folding plastic screen so there is a lot of reflection, and there is a visible crease down the centre where it folds. Even when fully flat you can still feel a bump. This isn’t a full-on criticism as it’s necessary for the whole thing to work, but you cannot ignore it. It visibly divides the screen in most lights and it’s hard to ignore.
Couple it with the insane volume of smudgy fingerprints that the plastic screen collects and you’re a far cry from a pristine, flat glass display of a tablet – no matter how impressive the folding engineering feat itself actually is. The phone comes in black, silver, blue and a green that sometimes looks yellow.
The foldable display was made possible, Samsung said, by creating a display 50% thinner than the one in the Galaxy S10. It’s a three-layer composite with a polymer layer and an adhesive layer on top of said display. It’s a miracle it works at all but that is not to say it is preferable to a high quality, large glass panel. It looks less premium because of the plastic and we saw physical dents in some of the hands-on units from fingernails. It’s the plastic equivalent of a scratch.
Is it a bird, is it a phone?
On the normal phone-side of things there is the same triple camera set up as the Galaxy S10 Plus, giving you a main, ultra-wide and telephoto lens, and the same two front facing cameras when open. When closed, there’s an extra 10Mp selfie camera for the small outside screen. As our pictures show that’s a lot of ways to take a photo, and using the main display as a viewfinder is pretty great given the size and detail afforded.
Equally good looking are apps like Instagram on that main display where images practically fill the 4:3 screen. If you have to snap the phone shut, Samsung’s App Continuity feature will send the app to the front small display for you to continue – this also works the other way around.
Samsung said it’d be best for using Google Maps or continuing to read an article.
Not every app is supported though, as we found when we booted Twitter on the front screen and opened the Fold for it to display down the centre of the inside screen with black bars either side. Developers will have to address their own app compatibility, Samsung said.
The Fold has very high-end specs with a Snapdragon 855 processor, 12GB RAM and 512GB storage so it’ll fly through all tasks no problem. Just bear in mind that you can get very good specs on the S10 Plus for £899.
But you aren’t buying this phone for the specs, are you?
Games look excellent on the large HDR10+ certified display (when formatted properly) and rotate to encourage you to hold the Fold in landscape so as not to obstruct the dual stereo Dolby Atmos speakers on either side (they sit on the top and bottom of the right half of the phone). They sounded as good as phone speakers can sound in 2019.
Each half of the Fold houses its own power cell that Samsung says gives the device 4,380mAh of battery. It does not state a battery life claim, but powering that lovely bright display is going to take some juice. We expect the Fold to be lagging by bedtime.
It also has the wireless PowerShare that lets you charge other devices wirelessly, though this remains slow and a gimmick at best.
The most impressive part of engineering on the Fold is the hinge. Samsung said it is made from twenty moving stainless-steel parts and does not actually have an internal spine. The pieces hold together when closed.
But the phone does not fold completely flat. There is a gap at the hinge and the end of each half touch and close. It feels sturdier than it looks in photos, but we were able to rub the halves together without much force which is less than encouraging for durability.
Then again you wouldn’t want each half touching as it’d lead to scratches immediately.
To the durability point Samsung claims it has tested opening and closing several Fold devices 200,000 times. This simulates opening and closing the phone 100 times a day for five years. We take their point that this is possible but add any moving parts to a phone and it is immediately incredibly fragile when dropped.
This is why Samsung puts a Kevlar case in the box and gives all buyers a year’s free accidental damage insurance. These things are going to break if you drop them – as with any other glass and metal smartphone.
Opening the phone encourages the parts to push the Fold into tablet mode and they do so with a tiny bit of noticeable force. You then need to make the final, quite satisfying click to get it fully flat. The phone enters tablet mode before it reaches the click though.
The phone can be unlocked using the side mounted fingerprint sensor that is on the right edge of the right half of the Fold just below the separate power button. There is no headphone jack, but Samsung bundles a pair of Galaxy Buds in the box.
One UI, two UI
The Fold runs Samsung’s One UI based on Android 9 Pie and it looks just as you’d expect. The multitasking on the tablet screen is decent and intuitive and you can run three windows on the screen at once, even with a fourth floating one should you want.
This didn’t bug out in our time with the phone but not all apps are supported, and it was quite a controlled demo with units that only had friendly apps installed. When we review it fully we would expect to find flaws – there are enough UI issues on Android tablets for this not to be too pessimistic an assumption.
This isn’t like the iPhone in 2007 when it was immediately obvious that all phones would end up looking like it. Samsung has made the Galaxy Fold because it can, not because it should.
It means the Fold feels like a device that will end up limiting in practice despite the larger internal screen, particularly with the outside screen that is so user hostile.
The design is revolutionary, of that there is no doubt. But it could be at the expense of everyday usability and affordability – this is a luxury device at a luxury price.
Maybe there will always be compromises if your phone literally folds in half. Until we review it fully, the Galaxy Fold looks like a tantalising example of where personal computing might go – but it is not there yet, and maybe this isn’t exactly what it should look like.