2021 may well go down as the year foldable phones ceased to be an expensive proof-of-concept and eventually went mainstream.
That was the year execution began to deliver on that immense futuristic promise, and when significant quality of life improvements and lower prices finally brought it into the realm of the ordinary consumer.
I count myself among the “normal consumers”, but I would not count myself among the foldable converts. There are still too many rough edges, annoyances and unanswered questions about this ultra-modern market area.
I’ve been keeping a close eye on the foldable market in 2021, both out of personal interest (I like shiny new things very much) and out of a professional sense of duty.
As a freelance technical writer, I have had to research and write about myriad news and features on the latest foldable phones. But my current take on foldable phones didn’t really take shape until August when I received the two most prominent examples of the format for testing.
If there’s an archetypal foldable phone, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is sure to get it. Essentially a fold-out 8-inch tablet with the bonus of “normal” phone functions when closed, it is sure to follow the same foldable design path that Huawei, Oppo and Honor are following or will soon follow.
The Galaxy Z Flip 3 is a little less well known – a clamshell device that essentially functions as a regular phone folded in half. It’s decidedly cute, with a sharp style that screams a fashion accessory. It also reminds me a little of the Game Boy Advance SP, which is never a bad thing.
Perhaps best of all, the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 has finally cut the price of a foldable phone to under £ 1,000 (just under). Here was the first device of its kind that you can recommend to a mainstream audience.
TechRadar’s official opinion on both phones was positive. Both are great phones, with the Galaxy Fold 3 citing a half-star as “the best foldable phone yet” and “the first foldable phone we recommend to people who would normally consider themselves early adopters.”
For its part, the Galaxy Z Flip 3 is “the best foldable clamshell you can buy”. I would agree with any of these statements. But I still wouldn’t buy either of the two phones.
In my own extended testing period, I’ve found that I like the Flip 3 more in everyday life than the Fold 3. The clamshell phone’s more compact form factor just made it a lot more pleasant to use as a real phone. The Galaxy Fold 3 turned out to be prohibitively thick and heavy.
The Fold 3 weighs 271 g and is between 14.4 mm and 16 mm thick when closed. For the context that Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra – a non-foldable flagship from 2021, which has been swiveled universally due to its unwieldiness – weighs 234 g and measures around 12 mm if you include the Mammut camera module.
While the Flip 3 is more practical than its big brother, I’m still not entirely sure what it’s supposed to be used for. While the Fold 3 really justifies its clunky form factor when I play Slay the Spire (the Fold is the only line of phones that does justice to this wondrous roguelike game) or looking at a spreadsheet, I’ve never found a practical justification for the foldable Flip by nature .
Sure, it fits well in a pocket, but not much better than my iPhone 13 Pro. I imagine there is a pocket for those who get things out with tiny pockets or for those who carry their cell phones in tiny handbags. But in my experience, the Flip 3’s form factor is a gimmick.
Not to mention the glaring shortcomings that place both telephones far behind comparable “normal” telephones. Although Samsung has made major improvements in the ruggedness of both of them, making them the two most rugged and well-designed foldable phones, they still only get an IPX8 rating. That means they are waterproof but not dustproof.
Additionally, both phones have camera systems that are in varying shades of disappointment. The system of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the better of the two, but it is still far behind iPhone 13 Pro That I ended up spending my money on.
Granted, that’s a comparison of these phones to the absolute best in the business, but this is a $ 1,600 smartphone we’re talking about. It takes inferior images than the two iPhone 13 and the OnePlus 9 Pro, both of which cost around half the price.
Flip into the future
Also, I’m not sure the immediate future of the foldable market will solve any of my main problems. the Oppo Find N looks like it will come the closest. It shares a similar but more compact design to the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and has a superior range of cameras that are much closer to the flagship standard.
In the meantime it is Huawei P50 case looks like a Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 lookalike. It looks similarly cute and stylish and just as pointless. It won’t have much of an impact outside of China either, as those U.S. sanctions are still in place.
Any follow up to that Motorola Razr 2020 would surely have my hands full reaching for the very first Samsung Galaxy Z Flip, let alone beating the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3.
At the time of writing, it remains to be seen what the Honor Magic V has to offer. Reports point to another Galaxy Z Fold 3-a-like, which means it’s likely another phone that’s great for when you’re on your couch or on the train, and tiresome inconvenient anywhere else.
Don’t get me wrong, I hope future foldable phones can convince me. However, they need to be more than just a cool proof-of-concept or a bulky folding tray.
The normal, inflexible smartphone market has now matured, which means your average flagship phone has pretty much all of the basics in a nutshell. If I want to put good money into a foldable phone, it has to at least keep up with the best in all of these areas and also offer something that doesn’t just look cool. And it should be easy to transport and not significantly more expensive than a premium flagship.
Tell me, smartphone maker: am I asking too much to get on the foldable train? If so, I think I might have to fold for another year. Or rather not.