We’re in the dawn of a new era. Foldable phones are here and they’re rapidly improving, with Samsung leading the way. Rumors suggest others like Apple and Google will get their feet wet in the next few years, but for now, the Galaxy Z family is your best bet if you’re all-in on this new form factor.
I have the privilege of being able to try the latest phones for a living, and I consider myself an early adopter of many new technologies. But as cool as foldables are, I just can’t say I’m sold on them. Their utility does not outweigh their cost, especially since many people still haven’t truly accepted $1,000+ phones as the new “normal.”
For the last little while, I’ve been playing with the Galaxy Z Flip, which is a fine device in its own right. Having the throwback to the flip phones of old is pretty neat, even if the hinge does resist one-handed open and close — no dramatic closing of the phone when hanging up a call. I also like how pocketable the Z Flip is, taking up less space in my pocket than the iPhone 12 Pro (in a case) that I use regularly.
But as I sit here reading the notes I’ve taken over the last few days, I’m left with one question: why does anybody need this? It sounds trite, I know, and not very becoming of a person who loves technology. But like many first, or even second, generation products, the cost-benefit analysis just doesn’t come out right for me (and many others).
Early adopters are great, helping companies understand what needs improvement and sometimes providing funds to make the next round better. But most people can’t afford that. Being an early adopter is a luxury. So even as we approach the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3 — which are rumored to have lower price points than their predecessors — you and I have to ask ourselves what foldables bring to the table and if that is worth the cost.
We’ll have to wait until Unpacked on August 11 when Samsung announces the new Galaxy Z phones to make a final determination on cost-benefit. But even if Samsung makes them more affordable than before, what does, say, the Galaxy Z Flip 3 do that the Galaxy S21 Ultra can’t besides fold in half? That phone, if it’s like the Galaxy Z Flip I’ve been using, is truly a one-trick pony.
It’d be cool to have a phone that folds out into a tablet right in your pocket, but I don’t know if I’d use it for anything other just for the sake of using it (to feel like I’m getting my money’s worth out of it). Samsung touts productivity benefits with something like the Galaxy Z Fold 2, and I expect that the Z Fold 3 will improve upon that with the rumored S Pen support. You also can get “immersive” viewing experiences in tablet mode on the Fold, but it doesn’t work quite the same on the Flip.
But outside of a few professions, what does having a tablet that folds in half to fit in your pocket truly offer you? In situations where you’re out and about, I don’t imagine that the tablet mode would be all that convenient. I understand being bored with the glass slabs we have now, but foldables seem like a novelty. There’s certainly value in novelty, but for most people and most situations, I don’t think foldables’ freshness outweighs their costs and downsides at this point in time. I think we’ll get there as the technology improves and gets cheaper, but that’s probably a few years off.
Being able to split apps across the displays can be helpful, I’ll admit. It’s neat to have the Flip’s camera viewfinder on one display and the shutter controls on the other. And heading into YouTube, you can easily watch the video and scroll through the comments simultaneously. More apps need to support Flex mode, however, in order for the split-screen UX to be remotely helpful — forcing apps to scale into split-screen mode just doesn’t always look great, either. Maybe more apps will support the Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3, but we’ll have to see. Samsung has the weight to encourage developers to get on board.
Bottom line: I’m not sold on foldables right now. They’re cool and they’re fun, but using them feels niche in and of itself. Once the novelty wears off — and it definitely will wear off — are foldables good investments? As of writing this, I don’t think so.