Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 review: nearly normal

The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the best case Samsung can make for a smartphone that unfolds into a small tablet. It is the fourth iteration of the same basic idea, and has been improved and repaired over the years after an embarrassing erroneous start failure on the first attempt.

Since it’s a refinement story, changes since the last model have been minor. But when added together, it becomes a model that crosses the difficult-to-define boundaries between experimental and normal.

The Z Fold 3 feels like a refined and established product, but still really normal. It is, in turn, a surprising and awkward wonder of materials science. And the price is still far from normal. Starting at $1,799.99, even if the price goes down.

If you like the Z Fold’s basic idea, but have waited for Samsung to fix its biggest problem, it’s worth taking a look at the steady and persistent improvement exhibited here. None of these changes will change your mind if you think the whole idea is extravagant and silly technical flexibility.

Although the two opinions are almost diametrically opposed, I can’t really argue with either side. The Z Fold 3 is great. and Goofy.

When closed, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is still a very tall, narrow and thick device, more like a remote control than a conventional phone. Inconvenient to put in your pocket due to its shape and weight. It’s a bit lighter than last year, but it’s still basically the size of two phones and has the right weight.

Samsung’s big addition to the hardware is IPX8 water resistance. I put it in a vase and put it under the fountain with no problems. I won’t say whether the durability improvements Samsung made this year are enough to keep the phone intact for long periods of time, but it looks solid, at least at first. I don’t think you need to make this device a baby.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3

When closed, there is still a gap between both sides.

When closed, there is still a gap between both sides.

When the hinge is closed, there is still a gap in the hinge, otherwise all the tolerances between the parts are tight. Samsung still uses a small brush inside the hinge to keep dust and debris out, but it’s a good idea to keep it away from serious amounts of sand or sand.

The external screen fills the entire front of the display, 6.2 inches diagonally, but it’s so narrow that it feels much smaller. Samsung has increased the refresh rate of the external display to 120Hz, so everything feels smooth. The main compromise when using it is that it’s really hard to type. Swipe typing helps, but Samsung’s built-in keyboard is still not as accurate as the Gboard, and you’ll want to stick with Samsung’s keyboard as there are better options in tablet mode.

When you open the phone, there’s a 7.6-inch display with the same 120Hz refresh rate for smooth scrolling that’s bright, crisp, and less of the “jelly effect” that plagued previous versions. It’s a great screen with one noticeable problem. That’s the internal selfie camera.

Samsung has chosen the first under-display camera to ship in the US. The camera itself is terrible. It’s only 4 megapixels, and any number of them gets damaged by taking light through the screen. But camera quality doesn’t matter. If you want to take selfies, you can literally use 4 different cameras better. Think of it as a webcam for video calls.

Under-display selfie cameras are more distracting and annoying than hole-punch.

Under-display selfie cameras are more distracting and annoying than punching holes.

Instead, the question is what the screen looks like when the camera is off. A lighter background (or text) on top of it will give you an ugly and distracting looking screendoor shape. Moving your head or even the slightest movement of your phone instantly creates an eye-catching moiré effect. It still happens after a week of use.

Samsung wants the Z Fold 3 to show off its tech, but this desire has made it too experimental in its premium device. Under-display cameras literally spoil the experience. Samsung has to set it up to completely turn off the screen above the camera and revert it back to the hole punch.

Surprisingly, that’s my only real complaint with the internal screen. That’s because it’s a huge 7.6-inch display that folds in half. Samsung puts a lot of emphasis on how to make this screen even more powerful thanks to re-layering the various internal components of the screen.

The folds are still visible at an angle, but when viewed straight, they are not bothersome at all.

The folds are still visible at an angle, but when viewed straight, they are not bothersome at all.

The S Pen doesn't work on the external screen, but works fine on the main internal screen.

The S Pen doesn’t work on the external screen, but works fine on the main internal screen.

It still uses Samsung’s so-called “ultra-thin glass”, but that glass is still covered with a layer of plastic. The top layer is a PET screensaver that feels much like other screensavers I’ve used on my phone. The Z Fold 3 radically changes the experience, as it is much more resistant to stains and dents.

There is still a crease between the two halves, and I still don’t really care much about it. It is mostly visible at an angle and mostly disappears when looking straight at the phone.

Another new layer on this screen consists of a few Wacom digitizers, allowing you to use a new kind of Samsung S Pen stylus. The Fold-only S Pen is sold separately and there is no place to store it without a special case. This means you will have to spend at least $50 or at least $80 to use the stylus input.

Drawing and sketching with the S Pen on the big screen is great. It doesn’t have much lag, looks accurate even in folds (where the algorithm detects position), and it glides neatly on the new PET layer. Unfortunately, even with one of Samsung’s own cases, the fold wobbles when painting on the table.

Also, I’m not as good at taking quick notes as the Galaxy Note because I can’t use a stylus on an external display. Hopefully Samsung doesn’t break that line for those who really depend on quick and easy access to their stylus.

Flex Mode on Galaxy Z Flip 3

Flex Mode on Galaxy Z Flip 3

Samsung has also improved the software that runs the Z Fold 3. Surprisingly, One UI 3 halved the Android tablet experience.

Typing is weird because I (and all the reviewers I know) have been using Android tablets for almost 10 years. But the subtle improvements Samsung made this year have addressed Android’s biggest tablet problem with a flexible, usable small window.

Too many Android apps aren’t reorganized to work better on tablet-sized screens. They are just stretched phone apps. Again this year, some basics like getting multiple columns from Gmail or tabs from the browser will work. Others like Twitter and Slack still look a bit dumb.

But Samsung’s multitasking system for setting up and managing app windows has become adept at putting these introverted apps in place. You can drag and drop icons from the sidebar to put items in a split screen or 3-up layout. You can also pin that sidebar to be visible permanently for a more tablet-like experience.

The Z Fold 3's multitasking software is more flexible than ever before.

The Z Fold 3’s multitasking software is more flexible than ever before.

Crucially, you can now more easily adjust the width and height of different layouts by simply dragging the dividers. Also, if you don’t want to drag multiple windows, you can easily rearrange the different windows by tapping their dividers. Saving these custom layouts to the sidebar is also straightforward.

Finally, there’s a “lab” feature that makes powerful apps work well with this new system if they haven’t been updated to scale properly on newer Android devices. For example, you can set Instagram to fill the entire screen, or you can resize TikTok with a slightly distracting side rail.

But let’s not go too far. The iPadOS app ecosystem is still light-years ahead of Android when it comes to tablet options. But Samsung and Google have finally pushed the Android tablet experience to the point where I can comfortably do more advanced tasks than I can on my phone.

But in fact, the big screen of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is big screen. A big screen is good. They are better for watching movies, playing games, reading books, and everything else. Everything people love about big slabs like Samsung’s Ultra line or Apple’s Max phone is much better on this big screen. Hell: I can actually read and annotate PDFs on this device without having to tediously move, pick, and scroll.

Help the Z Fold 3 excel in terms of performance. The Snapdragon 888 processor and 12GB of RAM handle multiple active windows at once. However, the 4,400mAh battery is not what I was hoping for in terms of lifespan. I could go through a day with 4 hours of screen time a day, but to get beyond that, I have to change my usage in ways I don’t want to. We’re used to tablets that last forever, but this foldable tablet is more like a regular phone in terms of battery life.

The camera is also more like what you’d get on a regular, non-flagship phone. The default selfie camera on the outside is 10MP and is completely repairable. On the back are three 12-megapixel sensors for wide-angle, ultra-wide and 2X telephoto. The only real change Samsung has made since last year is adding optical image stabilization to the telephoto.

The result is a classic Samsung. Punchy, bright, sharp, vivid – too often flawed. Samsung tweaks the camera to look great on Samsung screens. It’s different from what you see right now. It’s a bad choice, but at least on a technical level, the image is good enough to work with. Likewise, the Z Fold 3 does a decent job in night photography.

For $1,800, you want something better, but that money goes to the screen, water resistance, and everything else. If camera quality is your top priority, then this isn’t the phone for you.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold under the waterfall 3.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold under the waterfall 3.

Samsung Electronics’ biggest goal this year is to make foldable phones a ‘mainstream’. For the Z Flip 3, Samsung hopes to be a premium alternative for those who will buy a “regular” phone. The goal of the Z Fold 3 is to create a flagship of an entirely new class that competitors cannot match. In either case, Samsung is doing all this because Xiaomi’s popularity is plummeting as more traditional flagship phones match quality while keeping prices down.

Samsung’s goal isn’t our problem, but it leads to an advantage. It is a foldable phone that allows you to judge based on the merits rather than simply staring at the tech demo. They are still too expensive in my opinion, but I wouldn’t doubt anyone who decided to spring for one of them. You know how to use your phone and at some point you have to walk to your laptop to actually do something. With the Z Fold 3 it takes longer to get to that point.

The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is as good as a smartphone that turns into a tablet when unfolded. Until there is another technological breakthrough that could change the flexibility of glass or the size of a battery, nothing is going to be fundamentally better than this for the time being.

However, it is still inconvenient to carry with one hand, and it is still prohibitively expensive. The compromise doesn’t seem worth it. Then again, we all said the same thing about the pros and cons of big screen phones like the Note. For a handful of tech-savvy people, I can actually recommend the Z Fold 3 if you know what you’re doing. But for most people, no matter how good a product is, it’s not good.

Photo: Dieter Bohn / The Verge

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