Samsung's Galaxy Fold is teasing a foldable future

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Sat October 19, 2019

I've tested a lot of phones in my career, from Samsung's original Galaxy S up to the S10 and Note 10, with Google Nexus, the Pixel phones, iPhones, and smartphones from LG and HTC all thrown in the mix. And this is by far the most intriguing device I've seen.

The Galaxy Fold -- announced last spring before being delayed -- is now finally available. It starts at $1,980, making it a pricey option. It's a true foldable with a specially designed inner display that can -- wait for it -- fold. You also have a screen on the outside that looks a little tiny for 2019, and there a total of six — yes, count 'em — six cameras on the Fold.

While it's innovative and futuristic, it isn't for everyone ... yet.

Let's talk about what happened since May

Samsung originally announced the Fold alongside the S10 line last spring. It was supposed to launch in the summer, but was delayed after reviewers started reporting issues, namely the screens getting particles or dust stuck underneath and resulting in the displays breaking. Not an ideal scenario.

More so, a protective layer above the screen that looked like a screen protector would break the Fold when you peeled it off. Double whammy for not being ideal.

But the company did the right thing, delaying the launch and sending the Fold back to the lab for fixes. Samsung upped the durability by adding caps to either end of the display and is sharing more specific rules for users when they buy the device.

Not pressing hard on the display is one of them. And keep in mind the Galaxy Fold isn't water- or dust-resistant. I've been comfortable keeping it in the front pocket of my jeans, but also careful to make sure that it's not next to another device to avoid scratching. I also found myself throwing it in a breast pocket on my jacket, to be extra careful as to not scratch or damage the device.

After all, if you're spending almost 2 grand on a smartphone, you want to take care of it. But to some degree, I'd like to see a much more durable design that's at least on par with other smartphones.

The unboxing

Along with changes to the hardware, Samsung improved the ordering and delivery process. Not only do you have access to a special support team, but there's a little onboarding process with the Galaxy Fold. A Samsung rep will walk you through the device and help set you up.

Plus you get a nice box with the Galaxy Fold, a fast charger and USB-C cable, a pair of Galaxy Buds (Samsung's $129 true wireless earbuds), and a case. You also receive a disposable screen protector that warns you of the screen's delicate nature, and a one-sheeter.

It's made clear that it's a high-end smartphone with new technologies, but with all these warnings it might feel like a beta device to some degree. You want to be able to use a smartphone to its full degree and in a variety of scenarios, and potentially these warnings might scare some off.

Multiple screens

The Galaxy Fold technically has two displays: A small 4.6-inch display on the front, and a wide 7.3-inch display when you open it up. On the front is what Samsung calls "the cover screen"; the inside screen is called "the main." I tend to agree as the front screen is incredibly small, especially by 2019 standards. There are some uses for it, though.

The quality on both screens is quite good. The 4.6-inch display in front is a Super AMOLED with a resolution of 1,680x720. It's a lower-end HD 720p display, and that shows when you zoom in sharp. But I didn't find myself using this screen very much anyway.

The inside is where futuristic tech shines through. The inner 7.3-inch is an Infinity Flex Display which is a QXGA+ Dynamic AMOLED with a 2,152x1,536 resolution. This display uses a custom adhesive and has a composite polymer build. It doesn't feel like glass and it feels like a light, but malleable, plastic. You can also clearly see the crease when the axis under the display sits. When you open or close the Galaxy Fold, I recommend putting the pressure on the outer shell, rather than on the display.

The inside display has an awkwardly placed notch that houses the internal sensor and front facing cameras. It's on the top right-hand corner and cuts out a portion of the display. This is a first-generation foldable, but I hope this is improved in the next generation.

From a quality perspective, the inner 7.3-inch display on the Fold looks quite sharp and is on par with other AMOLED screens from Samsung (and other OEMs on the market). Blacks looked deep and provided ample contrast. And the colors were quite vibrant, especially when viewing images taken with one of three cameras on the back of the device.

Just be sure not to press too hard as it causes an issue on the Fold. Doing so can result in the screen breaking or causing dead pixels. In fact, some other review units have seen this issue recently. This is also a core reason why this phone might not be ready for prime time.

Android with Samsung customizations to take advantage of the inside screen

As expected, the Galaxy Fold is running Android 9.0 Pie with a custom Samsung One user interface on top of it. It will be familiar to you if you've used other Samsung devices this year, like the Tab S6, S10 or Note 10. But there are also customizations to adapt and improve the experience for a device with multiple screens. Namely, it will automatically transfer what is opened and running on the cover screen to the inner screen when you switch.

Similar to Apple's Continuity and Handoff features, Samsung is aptly naming this Continuity. It works with any application. Let's say I was searching for movie times on my web browser on the front, then wanted a bigger screen to check out the trailer. All I have to do is open the Fold and it will load there. It's a neat feature and is a real use case for a foldable device.

It's also handy having easy access to a tablet-like screen for productivity tasks, like receiving an email or opening a Slack message on the front and opening up the larger display to dig into a photo or document someone sent.

Multitasking is on steroids with the Galaxy Fold. You can have up to three apps open at once on the inside screen. (There's no multitasking on the front screen.) You can have one app take the left-hand side, and two split the right hand side, or invert that layout. It's a nice experience, but I still find the 7.3-inch display to be too small to truly multitask. This, after all, isn't as big a landscape as on the Galaxy Tab S6 or iPad.

Aside from these features, it's a similar Samsung Android experience. There are the usual carrier preloaded applications on the AT&T variant, and the unlocked model from Samsung gives you first-party apps preinstalled. Unfortunately, some apps, like Instagram, aren't optimized for a 7.3-inch sized screen — it gets stretched out.

On the other hand, reading books and consuming news on the Galaxy Fold is great. There is something to be said about having a screen this wide in your pocket. Just be careful when walking down the street with it unfolded as it is much larger than the average phone. I also highly recommend Call of Duty Mobile on the Galaxy Fold. It's fun and I hate going back and having to play it on a normal device like the iPhone 11, Note 10 or S10e. With one app open, the screen is expansive, especially when you can actually take advantage of it.

And obviously, it's great for watching movies, such as cinematic experience like "Star Wars." Either pop in the included Galaxy Buds or use the stereo speakers that support Dolby Atmos.

Plenty of processing power, solid battery life and good cameras

Powering the Galaxy Fold is a 7nm 64-bit Octa-Core Processor with a bountiful 12 GB of RAM. That provides a pretty fast experience. I experienced few slowdowns, though load times for larger apps did take some time. Processing ower shouldn't be a problem.

The battery is a unique, custom setup. It's a 4,380mAh dual battery, split between each side of the fold. While that might seem small on paper, it performed well, and even with heavy use, I was able to get a whole day from the Galaxy Fold. It's impressive for first-generation, but it might be good to bring a charger or wall plug with you. The device supports fast charging, and features Wireless Power Share, which first premiered on the S10, is also on Note 10, and allows you to use your device to charge other Qi-enabled devices.

As mentioned, there are six cameras on the Galaxy Fold. Above the front screen, you'll find a 10-megapixel camera. When you have it folded open, the right hand top corner houses a 10-megapixel camera and an 8-megapixel depth camera. The rear of the Galaxy Fold has a 16-megapixel ultra-wide lens, a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens and a 12-megapixel telephoto. If these seem like a similar configuration, it's because it's identical to the one on the S10+ and Note 10.

That means you can quickly switch between the three lenses on the back or the two on the inside, along with customizable controls. Samsung does a pretty good job with photography, but I find the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro offer stronger cameras than the Fold. (We're also evaluating the Pixel 4, so we'll report back on that soon.)

Using the front screen as a viewfinder feels cramped and it can be hard to get a good shot. Opening the Fold presents you with a larger viewfinder, and it's nice to have that on the go.

Bottom line

Samsung's Galaxy Fold feels like a glimpse of the future, but it also feels like a prototype that I'm not sure is ready for prime time. If you want a Samsung, the S10 family starts at just $749 and the Note 10+ is a personal favorite. Apple's iPhone 11 and 11 Pro are also quite impressive, and even the Pro model is about half the price of the Fold. And first impressions indicate the Pixel 4 and 4 XL will be solid contenders as well.

So there a ton of phones on the market to choose from, but only one that can fold. So if you're a tech aficionado, or an early adopter, then you might love the Galaxy Fold. It is one of the zippiest Android phones around, has sharp displays, solid battery life and six cameras.

But as an everyday phone, it's a little thick when folded, the front screen doesn't have much practical use, and durability is sketchy at best. And it costs $1,980.

It's available now unlocked from Samsung and BestBuy, plus you can get it on AT&T. You can purchase it from the carrier directly or from Best Buy, which makes the Galaxy Fold more affordable at $66 a month.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.