In our busy digital lives, who hasn’t idly lined up (at least mentally) all our devices side by side, from phone to tablet to laptop, and considered what it might be like to combine some of them? That’s the promise of foldable tech. It adds screen space to a device that fits in your pocket, improving productivity while maintaining a more modest form factor. But does it actually hold the key to simplifying our digital lives? Or is it a solution looking for a problem?
Every year since 2019, technology analysts and marketing departments claim that “this year!” foldable tech will finally find its niche. Well, we have tested nearly every major foldable phone on the market from the past few years, and we can tell you right now: maybe next year.
The past and present of foldable phones
The idea of a foldable phone is not new. The very first recorded depiction of a flip phone was in the serialized novella “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” by Philip Francis Nowlan, first published in August 1928 (which also inspired the Buck Rogers stories).
Think also of the communicator in the original “Star Trek” series from 1966 to 1969. But it took until 1996 for that vision to become a reality with the Motorola StarTAC (get it?). However, by the end of the 2010s, their popularity was declining, thanks to the rise of bar-like smartphones like the iPhone and other touch-sensitive devices.
Today, though, flip or folding devices are experiencing a renaissance due to high-tech glass that combines touchscreen functionality with a foldable form factor. Some of the biggest phone and tablet manufacturers, such as Samsung, Microsoft and Huawei, have jumped on board, offering premium devices that usually incorporate an external screen and a large internal screen revealed by unfolding the gadget.
The heart of what makes this possible is actual folding glass. Early devices used plastic or polymers, and reviews were not great. But Samsung and other manufacturers are working with companies like Corning, the developer of Gorilla Glass, to incorporate real glass, which is stronger and looks a heck of a lot nicer. However, it’s also a fiendishly difficult problem to solve.
“It’s a new technology that allows for the folding,” says Stephen Hawke, director of product management for Samsung Electronics America, which provided a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 5G to review. “It’s called Ultra Thin Glass. And it’s not two separate panels; it’s essentially a single panel of glass that actually is capable of folding in on itself.”
Why 2 screens can be better than 1
Hawke says the Fold 3, Samsung’s flagship folding phone, is rated for 200,000 opens and closes over the phone’s life. Opening and closing it 344 times a day (which is how addicted Americans are to their phones, according to reviews.org) means it would survive about 1.5 years. Let’s be generous and say two years, given that the outside screen allows you to check on messages and notifications without unfolding it.
But how useful is a folding device, really? Well, most manufacturers stress the utility of using multiple apps at once or accessing more of your information when it’s in different apps. Microsoft says it has research that side-by-side multitasking helps solve this problem of working across multiple applications.
“The additional screen real estate of a dual-screen device, as well as the fact that this additional real estate is well defined across two screens, reduces the amount of cognitive effort applied by individuals to complete a task,” says Kimmo Lehtosalo, senior director of product management at Microsoft, in an emailed response to questions.
Interestingly, Microsoft’s Surface Duo 2 does not use folding glass, but rather two panels of glass joined by a 360-degree hinge. Software bridges the two screens like spanning multiple monitors on the desktop.
Hawke also believes foldables are for people who don’t want to pull their tablet out of their bags for a quick moment of work.
“I think this technology kind of lowers the incidents of people needing to create that separate solution, that moment of, ‘Hold on, let me put my phone down and get my PC or my tablet or something,’” he says. “You can use this for more than you might have previously been able to.”
Maybe, but during our test of the Fold 3, which almost feels like a tiny laptop with a touch keyboard on the part of the screen lying flat, we found trying to compose emails in “Flex mode” to be maddening. Granted, both Samsung and Microsoft do offer larger devices, but that seems to be defeating the purpose of a foldable phone.
We found opening the Fold and using it to read or browse the web to be equally awkward. It was just a bit too big to hold comfortably in this fully open form, forcing us to either prop it up on two fingers or hold it by the edges of the big internal screen. Forget about using it one-handed.
And finally, in the fully folded position, the external screen was a bit too narrow to do more than quickly doomscroll Twitter or some news headlines on CNN.
Where it did shine was watching videos or playing games, which was aided by its quick 120Hz refresh rate that allowed us to move through content smoothly. The unfolded 7.6-inch seamless screen is bright with rich blacks and vibrant colors.
In previous reviews, we liked the Z Fold 3’s zippy processor and top-notch cameras but wished it were less bulky and not so expensive. We found the Z Flip 3 sturdier and better priced, but its battery and cameras were subpar. The Microsoft Surface Duo 2 was a solid machine, but it was still priced a bit higher than most consumers will be willing to pay.
The big pros and cons of foldable phones
These are the major pros and cons that stood out during our time with the Fold, but they also apply in general to most foldables, given the limitations of the technology at the moment:
- Larger display: There’s no avoiding that the larger display is the main selling point for foldable phones. And cracking open the Galaxy Z Fold 3 for the first time does give a “whoa!” feeling.
- Cool factor: These are also super-cool devices. As the Gen Z teen in my household squealed when I let her play with it, “This is so cool!” She was delighted with the novelty of the folding and unfolding and noted that “you can watch things huge!” She was especially interested in trying out games, such as Genshin Impact, which looks very impressive on the bigger screen.
- Water resistance is … not great: The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 is rated at IPX8, able to withstand submersion in 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes. That pales in comparison to its cousins like the iPhone 13 Pro, which is rated to IP68, or 6 meters for up to 30 minutes. Nor is the Fold dust resistant at all.
- Questions about durability: My Gen Z stress tester was worried about dropping the phone from the moment she held it. “It’s a really cool phone, but my only fear is that it feels really fragile.” She’s right; I was constantly worried about dropping it. And she made the point that this is not a phone that can be easily fixed if the internal screen breaks. (There are a number of cases available for it, but all leave the outer screen exposed and add bulk to an already beefy device.)
- The crease: Compared to the iPhone notch, for example, it’s there. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but it’s definitely noticeable. For other devices, such as the Surface Duo 2, it’s a Grand Canyon-sized gap between two screens.
- Thick like a brick: The Fold 3 is not thin when it’s folded up, at 16 millimeters. That’s nearly twice as thick as the iPhone 13 Pro Max, for reference. It’s also a bit heavier than Apple’s biggest flagship. This is pretty typical of foldables right now because there are extra components, and they have to go somewhere.
- Expensive: The Z Fold 3 lists at $1,799, which is eye-wateringly expensive. I’ve bought cars for less. The Microsoft Surface Duo 2 starts at $1,249. You can spend less and get the $1,119 Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, one of the best traditional smartphones on the market, or the beefed-up $1,099 iPhone 13 Pro Max for a more durable phone with better cameras.
There is no doubt that foldable phones are marvels of engineering. The amount of work that has gone into improving durability and water resistance over the last few years is truly impressive. And yet, the feeling remains that all this engineering genius is overcompensating for limitations of a basic concept that doesn’t yet offer compelling, practical advantages over slab smartphones.
Someday, someone will stick the landing on a foldable that appeals to a large enough market segment to make them worthwhile. For those willing to foot the bill, the Microsoft Surface Duo 2 is the best for those concentrating on productivity. For those who want a more compact foldable at a relatively reasonable flagship price, Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip 3 could be an option. But the company still needs to figure out exactly who — other than early adopters — these phones are for. In the meantime, there’s always next year.