Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 Review
Mightily impressive, still not for most people
Come on, you know how it is with tech: manufacturers have occasional ideas about products in established categories that are fresh and different compared to what everyone’s buying, so they decide to take a risk and build them. Invest in them. See what becomes of them. Some products make the cut, some do not. Some manufacturers find success in their efforts, most do not. Samsung can rightfully claim that it has invested in foldable smartphones more than anyone else, keeping at it despite a rocky start and many bumps along the way, and it all seems to have worked out for the Koreans: the Galaxy Z Fold3 is really, really impressive. It comes as close to perfection as these devices can get with current manufacturing processes, which is no small feat.
That still does not mean that everyone who can afford it should just go out and buy it.
It’s hard to argue, though, that the Fold3 is not a turning point in the evolution of foldables. Because it is: just holding it now feels right. It’s not brittle. It does not need to be handled with (much) care when opening and closing it. It’s extremely well-built, materials are top-quality, its weight is reassuring. It’s even water-resistant now (still better not expose it to dirt or sand though). Yes, it’s almost twice as thick as a regular smartphone due to the folding screen, but — in a few important ways — it’s better to think of it as a small folding tablet than a folding phone (that’s the Galaxy Z Flip3 whose review is coming in the next few days). The Galaxy Z Fold3 does not feel like an experiment anymore: it feels exactly like the premium device its price tag suggests and this is one of the main things Samsung achieved with it.
The main, foldable screen remains the star of the show, of course, but the secondary one on the outside got a refresh rate upgrade to 120 Hz, now offering much smoother scrolling and impressive responsiveness. The device’s form factor does limit what consumers can do with this screen, though: it’s way too tall to be used on its own for prolonged periods of time and unusually narrow, which makes certain things difficult (such as using the touchscreen keyboard without making a lot of errors).
This secondary screen is perfect for checking out a lot of notifications or small snippets of information, for quickly previewing messages or idly going through some social media timelines, even for use as a viewfinder for photo and video shooting. It’s great for those, but people who thought that they can use the Fold3 closed as a regular smartphone because of the big screen on the front will have to reign in their expectations.
Big, pen-friendly screen, more usable than ever before
The whole point of foldable phones — well, at least of this size — is that they can offer a screen that’s significantly bigger than that of any “slab” smartphone. The past two Galaxy Folds offered that, too, but they left much to be desired. The Fold3 rights almost all the wrongs of those early models, which is commendable, but people that did not like those screens for specific reasons in the past may not change their minds with the new one either.
First things first: yes, you can still see the crease where the screen folds. No, it does not really affect the use of the screen. Yes, you will probably stop noticing it after a while. No, until Samsung or any other manufacturer comes up with a different way to fold a screen, you simply can’t have a folding smartphone with no crease. This really is as good as it gets for the foreseeable future. If the crease is such a big deal for you, you might prefer waiting a few years. If it isn’t — and it probably shouldn’t — then the matter is settled.
Moving on. This 7.6-inch screen is better protected than ever before, its feel is not as “plasticky” and it does not look like it could be easily damaged by e.g. fingernails, while it somehow seems a bit more resistant to smudges (always a good thing). All welcome improvements. New for this year: the Fold3’s main screen is stylus-compatible. Samsung offers two new different pen models, a “Pro” and one specific to the Fold3, and they are used in the same way millions of people use them on Galaxy Note smartphones. Writing, sketching or drawing on the Fold3’s big screen is reasonably fast, accurate and all-around handy… for people that have specific uses in mind for a stylus on a smartphone, of course.
A quick Note (pun intended) to Samsung: we reviewers can’t always know exactly how and why specific product decisions are taken by manufacturers. But if the absence of a new Galaxy Note model this year and the support for pen input on the Fold3 are somehow linked, then the executives who made this decision — maybe in a “just to see what happens” fashion — are plain wrong. The Fold3 cannot replace a Galaxy Note. The screen on the outside is not pen-friendly (for many people the whole point of a Note model is that it lets you jog down something quickly), the Fold3 cannot lay flat on a table because of the camera bump (so no detailed and comfortable use of the stylus on the big screen either), plus, well, it’s too easy to forget or lose the pen if it’s not inserted into the device at all times. Just this reviewer’s two cents.
What is, most importantly, improved this year is the software the new Fold is based on. The Android version of the operating system is the same as Fold2’s, so it’s not Google that made the necessary changes on the OS level but rather Samsung’s customization that will help consumers take advantage of the Fold3’s screen real estate productively. There are new ways to tile multiple apps to fill that screen, different app arrangements in horizontal or vertical alignment, ways to change dividers between apps easily, functions that can split the workspace within specific apps, even a handy layout-save function. There’s also an option that “forces” apps not really designed for Fold3’s screen, such as Instagram’s, Slack’s or Tik-Tok’s, to work more or less as smartphone apps would on a tablet: it won’t be perfect, but it will be usable.
It’s fair to say Samsung’s promotional videos might be over-reaching, meaning that, well, you can’t have three or four apps on the Fold3’s screen at once and expect to use all of them comfortably and efficiently as one would on a per-app basis. Dual-app configurations work great, though, e-mail apps finally display multiple columns, while proper multiple-tab web browsing is perfectly doable. Samsung is working closely with many developers, helping them add Fold-screen compatibility to their apps and things already look much, much better on that front than they did a year ago. If the Koreans keep this up they will have no major compatibility gaps in the most popular Android app list by this time next year — something that would obviously help all Fold owners in the long run.
Flawless performance, a good enough camera system
As Samsung’s most expensive and premium smartphone for this year, the Galaxy Z Fold3 sports the fastest — as of September 2021 — processor for Android devices, the Snapdragon 888. Coupled with 12GB of fast memory this foldable offers the kind of performance needed to not just run any productivity app (or any group of apps simultaneously) without a hitch, but also run any demanding Android game in the screen’s native resolution at high frame rates almost as smoothly as dedicated “gaming smartphones” do.
By the way, games — apart from benchmarks, obviously — seem to be the only kind of app actually taxing the Fold3 enough for it to (a) get warm and (b) last less than one would ask of a device with a 4400 mAh battery. Normal, typical use of Samsung’s foldable usually gets it through the day, but gaming does seem to reduce battery life even more than expected (good thing that gaming is probably not what most demanding consumers will be looking at a foldable phone for). Then again, this is a smartphone with two large screens, a top-end processor, a 5G modem and five cameras. It was always bound to be energy-hungry.
Speaking of cameras, the Fold3 scores high as a photography and videography device… but not as high as Samsung’s current champion, the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The main camera array at the back comprises of three 12-Megapixel shooters — a wide, an ultra-wide and a telephoto — and its results are excellent: high level of detail, good contrast and color balance, competent handling of shadows and highlights. The flexibility that three quality cameras offer by quickly and easily switching between them is always handy and the Fold3’s huge main screen is of course impressive as a viewfinder. Yes, there’s e.g. no 10x optical zoom like the one found on the Ultra, but it’s not such a huge deal in the greater scheme of things. It’s true that, in typical Samsung fashion, some photos tend to look over-processed or over-saturated, but they are now the exception rather than the rule.
The camera on the front of the device is very, very good, perfectly capable of taking quality selfies despite lacking autofocus (10 Megapixels are more than enough for that). The Fold3 being, well, foldable, it can also use the main camera array for selfies anyway, so there’s that. Much has already been written about the fifth, under-display camera put on the inside of the Fold3 but… it proves to be not such a big deal after all. Yes, it’s there, it’s visible but not really distracting most of the time. Yes, it’s only a 4-Megapixel camera — but how many Megapixels does one actually need for video calls? The absence of a notch in that 7.6-inch screen is definitely more important in everyday use, so Samsung’s choice makes sense. To this reviewer, anyway!
The best foldable yet… for people interested in foldables
Truth be told, the Fold3 may be clearly superior to its predecessor and the best foldable that can be manufactured today, but there is something it cannot do: it will not change the mind of people who were not that excited about the device’s signature feature — its main screen — to begin with. The square shape. The black bars when watching video. The weird aspect ratio when playing many popular mobile games. The apps that do not look right on this screen even when “forced”. Plus, the Fold3 might aspire to be a small folding tablet but it’s probably not large enough to satisfy people who use proper tablets often. To them, the Fold3’s screen will seem too restrictive for stuff “normal” tablets (i.e. 10-inch screen ones) are good at.
So it all comes down to what the Fold3 offers to people who want a device capable of helping them do more than a traditional smartphone would. Comfortable e-mail management, proper web browsing, true same-screen app multitasking are all things the Fold3 does that no other smartphone can currently do. For people who want or need those in a pocketable form factor, there’s no better option in the market right now. Simple as that.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Fold3’s price tag: €1800/$1800 is a lot of money for a smartphone these days. Samsung’s new foldable deserves every penny: built quality, materials, screens, performance, they are all premium-level and they all come together in a way that’s truly something. The Fold3 is not affordable by any means but, then again, it’s not supposed to: this is cutting-edge tech applied to a product that has no competition. Whenever that happens, cost does not really work as a measure of value. It’s difficult to put a price on uniqueness.
So what we’re left with is a clear-cut proposition: for people who can afford it and know they will be taking advantage of that huge screen — with a stylus or not — the Galaxy Z Fold3 is the first smartphone of its kind that’s actually easy to recommend. It took Samsung a while, but the company managed to get to a point where its top foldable devices can be real tools in the hands of demanding users, not just vanity items in the hands of those who can afford them. If nothing else, all the more reason why Samsung deserves praise. Novelty wears off. Time-saving value doesn’t.