Samsung Galaxy Z Flip review: temper your expectations

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip review: temper your expectations

Samsung’s brand-new Galaxy Z Flip is the third folding screen phone that I’ve reviewed. It happens to also be the best folding screen phone I’ve reviewed — but don’t let that fool you. As with the Galaxy Fold and the Motorola Razr, the Z Flip is more of an expensive experiment than a real product anybody should buy.

Although Samsung is touting that this phone has a glass screen, it turns out that glass in this context has fewer benefits than previously thought. Pardon the pun, but temper your expectations.

The Z Flip costs $1,380, and the highest praise I can give it is that, after five days of using it, I found myself just thinking the Z Flip was kind of normal. I have complaints, and I have many, many concerns. But after a while, the Z Flip sort of stopped feeling like a special folding phone and just felt like my phone.

That’s an important step for folding phones, but the reality is that there are many more steps to take before I could recommend one.

There are two big things to address with folding phones: the screen and the hinge. These two parts are such a focus because they’re the things that aren’t yet solved problems in the phone world. It’s where the experimentation is happening, and it’s also where the biggest points of failure are found.

All three folding phones so far have had some sort of entirely predictable durability drama happen right after their launch. For the Z Flip, it’s twofold. First, the screen is much more susceptible to scratches and dings than its glass material implies. Second, the hinge’s new, somewhat-more-debris-resistant design isn’t foolproof.

Let’s start with the screen because that’s the most concerning thing. Yes, it really does use glass that bends, which is an undeniable feat of engineering. But as Flep Studio’s Sean Hollister explained earlier this week, there’s actually a relatively simple explanation for how Samsung pulled that off: “practically anything can be bent if you make it thin enough.”

Samsung’s so-called “Ultra Thin Glass” is 30 microns thick, on the order of a very thin human hair. That has consequences. Chief among them: any ding or nick in the glass could be catastrophic.

To solve for that, Samsung covered the glass with a second, plastic layer. That layer is fairly soft, which is why it picks up indentations from fingernails if you press too hard and why it scratched so easily under Zack Nelson’s metal picks in his classic JerryRigEverything test. And because the glass underneath that plastic layer is so thin, it can be punctured relatively easily. Puncturing the Z Flip’s glass screen utterly destroys the OLED display underneath, whereas on a regular phone, you might just have a cracked screen to live with.

So what’s the point of having a glass screen if it’s just as fragile and vulnerable as a plastic one? Well, Samsung gets to say it shipped the first folding phone with a glass screen. I think that’s probably the main reason.

But there are subtler benefits. It really does feel firmer under my thumb than other folding screens. It’s like having a plastic screen protector on a regular phone. I also would like to think that it will actually end up being somewhat more durable than plastic in the long term, but we won’t know if that’s actually true for some time. Samsung will provide a one-time replacement for $119 if it breaks.

Then there’s the crease in the middle of the screen. It is there, no getting around it. I can see it when I’m looking for it, but I don’t see it when I’m not. It also feels a little odd, but not so much to put me off like it did on the Razr. The screen is also surrounded by big, raised plastic bezels. I don’t love them, but I also understand their necessity and don’t find them especially annoying.

As far as screen quality goes, I think it’s a step above other folding screens but can’t stand up to a direct comparison with a Galaxy S10 or iPhone 11. I don’t have any real complaints about the quality, brightness, color, and resolution, nor do I have any effusive praise. It is, as I alluded to at the top, totally normal. However, it’s a very tall, narrow screen, which can make watching most video a little awkward because of the black bars on either side.

On to the hinge, the other source of angst for folding phones. There are four things to know about it.

First: it is pretty stiff. That hinge stiffness adds to the overall sense of trust and durability, but it also makes it hard to flip out the phone one-handed. I can do it, but it takes a little more force than I feel comfortable with, like it might fly out of my hand.

Most of the time, it’s just a little more comfortable to open the Z Flip with two hands. That’s doubly true because if you wedge your thumb in to start the flip action there’s a risk you could damage the plastic on the screen underneath with your thumbnail. Snapping it shut with one hand, however, is deeply satisfying.

The second thing is that Samsung explains that hinge stiffness by pointing out that you can set the phone down on a table half-opened like an itty-bitty laptop. It’s called “Flex Mode” for some reason, and the idea is that you can use it to make video calls or take photos. Right now, only a few apps support it. I mostly think this is a gimmick: propping your phone up so the camera points where you want it is not a problem that needs a $1,380 solution.

Third, there is a small gap when the phone is closed. That’s a little scary because, again, the screen is fairly fragile, and it’s a space where debris could get wedged in. (The Motorola Razr, for its many faults, managed to fold completely flat without any gaps.) The gap also means the Z Flip is just a little thicker than it otherwise would be when closed, but we’re talking a millimeter or two here, so that’s not a big deal to me.

Fourth and lastly, Samsung has added brushes and caps to the hinge to better protect it from debris getting inside. That’s the issue that likely destroyed the screen on my very first Galaxy Fold review unit last April. Will these new brushes work? Who knows! They couldn’t stand up to a dust test from iFixit, but it was a very aggressive test. All I can say is that I have more faith in this hinge holding up than I did in the Razr’s or the original Fold’s.

Add those four things together, and this is the best hinge ever on a folding phone. Similarly, this is also the best screen I’ve ever tested on a folding phone. That means… what exactly? The best folding phone is still too fragile and too overpriced, so “best” in this category doesn’t really count as a win.

Surprisingly, in day-to-day use, I was mostly able to put durability worries aside. That doesn’t mean I don’t have issues with the hardware. The combined power button and fingerprint sensor on the right-hand side is too difficult to reach, and if you’re left-handed, it’ll be particularly awkward.

I also think the Z Flip’s teeny-tiny outer screen isn’t as useful as Samsung thinks it is. It’s a fine clock, and it’s somewhat useful to see notification icons, but as a selfie viewfinder, it’s singularly unhelpful for framing a shot.

This brings me to the cameras, which are disappointing. I assumed that the progress Samsung made last year with the Galaxy S10 and Note 10 would be reflected in the two 12-megapixel sensors on the Z Flip (one wide and one ultrawide). I should not have.

They’re not bad cameras, but they don’t stand up to close comparisons with Samsung’s own Galaxy S10 from a year ago. It looks to me like Samsung is overcompensating by turning up the smoothing, which turns too many details into smears when you zoom in. I would have preferred something that looks a little less processed.

You can take selfies with the main cameras, which is great. Strangely, though, you can’t choose your aspect ratio for those photos; they’re always square. Similarly, you can use that Flex Mode to set the phone up to take a shot with a timer, complete with a little preview on the outer screen. That’s neat, but the phone is so wildly slippery that I was worried it would slide right off whatever I set it on.

I’m almost disappointed in myself for assuming the cameras would be at a flagship level. Presumably, they suffer from either cost-cutting or a need to fit everything inside a phone body that has to dedicate at least a quarter of its internal volume to a hinge — or both.

I don’t want to give the impression that these cameras are terrible. But for context, you should know that an iPhone 11 Pro — which costs less than the Z Flip for the same storage — beats it every time, especially in low light.

As for the rest of the traditional “phone stuff” like speed, battery life, and so on, the Z Flip really is refreshingly normal. Performance is great, thanks to a Snapdragon 855 Plus processor and 8GB of RAM. It’s not top-tier for Android, but it’s last year’s flagship specs, and that’s plenty. The 256GB of storage isn’t expandable, and there’s no headphone jack, but that’s pretty normal for phones today, too.

I’m relatively pleased with battery life. I can get through a day of consistent use — about four or five hours of screen time. That’s better than the Razr, but it’s not quite up to snuff with similarly sized Android phones that don’t fold. Still, I am moderately impressed that Samsung got that far given the space constraints.

I’m also pleased to see wireless charging. It makes the Z Flip my new favorite nightstand clock. (Or, it would be if it didn’t keep sliding off my charger.)

The Z Flip’s aesthetics are aggressively normal, too. Unless you get the purple one, the glossy black model is as close to anonymous as I could possibly imagine.

Software-wise, the Z Flip runs Samsung’s One UI customizations on top of Android 10. Samsung is emphasizing One UI’s split-screen abilities by placing a slide-over widget that makes it easier to open a second app. That’s nice, but I prefer the more traditional edge screen function that’s available on other Galaxy phones.

For the most part, I think Samsung has made smart interventions, but there are still places where Samsung is trying to make incremental revenue at the expense of user experience. The phone pushes you toward services like Microsoft OneDrive, pop-ups prompt for Samsung Pay, and it even puts ads into a (thankfully, easy-to-ignore) section of the phone dialer. It’s a lot.

Is the Galaxy Z flip a normal phone? Of course not! It folds and it has a 30-micron-thick glass screen and a plastic layer on top of that. It’s way more fragile than whatever phone you have right now. It costs $1,380 for a phone with a camera that’s a little meh, especially for the price.

But after using it for nearly a week, it felt pretty normal. That’s an important step for these folding phones. The goal is to make them just another reasonable choice among hardware designs, something that actually lets people who wear clothes with small pockets carry around a bigger phone. That goal is why I refuse to dismiss folding phones out of hand. It seems worthwhile to me to have more diversity in phone design again.

If folding phones are ever going to stop being just expensive curiosities, they have to start being normal. I need to be able to just tell you about the screen and performance and camera, not spend the majority of my time explaining why this time maybe — maybe — the screen and hinge won’t explode. They also, obviously, need to start having much more normal prices.

At the end of the day, the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip is still an expensive curiosity that you shouldn’t buy. But it is a sign that something far less curious and far more normal is actually possible.

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Sara Lassiter

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