The foldable Galaxy Fold phone-tablet hybrid is Samsung’s Google Glass: an exciting technical showcase that is hitting the market far too soon and risks souring everyone on the entire nascent category.
Pardon me for being such a strident skeptic, but I’ve seen this pattern too many times before. It happened with the first iteration of 3D cameras on phones (RIP HTC EVO 3D), it happened with modular phones (RIP Project Ara), and it happened with Android Wear smartwatches (which are trudging on as unloved, purposeless zombies). The failed hype cycle has a common basic structure: take an application of technology that has universal, self-explanatory appeal, build a few prototypes, get to a stage where the product doesn’t look hideous, and then dump it on a market of eager consumers. Then the inevitable letdown comes, everyone starts discovering the faults and pain points, and what was once a super exciting category of sci-fi tech becomes a wearying parade of inadequacy.
To be fair to Samsung, pricing the Galaxy Fold at $1,980 is a lot like not releasing it at all, as far as the regular consumer market is concerned. I understand the company’s perspective: it expects the $2,000 tech consumer to be of a more forgiving disposition than someone looking for a pragmatic everyday device that works well in all circumstances. The target audience here is either die-hard Samsung fans (they exist!) or the sort of people who spend big on Supreme drops just for the status of being able to do it. For Samsung, serving up the first-generation Galaxy Fold to a self-selecting group of receptive users is an excellent expansion of its beta testing that would feed into improvements for future iterations.
But pause right there for a sec. The Galaxy Fold is at once supposed to be a halo device for Samsung — look upon our works, ye mighty, and despair — and yet it’s also a testing vehicle for improving and refining what the company believes to be the form factor of the future. I don’t see those two things coexisting comfortably. Consider that Apple also releases spectacularly priced products, whether they be luscious 5K displays in the past or souped-up Mac Pro and iMac Pro machines more recently. Microsoft also has its unobtainable Surface Studio PCs. But in all those cases, we’re talking about tech that is the finest in its class. You spend big to get access to the best.
With the Galaxy Fold, you spend big to get access to the beta test. The glimpses I got, brief though they were, during Samsung’s live presentation of the Fold in London gave me reason to be wary. First and foremost, the inner display of the device never seems to fold out to be perfectly flat. Light reflections glinting off its surface in the presenter’s hand exposed a slight ridge in the middle, a spine where the hinge resides and disturbs the flat plane. The left and right wings of the opened Galaxy Fold also reflected light at different angles. I know from my experience with the Royole Flexpai, the first foldable phone, just how hard it is to combine folding and flatness in one device. Judgment should be reserved until we’ve had a chance to hold one in our hands, but my first impression is that the Fold doesn’t always have a perfect, undisturbed 7.3-inch tablet surface. It’s a compromise.
On the exterior of the Fold, Samsung has put a 4.6-inch screen. Its size, diminutive by modern smartphone standards, betrays the fact that the device is intended to be used primarily as a foldable tablet. That exterior panel is basically an auxiliary screen. Given the thickness of the Galaxy Fold, which is equivalent to that of sandwiching two Galaxy S handsets together, I’d be shocked if anyone was thinking of using it primarily as a smartphone with occasional tablet utility. The anticipated usage here is that you’ll look at notifications or prompts on the exterior, do basic searches and interactions, and then open the tablet up to do some serious mobile computing.
The part where Samsung impressed me was its app continuity concept and execution, wherein the company showed a fluid transition from the smaller Galaxy Fold display to the larger, keeping the app and context unchanged while expanding the canvas. This is the kernel of what’s glorious, and positively thrilling, about foldable devices. But Samsung’s user interface again leaves me with more doubts than reasons for joy. What the company presented as three-app multitasking looked to me like a kludge. Here’s your YouTube video, maladapted to occupying half the screen of a vertical tablet, and here’s your WhatsApp chat and Google search, both at the wrong scale for their tiny side windows. This is both a stressful cacophony of distraction sources and good evidence to suggest the Galaxy Fold still needs much more refinement and fine-tuning before it’s ready.
I’m excited that companies are working on a form factor that’s captivated people’s imaginations at least since the emergence of Microsoft’s Courier concept. But I will not jump aboard the hype train until the products that go on sale are worthy of being on sale. There’s a reason why Microsoft never released an actual Courier, and that’s probably similar to the reasons why LG, a company that lives to compete with Samsung on cutting-edge tech, has said it won’t do a foldable device, at least not yet.
The Royole Flexpai was, and remains, a mess. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is evidently leaps ahead in terms of refinement, but it still looks to have an imperfect screen, and it costs $1,980 (or €2,000 on my home continent). There’s being an early adopter, such as you might have been with Samsung’s first Galaxy Note or Apple’s AirPods, and then there’s throwing money at an apparently suboptimal product in the hope that it will improve somewhere down the line.
For less than the price of a Galaxy Fold, you can get the fanciest of iPhones and a really good iPad, and you’d have the best user experience in both categories. Or you can buy a Google Pixel and spend the leftover cash on holidays around the world so you have the most enviable Instagram feed in town. Or you can buy headphones that will make you weep with their exquisite sound and comfort.
As with Samsung’s ill-fated Galaxy Gear, the Galaxy Fold is likely to yield many salutary lessons for its product category. I understand why it exists, and some will argue that it’s entirely necessary for Samsung to iterate in public in this fashion. And yet, Samsung’s marketing, branding, and diversity of color choices for the Galaxy Fold present it very much as a consumer device rather than an early prototype for enthusiasts — and that’s the part that leaves me unsatisfied. The Galaxy Fold leaves a gap of expectation between the promises its maker is pronouncing and the reality of its early-stage development, and it’s in that gap that consumer disappointment is born.