Yesterday, responsible tech journalists across the web did an important job: they warned readers that it might be a little bit premature to spend $1,980 on a completely unproven, entirely new category of phone-computer.
That’s justified. Nobody gets it right on the first try. And there are already keen hints, if you know where to look, that Samsung’s Galaxy Fold may not have gotten it right.
But can we step back for a moment and appreciate that in a couple of months, you could own the kind of phone that could only have previously existed in a science fiction film?
Are we all just taking it for granted that an actual folding phone exists and will ship next month? It might be a medium-good product, but holy shit this was absolutely the stuff of dreams when I was a kid. There wasn't even CGI to fake it properly. https://t.co/E5iUHnPTFX pic.twitter.com/c7J8QcNaeF— nilay patel (@reckless) February 21, 2019
Holy shit, indeed.
Yes, the Galaxy Fold looks like a crazy prototype, and those who buy it will be subsidizing Samsung’s R&D for better devices to come. Like my colleague Vlad Savov argues, you might be paying a substantial amount of money to become a glorified beta tester.
But let’s assume you do have one thousand, nine hundred and eighty dollars burning a hole in your pocket — plus tax. Let’s imagine you love showing off the latest toys so much that you spend copious amounts of your disposable income on tech.
In 2019, there simply aren’t that many mind-blowing devices you can whip out of a pocket or shoulder bag. You might wow someone with the photos you can capture with your new Pixel or iPhone, but you’ll be lucky to get more than a “Oh, that’s a nice screen” compliment about your phone itself. And people have seen plenty of backflipping laptops and drones and VR headsets by now.
We’re at a moment in time where the most exciting computing devices of yesteryear have gotten good. So good that they’re honestly a little boring, and there are few great reasons to upgrade anymore. Phones are good. Laptops are good. Tablets are... okay, well they’re as good as Apple is willing to make them right now.
But practically no one has ever touched anything quite like the Galaxy Fold before. Sure, Royole technically built a folding phone first, but it’s likely to be far harder to get your hands on one, on your cellular network of choice, than Samsung’s carrier-supported device.
Mind you, we have no proof that the Galaxy Fold will be any better than Royole’s “charmingly awful” Flexpai, because Samsung hasn’t let us touch it yet. And I’m willing to bet the Fold won’t replace your tablet. Android has always been a failure as a tablet OS, and I doubt a little additional work from Samsung has changed that overnight. It may not be a great phone, either — frustratingly, the Fold’s front screen is far smaller than that of most of today’s phones, there’s no S-Pen stylus support, and it’s missing features we’ve taken for granted from Samsung like expandable microSD storage and a headphone jack.
And like Vlad points out, the Fold could come with physical compromises:
But as a status symbol, the Galaxy Fold may have no equal. A colleague suggested to me that it’s the Gordon Gekko “brick phone” of smartphones — overpriced, but a taste of the future you can’t really get anywhere else. I’ve also heard it compared to Google Glass, but I don’t think a folding phone screams “rich asshole” nearly as much as fancy wearables do. The Samsung Galaxy Fold is an early adopter’s dream device, the kind of gadget that comes along maybe once or twice in a decade. I bet people would line up to be the first to get one, and maybe they will.
The bar isn’t that high for Samsung’s folding phone to be a successful first draft. It just needs to work reasonably well — enough that early adopters keep using it, instead of trying to return it — and look as futuristic as it did on stage. It obviously can’t have any deal-breaking flaws like stuttering performance, app incompatibilities, or insufficient battery life to last a day. And it needs to be better than the other folding phones we’re expecting in 2019, or else they might dominate the conversation instead.
I won’t be one of those early adopters myself, because I can’t afford to spend nearly $2K on a futuristic phone-computer. (I buy all my gadgets on sale.) But plenty of people spend that kind of cash on other luxuries, including home theater equipment, high-end PC components, or $800 Lego sets. Or even (hey, Vlad!) audiophile headphones.
But if someone walked up and handed me $2,000 to spend on one thing I wanted, I’m pretty sure I know which luxury I’d pick. Even if I’ve had my eye on that Lego Millennium Falcon for quite a while.