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Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy Fold: more than just a concept

The folding screen is good, as long as you don’t stare at the crease

Photography by Becca Farsace

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Two months after an announcement where Samsung talked about the Galaxy Fold but didn’t allow anybody to actually touch it, we finally got our hands on it today. The $1,980 device begins shipping on April 26th, but it will likely be in very limited quantities.

Here’s the TL;DR most of you are waiting for: it feels much more stable and polished than I expected going in, but there is still some work to be done on the software. Okay, here’s what you are really waiting for: you can see (and feel) the crease on the folding screen, but it’s really not that noticeable and perhaps worth the trade-off of having a big screen that you can fold up.

Buying the first iteration of any new kind of gadget is fraught with risk. And the Fold is a first: it’s a phone with a 4.6-inch screen that folds out to reveal a 7.3-inch tablet inside. That’s how we’ve all thought of it, anyway: as a folding phone. But after using the Galaxy Fold for about an hour today, I’ve started to come around to thinking of it as a small tablet that happens to fold up.

That change in perspective makes a big difference in terms of the physicality of the Fold. If you think of it as a phone, it’s ridiculous. It’s super tall and much thicker than any phone out there when it’s closed. There’s a little gap when you fold it up because the screen can’t be fully folded flat. The front screen is tiny. Even though it’s 4.6 inches, it feels much smaller because it’s so narrow and because it sits inside such a tall phone.

But if you think of it as a small tablet that happens to fold, all of those foibles start to feel less like foibles. Instead, it’s like you have an iPad mini that can be packed down to become more pocketable. I say “more pocketable” intentionally. It’s large enough that it’ll stick out of any but the deepest pants pockets. This is a device designed for a purse or a coat pocket.

The hinge mechanism is really solid, too. It closes with a satisfying snick, and it has a springiness to it when you open it up. There are some magnets that hold it firmly closed, and, try as I might, I haven’t been able to open it up one-handed. But I have been able to hold it one-handed, even when open. It really does feel like an itty-bitty tablet, which is not a form factor I expected to want, but it feels more useful the longer I hold it.

That brings me back to that screen: it’s 7.3 inches in a nearly 4:3 aspect ratio. It gets plenty bright, and you can use it fully flat or with the Fold sort of half-open like a paperback book. As I said above, you can see the crease from an angle, but it mostly disappears when you are looking at it head-on. You can also feel the crease, which is a little disconcerting. But you get over it. (The photo above makes it look much worse than it is in person.)

There’s also that notch in the upper right corner, which houses the two cameras and various proximity and light sensors that every phone needs. That notch does get in the way sometimes. YouTube, for example, was cut off on full-screen videos, although Samsung will allow you to hide the notch with a black bar across the top of the display, similar to its current Galaxy devices. Samsung also had to do some extra work to make the screen flexible that you might not have thought of. For example, the adhesive that holds the different screen layers together had to be completely redone.

In terms of software, things are in a range I’d call “surprisingly acceptable.” That’s faint praise for any software, but here, I don’t mean it as a damnation. Android has historically been awful on tablets, but the screen on the Fold is small enough that it doesn’t make a big difference. There’s “App Continuity,” Samsung’s branding for a Google Android feature that allows the app you’re looking at on the smaller front screen to automatically open up on the inside, properly resized.

Properly resizing apps has been an Android bugbear since forever, but Samsung and Google have worked together to fix that for a lot of apps. A side effect of that work is that Samsung is able to let you do two- or three-tiled, split-screen apps. You slide over from the right edge of the screen to pull up a dock of the recently used apps and tap one to open it up in a split view. Then you can do it again to open up a third one, which is split on the right.

Active windows are indicated by little lozenge-shaped bars at the top of each app, and you can tap on them to slide apps to different positions or open up yet more windowing options. You can open up literal windows if you really want to, dragging them around the screen and resizing them.

All of this should be familiar to Samsung fans, as these features are based on a lot of the popover and windows work the company has introduced with its One UI software. But for everybody else, it could be a little confusing. Finally, there’s no getting around the blunt fact that Android apps are not as good on big screens as iPad apps. But, again, it’s not so offensive since this screen is a bit smaller.

And if you’re a Samsung fan, you might be interested to hear that the fingerprint sensor button is also the Bixby button. Above that is where you’ll find the traditional power and volume buttons. It’s not a big deal, but I’m so used to the concept of a fingerprint sensor button also being the power button that I got tripped up a little.

In terms of specs, the Galaxy Fold is very similar to a Galaxy S10 Plus. It has the same Snapdragon 855 processor, 12GB of RAM, and 512GB of storage. The cameras are similar to what you’d find on that phone, too, but there are more of them. The battery is 4,380mAh, with cells on both sides of the fold. Whether that’s enough for Samsung’s claimed full-day of use on a screen this large is anybody’s guess. The S10 tech that it’s based on has comported itself fairly well in terms of battery life, so there’s some reason to be optimistic.

On the back, you’ll find a three-camera array: one regular, one telephoto, and one wide angle. When the phone is closed, there’s a single front-facing 10-megapixel lens. When you have it opened to tablet mode, there’s a giant notch that houses yet another camera plus an RGB depth-sensing camera.

That’s technically six cameras, which is probably too many cameras. I would have preferred it if Samsung had chosen to just put a single small webcam inside for tablet mode and put the dual cameras on the outside, if only because it would reduce the size of the notch.

I walked into the New York hotel where Samsung is showing off the Fold, assuming that I would find something barely ready to ship. Samsung, after all, didn’t allow anybody outside of the company to actually touch the thing all through the past couple months of hype.

Yes, there are rough edges in the software, and the folding screen doesn’t feel as premium as other screens in this price category. There are still plenty of reasons to turn your nose up at the Galaxy Fold, especially at a price of $1,980.

But you shouldn't turn your nose up at the whole idea. Samsung has accomplished something special here, even though there's more work to be done.

It's a totally working folding phone. That's amazing. Whatever cynicism you want to feel about its issues, you can't be cynical when you open it up for the first time.


Update April 15th, 10:30am: Added details about ability to hide notch through software settings.

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