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Samsung Galaxy Fold review: broken dream

The future is still very fragile

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This is going to be a weird review.

It’ll be weird because, as I’m sure you’ve heard, several reviewers have experienced their Galaxy Fold review unit screens breaking a day or two after receiving them. Some of those breaks happened because Samsung didn’t warn reviewers that a “protective layer” that looks exactly like a removable screen protector is not removable at all, but instead it’s a “part of the display structure.”

At least two outlets — The Verge and CNBC — had review units with similarly catastrophic results but much more mysterious causes. I still don’t know how I got the bulge in my first Fold’s hinge that ultimately destroyed its flexible OLED panel, but it happened.

As of this writing, Samsung hasn’t said what the cause might be. And since I and the journalists at CNBC returned the broken units to Samsung so we could get replacements, we’re waiting on Samsung to offer up an explanation.

Update: at 10:00AM ET on Monday, April 22nd, three days after the original publication of this review, Samsung announced that it is indefinitely delaying the release of the Galaxy Fold. There may even be design changes in the works to improve the durability of the screen. The rest of our review follows as is. Instead of looking at it in the spirit of reviewing it “as if” the screen issue was resolved, consider it now a review “as if” it had been released to the public in the same form that I reviewed it.

We will, of course, re-review the device after Samsung tells us what, if any, changes it is making to the design.

I’ll just say it right out front: I cannot recommend that anybody buy this thing until we know what’s up with these broken screens. The whole situation isn’t quite the fiasco of exploding Note 7 smartphones, as nobody’s safety is threatened, but it is, well, weird.

So here’s what I’m going to do: review the Galaxy Fold as if this whole terrible screen breaking thing will get resolved. Don’t take that to mean that I think it absolutely will be or that I think you should dismiss these problems. Entirely the opposite: you should not buy this phone until we get more information — and even then, it’s not a great purchase.

But there’s enough to say about this device, its foibles, and the future it promises that I want to tell you about it. Because the other weird thing about the Galaxy Fold is this:

I have never used a device with this many problems that I have liked this much.

The Samsung Galaxy Fold essentially takes the recent Galaxy S10 Plus and turns it into a platform for a wild new kind of device. It has a flexible 7.3-inch OLED screen that folds up, with a second little screen on the outside. The result is a tiny Android tablet that folds up into phone that’s much smaller than a tablet — albeit much thicker.

Because it’s a new kind of device, there are a thousand things to talk about, the kinds of things that we don’t usually need to address when we’re talking about plain old smartphones. Which way does the screen fold? Is plastic really durable enough? Is there a gap when it’s folded? Is it too heavy? What is the hinge mechanism like? How does the software translate from a small screen to a big screen? Is there a visible crease in the screen? If there is a crease, how noticeable is it, and should we be forgiving of it in the same way we forgive notches?

The more important questions to answer are different. Is a foldable phone fundamentally different than either a phone or a tablet? Does it help you get more done or have more fun or — maybe — help foster a healthier relationship between you and your gadget? Ultimately, is a folding phone better in some tangible way than a regular phone?

I’ll try to answer as many of those questions as I can, but I can only gesture at some of them. What I can definitively say is that at $1,980 and with a cloud hanging over the Fold’s reliability, you should not buy it.

The Galaxy Fold is also beset with issues that stack up into a pile that you can’t excuse away by saying this is just a first-generation product. There are basic user experience issues that are unacceptable on any smartphone, much less one that costs two grand.

What you should do is head to a store and play around with it because it is legitimately a marvelous thing to play with. Beyond that, it’s a status symbol, a curiosity, and a little tease at a possible future.

Let’s start with the main screen, the big one on the inside that folds. On an objective basis, using the same standards we apply to any smartphone, the screen on the Galaxy Fold is bad. And that is wild to say because, again, subjectively, I deeply enjoy using it.

The biggest issue everybody wants to know about is the crease. There’s just no pretending that it isn’t there or that you don’t see it or feel it when you run your finger across it. Especially when you’re looking at it from an angle, it’s just a really obvious line through the middle of the screen. What’s worse, it’s a really obvious line that has two different color temperatures on either side of it when you look at it from an angle.

The crease is nearly invisible when you look straight at it, but it’s clearly visible at an angle

But when you start using the Fold, it tends to disappear. I stopped seeing it; it is actually difficult to spot when you’re looking at the Fold straight-on, which means that my subjective experience is just that it’s a great little 7-inch tablet. The screen is just slightly smaller than the iPad mini’s, but the Galaxy Fold has radically smaller bezels.

If that were the whole story, I’d tell you that the crease is a sort of modern version of the notch: a thing that is annoying but ultimately something you can get used to. I could tell you that it’s one of the things that is just going to happen on a folding phone, then move on to say that the colors are super vivid, the text is sharp, and it gets plenty bright.

But I can’t tell you that because the crease is just the start of this screen’s issues. I am sympathetic to the argument that one of the first folding smartphone screens should be judged differently than the screen on a top-tier smartphone like an iPhone or regular Galaxy S phone. But even if you lower or change the bar, you really can’t paper over the rest of the problems with this screen.

The blunt fact of the Galaxy Fold’s main screen is that it’s made of plastic and covered over with that thick, polymer layer. It isn’t as smooth as glass, and it’s nowhere near as hard. My second review unit has a little “dimple” in one spot, and in just a couple days of use, it has picked up a half-dozen little nicks.

Those flaws are hard to see when the screen is on, but I shudder to think what this plastic layer is going to look like in a month, six months, or a couple of years. I’ve asked Samsung if it plans to have some sort of extended warranty program to replace that screen protector thing, but it doesn’t have a comment on that. Here’s my suggestion: every Fold owner should be able to get that plastic layer replaced by Samsung on a regular basis. (And, no, do not try to peel it off yourself.)

Although Samsung wouldn’t comment on most of the questions I’ve been asking in the course of doing this review, it did have a statement about the dings and nicks on the screen.

The main display of the Galaxy Fold is made with a new, advanced polymer layer and adhesive that’s flexible and tough enough to endure repeated folding actions with an extra protective layer to guard against impact. The protective layer is susceptible to blemishes and marks in certain circumstances, but they will not hinder your experience or the content you are viewing.

I’m not done. There’s one more problem, one that I had hoped to never see again: the dreaded “jelly scroll.” One side of the screen scrolls faster than the other side. I think it’s because, unlike with most other phones, the guts that run the screen are probably on the side instead of on the top or bottom. It’s the sort of thing you won’t notice until it’s pointed out to you. Then you notice it. Then you can’t not see it.

Another thing that’s hard to unsee is the notch at the top right of the screen that houses the cameras. It’s really big. That’s fine when you’re just reading or browsing around on the internet, but it’s terrible when you’re watching video. YouTube, Netflix, and HBO Now all get cut off by the notch. The only fix is to dig way into the Fold’s settings to find the checkbox that hides the entire top bar of the phone. It works, but it means you lose a bunch of screen real estate as the status bar gets pushed down.

The screen picks up dings, has a bad jelly effect on scrolling, and many mechanical points of failure — but it’s still enjoyable to use

Even if you’re willing to forgive all of that (and you really shouldn’t), there are still a lot of moving parts. Literally: the hinge behind the screen; the bending of the screen itself; the fact that there are tiny gaps right at the bend point where debris could get in underneath the screen and damage it; the weird plastic rail that serves as a bezel and holds the whole thing down, under which the screen probably needs to be able to move just a little.

Those are all potential points of failure. One of those things might have been the root cause of what broke the screen on my original review unit.

And yet, using the Galaxy Fold in tablet mode is a joy. It’s great to have a huge screen for watching videos and reading. You can get real tabs in your browser, across the top where they belong. You can get a full three-column layout in Gmail. Plus, this might actually be my favorite Kindle book reading device — and I own a top-flight Kindle Oasis. You can rotate it sideways and get two columns of text, and you get all of the Android app features that work better with a real touchscreen than they do on a traditional Kindle.

The screen is terrible, but quite often, using the screen is wonderful.

If this were a traditional phone, we’d be spending a lot of time talking about the standard stuff you talk about with phones: the speed, the specs, the cameras, and so on. The bottom line for all of that on the Galaxy Fold is that it performs very well. It’s fast, it has a ton of storage, and it has remarkably good battery life. It also takes very good photos.

That’s because the core guts of the phone are very nearly the same as the Galaxy S10 Plus. It has a Snapdragon 855 processor, 12GB of RAM, and 512GB of storage. I have had zero problems with performance, and I have been able to get as many as five app windows open at the same time — likely thanks to that capacious RAM. Gaming works great, too: I could hold 30 fps in Fortnite with pretty aggressive graphics settings.

In terms of pure specs, the Galaxy Fold holds up — especially on battery life

There are six cameras. On the back is a wide, regular, and telephoto lens. The selfie camera on the front is the same as the Galaxy S10, and the dual-selfie cameras inside are the same as the S10 Plus. What all that really means is that your photos will be very good, but not quite as good as what you’ll get on a Pixel 3 or Huawei P30 Pro.

One spec I am super impressed by is battery life. The Fold has a 4,380mAh battery, and it just lasts. My screen time has been well over eight hours pretty much every day, and I haven’t been bothering to ratchet down the screen brightness. Tablets generally have great battery life, and the Galaxy Fold is better thought of as a tablet that folds than a phone that unfolds.

There’s wireless charging, reverse wireless charging, and a USB-C port. There is no headphone jack. There are two speakers, and they sound good and get loud, but they’re super easy to muffle with your palms when you hold the Fold in landscape mode to watch a video.

All of the buttons are on the right side, including the fingerprint sensor. Once it’s set up, the fingerprint sensor is fast and accurate. But instead of living on the power button, it lives on the Bixby button. So I ended up accidentally triggering the somewhat-useless Bixby Assistant a bunch of times, and it did make me wonder if that was exactly Samsung’s goal.

In terms of overall build quality, well, what can I say? Before my first unit broke, I thought that the hinge felt remarkably solid. I wish there was some kind of waterproofing, but I get that it would be really hard to do. Until we know more about why at least two of the review units out in the world broke, we have to call build quality a huge question mark.

As a physical object, there’s no getting around the fact that this thing is pretty awkward. When folded, it’s super tall and super skinny, more like a remote control than a phone. It’s also really thick. Lots of people have made the joke that this feels like two phones taped together, and they’re not wrong. The thickness is not helped by the fact that there’s an “air gap” by the hinge because it can’t fold completely flat.

It’s so tall and so thick that fitting it into a pants pocket is awkward. And if you have smaller pockets, forget about it. You will want to put it in a purse or jacket pocket or just carry it around everywhere.

When the Fold is closed, you can use a tiny 4.6-inch screen on the front that sits weirdly in the middle of the device and is surrounded by giant bezels. It might sound strange to say that 4.6 inches is “tiny,” but that’s the diagonal measurement. The reality is that it’s a bad measurement for such a tall, narrow screen. (Ask Pythagoras.)

The front screen is so narrow that it’s nearly impossible to type on. I should also note that it uses an entirely different home screen layout than the main home screen (though it shares the organization of your app drawer).

That turns out to be a huge boon because, practically speaking, you should think of that front screen like a superpowered lock screen. I just put the apps I use during my commute on it, including Spotify, Google Maps, and Holedown. I’ll dismiss notifications and do little tasks, but for anything more serious than that, you’ll want to open the phone up and use the main display.

Overall, the software is better than I expected, but I didn’t expect a lot. Android has never been great on tablets, but Samsung’s One UI helps. The big new thing is a feature called App Continuity. If you have an app open on the tiny front screen, it will be right there on the big screen when you unfold it, fully resized. It’s based on the work Google is doing to make Android apps resizable on Chromebooks and tablets, but not all apps support it. Sometimes you get black bars on the big screen, and you’ll have to relaunch the app to fix it.

Resizable apps also let Samsung do its multitasking trick, which amounts to a split-screen mode with an option to tile a third window. To enable it, you can swipe over from the right to pull up a recently used list of apps and select one to open on a split screen. When you do that, there’s a little bar at the top of each app, which turns blue to indicate which app has the focus for typing. You can drag the divider to change the size of each of the two apps.

Then you can open a third app on the right by repeating the same action. Grabbing those little bars lets you rearrange which app is in which tile, but that two- or three-up layout is all you get. It works better than previous Android windowing systems I’ve used, but that’s not saying much. And even on a 7.3-inch screen, it feels really crowded.

If you really want them, all of the wackadoo multiscreen options from Samsung’s One UI interface are still here. You can tap on that bar and pop out the app into a little resizable window, which can also collapse into a floating icon that you can put anywhere on the screen. It’s neat if you have a messaging app you always want to be quickly available.

All of this is fine, but it’s also kind of confusing. It’s definitely less elegant than the relatively simple split-screen-plus-slide-over system the iPad uses. What’s more, if you close the tablet, all of those tiled windows go away, and you lose the state of your workspace. Hopefully, the promised changes coming in Android Q will fix some of this (and hopefully, Samsung will actually update the Fold with that software in a timely manner).

I think that the vast majority of people who get this will use one app at a time on the main screen and be happy about having a big screen.

All this week, I kept coming back to a thought about how we use our phones. We pull them out to check something quickly, but then, all of a sudden, a half-hour disappears scrolling Instagram or Twitter or whatever. It’s a real problem.

But it’s a problem I didn’t really have with the Galaxy Fold. When I was using the tiny screen, I just wanted to get something done quickly and put it away because the screen was small, and I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to unfold it.

On the flip side, when I was using Galaxy Fold unfolded, I was really using it. I had to hold it in two hands, and it felt much more like using a tablet, an active device I was choosing to use. It requires some small measure of intentionality — more than a phone, anyway.

I found myself using it in meetings, and nobody batted an eye. I was reviewing docs for the meeting, but I could have just as easily been messing around on social media. But think about the social rules of a work meeting: somebody messing around on their phone is a jerk, but somebody using a tablet is more likely to be doing something relevant. The Fold feels like a different device with different social rules, and that’s fascinating.

Phones are funny things. They fit into our in-between times when you’re waiting in line or you have a minute to glance at something. But then they fill up all of those moments — and much more. The Galaxy Fold is just too big to fit in those in-between times. It is less useful than a phone when you’re walking, and it’s way more useful when you’re sitting down. I ended up feeling better about how I was using this than I usually do with a regular phone.

Is that worth two thousand bucks? Is it worth all of the compromises and first-generation problems you run into with this device? Is it worth the risk of buying a phone whose screen might be so fragile that it could break at any minute if a piece of debris gets in between it and the hinge? No, it is not.

But it is worth thinking about. Even though I would never buy the Galaxy Fold and wouldn’t recommend anybody else does either, I’m going to keep thinking about it. Because there might be the start of something really new here, something really different.

I just wish it wasn’t also something really broken.

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