It’s August, and today is Samsung’s latest big Unpacked event. Normally that would mean the time has come for a new Galaxy Note. But in the company’s own words, not “this time around.” There’s no new Note being announced this year, and so the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra will stay right where they are in Samsung’s lineup. Instead, this summer the focus is on what Samsung sees as the future of phones: foldables. The company has just introduced the new Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3, a pair of devices that showcase the potential of folding screens in different ways.
The Z Fold 3 is a productivity powerhouse that now has 120Hz displays both inside and out. And it’s carrying over some of the Galaxy Note’s DNA by adding support for the S Pen stylus. But what’s even more important than the usual spec upgrades is the message Samsung is sending about durability: the Fold 3 is more resilient than its predecessors.
Remember: this is technically the fourth Galaxy Fold if you count the flawed, abandoned first attempt, and the company recognizes there are still lingering durability concerns it needs to overcome. Samsung made strides with the Galaxy Z Fold 2, but some people still encountered cracking screens and other show-stopping problems from normal usage that just shouldn’t happen — even if Samsung’s customer service made it right for them.
So for the Fold 3, Samsung made a slew of changes to the device’s materials and internal design that should give the $1,799 foldable smartphone a better chance of lasting years into the future. It looks similar to the Fold 2, but refinements are everywhere. The screen’s protective film is now 80 percent stronger; Samsung is using Gorilla Glass Victus on the cover screen for improved drop protection; the aluminum in the Fold 3’s hinge is now 10 percent stronger. And the entire device is now rated IPX8 for water resistance, meaning you can submerge it for up to 30 minutes and it should come out unscathed.
The Z Fold 3 is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888, has 12GB of RAM, and comes in 256GB or 512GB storage configurations. Its three rear cameras are close to what was in the Fold 2: the f/1.8 wide, f/2.0 ultra-wide, and f/2.4 telephoto cameras still use 12-megapixel sensors and the apertures are unchanged. But the tele lens now features optical image stabilization. The 10MP camera on the cover screen is also the same.
But there’s quite a change to the camera that’s on the Fold 3’s primary screen. Samsung has switched from a hole-punch selfie camera to an under-display camera. It’s not the first time we’ve seen such an approach; Xiaomi just yesterday announced a phone with an under-display camera.
Samsung’s got a 4-megapixel sensor beneath the screen’s pixels. That sounds measly for photos, but the purpose of this camera is really for video chats. The company says it’s perfectly adequate for Zoom calls and other videoconferencing, and 4MP is good enough to produce HD video.
But let’s just be up front about it: you can absolutely tell there’s a camera in there. Samsung says there are “minimum pixels applied on top of the camera hole,” and they’re extremely noticeable when you’re looking right at the circle. (It’s even more obvious in photos, so don’t be too put off by the image below.) The point isn’t to completely hide the camera; it’s to make the display feel like an “unbroken canvas” when you’re using the phone. Focus on any other part of the screen, and the under-display camera sort of vanishes from view in a way that a hole-punch camera wouldn’t. It still seems like a lot of work for minimal payoff, but sometimes Samsung just likes to flex. Also, yes, the crease in the middle of the screen is still present. I find myself barely noticing it when the display is on, but it’s very much there.
As for the S Pen, the stylus works on the Fold 3’s 7.6-inch primary screen — though oddly not the cover display, Samsung told me. The company developed a special “Fold Edition” S Pen that covers all the basics, and the more expensive S Pen Pro is also supported and adds air gestures and some Bluetooth tricks. (Both are sold separately from the Fold 3.) The S Pen Pro has a nifty toggle switch that you can flip when using the stylus with other Samsung devices; they apparently use a different frequency than the Fold 3.
Both compatible S Pens have “a specially engineered retractable tip” that limits the force you can apply to the Fold 3’s screen. The screen protector might be 80 percent stronger, but it’s still delicate ultra-thin glass under there. Even so, I pressed down fairly hard during my hands-on time with the phone, and neither S Pen left any permanent line marks on the protective film. But I realize that’s not helpful for determining how the Fold 3 will hold up to a year or more of taking notes, sketching, editing PDFs, and so on.
Samsung seems determined to help Z Fold 3 owners do more with its spacious screen real estate — even in cases where app developers aren’t yet on board. A new Labs feature in settings lets you put any app into split-screen or pop-up view when multitasking. You can also customize an app’s aspect ratio. The company says it has polished up the multitasking gestures and is promising an experience that feels more cohesive and intuitive. You can now permanently pin your Edge Panel to the side of the screen like a dock.
Preorders for Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3 start today and it’s available in three colors: black, green, and silver. The flagship foldable will go on sale August 27th alongside the Galaxy Z Flip 3, Galaxy Buds 2, and two new smartwatches that Samsung also introduced today. Stay tuned for our full review soon.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge