The story of folding phones thus far has been one of compromise. Choosing a folding phone over a standard slab design has generally meant you compromised on performance, durability, and most of all, price. They’ve been the domain of early adopters, the people willing to put up with those compromises.
Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip 3 is the first folding phone to challenge all that. It has the same processor as the Galaxy S21 released earlier this year. Its screen runs at a smooth 120Hz, just like Samsung’s other flagships. It has a new, allegedly more durable construction, plus IP water resistance, just like you’d expect on a modern phone. And most importantly, its starting price is $1,000, $450 less than the launch price of the Z Flip 5G it replaces. That puts the Flip 3 on the same price level as many high-end, non-folding phones.
The Flip 3 isn’t necessarily a sure bet, though. There are things it’s not as good at as other, standard phones. Using a folding phone like this is a different experience than many of us are used to. But increasingly, those differences boil down to personal preferences and choices, not compromises. And that means this is the first folding phone that can appeal to mainstream phone buyers, not just early adopters.
Galaxy Z Flip 3 design
The design of the Flip 3 is largely the same as the first Galaxy Flip and the Flip 5G that both came out last year. The goal of this folding phone is not to turn a normal-sized phone into a tablet, like the Galaxy Fold series, but go the opposite direction: turn a large phone into something that fits easier in your pocket or purse. When closed, the Flip 3 is roughly the size of my wallet, but open it up and you’ve got a spacious, though tall, 6.7-inch screen.
Also like the earlier Flips, the Flip 3 is rather thick when it’s closed — it’s effectively twice the thickness of normal phones. But that didn’t make it hard to handle or slide into my pocket. Since the Flip 3 is only half as tall as other phones, there’s no concern of it poking out the top of my pants pocket. If anything, it stayed in my pants and jacket pockets better than tall, thin phones — I never was concerned about it sliding out when I sat down.
The Flip 3’s hinge is mostly unchanged from last time — it’s still quite stiff and difficult to flick open with one hand, though satisfying to snap shut. (Samsung recommends using two hands to open the phone.) It can be positioned halfway open and stay there, so you can prop the phone up and take selfies, make a video call, or watch a video using only half the display. I never did this and don’t suspect many people outside of Samsung’s marketing materials would either.
Most of the durability improvements Samsung made are under the hood, including self-curing gaskets to keep out water. You can read about those changes in more detail in my colleague Dieter Bohn’s piece, but the takeaway is this: you don’t have to worry about getting the Flip 3 wet, which is quite an accomplishment for a delicate piece of electronics that literally folds in half. You do still have to be conscious of dust and debris — the Flip 3 has no official dust protection rating — and there’s still a visible gap in the hinge when it’s closed. TL;DR: the Flip 3 is good for the pool, not for the beach.
Otherwise, the fit and finish of the Flip 3 is on par with other flagship phones. The cream-colored review unit I have has a unique retro appeal, and its aluminum side rails and hinge have a soft, matte finish to them. (Samsung’s also providing a variety of other color options if cream isn’t your thing.) It doesn’t creak or grind disconcertingly when you open or close it, and the seams and tolerances are nice and tight.
The big, visible change Samsung made with the Flip 3 is increasing the size of the cover screen from a scant 1.1 inches out to 1.9 inches (measured diagonally), which translates to a roughly four times larger display. It’s much more useful for checking notifications and controlling media than the miniscule ticker screen on the prior Flips, but it’s still quite limited. Though the interface mimics a smartwatch, including swipeable panels for calendar appointments, weather, alarms, and timers, you can’t reply to an incoming message without using Bixby voice commands (no thanks) or opening up the phone fully. You can use the screen to frame up selfies, and the clock is customizable with different animations, but the cover screen itself could stand to be quite a bit larger still.
The cover screen’s limitations highlight how using the Flip 3 is different from a standard smartphone. You can’t just pick the Flip up and quickly do what you want one-handed — you almost always have to open the phone up, which often requires two hands. It’s less convenient than a standard phone and takes longer to do simple tasks because of this. I got around these limitations by just leaving the Flip open and treating it like a normal phone when I’m sitting at my desk or just hanging around the house, only bothering to close it when I wanted to put it in my pocket. But that largely defeats the reason you’d buy a folding phone in this style to begin with.
Samsung has a suite of colorful and fun cases for the Flip 3 that include built-in finger straps or rings to make it easier to hold the phone when it’s open. I got to try one of the strappy models and while the neon colors looked great and it was like having a built-in PopSocket on the phone, it doesn’t make it any easier to get the Flip 3 open with one hand.
Galaxy Z Flip 3 display
Once the Flip 3 is open, you’re treated to a 6.7-inch, 1080 pixel wide OLED display that gets brighter and has a faster refresh rate than the prior models. It looks and feels just as nice as Samsung’s other OLED screens, with fast touch response, punchy colors, deep blacks, and smooth scrolling. It’s easy to see outdoors, looks great when watching video, and is right up there in performance and quality compared to other flagship phones. The Flip 3’s 9:22 aspect ratio is taller than most phones, but other than that, it works just like any other modern smartphone.
On top of that upgraded display is a new factory-installed screen protector that’s made from a harder material than what Samsung used in the past. It’s much more difficult to dent or scratch than the old Flip’s gummy-feeling screen protector, and it feels much nicer to tap and swipe on. It’s basically indistinguishable in feel from the screen protectors many people put on top of normal phones and Samsung says it should last longer and bubble less than the old one. (In my week or so of testing I haven’t seen any bubbles form.) The company still does not recommend you remove the screen protector and if you need to get it replaced, it expects you to go to a certified repair center to have a new one installed.
You can still feel the crease in the center of the screen and if you look at the phone from an oblique angle, you can absolutely see it. But it never got in the way of actually using the phone and after a day or two, I just forgot about it.
Despite Samsung’s claims of improved durability with last year’s Flip phones, a disconcertingly large number of them still cracked right at the crease, even if they weren’t dropped or damaged. Samsung is putting a lot of weight on how it rearranged the screen’s layers to make them more durable this time around and claims the new screen protector makes the screen 80 percent stronger than before. The company is also giving away a year of its $12.99 per month extended warranty to those who preorder the Flip 3, which lets you get the screen fixed for a $249 fee. But I can understand why you might want to wait a few months and see how things shake out with the Flip 3’s screen durability before taking the plunge.
Galaxy Z Flip 3 performance
The Galaxy Flip 3 has the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor and 8GB of RAM as the Galaxy S21, and its performance is as quick and snappy as any other flagship phone released this year. It’s also fully compatible with all of the 5G flavors available in the US, including the still-rare-but-fast-if-you-can-find-it millimeter wave networks.
Performance and battery life are right in line with what you’d expect from a flagship phone
Battery life is also just fine, providing between four and five hours of screentime between charges. That’s enough to last me a full day without concern and the wireless charging makes it easy to top up the battery on my nightstand or when I’m at my desk. You can get phones that last longer between charges, but most people won’t have a problem with the Flip 3’s stamina. One note: the Flip 3, like many other high-end phones released in the past couple of years, does not come with a charging brick in the box. It supports up to 15W fast charging, but you’ll have to BYOB (bring your own brick).
New for the Flip 3 is a set of stereo speakers, a noticeable upgrade over the mono speaker on the older Flips. The new speakers are much louder and make watching video more enjoyable, though I noticed the earpiece speaker was noticeably louder than the bottom speaker when I watched YouTube, as if the stereo balance was shifted. That could be because the speaker is facing directly at me, while the bottom speaker fires off to the side, but Samsung wasn’t able to immediately explain it when I asked. Still not available is a headphone jack, so you’d better like those speakers or use Bluetooth headphones with the Flip 3.
Galaxy Z Flip 3 camera
Perhaps the area where Samsung made the least forward progress is with the Flip 3’s camera array. The 12-megapixel standard wide and ultrawide rear cameras and the 10-megapixel front-facing selfie camera have the same specs and lenses as last year’s Flip 5G. It’s an area where you are required to make different choices about your priorities compared to standard flagship phones that have more capable or versatile camera systems.
That isn’t to say the Flip 3’s cameras are bad, it’s just that if camera quality or features are the primary concerns for you in a phone, it’s not the best one to choose. Pictures from any of the cameras are characteristically Samsung, with vibrant, almost oversaturated colors, lots of sharpening, and noticeable smoothing of faces.
The results are images that many people will find pleasing and want to share right away, without making many edits or adjustments or zooming in to compare fine details. The Flip 3 is not as good in low light as an iPhone 12 Pro Max or Pixel 5, nor does it have the versatility of the Samsung S21 Ultra’s long telephoto lens. But for everyday snaps and casual picture taking, the Flip 3 is plenty capable. Plus, you can use the cover screen to frame selfies with the main cameras, though it’s still too small for me to do that comfortably.
Galaxy Z Flip 3 software and other stuff
The rest of the Flip 3’s story is typical Samsung. It’s running Android 11 with Samsung’s OneUI interface on top of it. It’s fine, if a bit cluttered, and Samsung is still using its stock apps as places to jam unwanted ads, which is gross and annoying. (At least, at launch there will be ads. Samsung says it will be removing them later this year.)
Once it’s open, the Z Flip 3 is just like any other Samsung
Unlike the Fold line of phones, the Flip 3 isn’t trying to replace a tablet or come up with any new multitasking paradigms, and it doesn’t have any issue displaying popular apps like Instagram. Once it’s open, it basically just works like any other Samsung phone, complete with Samsung’s app store, browser, mobile payments, notes app, health app, and more. Samsung has committed to delivering four years of security updates and three generations of new Android platform updates on its phones, which means your folding phone’s software support might last longer than its screen does.
The original Galaxy Z Flip showed that a folding phone can feel like a normal phone, once you get over its wow factor. It can be the kind of thing that you just get used to day in and day out.
The Z Flip 3 is Samsung applying its relentless iteration to that idea and making it something that is a normal phone, right down to the price it charges for it. Samsung has systematically checked off the boxes that made earlier Flip models purely curiosities: performance, features, price, and durability.
The Z Flip 3 is the first foldable that’s also a normal phone
I don’t think the Flip 3 is for everyone — there are still people out there who want the absolute best camera or aren’t intrigued by the idea of what the Flip offers. And how well its improved durability holds up over the long term is still an open question. But it’s the first folding phone where I can see a lot of people choosing it, particularly when it’s the same cost as a phone that looks the same as what they’ve been using for years.
Just a few years ago, it seemed like folding phones were just a futuristic experiment. With the Z Flip 3, the second phase of the experiment begins, the one where we find out if folding phones can appeal to more than just early adopters. It’s an important proving ground for the concept and fortunately the Z Flip 3 appears up to the task.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge
Correction: An earlier version of this review stated the Z Flip 3 supported 25W fast charging. Its fast charging is actually limited to 15W. We regret the error.