The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the best possible case Samsung can make for a phone that unfolds into a small tablet. It’s the fourth iteration of the same basic idea, refined and repaired over the course of years following an embarrassing false-start failure on the first attempt.
Because this is a story of refinement, the changes since the last model are minor. But added together, they make this the model that crosses that hard-to-define boundary between experimental and normal.
Although the Z Fold 3 feels like a refined, established product, it’s still not really normal. It’s a marvel of material science that’s by turns wonderful and awkward. And its price is also still far from normal, too — even after a price drop, it starts a $1,799.99.
If you like the basic idea of the Z Fold but have been waiting for Samsung to fix its biggest issues, the steady and relentless refinement on display here is worth a look. If you think the whole idea is an extravagant and silly technical flex, none of these changes will change your mind.
Even though those two opinions are almost diametrically opposed, I can’t really argue with either one. The Z Fold 3 is great and silly.
When closed, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is still an extremely tall, narrow, and thick slab of a device that’s more akin to a remote control than a traditional phone. It’s awkward to fit into a pocket both because of its shape and its weight — although it’s slightly lighter than last year, fundamentally it’s still the size of two phones and it has the weight to match.
Samsung’s big addition to the hardware is IPX8 water resistance. I’ve dunked it in a vase and held it under a fountain without issue. I won’t speak to whether the durability improvements Samsung made this year will be enough to keep the phone intact long term, but at least initially it seems solid. I don’t feel like I need to baby this device.
There’s still a gap at the hinge when it’s closed, but otherwise all the tolerances between the parts are tight. Samsung is still using tiny brushes inside the hinge to keep dust and debris out, but I’d still recommend keeping it away from any serious amount of grit or sand.
The outer screen fills out the entire front of the display, and though it’s 6.2 inches diagonally, it feels much smaller because it’s so narrow. Samsung increased the refresh rate on the exterior display to 120Hz, so everything on it feels smooth; the main compromise when using it is that it’s just really hard to type on. Swipe-typing helps, but Samsung’s built-in keyboard still isn’t as good as Gboard at accuracy, and you’ll want to stick with Samsung’s keyboard since it has better options when in tablet mode.
Open the phone up and you’re treated to the 7.6-inch display, which is bright, sharp, and has the same 120Hz refresh rate for smooth scrolling with less of the “jelly effect” that plagued the earlier versions. It’s a great screen with one glaring problem: the interior selfie camera.
Samsung opted for an under-display camera, one of the first to ship in the US. The camera itself is terrible, only 4 megapixels, and even those few are compromised by taking in light through a screen. Camera quality isn’t the problem, though — if I want to take a selfie, there are literally four other cameras I can use that are better. Think of it as a webcam for video calls.
Instead, the problem is how the screen looks when the camera is off. When there’s a brighter background over it — or text — it has a screen-door look that is both ugly and distracting. If I shift my head or the phone even a little, there’s a moire effect that instantly draws my eye — even after a week of use it’s still happening.
Samsung wants the Z Fold 3 to be a showcase of its technical prowess, but that desire has led it into putting a too-experimental feature on a premium device. The under-display camera literally mars the experience. Samsung needs to put a setting in to turn the screen over the camera off entirely and just revert this thing back to a hole punch.
Surprisingly, that is my only real complaint about the interior screen. Which is saying something since it’s a giant, 7.6-inch display that folds in half. Samsung put a lot of emphasis on how it has made this screen stronger, thanks to how it re-layered the different internal components from the screen.
It still uses Samsung’s so-called “Ultra Thin Glass,” but that glass is still covered with layers of plastic. The top layer is a PET screen protector which feels much more like any other screen protector you’ve used on a phone. It radically changes the experience of the Z Fold 3 as it’s a lot more resistant to smudges and indentations.
There is still a crease between the two halves, and I still am not too bothered by it. It’s mostly visible at an angle and largely goes away when you’re looking at the phone straight on.
The other new layer on this screen is made up of a couple of Wacom digitizers so you can use a new kind of Samsung S Pen stylus with it. The Fold-specific S Pen is sold separately, and there’s no place to store it without a special case, which means you’ll be spending upward of $50 or even $80 more if you want to use stylus input.
Drawing and sketching with the S Pen on the large screen is nice — there’s not much lag, it seems accurate even across the crease (where algorithms detect position), and it glides cleanly across that new PET layer. Unfortunately, the Fold wobbles when you draw on a table, even with one of Samsung’s own cases.
You also can’t use the stylus on the outer display, which means it’s not as good at taking quick notes as the Galaxy Note. Hopefully Samsung won’t discontinue that line for people who really do depend on having quick and easy access to a stylus.
Samsung has also refined the software that runs the Z Fold 3. Shockingly, One UI 3 has made the Android tablet experience halfway decent.
That is a strange thing to type as I (and every reviewer I know) have been ragging on Android tablets for nearly a decade. But the subtle improvements Samsung made this year wrangle Android’s biggest tablet problems into flexible, usable little windows.
Too many Android apps don’t re-form themselves to work better on tablet-size screens; they’re just stretched-out phone apps. That’s still the case this year, but some basics like getting multiple columns in Gmail or tabs in a browser work. Others, like Twitter or Slack, still look a little dopey.
However, Samsung’s multitasking system for windowing and managing apps has become adept at putting those recalcitrant apps in their place. You can drag and drop icons from a sidebar to put things into split screen or into a three-up layout. You can even pin that sidebar to be permanently visible for an even more tablet-like experience.
Against all reason, Android on a tablet is good
Critically, you can more easily adjust the width and height of those various layouts now by simply dragging the dividers around. You can also tap those dividers to easily rearrange the various windows if you don’t want to deal with dragging them around. Saving those custom layouts to the sidebar is simple, too.
Finally, there’s a “labs” feature that lets you strong-arm apps into playing nice with this new system if they haven’t been updated to resize properly on a modern Android device. You can set Instagram to fill the entire screen, for example, or resize TikTok into a little distracting-as-hell side rail.
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. The iPadOS ecosystem of apps is still light-years ahead of Android when it comes to tablet options. But Samsung and Google have finally managed to push the Android tablet experience to the point where I am comfortable doing more advanced things than I can on a phone.
But really, the thing about the big screen on the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is that it is a big screen. Big screens are great. They’re nicer for watching movies, playing games, reading books, and everything else. All the things that people like about outsized slabs like Samsung’s Ultra line or Apple’s Max phones are even better on this big screen. Hell: I can actually read and annotate PDFs on this device without having to tediously pan, pinch, and scroll around.
It helps that the Z Fold 3 is excellent from a performance perspective. The Snapdragon 888 processor and 12GB of RAM keep up with multiple active windows at once. The 4,400mAh battery, however, isn’t quite what I would hope for in terms of longevity. I can get through a full day with four-ish hours of screentime, but getting more than that would require changing my usage in a way I wouldn’t want to. We’re used to tablets lasting forever, but this folding tablet is more akin to your average phone when it comes to battery life.
The cameras are also more akin to what you’ll get on an average phone, not a flagship. The main selfie camera on the outside is 10MP and it’s perfectly serviceable. On the rear, you’ve got three 12-megapixel sensors for wide, ultrawide, and 2X telephoto. The only real change Samsung made since last year was adding optical image stabilization to the telephoto.
The results are classic Samsung: punchy, bright, sharp, and vivid — too often to a fault. Samsung tunes its camera to look great on Samsung screens, not to be true to what your eye might see in the moment. It’s a choice I don’t love, but at least on a technical level the images are good enough to work with. Similarly, the Z Fold 3 does a passable job with night photos.
For $1,800 I’d like something better, but that money is going toward the screen, the waterproofing, and all the rest. If camera quality is your top priority, this isn’t the phone for you.
Samsung’s big goal for its folding phones this year is to make them “mainstream.” For the Z Flip 3, Samsung hopes it can become a premium alternative for people who would otherwise buy a “normal” phone. For the Z Fold 3, the goal is to creating an entirely new class of flagship that its competitors can’t match. In both cases, Samsung’s putting all this effort in because its more traditional flagship phones are plummeting in popularity as Xiaomi and others undercut it on price while matching quality.
Samsung’s goals aren’t our problem, but they do lead to a benefit: folding phones that we can simply judge on their merits instead of simply gawking at tech demos. They’re still too spendy in my opinion, but I wouldn’t second-guess anybody who decides to spring for one of them. You know how you’ll be using your phone and at some point you have to walk over to your laptop to actually get something done? With the Z Fold 3, it takes me longer to get to that point.
As good as it gets, but that might not be good enough
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is as good as it gets when it comes to a phone that unfolds into a tablet. Until there’s another technological breakthrough that can change the flexibility of glass or the size of batteries, I don’t see anything fundamentally better than this coming along for some time.
However, it’s still an awkward thing to carry around and use one-handed, and it’s still super expensive. The tradeoffs just don’t seem worth it. Then again, once upon a time we all said the same thing about the tradeoffs for big-screened phones like the Note. For a small sliver of tech-savvy people who know what they’re getting into, I could actually recommend the Z Fold 3. But for most people, as good as it gets is still not good enough.
Photography by Dieter Bohn / The Verge