There’s finally, finally, some competition in the folding phone space in the US. Google’s highly anticipated Pixel Fold is here to compete in the tablet-that-can-fit-in-your-pocket market that Samsung has basically had to itself for four years.
The Pixel Fold is good, with some real advancements for folding phones. But, unsurprisingly, there are a lot of areas where it lags behind Samsung. It turns out that a four-year jumpstart does actually make a difference.
My colleague Allison Johnson has a full review that I encourage you to read for all the nitty-gritty details. I’ve been testing the Pixel Fold alongside Allison for the past week or so with a little different approach. As someone that’s owned three generations of Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold devices and still uses a Z Fold 4 regularly, my goal has been to see exactly how Google’s effort measures up. Spoiler alert: I prefer the Samsung, for now.
Hardware and design
Though the Pixel Fold and Z Fold 4 share the same overall concept — a phone-sized device that opens up into a small tablet — they go about accomplishing it in different ways. The most obvious difference is the Z Fold 4 has a portrait-first approach: when you open the phone, the screen’s default mode is in a portrait orientation. The Pixel Fold is flipped 90 degrees: when you open it, the inside screen has a landscape orientation.
This difference has notable impact on the experience each device provides and determines the size and shape of the outer display. The Pixel Fold’s orientation allows it to have a shorter, wider, and more useful cover screen. Its familiar proportions just “look right”; apps run as expected, and it’s easy to type on it. The Samsung has a taller, narrower cover screen, which feels notably more cramped, and some apps have difficulty flowing their layouts on it.
But once you open the Pixel Fold, this landscape-first orientation often gets in the way. It’s not a problem for apps that are optimized for it (mostly Google’s own), and it’s ideal for watching video or playing most games. Split-screening two apps at the same time works well here, too. But a lot of third-party apps are not expecting a landscape-oriented phone screen, which leads them to launch in pillarboxed windows on the Pixel Fold. Rotating the phone 90 degrees often fixes the problem, and most apps can then fill the screen. But that means I spend a lot of time turning the Pixel Fold on its side to do everyday tasks, which gets tedious.
The Samsung doesn’t have this issue. Apps launched on its default orientation just work the vast majority of the time. The Z Fold requires rotating it 90 degrees for an optimal experience watching video or split-screening two apps, occasional but not primary activities for me. Most of my time spent on the phone is in single, vertical-scrolling, portrait-oriented apps, so I prefer the default mode to be the one that works best for most apps.
The landscape orientation of the Pixel Fold also allows it to work better in a half-folded, laptop-like shape. It’s nice to have this for propping the phone up when watching a video, but I personally do not use this feature very much on either phone, so the advantage of the Pixel Fold is lost on me.
If the whole point of a folding phone is the inside screen, I don’t want that experience compromised to make the outside screen better
For me, the whole point of buying a phone like this is to have that inside screen, not to spend most of my time using the outside display. The Z Fold 4’s outer screen is not as nice to use as the Pixel Fold’s, but it works well enough for the brief amount of time I spend on it. Its inside screen, however, is much better suited for the vast majority of Android apps and is more enjoyable to use as a result.
The two phones trade blows in other hardware areas, too. Despite having the same exact size inside screens, the Z Fold 4 is both lighter and smaller than the Pixel Fold. I noticed this difference every time I used the Pixel Fold — even though it’s only 20 grams more, the weight plus the larger footprint makes it more unwieldy. It’s just more comfortable to hold the Z Fold.
I didn’t observe much in the way of performance differences between the two devices, despite their different processors, but I did notice that the screens on the Samsung are a bit better than the Pixel’s. That’s not to say the Pixel’s are bad, but both of the Z Fold 4’s screens are brighter, which was immediately apparent when using the phones outdoors. It’s almost like the Pixel Fold is using screens from a generation or two ago, which I suspect it is since Samsung increased the brightness of its displays for the Z Fold 4.
The Z Fold 4 also has more predictable and reliable battery life than the Pixel Fold, which was all over the place in the week or so I’ve been using it. Sometimes I would be able to use it for five or six hours of screen time and still last to bedtime; other times, it would need a charge mid-day just to make it through dinner. Standby time on the Pixel seems to be really bad, which we observed across multiple test devices. The Z Fold also has louder, better-sounding speakers than the Pixel Fold and has both of them in the same “half” of the phone, as opposed to splitting them between the two halves like the Pixel does, so you’re less likely to block them when holding the phone. Both of those things are important when one of the most common use cases for these phones is watching a lot of video.
Google does have one absolute advantage over the Z Fold 4: the Pixel Fold is able to close completely flat, with no visible gap between the halves like on the Samsung. It’s also noticeably thinner when closed, which makes it slip into a pocket a little easier. It’s the one area where I wish my Z Fold 4 was better. But all reports indicate that Samsung will catch up here with the Z Fold 5, due to be released in about a month.
The Pixel Fold also has a better camera system than the Z Fold 4, which isn’t a surprise. I’ll lay my biases on the table here: I’m deeply bored by phone cameras at this point, and the differences between the majority of them are minute or only seen in edge cases, so this advantage for the Pixel does not matter much to me. If it does to you, I encourage you to go read Allison’s Pixel Fold review, which has lots of camera samples and details about it. I do like the longer 5x telephoto on the Google phone, but otherwise, they both perform the same function for me.
Software and features
While the Pixel Fold does have some advantages over the Z Fold in terms of design and layout, the Z Fold runs away with the ball when it comes to software and sheer abundance of features and capabilities. It speaks to the different approaches by each company: Samsung is willing to let you go fairly wild, while Google is providing a much more gated experience.
The Pixel Fold has a very simple multitasking system: you can run two apps on the inner screen side by side. It’s easy to launch apps into this configuration, and you can drag and drop content between them and adjust the split of how much of the screen each app will take up.
The Z Fold, on the other hand, will let you split the screen with up to three apps, and then you can launch another app on top of those in a floating window. Doing all of this at once is often overwhelming (I like to call it The Full Samsung), but the option is there if you want to do it. The Pixel Fold doesn’t let you go beyond the basic split-screen.
I missed the floating window option a lot when using the Pixel Fold. On the Z Fold, I frequently pop open the calculator when looking at my banking app in the background or grab a code from my two-factor app when logging into another app without having to bounce back to the homescreen or reload the original app, which often happens when putting two apps side by side on the Pixel.
The Z Fold 4 also has support for Samsung’s S Pen stylus, which I use frequently for taking notes or signing documents. The Pixel Fold doesn’t have stylus support at all.
I can plug the Z Fold 4 into an external monitor, pair a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and use a real desktop environment with overlapping windows and all of the productivity and ease of multitasking that brings. I wrote, edited, laid out, and published this article in the Dex mode on the Z Fold 4. The Pixel Fold doesn’t have anything of the sort — it doesn’t even support simple screen mirroring over its USB-C port.
The Pixel Fold just feels like a big phone; the Z Fold feels like a whole computer in my pocket
There are other software features that Samsung has developed in the years it’s been making foldables that make life easier, too. You can have a different layout of widgets and app shortcuts on the Z Fold’s cover screen than the inside screen, which makes sense since I use them for different tasks. The Pixel Fold just mirrors the layout between its two screens. I also can easily save pairs of apps that will always launch together in a split view on the Samsung — there’s no such option on the Pixel.
The software differences are stark enough that when I use the Pixel Fold, I just feel like I’m just using a bigger phone. With the Z Fold, it feels like I have a whole computer in my pocket.
It’s not a surprise that Samsung is ahead of Google in so many of these areas — it released its first folding phone back in 2019 and has been iterating and improving on it each year since. And though this is Google’s first effort, it is starting off in a much better place than the first Z Fold model that came out.
A lot of the differences between the experiences are found in software, where Google could catch up quickly. The Pixel Fold is launching with Android 13, but Android 14 is right around the corner, and it is expected to bring things like a desktop experience and app pair shortcuts.
But the different choices in hardware design and features can’t be quickly fixed, and we’ll have to wait to see if subsequent generations of the Pixel Fold make adjustments. A desktop mode isn’t exactly useful if you can’t plug an external monitor into the phone, to begin with.
Samsung, ever the copycat, might also adjust its hardware to be more like the Pixel Fold, depending on the reaction it sees to Google’s device. I think that would be a shame, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see a Galaxy Z Fold 6 with a shorter, wider cover screen and a landscape orientation inner display in a year’s time. A lot of the positive reaction to the Pixel Fold ahead of its launch has been around the fact that it has a more usable outer display, though my experience shows there are compromises to be had with it.
The Pixel Fold can still effectively shake Samsung from its complacency
Ultimately, I’m glad that there’s finally any competition for Samsung in the US foldable phone market. Though there’s been progress in each generation of Z Fold, it’s been slow, and the Z Fold 5 doesn’t look like it will be much different from the Z Fold 4 (which itself was very similar to the Z Fold 3... which only had small differences over the Z Fold 2). Another player looking to take nearly $2,000 from prospective folding phone buyers has been desperately needed to shake Samsung from its complacency.
But for now, I think Samsung executes on the idea of a folding computer that you can take with you everywhere better than Google. I’m excited to see where we go from here.