The progress we’ve made with folding phones in just the last year is stunning. We went from teasing the concept behind a glass box to several shipping products in just about no time, culminating almost precisely one year later in this: the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip. It’s a folding vision from the future, loaded with flaws and bent like a scythe in preparation of the Flat Phone Reaping. Even if you don’t buy the Z Flip (and you shouldn’t), your current phone’s days are numbered.
When open, the Galaxy Z Flip is basically a normal phone, if it just happened to have a hinge in the middle. Unlike the Galaxy Fold — which opened up into a tablet, and which you’d never confuse for a normal phone when closed — the Z Flip takes a phone-first design that emulates the experience we’re already used to, rather than thrusting something entirely new upon us. If it weren’t for the obvious seams in the body and the wrinkle in the display, it wouldn’t draw a second glance. But flip it closed, and all its benefits (and weaknesses) present themselves.
When folded, the phone never closes completely, there’s a gap that’s bigger at the side with the hinge. You’d also never think of it as “thin” like this, but the extra girth isn’t really a problem because you won’t often hold it when it’s closed up.
It’s hard to express just how much this folding paradigm changes the typical experience of using a phone — it really is something you just have to try for yourself, and part of it comes down to the multi-tasking software advantages the hardware enhances (which I’ll discuss later) — but the changing shape also means you have to subtly change how you use it.
For example, you can’t just whip out your phone one-handed and pull down your notifications while walking down the street. Opening it up is a two-handed operation. That’s why Samsung put a smaller display on the outside, and that’s where you hit the first problem: The “Cover Screen” is too small to be useful for anything.
The Cover Screen isn’t very useful, though the media controls are a nice touch.
With it, you can check the time, battery level, date, control media, and see your most recent notifications, but it’s barely usable. At just 1.1″ in size, it can’t really show any content, and checking notifications via the slow-moving ticker is obnoxious. That’s a huge waste of time compared to the ease of seeing them all at a glance on a normal phone, and one of the first things Samsung needs to fix with the next iteration — this needs a bigger screen on the outside, like the Moto Razr.
This changing shape can make it hard to get a feel for the Z Flip’s size. When opened, it’s bigger than a Galaxy S10+ (though thinner and just a tiny bit narrower, it’s much taller). Still, I found the overall dimensions fit my larger hands better than the S10+, and it has the significant advantage of folding shut. That might not seem like it would save space — technically, the volume gets bigger if anything, given the gap in the fold at the hinge — but in anecdotal use, it absolutely does make a difference.
Unless you wear super-tight pants, the Z Flip has a much less claustrophobic feeling in your pocket. It might be thicker, but it also sits all the way down at the bottom of your pocket, which is a sensation most of us probably don’t even remember. For the last four years or so, I’ve gotten used to XL, Max, and “+”-sized phones almost cresting the top of my pocket as they consume the entire thing; nearly half a decade with a dedicated “phone” pocket held ransom by ever-bigger devices.
The Z Flip changes that, freeing up half of it for a hand when it’s cold, or a pen, or a bundle of folded papers I feel like I need to save but will never look at again — really, it doesn’t matter what I use it for, it’s just nice, physically, to get that space back. The restricting feeling of a glass-and-aluminum thigh splint is gone, and it’s incredibly freeing.
While you can feel the crease while scrolling, I didn’t find it too obnoxious. Outside watching darker shows in a brightly-lit gym, I didn’t even notice it in normal use.
With its benefits, the Z Flip still has at least one glaring hardware flaw, and it might be a bit too much for some. Yes, the phone has a “glass” screen, but the surface you touch isn’t glass. Samsung calls it a “polymer,” and it’s probably some kind of plastic or other flexible material, sort of like the Moto Z2 Force had. That means, as shown by Zack Nelson over at JerryRigEverything, it’s less durable than our usual Gorilla Glass slabs. His tests showed that even a fingernail could mark and indent it — perhaps permanently — and that’s in addition to the wrinkle/crease the phone already has right above the hinge.
In my anecdotal experience, this wasn’t a problem, but it could be a deal-breaker for some. I’m so careful and deliberate when using a phone, I can get by without screen protectors or cases most of the time, but if you’re a bit more clumsy or less mindful, you could easily run into trouble.
See the light through the gap?
The design of the phone does, thankfully, safeguard the screen from wear. Because it closes shut, the display is protected when it isn’t in use. While stuff might get in from the gaps to the sides while closed, assuming you’re careful with it, it’s unlikely anything but dust will make the trip. On that note, Samsung also says the new hinge design is more resistant to small contaminants like that, so you probably won’t see the screen break because of dust getting behind it, like the Galaxy Fold did for some before the redesign.
The hinge seems durable right now, but it will have to last years.
The screen isn’t just a list of compromises (though it’s also only 1080p and 60Hz), it does have some strengths. It’s big, and it gets quite bright outside — up to 1,100 nits, according to Samsung — easily beating recent disappointments like the Pixel 4 XL. If you’re the sort that gets bothered by uneven grays at low brightness levels (like we saw with the OnePlus 7T and which I’ve experienced on my Pixel 4 XL), the screen is very uniform. And if anything does happen to it, Samsung is offering one-time screen replacements for $120 if you buy a Z Flip by the end of the year, and a single free screen protector application at participating repair stores, or by mailing it in.
I’m pretty pleased with the screen and the hardware overall, outside the fear of scratching the polymer layer. I’m more disappointed by the lack of an IP rating, which makes me paranoid about using the phone outdoors in the ongoing, mediocre spring weather.
In the box, you get a bit more than the usual accessories from Samsung. In addition to the expected wall wart and cable, you also get a creaky, two-part polycarbonate case colored to match the phone and a pair of AKG Type-C earphones with several sized tips (there’s no headphone jack, so it’s USB-C or Bluetooth for audio). You also get the usual warranty cards/guides, a SIM ejector tool, and a USB OTG connector for transferring stuff to your new phone.
On paper, the Galaxy Z Flip is basically a Galaxy S10+ with two fewer cameras, a lower-resolution display, and faster storage. But even the best of 2019 is more than snappy enough in 2020: The phone utterly screams. Short of an obsession with 5G (which, realistically, isn’t that useful or widely available right now) or a desire for a smoother 90Hz+ display, I don’t think the Z Flip will disappoint anyone when it comes to speed, though it’s bound to age more poorly than the brand-new Snapdragon 865 in the S20.
As usual for Samsung phones, Bluetooth audio performance is middling. I suffered plenty of stuttering music, even with known good headphones and especially in dense city settings. With the headphone jack gone, I wish companies like Samsung took Bluetooth audio performance more seriously.
Wireless charging bugged out for me a few times, stopping charging before it was full, and wired charging was pretty slow (It’s supposed to top out at around 15W). Using the phone for contactless payments was annoying, too. I don’t know if it’s an issue with the payment terminals used near me or the phone, but I’d have to put the Z Flip’s entire back against the reader for it to work, no convenient tap of the top half, as with most phones. Coupled with the extra touches required to use Samsung Pay compared to Google Pay or Apple Pay, and I usually just opted to use a physical card instead; It’s faster.
Dark mode rules, light theme drools.
In my earlier hands-on, I said that the software would make or break the experience, and I’m glad to report that Samsung delivered. Android 10 via One UI 2 is pretty great, and I have no objections to using it (outside of Bixby — stop trying to make Bixby happen, Samsung). In fact, there are a lot of things Samsung did better than stock that particularly help the Z Flip.
By far, the biggest benefit to a folding design is physically cramming a bigger screen into a smaller space — that’s clearly the ultimate goal here. But what do you actually do with that bigger screen? With Samsung’s software, that extra real estate gives you the space to multitask better than before, which can make the Z Flip a game-changer for the right folks.
It can be a bit much, but the multi-window tray and various modes can help you see more and get more done when you need to.
By default, the Z Flip has a newly-tweaked version of Samsung’s multi-window app-launching edge panel, which seems to get a different name every few months. Whatever you call it, this time, it’s the “multi window tray,” and it’s an easy overlay shortcut to launching apps in both split-window and free-form window modes. Open an app via the sliding panel, and you’re taken straight to it (as you’d expect), but launch an app via the panel while you already have one open, and it opens in split-screen. Each new app you open this way replaces the bottom app, and you can even drag apps out from the panel to open them in free-form window mode, letting you resize them and adjust transparency. Of course, you can also do this via the recents/multitasking UI, but the panel makes it much faster. Samsung does a lot of little software tweaks like these, and many are useless, but this one is actually a pretty good idea.
Pinning free-form apps as bubbles makes it easy to switch between them.
I tested up to four apps visible and actually running/animated simultaneously before it became impractical. Free-form apps can even be minimized into little floating bubbles for faster swapping between them. For my blogger lifestyle, as an example, that means I can keep shortcuts to intermittently-useful mobile apps like a to-do tracker, Slack, and WordPress pinned, and keep a multi-window session between other apps I need open during the workday. Writing on the go from a phone might still be terrible, but this will seriously make the process easier the next time I absolutely need to from a bus or the subway.
For many, perhaps even most folks, none of this is really significant. “Work” isn’t something a lot of people do from a phone. But if you do, the paradigm and advantage of folding phones here is simple, and Samsung gives you the multitasking tools to really harness that extra real estate productively. If all you do is scroll Instagram, look up directions, and message friends, keeping two or three apps open with fast shortcuts between half a dozen for faster workflows won’t be a benefit. But if you’re constantly connected and always available, hunting for a way to make your job a little bit easier on the go, this is it. The extra screen space is a boon, and Samsung’s multi-window enhancements are so far ahead of the curve, I hope Google is paying attention.
Above: Multi-window in landscape with the keyboard open is… not good. Below: Thankfully, there is a floating keyboard which is better, but not split for two-handed use.
Not that everything is perfect, mind you. Samsung appears to have killed the useful “app pairs” feature in the multi-window panel for the Z Flip, which is too bad. They’re still available as launcher shortcuts, but I’d have liked adding dedicated app combinations to the multi-window tray, as you can on other Samsung phones. The screen also isn’t big enough for productive workflows that require an on-screen keyboard — especially in landscape. This folding shape is always going to be inherently a bit more limited than something larger like the Galaxy Fold, though. The half-folded “flex mode” Samsung showed off, which tweaks the interface to better use each half of the display, could be cool, but so far, almost nothing uses it except the Camera app and Duo.
To address one other misconception I saw: Yes, there are ads in Samsung’s Dialer app, but you have to go out of your way to manually enable them, and they’re marketed as a way to find local businesses.
It’s a non-sequitur, but there’s also one feature I’d really like Samsung to add. With the lack of tactile and auditory feedback for the opening/closing mechanism, I’d really enjoy it if we could configure an open/shut sound and vibration pattern. In addition to the satisfaction and certainty regarding interaction the sensation would provide, I just really want mine to make the Star Trek original series communicator chirp when I flip it open.
Lastly, battery life was also perfectly fine. It won’t beat a Galaxy S10+, but 3,300mAh was enough for me to swing at least four hours of active screen-on time most days (usually closer to five), which is good enough. You might run out of juice on an intense trip, but in day-to-day use, it was sufficient for me; your mileage may vary.
The Z Flip shouldn’t be known for its cameras. As pointed out by Max Weinbach, it uses the same sensors as the Galaxy S10, though it apparently crops the wide-angle camera, for some reason. Like the S10, I think its performance is basically “fine.” For context, I didn’t find the camera in the S10 to be anything special (I think Samsung’s processing still needs work to really compete with Huawei and Google), but you can take some pretty good photos with it if you try and keep its limitations in mind. The only noteworthy changes are that it doesn’t have the S10’s “dual aperture,” and as a result, low-light performance does suffer. The phone especially loves cranking exposure beyond what you expect, and photos are also occasionally washed out.
There are a couple unique features, though. For one, you can half-open the phone, using the bottom as a sort of base or tripod, and snag better night mode photos that way (not that Samsung’s night mode is as good as Google’s). You can also use the primary camera for selfies when closed, thanks to the tiny screen on the outside. It’s a better-quality sensor compared to the front-facer, with much-improved dynamic range.
Still, you aren’t buying this phone for its camera.
Should you buy it?
I don’t think the Z Flip is a phone most people should buy, and that probably includes you. But for a subset-of-a-subset of those living on the bleeding edge, the Z Flip isn’t just an obvious recommendation, it’s almost a requirement. Like no phone in years, the Galaxy Z Flip is an experience, and if you’re passionate about technology in general and phones in particular, it’s an experience that I absolutely recommend. I know I’ll be using the Galaxy Z Flip as my phone for the foreseeable future, and I don’t even resent the cost. But if you, like most folks, stick to using just one phone, and you’re debating what to pick up for the next two-to-three years, then you should stay far, far away from the Z Flip.
It’s not a good phone, but I’m in love with the idea already.
If you’re even asking if the Galaxy Z Flip is the phone for you, I think the answer is a clear no. But if you feel it calling to you: the allure of the folding future, a bigger screen, and multi-window workflow benefits whispering to your heart in the face of all of the phone’s many impracticalities and flaws, then maybe. Even then, you’d have to stomach the sky-high $1,400 price tag, which is quite a lot for a novelty, and there’s the very real possibility you could scratch or break the screen if you aren’t careful — could your wallet survive that if it happened?
But, even if the Z Flip isn’t the phone for you, I’ve never been more certain that one day, one of its descendants will be — at least, just as soon as materials science can catch up with real folding glass. The boring, flat, slab-like phone you’re probably reading this on is already teetering on the edge of the garbage can, but you have a year or two, at least, before it falls in. Myself, I’ve already moved on: I’ll be sticking with the Z Flip for a while.