Today is my third day with the Galaxy Z Flip, Samsung’s flip phone with a foldable screen. I’m starting to feel less like I’ve been submerged in a mud bath, i.e. I have strong immediate thoughts, but I know the sensation is going to take a little while to get used to. Now, the Z Flip is beginning to normalize. That’s because using a foldable phone is a totally different experience than what most of us are used to today. Living with a phone that you have to open to use requires a readjustment, no matter how much nostalgia you might have for the flip phones of old.
Some immediate pros and cons have jumped to the surface right away, and I’ll share them here, but Samsung’s incredibly exciting and innovative features need time to do them justice. Two features stand out: the foldable glass screen — a world first — and a hinge that keeps the Z Flip’s 6.7-inch screen standing upright at a wide variety of angles so you can do all sorts of things hands-free, like eat soup while reading an article, which I did at lunch yesterday.
Some questions I hope to answer over the coming week: How does the Z Flip compare to the competition, and does it make a successful case for taking foldable phones into the mainstream — or at least to the next generation? Does it effectively expand your phone’s screen (and perhaps also protect it) while keeping the device small enough to carry around without busting through your pocket?
Galaxy Z Flip is the first phone with foldable glass
The most obvious competition is between the Galaxy Z Flip ($1,380 and £1,300, no Australian pricing yet) and Motorola Razr ($1,499), but Samsung’s latest also contends with the tablet-sized Galaxy Fold and even larger Huawei Mate X.
So what is the Z Flip really like use? Here’s exactly how I feel about it — and how my view changes the more time I spend with the device. Keep coming back over the ensuing days as this ongoing assessment evolves into a final rated review.
- Using the Z Flip one-handed works, but takes some muscle to flip open this way. The unlock/power button is on the top half of the phone, which isn’t ideal for one-handed use. At least not with my hands.
- The inner and outer screens are huge fingerprint magnets. Because of Samsung’s care warning, I’m a little concerned about my ability to keep the inner screen clean with a microfiber cloth. Pressing too hard could cause damage to the glass and components below.
- I watched several hours of video on the Galaxy Z Flip (mostly Netflix and YouTube). Playing in default mode, you get thick black bars on either side (in landscape), though this also gives you a place to put your hand without messing with the screen. You can pinch to zoom, but you’ll crop off the top of peoples’ heads.
- I don’t mind the thin plastic case that comes in the box. It’s good enough and gives me peace of mind if and when I drop the phone. So far, so good.
- The Z Flip has felt comfortable and secure in any pocket I’ve put it in, unlike the unwieldy Galaxy Note 10 Plus and even the folded-up Fold, both of which have toppled out. Of course, it all depends on the size of your pockets.
- Typing on the smaller screen has been fine for me. My fingers are also on the smaller side. I prefer Google’s Gboard keyboard over the default.
- I successfully jogged and hiked with the Z Flip by cupping the hinge end in my palm. I didn’t feel I was going to drop it.
New: Selfie camera is good, but taking selfies isn’t always
I’ve gotten pretty good selfies from the Galaxy Z Flip so far, especially when opening the device so it sits up on its own and using the timer so I don’t have that awkward “selfie arm” that shows up in the typical handheld shot.
What isn’t so good is trying to take a selfie when the Z Flip is closed. You can double-press the power button to launch the front-facing camera when the phone is closed. You know it’s ready for you when you see yourself on the tiny 1.1-inch cover display. Swipe the area to switch to a wide-angle selfie, then press the volume-down key to take the shot.
All that is well and good, but the diminutive cover screen makes for a short, pill-shaped viewfinder that isn’t actually useful for positioning yourself in the larger context of the image. It’s also so small that you can’t really see yourself.
If you’re taking a picture of another person, you can press an on-screen camera control to turn that cover screen into a viewfinder for them, but now they’re so far from the camera that it doesn’t do much good.
New: The outer screen needs help
The selfie viewfinder situation is the most obvious symptom of the Z Flip’s comically small display, but I’m at a bit of a loss with the rest of its features.
It’s good for seeing the time and battery percentage (though I’m going to poke around for an always-on setting). It’s not as good at other things. You can tap for Wi-Fi networks and to see missed calls and alerts. For example, I scrolled to see a Slack notification, tapped it, and saw my co-worker’s Slack message roll across the screen like a ticker. You can open the phone to open the app.
Motorola is on the right track giving the Razr the ability to send canned smart replies and voice messages, which gives that phone more it can do from the outer screen without having to open it up.
Star feature: A phone that can stand on its own
I’m enamored with the Z Flip’s ability to hold itself upright. While watching video, reading a news story, taking selfies and even running performance tests, propping the Z Flip’s screen up or turning the whole thing on its side meant I didn’t have to hold it. It made my selfies better (when using a timer). It’s remarkable how many angles the hinge will support before snapping fully open or closed (yes, there are magnets at all four corners).
That rigidity means you’ll need to exact a bit more pressure to close the phone and snap it or pull it open, but I haven’t felt like I’m straining against it. Yet the result is that you can prop the Z Flip on its base and tilt the screen at any number of angles to take a selfie photo with a friend — or a portrait shot — watch a video, or do any number of things.
The same goes for slightly bending the phone in half while watching a video so it can become its own stand. When you bend it, some apps dynamically shift into a split-screen mode so you see the action on the “top” and the controls or comments on the “bottom.” Not enough apps take advantage of the feature straight out the gate, but it’s one I hope to see Google and others embrace for the sheer convenience factor.
Is the Z Flip’s glass screen really all that?
Let me just say for the record that under 48 hours into a review period, I’m reluctant to make any sweeping or definite statements. These things need time to cook. A good review takes about a week of live-in time, and even that sometimes feels fast, but necessary.
To answer the question as best as I can right now, I think so! Glass so thin it can bend is amazing. Foldable phones up until now have used a plastic material to cover the delicate electronic display beneath. Press on it too hard, or expose it to rough substances, and it’ll fail, leaving you without a usable phone.
The Z Flip’s glass screen is meant to shield the display from the more raucous elements, while also providing a smoother surface that more convincingly conceals that telltale crease where the screen bends in half. The Z Flip is subject to Samsung’s one-year warranty in the event of damage, as well as Samsung’s premier concierge help for foldable phones.
That said, both the Z Flip and the Motorola Razr both broke on the first try in CNET’s drop tests (with devices we bought).
The Z Flip’s hinge has nose hairs, kind of
The Galaxy Fold’s first design caused some pretty public embarrassment to Samsung when dust and crumbs easily worked their way into the hinge and under the screen. Those early reports on reviewers’ phones caused Samsung to delay the Fold’s launch by about four months and completely redesign it. The good news is that those learnings have been carried into the Z Flip.
The hinge is protected by elements like interior vinyl fibers — which sound a lot like nostril hairs — to keep dust out of the mechanism. There are also plastic caps bordering the inside of the phone at the hinge, which also help rebuff the elements. I run my fingernails around the thick plastic bezel and note how sealed it feels. On the Galaxy Fold and Motorola Razr, I felt I could pry my fingernail under the screen without much effort.
The protection of these interior fibers only goes so far. Samsung clearly notes on the phone’s overwrap care instructions that it’s susceptible to dust and water damage, so be alert. There’s the typical one-year warranty, and a concierge service for 24/7 customer care.
Read more: Galaxy Z Flip is a beautiful phone, until you touch it
Using the cameras
On paper, the Galaxy Z Flip challenges the Motorola Razr with two exterior cameras and one internal sensor.
- Z Flip: Dual 12-megapixel sensors (wide-angle, ultrawide-angle) and a 10-megapixel internal camera
- Razr: 16-megapixel exterior sensor, 5-megapixel interior camera (e.g. for initiating video calls)
My colleague Patrick Holland reviewed the Motorola Razr and declared the camera system to be “just OK.” Meanwhile, I’ve taken some photos with the Z Flip that I’m pretty excited about. I also took shots side by side on the Razr, but got some unexpected results, like selfie shots with drastically different white balance. I’m going to have to look into that.
The Z Flip has a new photo mode that it shares with the Galaxy S20 trio of phones. Called Single Take, it captures up to 10 different still photos and four different videos. I was initially worried that I’d spend a lot of time deleting photos I don’t like or don’t care about, and in the initial testing process, I was right.
But there are some usable shots I got too, and it didn’t take a lot of time or obsessive focusing to get them, which is also good. Let’s consider the jury still out here.
Unboxing Samsung’s $1,380 Galaxy Z Flip
But what about the crease?!
Look, every foldable phone I’ve seen has a crease. When the light shines directly on it, you see it. When you run your finger down the seam, you feel it. When an exciting thriller or documentary movie plays, or when you’re sucked into an engaging article or game, you hardly notice it at all.
I do feel the Z Flip’s glass cover material helps minimize the hated crease. So does the fact that the width of the bend is actually pretty minimal — just shy of three inches — compared to the Galaxy Fold’s 6.34-inch vertical seam.
Battery life so far
For my final review (which again, this is not), I’m going to judge battery life by two main criteria. The first — and most important in my mind — is real-world testing. The second is a lab test that runs down the battery using specific media.
I’ve been using the Galaxy Note 10 Plus every day for months, and I know exactly how much battery life I need to get through a typical day of tethering the phone for two hours during a working commute, and then all-day needs, including streaming video on Netflix. I usually use the Note 10 Plus from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. at least (18 hours), and often have 30% left when I’m done, which I know will last me hours more hard use.
So far, the Z Flip’s battery story phone confuses me. Power reserves have drained quicker than I’d like when doing things that normally tax a battery: live maps navigation and streaming video. Standby mode has sipped power, leaving me with plenty of reserves hours after I stopped actively using the device. I’m keeping a close eye on the situation, but this one needs time.
The Z Flip has a 3,300-mAh battery, which is fine, but it’s split into two, which does lift my eyebrows in inquiry. Dual batteries are known by experts to be less efficient than a single large battery cell, which makes me wonder how well this battery will hold up.
On my first day of testing, the Z Flip’s battery was fully charged at 11:18 a.m. At 10:18 p.m. (11 hours later), it tallied in at 33%, and that’s after a day of hard use and about an hour and a half of streaming video. By 8:30 a.m. it had drained to 15% overnight. On my second day, I started at 100% at around 9 a.m. At 5:50 p.m., it was at 39%. That’s enough to last through the night, but I needed to recharge again before I went out the following day. The Z Flip comes with a 15-watt charger.
What’s next in the Galaxy Z Flip review:
- Camera, camera, camera
- More hinge assessments
- Additional battery testing, including lab results
- Design: Sexy or actually frumpy?
- Using mobile payments
- Quick app shortcuts bar
This story will be updated with more findings throughout the coming days.