A flip phone that doesn’t flip —
Samsung makes big technical improvements in an anachronistic form factor.
After the very public failure of the Samsung Galaxy Fold, Samsung is back, in what seems like record time, with another foldable smartphone. This one is the Galaxy Z Flip, a smartphone that, instead of opening up into a tablet, is a normal-sized smartphone that folds in half, making it a little more portable than normal.
The Fold had a very rocky life, and while it only launched about five months ago, that was after a six-month delay. So really, with the Z Flip being nearly a year removed from the original Fold launch date, you could say this is Samsung’s second-generation foldable smartphone. And you know what? It really feels like it. Samsung has made some big technology improvements with the Z Flip, with a flexible glass display cover and some work toward dust ingress. The Z Flip shows the foldables category isn’t forever doomed to failures, delays, and recalls. This is an actual, viable product that the industry is slowly working towards improving.
That’s not to say the Z Flip is a good foldable yet, but it’s better than the complete failure that was the Galaxy Fold. Samsung continues to make some old mistakes, and some new mistakes, but the end result is that the technology is still very expensive and unproven. The new flip phone form factor is a cheaper way to get this foldable display technology out to consumers, but it doesn’t offer much of a sales pitch as to why you’d want to spend a premium for this device. The Z Flip quickly gives you a lot to think about—most prominently Samsung’s foldable display technology improvements and this weird new form factor straight out of 1999.
The main display—better than plastic, not as good as Gorilla Glass
The Galaxy Z Flip is the first phone to use Samsung’s “Ultra-Thin Glass.” While it doesn’t live up to the hype Samsung initially built for the feature, it is a lot better than what’s on the Galaxy Fold. The Galaxy Fold, Moto Razr, and Huawei Mate X all use completely plastic touchscreens over top of their flexible displays, which is a solution with several negatives:
- Plastic is easily scratched, which makes designs like the Mate X (with its wraparound exterior screen) really impractical. Plastic doesn’t protect against pressure and punctures from debris on the inside or outside of the phone, making the phone more delicate.
- Flexible thin plastic displays will squish and distort under your finger, which feels cheap and delicate. Remember resistive touchscreens? Flexible plastic displays feel like that. The display moves under your finger.
- Plastic isn’t as slippery as glass, and along with the squishiness of plastic, plastic adds resistance to your finger as you swipe around on your phone. It doesn’t feel great.
- With hinges and moving parts, the surface under the display might have some gaps in it, especially at the bendy parts. A hard glass panel would support itself over a gap, but flexible plastic will sink into the gap, making a valley or divot. If you’re swiping around a high speed, you might hit what is basically a pothole in the display surface. This is the dreaded “crease” that shows up in foldable displays.
- Plastic doesn’t transfer light as well as bonded glass, so the display doesn’t look as bright and vibrant.
The Z Flip and its ultra-thin glass fixes some of these problems, but not all of them. First, as was widely publicized, The Z Flip is not any more scratch-resistant or puncture-proof than plastic. We don’t know what the scratch resistance of Samsung’s ultra-thin glass is really like, because the Z Flip’s display has an unremovable layer of plastic on top of the glass. Plastic is, well, plastic, and you can scratch it easily or dent it with just a fingernail. A report from The Verge tracks down a good reason for this plastic cover, though: if you did scratch the underlying ultra-thin glass, the scratch would have a good chance of propagating and shattering the display when you fold the phone. All of this bending is stretching the surface of the glass, and a scratch could be a fatal weak point.
While the screen is definitely not as hard as glass, it’s also not as soft as the display of the Galaxy Fold. The underlying hard layer of glass gives you a more rigid surface to swipe around on, and it feels a lot better than the completely squishy Fold display. It still isn’t as nice as bare glass, though, since the top plastic layer is a lot grippier than glass. For a comparison to other devices, the Fold feels like a pliable resistive touchscreen, while the Z Flip feels like a glass phone with a cheap plastic screen protector on top. Overall, it’s an improvement: not as good as bare glass, but again it’s better than the completely soft Fold display.
|SPECS AT A GLANCE: Samsung Galaxy Z Flip|
|OUTSIDE SCREEN||300×112 1.1-inch OLED|
|INSIDE SCREEN||2636×1080 6.7-inch flexible OLED
(425ppi, 21.9:9 aspect ratio)
|OS||Android 10 with Samsung’s OneUI skin|
|CPU||Eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855+
Four Cortex A76-based cores (One 2.96GHz, three 2.41Ghz) and four Cortex A55-based cores at 1.78GHz
|NETWORKING||802.11b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 5.0, GPS, NFC|
|PORTS||USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-C|
Inside: 10MP Selfie, 8MP RGB Depth,
Rear:12MP Main, 12MP Wide-angle
|SIZE||Open: 167.3 x 73.6 x 7.2 mm
Closed: 87.4 x 73.6 x 17.3 mm
|OTHER PERKS||side fingerprint sensor|
The Z Flip display cover isn’t rigid enough to support itself over gaps, so the display surface isn’t flat. The hinge creates a pretty deep horizontal valley across the middle of the phone, and you’ll crash into it every time you are swiping around the phone’s mid-section. There’s an interesting difference here between the Fold and the Flip: the Fold’s hinge and valley ran vertically up the center of the device, so I feel like you didn’t hit it much. The Z Flip’s hinge and associated valley run horizontally across the middle of the phone, so every time you swipe vertically (like say, for scrolling), you hit the speed bump. This happens constantly since we are always vertically scrolling through content on our phones.
This is Samsung’s first flexible display phone with a hole punch camera lens, and another oddity is that there’s a divot all around the front camera lens. You’ll hit this sometimes when you pull down the notification shade. But even this is still a huge improvement over the giant, raised notch on the Galaxy Fold. The Fold notch covered the status bar on the right side of the display, which meant the notification panel was only accessible from the left side of the phone—a real bummer for the estimated 90 percent of people that are right-handed.
Lastly, the glass seems to really help when it comes to the look of the display. The Fold display looked kinda foggy, dull, and washed out thanks, in part, to the flexible plastic refracting some of the light from the panel. The Z Flip display is a lot brighter and more vibrant than the Fold. We can’t be sure how close in performance the Z Flip and Galaxy Fold display panels are, but I’m going to attribute some of this glass having better optics than plastic. When it comes to the brightness and colors of the display, you could easily mistake the Z Flip for a normal, rigid smartphone. (That’s a compliment.)
Next, I’m going to complain about the bezels. Normally, this part is just my usual complaining about bezels and how they, you know, exist, but these bezels are raised, which causes all the same problems I complained about on the Galaxy Fold. Android uses a lot of edge gestures that ask you to swipe in from the sides of the display, and these are bad when you have raised bezels.
The notification panel is a swipe down from the top bezel of the display. The Z Flip is the first foldable to run Android 10, which means you could enable Android 10’s excellent gesture navigation system, allowing you to swipe up from the bottom bezel for the home screen, swipe up and hold for recent apps, and swipe in from the left or right bezel to go back. Even if you don’t turn on gesture nav, Samsung’s software has a ton of edge swipes, too. There’s an always-on app drawer on the side of the device, so you can swipe in from the right bezel to open your favorite apps. Or on the home screen, Samsung lets you quickly access Samsung Pay by swiping up from the bottom bezel.
None of these edge gestures really work when the bezel and the display surface aren’t at the same height. You can do them, but it feels awful and janky compared to a smooth pane of glass. Android was just not designed for obstructions around the perimeter of a device, and it doesn’t seem like Samsung’s software is, either. If you don’t turn on gesture navigation, you still have navigation buttons at the very bottom of the display. And in this setup,I still hit the bezel while I’m trying to hit the buttons, which works but again feels bad. Even the earliest devices and cheapest devices like the T-Mobile G1 or that $10 Walmart phone have a single, hard plastic sheet covering the bezels and the display. The Fold and Z Flip are really the only devices with raised bezels, and this design idea doesn’t work.
Overall, using the Z Flip display was a pretty miserable experience. There’s just so much junk to bump into. If my finger isn’t skipping over the sizable valley across the middle of the display, it’s crashing into the raised bezels around the perimeter of the device. The Z Flip makes my finger feel like a bumper car, and there’s just always something in the way when I’m trying to swipe around. It really made me miss my smooth, glass smartphone. That is just way less hassle.
Another display problem Samsung hasn’t solved is the fingerprint reader. Most Android flagships have been coming with in-screen fingerprint readers, which are visible, reachable, and easy to activate. Samsung apparently isn’t able to do in-screen fingerprint readers on flexible displays, so instead, both the Z Flip and Fold have a pretty wonky side-mounted fingerprint reader.
First, the mechanics of a flip phone and a side-mounted fingerprint reader just never work out. At no point during the opening process does your finger naturally fall on the fingerprint reader in a way that will work, so you have to reposition your hand a lot. Usually, I pick up the phone, change my grip to open it with two hands, then change my grip again to scan my fingerprint, then maybe change my grip a third time to a natural phone holding position depending on which hand I wanted to use. Compared to a more natural fingerprint reader position like the in-display or rear locations, the side-mounted sensor is a lot more awkward.
It’s also easy to mess up the fingerprint scan. Being mounted on the side of the phone means there’s not that much area to scan a fingerprint, so you’re only registering a tiny sliver of your finger pad. It’s easy to place your finger incorrectly and fail a scan. The fingerprint reader is totally smooth and almost flush with the sides of the phone, so it’s hard to tactilely locate with your finger. Rear fingerprint readers usually live in a nice divot in a natural position, so they’re easy to find. In-display fingerprint readers are right in front of you, and you can see them, meaning those are easy to hit, too. I miss this reader all the time. And it’s far too easy to accidentally touch the reader with your other fingers while you’re opening the phone. If you do this too many times, the fingerprint reader will disable itself.