Tech

Samsung Galaxy Fold review: The future is an ugly disappointment

  • The Galaxy Fold, screen off, featuring the big crease down the middle. Ron Amadeo
  • Here's the display when it's on. If it looks a bit washed out, well, that's accurate. Ron Amadeo
  • The tiny front display. Ron Amadeo
  • The back of the phone. It's shiny. Ron Amadeo
  • The back, folded up. Ron Amadeo
  • Another angle of the display, where you can really see the crease. It's more of a valley, really—you can feel it. Ron Amadeo
  • The notch. This thing is absolutely massive but only houses two cameras and the usual pair of sensors. Ron Amadeo
  • The new dust caps on the top and bottom of the hinge. Ron Amadeo
  • Folding the Fold. Ron Amadeo
  • A side view of the hinge. Ron Amadeo
  • The OnePlus 7 Pro (left) next to the Galaxy Fold. Ron Amadeo
  • When folded, the Galaxy Fold is as thick as two smartphones stacked on top of each other. Ron Amadeo
  • Another comparison. Ron Amadeo
  • The always-on display. Ron Amadeo
  • The rear cameras. Ron Amadeo
  • The side controls. That big flat area is the fingerprint reader. Ron Amadeo

The Galaxy Fold was supposed to be The Future™. Samsung, the world's leading display manufacturer, invested six years and $130 million to birth its ultimate creation: the flexible OLED display. And with the holy grail of display technology under its belt, Samsung would revolutionize the smartphone industry by introducing the "foldable" smartphone—a device that would be a portable, pocketable smartphone when closed and a multi-pane, multi-tasking, big-screen tablet when open. Samsung might have started the modern smartphone era as "that company that just copies Apple," but after surviving a thousand lawsuits, ushering in the big-screen smartphone, and eventually surpassing Apple in sales, Samsung would finally, indisputably plant its flag atop the smartphone market with the Galaxy Fold, a device that would redefine the modern smartphone.

At least, that was the plan. Things have not gone to plan.

Catastrophe struck, allegedly during the development of the Galaxy Fold. At the end of 2018, Samsung said the foldable display technology it spent so much time and money to develop was stolen by a supplier and sold to two Chinese companies for $14 million. All of Samsung's R&D work was supposed to give it a sizable head start in foldable smartphones, but that technological lead was suddenly evaporating.

It's about a year later now and, related to the alleged theft or not, Chinese companies are quickly spinning up rival foldable devices. Motorola, Xiaomi, and Oppo are all hot on Samsung's trail, but the Galaxy Fold's biggest competition has been the Huawei Mate X. Huawei announced its foldable a whopping four days after Samsung's Galaxy Fold unveiling, and Huawei's phone shipped, in China, on November 15. Samsung and Huawei ended up constantly shuffling their respective foldable release dates around, but at the end of it all, Samsung beat Huawei to market by only 70 days. Samsung has been publicly demoing foldable OLED displays since 2008—a time when Huawei's smartphone business was still in diapers, by the way—and for Samsung's market lead to come down to two months shows just how badly things have gone for the company.

After investing so much in this display technology and showing off prototypes for something like 11 years, it would be understandable if Samsung wanted to beat this surprise batch of Chinese rivals to market no matter what. With this background information in your pocket, it's not impossible to imagine that maybe, just maybe, the Galaxy Fold's development was rushed.

The Galaxy Fold's launch event kicked off in February 2019, with all the usual Samsung pomp and circumstance. Once the phone hit the hands of early reviewers in April, though, signs appeared that something was very wrong. Of the limited amount of Folds sent out to the press, two broke within the first few days after regular usage. In one case, the display pixels just started dying along the crease in the display. In the other case, debris worked its way inside the sizable gaps in the phone hinge, landed under the display, and damaged it from behind. Several other reviewers also accidentally damaged their Fold review units by peeling a protective layer off the top of the display, which, thanks to exposed edges, just seemed like a screen protector used for shipping. With so many problems present in the initial shipment of Galaxy Folds, Samsung doesn't seem like it spent enough time to properly test the device.

Enlarge / A tweet from Mark Gurman: "The screen on my Galaxy Fold review unit is completely broken and unusable just two days in. Hard to know if this is widespread or not."Mark Gurman

After the problems found by reviewers, Samsung cancelled the Fold's original April 26 launch and refunded any pre-orders. The company went back to the drawing board with the Galaxy Fold, tried to patch up the design a bit more, and finally shipped the device five months later. Samsung reduced the gaps in the phone body, reinforced the hinge area with chain-mail armor underneath the display, and cut down on ingress points with protective dust caps on the top and bottom of the display fold.

The damage to the phone's reputation was already done, though. Durability concerns about the wild new form factor existed when the phone was announced, and seeing it fall apart in the hands of reviewers only confirmed those suspicions. Carriers were never that enthusiastic about the Galaxy Fold—only AT&T and T-Mobile were originally signed up to carry the phone in the US—and T-Mobile dropped out after the first delay. Samsung Electronics' CEO, DJ Koh, called the launch delay "embarrassing" and took responsibility for the whole fiasco, saying, "I pushed it through before it was ready."

And that brings us to today—the Ars review. This one is going to be a little different, since I don't think the Galaxy Fold has any viability as a serious device anyone should consider purchasing. Should you buy a Galaxy Fold? NO! God no. Are you crazy? The sky-high price, durability issues, nascent form factor, and new screen technology should rule the phone out for just about everyone. (Save your bendy tech dreams for Westworld season three.) Rather than a viable product, right now the Fold feels more like a publicly available prototype device that demonstrates an experimental new form factor.

Why?

So while you shouldn't buy the Galaxy Fold, that still doesn't answer the question, "Is this form factor a good idea?" Let's put aside the sky-high price—which will, of course, come down over time—and the durability issues—which will hopefully be fixed in the future with the wild concept of "flexible glass" that Corning is hard at work on. Is Samsung's current vision of a foldable phone a useful improvement? Unfortunately, the answer here is also a firm "no." During the initial announcement of the phone, Samsung said the device would be "a powerful smartphone and a revolutionary tablet," and the Fold is remarkably terrible at being either of those things. Samsung may have delayed the phone to put Band-Aids on the show-stopping design problems, but the overall product still shows a lack of thought and consideration for how actual people will want to use a device like this.

The launch of the Galaxy Fold was a disaster, and while Samsung fought through and got to market, that doesn't mean the disaster is over. I'm still enthusiastic about the idea of a phone that converts into a tablet, but the Galaxy Fold puts on a master class of how not to do it.

Listing image by Ron Amadeo

No, really, the displays are too small

Ideally, for these phone/tablet hybrids, a foldable smartphone would fold up to display a smartphone-sized screen in its compact mode and then unfold into a larger, tablet-sized device that was significantly bigger than a normal smartphone. The phone part is there for phone things—like checking notifications, sending text messages, and doing quick searches—while the tablet mode is there for media consumption, reading webpages, and side-by-side app usage. The Galaxy Fold falls short of both of these "phone" and "tablet" aspirations. The front screen is too small for normal smartphone duties. The inside screen is too small to use as a tablet.

The Galaxy Fold's dimensions are weird. When open, the device is almost a square. The body closely follows the inner, foldable display: a 7.3-inch, 2152×1536 flexible OLED panel. The display (and therefore the body) has an aspect ratio of 4.2:3, basically the same as a 4:3 iPad display. When you fold this shape in half, you then get a crazy-skinny device with a 4.6-inch, 1680×720 OLED to the front.

From Samsung's perspective, I understand the desire for an iPad-like aspect ratio on the interior display. After all, the Samsungiest answer to "What shape should our foldable tablet/phone be?" is, of course, "Let's copy the closest Apple product—the iPad—and work backwards from there!" An easy way to arrive at the Galaxy Fold design is to shrink down an iPad, chop off the bezels, and fold it in half. This doesn't give much thought to how the front would work out, though.

  • The Galaxy Fold, and its teeny-tiny front display. Ron Amadeo
  • The $1,980 Galaxy Fold versus the $670 OnePlus 7 Pro. The front display is too small for typing. Ron Amadeo
  • Yes, the screen is really this small compared to normal, human fingers. I'm touching the screen and covering about four keys per finger. Ron Amadeo
  • The app drawer. Ron Amadeo
  • The display is not much wider than the Palm phone, one of the smallest devices ever. It is a bit taller, though. Ron Amadeo
  • The front display versus the OnePlus 7 Pro again. Ron Amadeo

Samsung fitted the front with a 4.6-inch, 21:9 aspect ratio panel, which is probably the tallest and skinniest display the company could easily source. It still doesn't seem anywhere near appropriate for the front, as there are still miles of bezel above and below the front display. The whole front of the Galaxy Fold looks kind of ridiculous. I calculated a screen-to-body ratio of 49 percent for the front of the phone, which feels right—the front of the phone is about half display and half bezel. It's an embarrassing design when a modern smartphone design will be about 88-percent display.

SPECS AT A GLANCE: Samsung Galaxy Fold
OUTSIDE SCREEN1680×720 4.6-inch OLED
(399ppi, 21:9 aspect ratio)
INSIDE SCREEN2152×1536 7.3-inch flexible OLED
(362ppi, 4.2:3 aspect ratio)
OSAndroid 9.0 Pie with Samsung's OneUI skin
CPUEight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855

Four Cortex A76-based cores (One 2.84GHz, three 2.41Ghz) and four Cortex A55-based cores at 1.78GHz

RAM12GB
GPUAdreno 540
STORAGE512GB
NETWORKING802.11b/g/n/ac/ax, Bluetooth 5.0, GPS, NFC
PORTSUSB 3.1 Gen1 Type-C, 3.5mm headphone jack
CAMERAFront:10MP Selfie,

Inside: 10MP Selfie, 8MP RGB Depth,

Rear:16MP Main, 12MP Wide-angle, 12MP 2x telephoto

SIZEOpen: 160.9×117.9×7.6 mm

Closed: 160.9×62.8×17.1mm

WEIGHT276g
BATTERY4380 mAh
STARTING PRICE$1,980
OTHER PERKSside fingerprint sensor

The front display isn't even centered, horizontally, on the phone body. Samsung technically centered the display on the front panel but didn't include the hinge in its calculations, so there's around 5mm of phone to the right of the display and 9mm of phone to the left of the display. Visually, I don't think that works. My brain views the whole phone as the phone, hinge and all, and the display looks like it's in the wrong spot.

You might think a 4.6-inch display sounds plenty big enough for a smartphone, especially when you have a 7.3-inch screen at your disposal, too. But remember this is diagonal measurement for an extra-tall 21:9 aspect ratio, so that 4.6-inch size is greatly inflated. A better way to measure screen sizes of different aspect ratios would be by the width of the display, which determines things like how big the keyboard will be or how many icons you can fit in a row.

The width of the external Galaxy Fold screen is 1.8 inches, and that, by width, is one of the smallest displays ever fitted to a smartphone. Even if you go back to when screens were at their smallest, like the original iPhone with its 3.5-inch diagonal screen, the 3:2 aspect ratio meant that display was still 1.9 inches wide. The recent phone that reminds me most of the Galaxy Fold's exterior screen is 2018's Palm phone, one of the only devices that can claim to have a smaller screen, by width, at only 1.65-inches.

All the problems of the tiny Palm phone are here on the exterior of the Galaxy Fold display. Using the front display to fire off a quick text message or do a quick Google search doesn't work well, because the display is too small to comfortably type on. A thumb covers around four keyboard keys at once, so you have to gingerly tap around with the lightest fingertip touch and hope autocorrect does most of the work for you. Speedy, two-handed typing doesn't work on the front Galaxy Fold screen because the device is too skinny and cramped to hold with two hands. Your best bet is one-handed keyboard pecking or trying to swipe, which, again, is putting autocorrect in charge of everything.

If you're like me and don't like any of these input methods, that means opening the Galaxy Fold for every. Single. Text input. Opening the Fold's hinge takes some effort (it's not a flip phone), so this is slower and more cumbersome than a regular smartphone. By Samsung's own words, the front of the Fold is supposed to replace your smartphone, and thanks to the small screen, it is bad at one of a phone's primary functions: text input.

With no way to reliably type, the front display becomes less of a smartphone and more of a big smartwatch. It's there to show the time, notifications, a few basic apps, and not much else. Calculator and music app—the same types of big-button, low-information apps that translate well to a smartwatch screen. It's really just a big smartwatch on the outside—for everything else, it's too small. Reading webpages is a chore, the app drawer can only show rows of three icons each, and in apps like Gmail, you'll get to see the first four words of an email subject before it gets lopped off.

Samsung seriously dropped the ball on the exterior screen. Because the outside screen is too small, you're forced to open the phone and use the inner screen for most functions. Having to crack open the Fold every time you want to use it is a major hassle compared to a normal smartphone. This is one of those things you'll have to do dozens of times a day, and opening the Fold is a slow, two-handed operation. By Samsung's own admission, the front of the Galaxy Fold isn't supposed to be an afterthought; it's supposed to be the "smartphone" part of the Galaxy Fold, and it's a terrible design for a phone. The phone screen is so small that you're pushed to use the clamshell tablet all the time, and that is slow and cumbersome.

The interior screen—this is not actually a tablet

  • The Play Store on the Galaxy Fold and the OnePlus 7 Pro. The OnePlus shows more apps per screen. Ron Amadeo
  • Twitter, like the Play Store, just gets bigger on a wider display. You see more information on the OnePlus 7 Pro. Ron Amadeo
  • Since the Fold doesn't run in tablet mode, websites default to the mobile version. Ron Amadeo
  • This split keyboard is actually pretty good. Ron Amadeo
  • Split screen in portrait mode gives you two very skinny windows. Ron Amadeo
  • Split screen in landscape mode gives you two very short windows. Ron Amadeo

The outside screen is 7.3-inches, and while that might sound huge, the screen is not any taller than a OnePlus 7 Pro or Galaxy S10+. If you account for the gigantic notch in the upper right corner, there is actually less vertical space than a normal, plus-sized smartphone. If you take a modern "plus-sized" smartphone, and make it about 50-percent wider, you've got the interior of the Galaxy Fold.

The Galaxy Fold is not a tablet—it is a large phone. I was shocked to discover this when I opened it, but the Fold does not run in Android's tablet mode. You do not get dual-pane tablet apps or any other UI optimized for a larger screen. If Samsung configured the software differently, you could have access to genuinely good Android tablet features, like a version of Chrome with a desktop-style tab bar at the top and a multi-pane version of Gmail, Google Maps, Google Calendar, the Play Store, and YouTube. Out of the box you just get the phone versions of these apps, and that weakens the argument for the Galaxy-Fold-as-a-tablet. The Galaxy Fold is a wide smartphone, and that's it.

The problem with the "smartphone but a bit wider" form factor is that you don't gain much—if anything—from a moderately wider screen on Android. The way Android works under the hood is that the size of the UI is determined by the phone's width. (The display size setting in Android's Developer Options is literally called "Smallest width.") Since everything in Android is basically a scrolling vertical list—the notification panel, the settings, the app drawer, Gmail—your vertical space is, in a way, infinite. You can just scroll forever. When Android is scaling the UI, then, it's the width that matters, since the height of a scrolling list is unrestricted. Plenty of apps are written to have images or some other piece of UI go edge-to-edge based on the width of the display, so a wider phone often means bigger, zoomed-in apps that look like they were designed for someone with a visual impairment. This is bad, and Google knows it's bad, and this is why tablet mode exists. Tablet mode addresses app scaling on a wide screen with dual-pane UIs or different scaling behavior. Samsung isn't using Android's tablet mode, though.

Chonk

Thanks to Samsung's software decisions, everything on the Galaxy Fold is big. The best-case scenario is that the Galaxy Fold shows the same amount of information as on an S10+ or OnePlus 7 Pro, just stretched out horizontally a bit. You can see some comparisons above, and they are ridiculous. For apps that use edge-to-edge thumbnails like Twitter, you'll actually see less information on the Galaxy Fold than you will on a regular phone since the thumbnails will balloon in size and push content down. The same goes for the Play Store, which can show seven apps in a list on the OnePlus 7 Pro, but only four on the Galaxy Fold. Remember, you can buy three OnePlus 7 Pros for the price of a single Galaxy Fold. All that extra money and you're not seeing a benefit.

Email, mobile websites, social media apps, and messaging don't benefit from a wider screen. The only big uses I've found for the wider display are using some of the better-coded games that can adapt to any screen size and viewing the desktop version of websites.

Advanced users can sort of fix the tablet-mode problem on the Galaxy Fold: you can switch Android over into tablet mode manually if you 1) enter the secret developer options Konami code and 2) dig through the dev settings to find "Smallest width" and set it to a very high number. This will kick some apps over into a tablet mode, but some of Samsung's default apps don't play nice with this setting.

I've seen arguments from Samsung that the Galaxy Fold is good for split screen, but again, the Fold is full of hardware and software decisions that limit the usefulness of split screen. Remember, the Fold is only 50-percent wider than a normal smartphone, so in portrait mode, you don't really have the horizontal space for side-by-side apps.The landscape orientation will give you a more normal amount of horizontal space for apps, but then the vertical space is severely limited. You lose most of the vertical space to things like on-screen navigation buttons from the system and tab bars from the app.

The lack of vertical space in landscape mode isn't helped by Samsung's decision to not ship Android 10 or a good gesture navigation system on the Galaxy Fold. Instead, the most viable navigation option is an old-school navigation bar that sticks the usual "Back," "Home," and "Recent Apps" on the right side of the screen and then stretches all the way across the bottom of the device soaking up a ton of pixels. If the Fold had a decent gesture navigation system, you could hide the bar and get back a bit more vertical space. The Fold does have Samsung's half-baked gesture navigation system built on Android 9, but that is bad for a number of reasons we'll go into in the software section.

  • Media! Movies in a wide aspect ratio don't benefit from the Galaxy Fold's 4:3 display. Here the OnePlus 7 Pro gives you just as big of a picture. Ron Amadeo
  • YouTube videos are usually 16:9, and you'll get a bigger picture on a Galaxy Fold, although the notch will be in the way. Ron Amadeo
  • What you really want is a show with a 4:3 aspect ratio, then the image is huge! Ron Amadeo
  • Some games, like Hearthstone, don't play well with the Galaxy Fold's aspect ratio. Ron Amadeo
  • Others, like Minecraft, look great. Ron Amadeo

As for video on the Galaxy Fold, well, that depends what aspect ratio your content is and how well that lines up with the 4:3-ish display. 16:9 content—most of YouTube—will be a bit bigger on the Galaxy Fold than on a normal, plus-sized smartphone, but it's not a world of difference. You'll also have to deal with it being cut down by a sizable display notch, though, which YouTube, annoyingly, won't correct for. Movies and more cinematic shows in any kind of super-wide aspect ratio won't see a size increase at all on the Galaxy Fold, since wider media already fits neatly into the screen of a device like the OnePlus 7 Pro or Galaxy S10+—the Fold just adds more letterboxing. The real sweet spot for the Galaxy Fold display is watching content in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Fire up an old TV show like The Simpsons, and you'll get a hugh jass image.

So what justifies this shape?

With the extremely awkward and skinny outside screen and the too-small-to-be-a-tablet inside screen, the question we have to ask with the Galaxy Fold is: Why is it this shape? The Galaxy Fold is a skinny, tall, brick of a smartphone, and nothing about the shape benefits the device's form or function.

For a foldable smartphone, the dimensions that really matter are the folded, more compact dimensions: how big of a deal is it to carry around in its folded state? Does it fit comfortably in a pocket while folded? These are the questions you should design your foldable smartphone around. So why is the Galaxy Fold so skinny when folded? We know what a good, pocketable device size is: a normal smartphone, which is much wider than the Galaxy Fold. If Samsung made the Galaxy Fold, in its folded state, as wide as a normal smartphone, everything would be better.

The inside screen would benefit a lot from being bigger. While the inner aspect ratio is the same as an iPad Mini, in practice the two devices are nothing alike. The 7.3-inch Galaxy Fold display is noticeably smaller than a 7.9-inch iPad Mini, and, critically, the iPad doesn't have to waste space on an on-screen navigation bar and a giant camera notch. An iPad aspect ratio doesn't work when you have to chop off sections of the screen like this—iOS dedicates nearly the entire display to the app area, and the Galaxy Fold does not. Overall, there's just not enough room on the Fold display for apps to make it a significant improvement, or any improvement at all, over a regular smartphone.

A wider body would also allow for a smartphone-sized front screen instead of the tiny, useless screen that is on the front now. It could display apps at a normal size, with a normal width, and the keyboard would be usable. A wider body would also allow for a wider interior screen, which would be better for split screen, better for media, bRead More – Source