The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the biggest and baddest folding phone available in 2021 — but after using it for about a month, it’s clear most people should probably steer clear of it. In general, folding smartphones are still a very small niche of the overall smartphone market. They may generate a lot of buzz on sites like Screen Rant, but in the real world, most people are still buying ‘normal’ handsets.
While that may be the case, companies like Samsung have been determined to gradually change that. Samsung started its foldable journey in September 2019 with the launch of the Galaxy Fold. That first device was met with serious durability concerns, but after a few months back in the oven, the Galaxy Fold re-entered the market with a much sturdier design. A few months later in September 2020, it was time for the Galaxy Z Fold 2 to shine. Compared to its predecessor, the Z Fold 2 was better in virtually every way. It had a much more usable cover display, a more impressive inner screen, better cameras, durability improvements, and more. As a year-over-year improvement, the Z Fold 2 is still one of the most impressive smartphone releases in recent memory.
It’s now 2021, and for this year, Samsung’s folding journey continues with the Galaxy Z Fold 3. It’s very similar to the Z Fold 2 in more ways than one, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It takes that Z Fold 2 foundation, throws in a few welcome refinements, and drops the price down to a (slightly) more manageable $1,799. This all looks amazing on paper, and from a technical standpoint, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the most capable foldable available today. However, after actually spending quality time with the phone and trying to integrate it throughout day-to-day life, it’s obvious this form factor still has a lot of room left to grow.
Everything The Galaxy Z Fold 3 Gets Right
Before harping too hard on the Galaxy Z Fold 3, let’s be clear about something: technically, the Z Fold 3 is nothing short of impressive. Starting with the phone’s hardware, it’s astounding how sturdy and reliable a product Samsung’s created for just its third generation. The hinge feels extremely satisfying, it can hold itself up at a variety of angles, and the fact that this whole package is backed by an IPX8 water-resistance rating is icing on the cake. This focus on durability is further seen with the Z Fold 3’s inner screen. While it’s still technically more fragile than a Galaxy S21 or iPhone 13, that’s not readily apparent in daily use. It feels almost identical to glass when swiping your finger across it, and after numerous hours doing just that, the Fold 3 shows no visible signs of dents or other damage (something that wasn’t true of its predecessors).
Speaking of that display, it looks every bit as gorgeous as you’d expect from a high-end Samsung product. The AMOLED 2X technology produces stunning colors, the 1200 nits of peak brightness enables comfortable outdoor use, and the 120Hz refresh rate is as smooth as ever. Whether it’s used for playing games, watching a movie, or just scrolling through a website, there’s no denying how incredible this display really is. And, thankfully, many of its properties carry over to the cover screen. It uses the same AMOLED 2X tech, has good brightness, and refreshes at a buttery 120Hz.
If these all sound like properties of a quality Android handset, that’s because they are. In fact, there’s nothing technically terrible about the Galaxy Z Fold 3 at all. The three-camera system takes good photos, the battery lasts a full day per charge, there’s USB-C and Qi wireless charging, and the S Pen even works this year as an optional accessory. Strictly speaking in terms of specifications and how Samsung executed those things, it’s fair to say the Galaxy Z Fold 3 does an incredible job.
Why I Can’t Stand Using The Galaxy Z Fold 3
Judging a phone by its specifications is just one small part of the equation. Unfortunately for the Galaxy Z Fold 3, the experience of actually using it is where its luster quickly fades away for this writer. Samsung’s whole pitch for the Z Fold 3 is that it’s a phone and tablet in one device. Use the cover screen for small tasks, open it up for a more immersive experience, and forget the old days of using a normal phone and tablet. That sounds great in theory, but in practice, this form factor makes the Z Fold 3 awkward, clunky, and confusing.
One of the primary reasons for this is the cover screen. While it looks great and has a fast refresh rate, it also features a very narrow 25:9 aspect ratio. What exactly does that mean? It means applications often feel cramped, fewer interface elements can be shown horizontally on the screen, and the keyboard is so small that typing becomes a brand new challenge all unto itself. On top of that, there’s also the fact that the Z Fold 3 is an absolute brick while folded up. While used in this ‘phone’ mode, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is between 14.4-16 mm thick and weighs a hefty 271g. By comparison, the iPhone 13 Pro Max — one of the largest smartphones available in 2021 — is 7.7mm thick and weighs 240g. If reading that makes the Z Fold 3 sound daunting, that’s because it is. It sits heavy in a pocket, is twice as thick as virtually every other phone, and quickly introduces hand fatigue after a few minutes of use (especially if doing the infamous pinky prop). The Fold 3 in this mode is serviceable for managing emails or killing a couple of minutes on Twitter, but it’s always a worse experience than using a traditional, non-folding smartphone.
Of course, the point of the Z Fold 3 isn’t to use the cover screen 24/7. If it becomes too cramped for the task at hand, simply open the phone up to reveal a 7.6-inch Android tablet. This is something almost no other phone is capable of, and to Samsung’s credit, it does have its advantages. Want to browse a website on Chrome or Samsung Internet? The large canvas offers far more utility than any normal smartphone display. Want to run two apps side-by-side, or even three or four at once? The Galaxy Z Fold 3 can do that. After getting groceries one weekend, being able to see my calculator, budgeting app, and digital receipts all at once was a pretty magical thing.
The problem, though, is that situations that call for multiple apps to be used at once don’t happen all that often, at least not personally. More often than not, I just want to use one app at once. While some applications have been tweaked to take advantage of the Z Fold 3’s larger screen, many of them have not — including big names like Twitter, Instagram, and others. They’re just stretched-out versions of the phone app, and at that point, the Z Fold 3’s inner screen has no practical advantage. Instead, it’s just an awkwardly large phone.
Should You Buy The Galaxy Z Fold 3?
That’s where the struggle of the Z Fold 3 really lies. If someone is actively going out of their way to use multiple apps at once and treat the Fold 3 as a miniature computer, it’s far better suited for that than any other smartphone. But to use it as a phone, that Z Fold 3 is objectively worse than its competition. It’s heavy, the cover screen is cramped, and not enough apps take advantage of the inner screen.
Some people might read this and say I was wrong to try and use the Z Fold 3 as a phone and not a tablet/computer, but I’d argue that’s how most would approach the Fold 3. And, at the end of the day, it is still a smartphone. However, in its ambition to be the ultimate productivity and entertainment device, the Fold 3 introduces a variety of quirks that really detract from the day-to-day experience.
Reviews hailing the Fold 3 as the ‘best foldable ever’ aren’t technically wrong, but it’s important to acknowledge that this form factor absolutely isn’t for everyone. It’s been a ton of fun to use the Z Fold 3 and get first-hand experience with it. To be honest, though, there’s no desire to keep using it once this review is published. Every time I try typing on the cover screen or open an unoptimized app on the inner display, all it does is make me want to grab my Z Flip 3 or iPhone 11 Pro. The Z Fold 3 is an easy recommendation to anyone already sold on this form factor. For the rest of us, it’s best to keep waiting and see how Samsung shakes things up with gen 4, 5, or 6.
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