Samsung Galaxy Fold Not-Quite-A-Review: Clever engineering but not a phone you should buy

Posted: 6 November 2019 2:37 pm
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Samsung Galaxy Fold

Quick Verdict

The Galaxy Fold presents the first step forwards into the brave new world of folding phones. As the first folding phone you can buy, it's the best in the market – and also the worst.

The good

  • Folding mechanism is genuinely fun to use
  • Continuity can work well
  • Possibly better battery life than other 2019 Samsung phones
  • App multitasking works better than any Android tablet

The bad

  • Way too fragile for a flagship phone
  • Lots of lenses, but a deeply ordinary camera experience
  • The crease is both visibly and physically obvious
  • Front display is annoyingly small for the money
  • No storage expansion
  • No headphone jack
  • No water resistance
  • Costs an obscene amount of money

It's been a long wait for the Samsung Galaxy Fold. It's all but unheard of for a phone maker to announce a new phone and have a full year's wait before it hits our shores, but that's precisely what happened with the Galaxy Fold.

But before I start on my "review", you might have noticed the modifier around the word "review" in the headline. That's not accidental.

While the wait for the Galaxy Fold has been substantial, based primarily around its noted durability issues when it was first due to launch in the US, Samsung Australia's position for all reviewers locally is that you can only have access to a review model for around two to three days.

It's a ludicrously short period of time to properly assess a phone, which is why I can't in good conscience call this a full review. My own review period has been four effective "days", but two of those days were on a weekend, which really doesn't (or shouldn't) count.

Hopefully, I'll be able to get further time to properly assess the Galaxy Fold and update this review in the future.

That being said, the Galaxy Fold presents the first in a brave new world of smartphones, while simultaneously having some elements that already feel oddly dated.

That's a function of its curious release schedule: announced at the same time as the Galaxy S10, there are features that have since been supplanted by the Galaxy Note10+, not to mention other phones. But none of those phones is foldable – or three grand to purchase outright. That price hangs heavy over the Galaxy Fold and not in a good way.

Picture not described

Design

  • Fold retains its satisfying engineering click
  • Display crease is always apparent
  • Smaller external display isn't optimal
  • Supplied "case" is just plain ugly
  • No headphone jack or external storage support

The key reason to buy a Galaxy Fold is inherent in the name. This is a phone that folds on an internal hinge that sits in the middle of the 7.3-inch 1536 x 2152 pixel display, with a smaller 4.6-inch display on the outside. The primary display is one of Samsung's Dynamic AMOLED models, and it's very bright and colourful, with what amounts to a "side" notch at the top right. We're probably a generation or two before we can get to the hole-punch cameras found in Samsung's other flagship phone ranges.

A flexible display means that glass really isn't suitable, and you can pick up that the Galaxy Fold is rocking a plastic display from the moment you start using it. It feels very different from the slick glass that you might expect, with just a little more drag friction under your finger.

The internal hinge leaves an always-present crease in the middle of the primary display, although how visible it is will depend on your choice of display content. Dark tones – including the default butterfly logo – accentuate it, while lighter tones, including most web pages, tend to hide it slightly better. Run your finger over it in any way – which you'll do a lot given it's basically a small tablet – and you'll feel it every single time regardless.

The use of a plastic display also means that Samsung can't use the nifty ultrasonic in-display fingerprint sensor found on phones like the Galaxy S10+ or Galaxy Note10+. That makes sense – you couldn't really fit an optical sensor in the logical section of the phone's primary display because that's where the hinge actually sits.

So what you get instead is a slender fingerprint sensor located on the right hand side of the phone body. It's there so you can reach it whether you have the Galaxy Fold in its folded state or not, but like many slender side-mounted fingerprint sensors, it's not always easy to locate quickly.

Samsung Galaxy Fold

While the Galaxy Fold was teased last year and announced alongside the Galaxy S10 family, all of which feature headphone jacks, you won't find one on the Galaxy Fold. Likewise, if you're a fan of using microSD cards for storage expansion, you're flat out of luck; the Galaxy Fold only has a single Nano SIM card tray. It's a dual SIM phone, but only because it also includes eSIM support.

Still, it feels odd to pay the most you can pay for a smartphone in Australia in 2019 and miss out on those kinds of features, but then there's a fair bit sacrificed here in the name of that folding mechanism.

The Galaxy Fold's party piece is naturally that folding action, which retains (at least in the limited review time available) its pleasing physical click. There's a definite visceral thrill in opening and closing the Galaxy Fold that highlights how good Samsung's general engineering has been here.

Of course, that could be a "new car smell" kind of impact because, again, I've only had a handful of days to test out the Galaxy Fold. It's also a factor of it being the first to market; it's entirely feasible that within 12 months, when many more foldable models are expected to hit the market, we'll find it all rather ordinary.

Samsung sells the Galaxy Fold in two colour tones in Australia, either black or silver, but that's only a colour choice that affects the absolute rear casing of the phone, which is where the cameras sit. Given you'll spend most of your time with the Galaxy Fold staring at the screen, it's a relatively minor difference.

Samsung Galaxy Fold

I'm a huge proponent of putting a case on a phone to protect it, and of course for a folding phone, this presents some serious challenges. Cases are typically rigid protective affairs, and if they fold, you're doing something wrong.

Samsung does provide a "case" of sorts with the Galaxy Fold in a finish that's reminiscent of the carbon fibre finish used in many sports cars. However, because it's a segmented case (which, to be fair, it has to be), it looks oddly broken and, to my eye, quite ugly. You may of course differ in your opinion. Here's hoping case manufacturers come up with something a little more visually appealing.

Speaking of protection, the other casualty of the Galaxy Fold's folding design is a feature I'd consider a bedrock of flagship phones. That's some level of IP-rated water and dust protection. You can (but shouldn't) drop a Galaxy Note10+ into a glass of water and it's got good odds of surviving the ordeal thanks to its IP68 rating.

Find a wide enough glass of water to drop the Galaxy Fold into, and you'd be looking at a $2,999 brick. Given you're warned not to press the screen too hard (or, oddly, put it near credit cards), it's a phone with a neat physical feature balanced against more than one quite significant physical limitation.

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Samsung Galaxy Fold

Camera

  • Having six cameras sounds all kinds of impressive
  • But this is basically just the Galaxy S10 in a new hat
  • Low-light performance is below the grade
  • Taking photos is tricky in either folded or unfolded mode

Samsung's done some fine work in the flagship camera space this year, although it hasn't entirely led the field in any one particular aspect. The Galaxy Fold is somewhat unusual in that it features a grand total of six cameras in total, which sounds impressive on first glance.

You get a 16MP f/2.2 ultra-wide lens, 12MP f/1.5-f/2.4 variable-aperture wide lens and 12MP f/2.4 2x optical zoom lens at the back, then a tablet-facing 10MP f/2.2 lens paired with an 8MP f/1.9 depth-sensing lens and finally a single actually-front-facing 10MP f/2.2 selfie lens for when the Galaxy Fold is folded.

It's exhausting just listing all of them, but if you're thinking that this is a camera that's going to be as flexible and fun as the phone it's attached to, you may want to think again.

Once again, I have to stress that these are my observations based off way too little real testing time. Still, I do a lot of phone-camera testing, and I don't think it's unreasonable to expect best-in-class camera performance out of a phone that's essentially twice the price of most flagship 2019 handsets.

The Galaxy Fold has six cameras because the nature of a folding phone means that you need multiple cameras to ensure you can take photos whether it's folded inwards or not. That's why there's duplication in the selfie cameras, but that in itself shouldn't be an issue.

The delay in the release of the Galaxy Fold presents the first of its camera issues. It's essentially the camera array found in phones like the Galaxy S10+, and even Samsung itself has supplanted that with the Galaxy Note10 series. That's ignoring the fact that Samsung's rivals have been exceptionally busy in the camera space in 2019, delivering some really great camera phones if you've got flagship money to spend.

As you might expect, for regular daytime shots, the Galaxy Fold is perfectly fine and has a range of specialised features as you'd find on Samsung's other flagship phones. Where we tend to see more differentiation and value in the flagship space is in low-light performance.

Here again, I'm stymied by that very short "review" period, but I did my best to pit the Samsung Galaxy Fold against its competition with a little low-light shootout, using my favourite local park to do so. All shots were taken handheld, and the Fold was in its smaller folded state to enable best possible hand stabilisation.

Now, I'm usually quite cautious when doing this test because it's an unusual experience wandering around a park late at night in Sydney with just one flagship phone in your grasp, let alone five of them.

To add to the stress levels, while I only had the phone for a couple of nights, the one night I could actually get out to do some night shooting, it was raining in Sydney – raining when I was due to take a $2,999 phone with no stated water resistance out to shoot photos.

This is the polite way of letting Samsung know that I got some rain on your Galaxy Fold. Sorry about that.

It seemed to survive, but it's not recommended, and I'm not going to claim I wasn't very nervous doing so.

With that out of the way, how did the Galaxy Fold compare shooting a night scene?

To give some contrast, here's how the Galaxy Note10+ compares with a low-light shot:

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus sample photo

Here's the Google Pixel 4 XL:

Google Pixel 4 XL sample photo

Here's the Huawei P30 Pro:

Huawei P30 Pro sample photo

And here's the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max:

Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max sample photo

So, how did the Galaxy Fold interpret the shot?

Samsung Galaxy Fold sample photo

Now, in one sense, it's incredible that any phone camera can get a low-light shot in a poorly lit park in the rain at all. But still, for a phone at the price point of the Galaxy Fold, I was ultimately left wanting quite a lot more.

Then there's the physical aspect of using the Galaxy Fold as your camera. When unfolded, you're essentially engaging in tablet-based photography, which means you've got a very large viewfinder, but it's much harder to stabilise and frame any given shot. Samsung's own camera software will at least let you move the shutter button around so it's more easily in reach, but this still isn't super satisfying.

Now, that could be entirely eliminated as an issue when folded, but here the smaller external display and, to a lesser extent, the thickness of the phone itself can become an issue.

It's very weird to feel as though a flagship 2019 phone, let alone the most expensive phone you can buy right now, would feel retro, but staring at a viewfinder that's just 4.6 inches feels like quite the throwback – and of course rather small.

This isn't just a question of framing, but also the size of the actual controls. They've been shrunk in accordance with the screen size, which can make them harder to accurately hit than you'd expect.

The end result was that while my testing time was limited, I wasn't left particularly impressed with the Samsung Galaxy Fold against the wide range of competing smartphones on the camera front.

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Samsung Galaxy Fold

Performance

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 plus 12GB RAM gives it plenty of power
  • Multi-window view is smartly implemented
  • App Continuity for the front screen is a little hit-and-miss
  • Has to be folded shut for most phone calls
  • Smaller display isn't great for many apps at all

All year long, when Samsung has released a Galaxy phone Down Under, it's been powered by its own Exynos silicon. It was genuinely surprising to find out that the Galaxy Fold is Samsung's first phone released in Australia running on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 instead. Not that Samsung's a stranger to the Snapdragon 855 internationally – it's just not what it uses for phones released Down Under, until now.

We already knew that the Snapdragon 855 was a good performer in the premium Android space from testing other phones running it. The Galaxy Fold has a little more to work with when it's running, so I was keen to see how it compared using Geekbench 5's CPU test:

In the Android space, it's ever so slightly out powered, but not by a significant mark. Apple's own silicon is still very much the best you can get, however.

The Galaxy Fold acquits itself much better when you're talking 3D benchmarks. Here's how it compares using 3DMark's Slingshot Extreme test:

The Galaxy Fold is a powerful phone then, and I do have to give Samsung a lot of credit for how it's actually using the extra screen space on the Galaxy Fold.

You can have huge single-screen apps if you like, but rather than just the usual Android split-screen top/bottom arrangement for two apps at once, it instead offers a three-pane view that really does make the most of your screen real estate. It's the first use of Samsung's own edge launcher that really makes sense because that's where you pick your apps from beyond the first.

There is something pretty special about having what amounts to a near-laptop style interface running on a phone, and running well. The software engineering here really is quite impressive.

I'm a little less taken with the way that the Galaxy Fold handles apps when you close the Galaxy Fold up. You have to tell the phone precisely which apps benefit from "App Continuity", which is what Samsung calls the ability for the phone to hand off apps from the larger screen to the smaller one.

Some apps, such as the Chrome browser work well, but others are more troublesome. Some apps relaunched themselves every time I closed the phone, while others refused to work at all despite being pre-selected for App Continuity work.

Even when they did work, the contrast between that 7.3-inch display and the 4.6-inch display couldn't be more stark. It's made much worse by the fact that the cover display screen doesn't so much have bezels as it does nearly an inch of chin and forehead above and below the screen. It all feels like wasted space, and for any kind of information reading, it's just too small to be really useful.

Then there's the compromise when you get a phone call, which is equal parts annoying and weird. If a call comes in when the phone is unfolded, you're meant to fold it up to take the call. That's not just to stop you looking weird plastering a tablet to the side of your head, but also because the phone's ear speaker is located on the "outside" cover edge of the phone.

It's possible, with a little shouting, to actually take a call this way, but it's not advisable if it's a private call. Your only other alternative is to throw the whole call into speaker mode, but again, that's not private.

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Samsung Galaxy Fold

Battery life

  • 4380mAh battery is one of the best we've seen on a Samsung phone this year
  • Wired or wireless charging

The story of Samsung battery life in 2019 has largely been one of disappointment. Ask me in 2018 for a flagship phone with great battery life and I'd have had no hesitation in recommending a Galaxy S9 or Note9 to anyone.

However, 2019's crop of Galaxy S and Note phones has tended to be markedly worse than their 2018 counterparts, which has also meant that they've underperformed relative to competing manufacturer's 2019 phones.

As such, while my testing time was limited, I wasn't expecting much out of the Galaxy Fold, given it has two screens to run.

Using our standard YouTube test, running a full screen (or as full screen as the Galaxy Fold would take it) video at full brightness and high volume, the Galaxy Fold actually acquitted itself quite well relative to its Samsung brethren.

It's still not a great phone for battery life, and my own limited experience suggests that it's really just a single-day phone. Still, for a phone with such a large display, that's not too shabby. Here's how it compared in our battery rundown test:

I ran the test again using only the external display. It's a lousy way to watch any video, but surprisingly, it returned exactly the same battery result. In my very limited ad-hoc testing, single-day battery life was achievable, but that's from an embarrassingly small sample set of only two days.

The Galaxy Fold supports wired USB-C charging as well as Qi wireless charging. It's kind of impressive that it will do so folded or unfolded, although naturally your placement in unfolded mode has to be quite precise to get the juice flowing.

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Samsung Galaxy Fold

Should you buy the Galaxy Fold?

  • It's a great engineering feat
  • But probably not one you should buy

I'm loathe in one sense to present any kind of conclusion around the Galaxy Fold because a couple of days simply aren't enough to properly assess any smartphone.

However, while the absolute in-store initial impressions of the Galaxy Fold are likely to be positive because the engineering and simple feel of that folding mechanism are highly enticing, it doesn't take long for the limitations of the Galaxy Fold to make themselves apparent.

The Galaxy Fold is the first folding phone to hit the market, so in one sense, it's the best by default – and also the worst. I can't compare it to any other folding phones you can buy because there basically aren't any. No, I'm not counting the Huawei Mate X or the FlexPai (remember that one?).

What I can compare it to are the flagship phones you could buy with the same money and have a lot of change left over. There's an undeniable cool factor to the Galaxy Fold, and it's one that I'm intrigued by, but I can't ignore its early shortcomings.

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Samsung Galaxy Fold: Pricing and availability

The Samsung Galaxy Fold is available outright in Australia for $2,999. Samsung isn't directly selling it online, with selected Samsung stores and retailers offering the ability to buy in-store only.

The Galaxy Fold is also available on contract terms through Optus, Vodafone and Telstra:

Samsung Galaxy Fold: Alternatives

Until the Huawei Mate X lands on our shores – and since, at the time of writing, we're still waiting on the Huawei Mate 30 Pro to arrive, that's not a given by any means – there's no real "alternative" to the Galaxy Fold you can buy.

The closest in 2019 flagship terms would be the LG V50 ThinQ, which is more properly a dual-screen phone than a proper "foldable" phone.

Of course, for the $2,999 asking price of the Galaxy Fold, you could have any of 2019's flagship phones with change to spare and in some cases two of them. Check out our list of the best phones of 2019 to choose from any of them – they're all cheaper than the Galaxy Fold.

Specs

Display

Camera

Physical dimensions

Connectivity

Power, storage and battery

Device features

Display size 7.3 inches
Resolution 1536 x 2152
Pixels per inch (PPI) 362
Rear camera megapixels 12MP + 12MP + 16MP
Rear camera aperture size f/2.4 + f/1.5-f/2.4 + f/2.2
Video recording 4K
Front camera megapixels 10MP + 8MP
Front camera aperture size f/2.2 + f/1.9
Dimensions mm x mm x mm
Weight 263g
NFC Yes
Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Network category speed N/A
Processor
RAM 12GB
Operating system Android 9
Internal storage

512GB

External storage support Up to N/A
Battery capacity 4,380mAh
Headphone jack No
Fingerprint sensor Yes
Water resistance N/A
Wireless charging Qi
PMA
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