Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 review: Robust and powerful, but not quite Samsung’s best
Quick verdict: Samsung has made some much-needed improvements to the Galaxy Z Fold's durability and price point, but foldables remain a niche within the wider smartphone space, and it's well worth considering what else you can get for less money.
- Improved durability
- Tablet display allows easy multitasking
- Good app performance
- S-Pen capable
- Still expensive
- Samsung does better cameras on the S21 Ultra 5G
- Not all S-Pens work
- Unusual pocket shape
- Battery life isn't great
12MP + 12MP + 12MP
Finder rated as Good vs similar phones
Power, storage and battery
|Launch price (RRP)||$0|
At one time it seemed as though every mobile phone maker was rushing to bring some kind of foldable phone to market, from the big players like Samsung or Huawei through to the mid-level participants such as Oppo or TCL.
However, in 2021 there's really only one player still continuing to develop and refine foldable phones. That's a huge pity, because while the basic smartphone market is super mature and essentially locked into design ideas, there's still a lot of room for foldables to innovate and improve.
The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 isn't some huge innovation on Samsung's part, but it does represent a sharp improvement in capabilities, durability and price, making it the easy recommendation if you're keen on a foldable phone.
Right now that's still a niche within the larger smartphone world, and it would be smart to consider if a foldable is right for your needs relative to its price. Samsung has made the Galaxy Z Fold 3 considerably cheaper than the Galaxy Z Fold 2 was, but it's still by no means an inexpensive phone.
Design: Galaxy Z Fold 3 gets tough(er)
Since its inception, Samsung has really only tweaked the design of the Galaxy Fold family lightly each year. Each year we've seen refinements that have made the core proposition of a phone that folds out into a tablet more compelling, and in 2021, the key enhancement is in durability.
Where the first gen-Fold had embarrassing screen durability issues that saw Samsung remove it from US sale rather rapidly while it retooled the build, and the second has improved hinges to make it tougher, the big new feature in the Galaxy Z Fold is water resistance.
That's a statement that needs to be carefully unpacked, because what Samsung is promising is IPX8 water resistance. As always that's for fresh water, but the X there means that it's in no way rated for dust ingress over time. A drop in fresh water shouldn't stress you the way that the original Folds did, but it wouldn't be smart to take it to the beach all that often.
Samsung does claim that the internal display protector is some 80% more robust than on prior generations. It's still got a distinctly "plastic" feel to it, but there's less sticky traction than in previous generations, giving it more of a "smartphone" feel.
Of course, if Samsung says its new foldable is water resistant, I've got to put that to the test, so I did. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 was (nervously) dropped into some tap water briefly, a move that would have no doubt killed its predecessors. It survived, and one wipe dry later it was back in action. I wouldn't be looking to do that test all that often given its asking price, but it does mean you don't have to stress it getting rained on, or if it briefly fell into water. You're still taking your own risks if you drop it into other liquids, however.
The other new design story for the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the use of an under-display camera. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the first phone to market to feature this particular design idea, doing away with the idea of "notches" or indeed "holepunch" cameras.
The reality of the Galaxy Z Fold 3's selfie camera is that you can in fact still see it, and any content that gets shown across it has a distinct moiré style pattern across it. It's not super distracting, and the reality for many Android apps is that they assume a top notch or bar there anyway. It's interesting technology for sure, but I'm not 100% convinced too many Galaxy Z Fold 3 buyers would have objected to a standard holepunch (or in Samsung-speak, "Infinity O") camera there anyway.
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 sells in 3 different colour variants in Australia. You can pick between Phantom Black, Phantom Silver and Phantom Green, which is the model Samsung provided for review. It's a quite subtle green, but isn't super distinct from the black model in the real world. If you want the model that stands out visually, that would be the Phantom Silver variant.
Like its predecessors, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 features a front display that works as a full Android display as well as internal folding displays. In measurement terms you're looking at a 6.2-inch cover display, which sounds large as a number. However, this is a thin and tall display, and those measurements are always made across the diagonal.
There's definitely a learning curve to using a "thin" Android phone like this, but then the reality is that the cover display is really just there for quick app use when you don't want to or can't unfold the full 7.6-inch internal display.
Again, those numbers might seem like they're no big difference, but keep that diagonal measurement reality in mind. The internal display is larger than any other phone you can buy right now (at least until the Surface Duo 2 lands on our shores). To give that some visual perspective, here's the Galaxy Z Fold 3's 7.6-inch display next to the 6.8-inch display of the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G:
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 uses a side-mounted fingerprint sensor that works well for quick unlocking in either folded or unfolded mode, although naturally when unfolded it's a tad trickier to hold and unlock in a single gesture.
Camera: Good, but it should have Samsung's best
Back when Samsung announced the original Galaxy Fold, it gave that device the very best cameras it had to hand, over and above that year's Galaxy S series flagships. Since then, it's been a story of diminishing returns, with Fold models that have had good cameras, but not Samsung's best.
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 does have that technically interesting under-display camera, but it's otherwise left trailing the standard flagship Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, and not by a small margin.
At the rear, you'll find a trio of 12MP lenses covering wide, ultrawide and 2x telephoto with optical image stabilisation. That feels like a familiar formula for Samsung to use, and that's because it's the same camera recipe found on the Galaxy Z Fold 2. Samsung has added optical image stabilisation to the ultrawide and telephoto lenses this time around, which can aid in some capture situations for sure.
However, I'm constantly drawn to the fact that Samsung now makes some of the industry's best sensors and cameras, and they're not on the Galaxy Z Fold 3. The cheaper Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G features dual zoom lenses with 3x and 10x zoom capabilities, dwarfing what the Galaxy Z Fold 3 can manage. If you're a photo fanatic, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 can get the job done, but I do struggle with the idea that Samsung's most expensive phone isn't the one with its best cameras.
Of course, those 3 cameras on the "back" of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 aren't its only camera offerings. You also get a 10MP "cover" camera – that's the one on the 6.2-inch screen – as well as that in-display camera, which only has a 4MP sensor.
If you're thinking that 4MP feels a little meagre for a 2021 flagship foldable phone, you're not alone. Its results are rarely anything to get all that excited about either:
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 can shoot well, but it's also somewhat limited by the way that you might shoot with it. You can of course take the grandma route of using the full tablet unfolded to take your shots, but this is quite difficult for both framing and keeping steady. The folded phone works much better in this respect, taking good photos in most conditions, including low light.
Still, it's not the phone to buy if you want Samsung's best, or the best in the premium space altogether.
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 sample photos
Performance: Fast and super capable
Comparing the Galaxy Z Fold 3's performance is a tricky matter, because there's only a tiny market of actual foldable devices to compare it to, and all but one of them in the Australian context were made by Samsung already.
As such, it's no surprise at all that the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the best performing foldable Samsung has released to date. Something would be badly wrong if that wasn't true. Here's how the Galaxy Z Fold 3 compares to other flagship phones across the Geekbench CPU and 3DMark GPU benchmarks:
The practical reality in day to day app usage is that the Galaxy Z Fold 3 has more than enough power for any Android application. It's also the rare example of a phone where you might actually push it hard, because the expanded screen has more than enough real estate to accommodate multiple apps in a multi-tasking friendly way.
Sure, you can multi-task on any given Android phone, but you're always constrained by the actual screen size. Just as the prior Galaxy Fold models did, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 makes this a much simpler and more accessible process, allowing you to easily place apps side by side, or in float over windows. The combined screen real estate means that you still can't (or shouldn't) go nuts with lots of open apps, but it's workable across a few in a way that most phones simply cannot manage.
Samsung has further enhanced this idea with a setting that allows you to pin a dock's worth of applications for fast access at any time, giving it a rather macOS like feel. It's a great addition if you've got a suite of apps that you use all the time, because you really can fly from one app to another even if you need full-screen app access.
The other new trick up the Galaxy Z Fold 3's folded sleeve is compatibility with Samsung's S-Pen platform for scribbling notes, live messages capturing screen images and of course actual drawing tasks. We're not going to see an actual Galaxy Note in 2021, it seems, but the Galaxy Z Fold 3's larger display should make it an ideal substitute for Samsung's classic phablet.
There are 3 catches here, however. For a start, the S-Pen is not bundled, although you can pick from a larger $189 S-Pen Pro or lighter $119 S-Pen Fold Edition to purchase separately. For review, Samsung provided me with the S-Pen Pro to test out its feature set.
This is where the secondary catch comes in, because if you're an established Note user and you figure you can save a few bucks by using your existing Note stylus, I've got some bad news for you. While prior S-Pens have been effectively universal – I can use the S-Pen from a Note 3 on 2021's Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, for example – the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is far more picky about its stylus compatibility.
If I take the Note 3's S-Pen to the Galaxy Z Fold 3, it will recognise what I'm trying to do, and simply tell me that using "other" S-Pens will damage the display. That's also true for the Staedtler Noris Digital S-Pen if your preference is for a pencil styled S-Pen as well.
My artistic abilities are… well, they're not artistic in any real way. It's fun to doodle, and the range of capabilities that the S-Pen has works well on the Galaxy Z Fold 3's display, as long as you've got a current S-Pen to use.
The final issue, and it's a truly baffling one, is that the cover display, which doesn't have the same durability issues as the internal display, doesn't support the S-Pen at all. It would seem like such a logical idea for quick note jotting, but it's just not something that you can do.
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 battery: Surprisingly small battery compared to prior Folds
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 has to do some tricky balancing when it comes to its battery capacity. For a start, internally the battery is split, because current battery technology doesn't really accommodate flexible batteries across the hinge. What you get is a 4,400mAh battery, and it's an odd one if only because last year's Galaxy Z Fold 2 ran with a 4,500mah battery. Maybe adding in that under-display camera robbed it of some precious battery space.
Unfortunately, giving it a smaller battery and 120Hz display across both the cover display and primary tablet display, alongside the power-hungry Snapdragon 888, could only go one way in terms of battery life, whether you're comparing against Samsung's other foldables or other premium smartphone options.
Using Finder's standard battery comparison test, streaming a 1080p YouTube video at full brightness and moderate volume shows where the Galaxy Z Fold 3 sits:
That 90% figure is awkward, because it's teetering on the point where a phone can struggle to last through a full day's usage. The practical reality at the moment with pandemic lockdowns has slightly altered my more anecdotal testing, which has meant some days where it's managed a day with 20%+ remaining, and others where it has genuinely struggled. It's not as bad as the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 by any measure, but it's also not great, and if you are planning on doing lots of multi-tasking with heavy duty apps, make sure you've got power nearby.
Like Samsung's other flagship phones, you also don't get a charger in the box with the Galaxy Z Fold 3. It will support both wired charging from your existing charger at up to 25W, or via Qi wireless charging at 10W.
Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3?
- Buy it if you want the best foldable phone money can buy.
- Don't buy it if you're clumsy or want Samsung's best cameras or best battery life.
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is easily the best foldable phone money can buy in 2021.
Still, Samsung has improved on its Fold design in some significant ways. The display is tougher and more capable of surviving immersion, even though it's terrifying testing this out.
The software is smarter, and far more able to make sensible use of all that additional screen real estate, especially if you buy an S-Pen. It's more than powerful enough with the Snapdragon 888 running the whole show too. Finally, it's available at a lower cost than prior Fold generations, moving it ever closer to parity with current generation standard flagships.
However, it's not great when it comes to battery life. You're paying a premium for a phone that doesn't have Samsung's most premium camera array, and while it's tougher, that's not quite the same thing as actually tough. A case is still a very smart idea, and you'll need to be careful with that inner screen when it comes to scratches and blemishes.
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 pricing and availability
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is available to purchase in Australia now. The 256GB/12GB RAM model as tested retails at $2,499. The 512GB/12GB RAM model sells at $2,649, and the limited edition Thom Browne Edition sells at $4,699.
Compare Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 plans
You can also purchase the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 on a handset repayment plan from Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, or Woolworths. This will split the cost of your new phone over 24 or 36 months, and you'll get a mobile plan with it too.
Power, storage and battery
How we tested
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 was tested over a 3-week period testing day to day usage, camera capabilities, S-Pen features and battery endurance through both benchmarks and anecdotal testing. We also immersed the Galaxy Z Fold 3 in water to test its water resistance once, and only once, because this is still a terrifying thing to do to a $2,499 smartphone!
Images: Alex Kidman
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