As a tech journalist I take no pleasure in slating a new product. I got into this business to help celebrate the finest in consumer technology, but I also have an obligation to let people know when something is not worth the hype or their money.
I was fully expecting to slate the Galaxy Z Flip, Samsung’s second folding smartphone, bracing myself to indulge in a rare hatchet job.
But I am pleased to say the Z Flip is promising. A first-generation product without a doubt, but one that makes a better argument for folding phones being decent than the awkward Galaxy Fold. It’s a phone that is far more appealing to the wider market, even if it's not the finished article.
The Galaxy Fold is impressive only by the mere fact of its existence. It folds! Never mind that its outer and inner displays are both dimensionally bad for viewing most smartphone content.
In contrast, the Z Flip folds for a reason. Anyone who ever owned a flip phone will be unable to contain a smile when they open it for the first time and are presented with an all-screen interior – and then can’t quite believe that the thing folds away again so small.
Where the Galaxy Fold folded shut into a fat choc ice of tech, the Z Flip is clearly still a flip phone when closed.
The industrial design on show here is similar to the Fold with the same plastic edge bezel around the display when unfolded and a shiny block of hinge when closed, yet it’s now far easier to understand on first viewing because it echoes a decades-old phone design that everyone knows. It’s the same story with the new Motorola Razr.
Unlike the Fold, the Z Flip shuts completely flat making the physical gap in the closed Galaxy Fold even more unsightly, further pushing that first Samsung foldable closer to the realms of prototype.
The Z Flip is too tall to use one handed but it makes infinitely more sense given the scrolling design of most messaging, social media and text-based apps. I’m holding out for an extra-tall version of Tetris.
It won’t be pleasant to watch films on, but anyone willing to stump up the cash for a Z Flip isn’t going to be buying it to use as a portable home cinema.
The Fold’s square main screen is a marvellous feat and video watching is its trump card, but it can’t even fit a full Instagram post on it thanks to mobile app formatting. The Z Flip will be an infinite scroller’s dream in a compact design that for some will be preferable to jean-busting tall phones like the Sony Xperia 1.
There’s a visible crease in the Z Flip’s display but the hinge is a huge improvement over the Fold’s. It is far sturdier and can be positioned at any angle, unlike the Fold’s that hangs limply unless fully snapped open.
That tight hinge also works with the software to act as a stand for video calls, a genuine use case and hopefully something developers will pick up on and build into more apps than Samsung’s (though I wouldn’t count on it). Unfolded at around 100 degrees, the phone detects this and puts the camera app into a split screen mode with controls on the bottom half and the video feed on the top. The trick works for selfies too, turning the Z Flip into the compact mirror it is clearly modelled on.
It’s a clever way to build the functionality of a stand into the design of the phone itself but something like this will come into its own in a folding device that is big enough to fold in half as a stand and watch landscape video on.
The poky exterior screen on the Galaxy Fold is an odd one – it’s good to have it there for quick access but is so annoying to use as a full phone that I’m convinced it’s there to make you open it and use the larger screen. Its presence also makes the phone thicker and heavier than it needs to be.
By contrast, the Z Flip’s tiny pill shaped 1in second display is far less functional but is part of a sleeker device that owns the fact you need to open it to use it. The Galaxy Fold’s two displays contradicted one another, the annoyances of both driving you to flit between the two before realising both were deeply flawed – one too small and one too square.
The Z Flip’s small outer touch panel is there to show the time and barely anything else. You can swipe to pick up or dismiss calls and can also be a viewfinder in stand mode if you want to take a timed selfie. This limited functionality means you can’t use the phone closed and this makes much more sense to me – Samsung is confidently showing you the Z Flip’s folding display is the one you have to use for everything.
Samsung says the screen has an incredibly thin layer of flexible glass in its otherwise plastic construction. It claims the hardness of this glass-infused material means the flexible display is less prone to permanent indentation – a fingernail dragged across the Galaxy Fold’s display is enough to mark it forever.
Despite the good first impressions of the Z Flip and its undeniable improvement over the Fold, this question of fragility is where I end up. Sure, it’s harder to permanently mark the screen, but it’s still possible. We’ve all got used to potentially smashing glass displays, but they won’t be marked if you press them a little too hard.
And even though the hinge being able to close flat is an impressive engineering feat, there’s still a visible, raised ridge smack bang in the middle of this incredibly expensive phone's display. But unlike the Galaxy Fold, the Z Flip is undoubtedly a phone.
As the foldable category matures, convincing people that these devices can replace normal smartphones is the biggest hurdle Samsung faces, though that’s even harder when Samsung is making regular phones with better specs for half the price.
It’s clear that the Flip is mightier than the Fold but both products’ combination of fragility and high price mean they will remain a niche curiosity for now.