The problem with the first generation of foldable phones (other than them breaking after just a handful of days) is that they weren’t really phones.
Sure, they operated like smartphones, and you could definitely make calls on them, but in practice, the first foldable phones - we’re talking the Royole Flexpai, Huawei Mate X, and Samsung Galaxy Fold - were actually more like foldable tablets that doubled as chunky, cumbersome and simply not particularly desirable phones.
While it’s unlikely that Samsung won’t further iterate on the book-like Galaxy Fold form factor, its second foldable feels a lot more viable as a phone. Like the reimagined Motorola Razr that sent the internet into a frenzy after its unveiling towards the end of 2019, the Galaxy Z Flip is an old-becomes-new-fashioned flip phone with a clamshell design that opens up to reveal a large foldable display. And this time, the all-too prototype-y plastic panel has been swapped for a proper glass one, which really does make a world of difference.
At £1,300 it’s still prohibitively pricey for what cynics might call a glorified proof-of-concept device, especially as specs take a hit in places. But of all the phones we’ve folded (and reader, rest assured that we’ve folded all the foldable phones), it might turn out to be the only one we want in our pocket on a permanent basis.
Read on for hands-on impressions from Samsung’s annual Unpacked showcase.
Design: Flip it good
Have you ever had a strange urge to pick up your phone and snap it clean in half? Err, us neither. But the point is, try this with the Galaxy Z Flip and you’re going to have a hard time. Because while straightened out the phone looks like a (very tall) traditional smartphone, its 6.7in display folds in half, top to bottom.
Opened up you can still see a small crease at the fold point if you’re looking for it, but it’s nowhere near as noticeable as on other foldables, and we reckon you’d quickly forget it’s there.
We’re reluctant to say the new ‘Hideaway Hinge’ system is solidly built before really stress-testing it, but it definitely feels it, and is designed to allow the phone to remain open at a range of angles, like a laptop.
The snap as you close the phone is satisfying, but the slightly excessive stubbornness of the hinge means it’s pretty hard to do it one-handed. We just about managed, but with none of the finesse that you could achieve with flip phones of the ‘90s. And if we’d paid well north of a grand for the thing, we likely wouldn’t try again.
The outside of the phone is made of tough Gorilla Glass. It’s shiny and very much a fingerprint magnet. There’s also a tiny OLED display next to the rear camera module that shows the time, incoming notifications and, adorably, you, if you double click the side-mounted power button (which is also a fingerprint sensor) to open the selfie camera.
The obvious benefit of the clamshell is size. As we said, the Z Flip is a full-sized smartphone when opened out, but folded it should comfortably slip into the shallowest of jean pockets. A win for the indie kids.
Display: the long glass
As welcome as the mini OLED on the outside is, it’s principally there to encourage you to open the Z Flip. And when you do, you’re greeted with a 6.7in Infinity Flex FHD+ AMOLED display with rounded corners, a 21.9:9 aspect ratio and a 425ppi ratio. For reference, the far cheaper, non-foldable Galaxy S20 dwarfs the Z Flip at 563ppi.
The height should make it a great movie machine, and while the screen isn’t as pin-sharp as Samsung’s other flagship blowers, it’s still vibrant and colourful. And thanks to the unobtrusive punch hole camera cutout, there’s a lot of it to look at.
The big difference between the display on the Galaxy Z Flip and the Galaxy Fold is material. The latter was made of a pretty mediocre plastic. For its new phone, Samsung has come up with a new type of bendable ultra-thin glass. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the previous sentence sounds like a recipe for potentially bloody disaster, but it works, and just feels far more premium to the touch.
Features: Doing things by halves
Opened fully the Z Flip operates like a regular smartphone, but the foldability enables plenty of functionality unique to Samsung’s expensive new flip phone. As mentioned, the stiff hinge means the phone can open at various angles, so as soon as you start folding, you essentially have two displays to play with.
The phone automatically recognises when it’s being folded and splits the screen in half. If you have the camera app open you can look through your gallery while the top screen remains in viewfinder mode, and YouTube plays the video on the top screen, leaving the bottom free for playback controls and comments. It’ll be interesting to see whether this feature makes for genuinely useful multitasking in a wide range of apps, or if we end up reluctantly filing it under ‘fun gimmick’.
The phone’s free-standing nature also means you can easily take group selfies or make video calls without the need for a tripod.
The Z Flip is something of a mixed bag in the specs department. You get a Snapdragon 855+, wireless charging, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, but there’s no MicroSD option, no 5G, and a 3,300mAh battery. While that thrashes that of its biggest rival the Motorola Razr, time will tell if its stamina is a problem.
Cameras: Nothing remarkable
For all its impressive display gymnastics, the Galaxy Z Flip isn’t performing any miracles in the camera department. You get a pair of 12MP snappers on the rear - a main sensor and an ultra-wide lens - and a 10MP selfie camera located in that central hole punch cutout.
We didn’t get to experiment with any of the lenses enough to make conclusions, but we’re looking forward to getting them into the wild come full review.
We did, however, have a brief play with the new Single Take software feature. Take a short video and the phone will automatically pull out the best stills and clips from within, all immediately viewable in your gallery. It's neat.
Samsung Galaxy Z Flip initial verdict
Like everyone, we were swept up by the novel newness of the book-style foldable phones (TABLETS!), and still have hope for them. But right now, the flip phone form factor just seems more refined, not to mention more practical.
Given what happened with Samsung’s first foldable phone, the company will forgive us for stopping short of declaring it a success until we have one in our hands for more than 15 minutes, but we’re only in February and already we may well have seen 2020’s most interesting smartphone.