Galaxy Z Flip review: 24 hours with Samsung's new foldable phone
Get a closer look at Samsung's Galaxy Z Flip, as it tests the waters of foldable smartphones. USA TODAY
Samsung’s Z Flip smartphone is the first folding phone to flip over. Harsh critics like my wife and teen kids think it’s really cool.
I agree, with reservations.
My son was particularly blown away by one Z Flip stunt: Prop it up on a table at a 90-degree angle, raise your palm, and pose for the hands-free selfie.
And yet you still have to ask yourself if the Z Flip is worth the lofty $1,380 price tag, especially when you weigh it against more traditional handsets occupying the high-rent district, including iPhone 11 Pro or Samsung’s own new Galaxy S20 Ultra?
It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with over the weekend and not one with an immediate answer.
Snap judging Z Flip
Samsung lent me a Z Flip for all of 24 hours, enough time to develop a mostly positive first impression but way too short for a comprehensive review. You can’t evaluate the battery, much less get any kind of reading on the durability of this thing.
Speaking of which, Samsung claims you can fold the phone some 200,000 times before reaching a breaking point, same as the $1,980 Galaxy Fold that was Samsung’s first foldable phone, which remains in the lineup. You can’t help recalling the saga of the Fold; how damage uncovered by reviewers sent Samsung back to the drawing board last spring, delaying the launch by months.
The Z Flip sure has a sturdier feel than the plasticky Galaxy Fold – this latest device uses foldable glass. That said, just as with the Fold, Samsung is preaching user caution.
One of the first things you see when you open the box is a card with various warnings: Avoid pressing too hard on the screen or front camera lens, make sure when you fold the phone there’s nothing inside that could damage the screen, and so on. And Samsung reminds you that this new device isn’t water- or dust-resistant.
Still, the Z Flip makes use of a hideaway hinge and a system that uses nylon fibers to sweep away dust and debris. Samsung appears to have learned from its mistakes.
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Z Flip’s purpose?
Whatever you think of the Galaxy Fold, it is a singular device with a dual purpose: As you fold and unfold it, it morphs between smartphone and small tablet.
Z Flip, on the other hand, is all Android smartphone and in many respects a really nice one. You are paying handsomely for the innovative folding glass form factor – a true 2020's version of a flip phone, a market Motorola is also after with its recently hatched $1,499.99 Moto Razr.
Samsung’s new device folds to roughly half its side into a slightly chunky, tad heavy, wallet-shaped rectangle. It’s still considerably thinner than my George Costanza-sized physical wallet and compact enough to get momentarily lost in a jeans pocket or bag.
Using the Z Flip when folded
Functionality is limited when the phone is folded. You can make and receive calls or take selfies, using a miniature external viewfinder as your guide; a swipe lets you switch from wide-angle to ultra-wide. This 1.1-inch display is big enough to reveal the time, date, battery status, music controls or a slice from an incoming notification. If you tap the notification on the cover display and unfold the phone, you can resume the conversation through your texting app.
The crease on the Z Flip
You need two hands to unfold Z Flip, which is way more often than not, how you're going to use the phone.
You open to a 6.7-inch Full HD+ Infinity Flex Display bordered by narrow bezels. In this position, Z Flip is a bit longer than Apple’s largest iPhone, the 11 Pro Max, and you might mistake it for any other candy-bar shaped Android handset.
That is until, maybe, you notice the "crease" where the phone actually folds. I found it was more visible from certain angles when I shot pictures in broad daylight, but I otherwise didn't see the crease as a major blemish or distraction, even when I watched video. My guess is that most people will get used to it rather quickly.
Z Flip's top and bottom display
Things get really interesting when you lift up the top of the phone and bend the screen to any angle, locking it in position as with a laptop. Propped up in this free stop pose, the device enters Flex mode, which splits the screen vertically into a top and bottom display. By contrast, the Fold, which opens horizontally, was either open or shut all the way.
On select apps, including the Camera, Gallery and Google Duo, you can view content on the top display that you’re controlling from the bottom screen.
I began a Duo video call with my editor in this mode. Not having to pick up and fidget with the phone made the conversation seem less awkward. Call quality was good.
You can also exploit the two screens to multitask or use two apps at the same time. For example, I watched YouTube on the top display while texting on the bottom. You can choose apps for the respective top and bottom screens by swiping the edge of the phone and choosing them off the tray that appears.
Z Flip camera
I didn’t take a ton of pictures, but for the most part what I shot looked fine.
I certainly appreciated the hands-free selfie feature that wowed my son and ought to please video bloggers who can merely place Z Flip on a flat surface without fretting about the shakes or fussing with a tripod.
(Samsung is trying to make the case this is a prized device for fashionistas and influencers; why else push a limited-edition $2,480 Thom Browne Z Flip package in association with the fashion designer.)
You can angle the top half of the phone to get yourself and everyone in the frame and then tap the shutter to take the picture or manually set the timer.
It was far simpler and more fun, however, to shoot hands-free, either by saying “cheese” out loud, or momentarily raising my palm in front the screen, which in turn launches a timer countdown.
Inside the phone’s settings, you can select whether the camera can automatically switch to wide-angle when two or more people are detected in a frame.
I especially like the Single Take feature that is also coming the new Galaxy S20s.
When you select this option and tap the shutter, the Z Flip captures two to four videos and up 10 photos during an interval that lasts up to 10 seconds. You’re encouraged to move around and shoot from different perspectives during these 10 seconds. What the camera shot lands in the Gallery app, with Samsung highlighting the best shot. You have the option to keep any or all of the pictures the phone captured, or for that matter, none at all – I shot my share of duds.
As with other premium smartphones, Z Flip offers a night mode option for shooting in low light without a flash as well as the Live Focus feature that is about artistically blurring the background to keep your main subject in focus.
What Z Flip is missing
Z Flip is not a 5G-ready phone as is Samsung's other new phones, the S20s.
Z Flip also lacks the microSD slot that’s on the S20s meaning you cannot bolster the 256GB of internal storage. The phone does come with 8GB of RAM and a robust (but not the latest) Qualcomm processor.
There's only a mono speaker, not stereo. And the Z Flip doesn’t have a standard headphone jack, sadly now the industry norm.
The phone, available in the U.S. in mirror black or mirror purple, can be unlocked via a fingerprint sensor or by recognizing your face – both worked fine.
Out of the gate, you can get it from AT&T or Sprint but not T-Mobile or Verizon, though you can also purchase an unlocked version that should work with those carriers.
Z Flip isn’t a perfect phone, especially for the money. But I admire that Samsung continues to bend the rules of how a smartphone looks and functions. It seems the foldable form factor has a future.
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