Review: Galaxy Fold: Let the foldable games begin

  • Well made device showing engineering prowess; delicate, impractical at times
  • Acceptable business device but too much premium to acquire one now

 

Review: Galaxy Fold: Let the foldable games begin

 

MUCH has been said, commented and written about the world’s first foldable smartphone, the Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, a US$2,017 (RM8,399), 7.3-inch (when opened) device.

The major buzz that was supposed to have been created after the South Korean giant announced its foldable smartphone this February was met with derision and the device was panned for a variety of issues, including a catastrophic failure only after one day of review by The Verge.

Soon after, Samsung said in April that it would delay the launch of the Galaxy Fold (hereinafter known as ‘original’) and there were no signs of it being launched until it said in July that it would do so in September.

During the intervening months, Samsung went back to the drawing board on some design issues and fortified some of the weaknesses which initial reviewers complained about.

After some two months of being launched in its home market and the United States, it finally made its way to our shores and we are now getting a revamped version of the Galaxy Fold. Digital News Asia (DNA) were amongst the ones who got a shot at reviewing the Galaxy Fold and although we admit we’re not the first to review the device, it’s nonetheless an experience.

Also, this is the first time in my almost 20 years of reviewing gadgets where I had to attend a briefing before I could take the Galaxy Fold home.

This, according to Samsung Malaysia, was to brief reviewers about the improvements the company has made to the device and to ensure that we knew how to go about taking care of the phone and not end up bricking an eight grand smartphone.

A caveat though: Reviewers were only given a week to play with the phone, so we couldn’t comprehensively review every feature there is and we concentrated on the most unique ones given this short timeframe, and not so much on the usual specifications and smartphone features.

The focus of this review therefore isn’t so much about the nuts and bolts of the device but more about investigating what we can do with this as a primary business device and if it could replace a tablet computer in our daily work.

Design and build

The specs of the Galaxy Fold can be found here. Essentially, the device uses a lot of the same technology found on the Samsung Galaxy S10/S10+, as it was supposed to have come out at about the same time its flagship phone did in March/ April. DNA’s review of the S10+ can be found here.

Because of the late roll out of the Galaxy Fold, you won’t get some of the latest technologies found in, for example, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+, such as time-lapse video.

With the Galaxy Fold original, some notable reviewers had inadvertently removed a film on the display that was part of the device but which reviewers thought was a screen protector. This was a big no-no, said Samsung.

So after the debacle with the screen, the first thing Samsung did was to ensure that users could not tear off the film that was part of the surface of the device. Samsung Malaysia communicated to a group of Malaysian reviewers that the film is part of the device and should unequivocally not be removed.

To prevent this from happening, Samsung extended the top protective layer beyond the bezel so that it’s part of the display. This prevents anyone from peeling it off. Next up, at the top and the bottom of the screen where the hinges are, there are plastic “T”-shaped caps that prevent debris and dust from getting into the screen.

To further strengthen the screen, Samsung added a metal sheet under the polymer screen. There is also practically no gap between the body of the device and the hinge to prevent dust from entering.

That said, reviewers were still told to handle the Galaxy Fold with kid gloves, and for the price, you could bet that all of us did! So here is a list of don’ts:

  • Refrain from pressing the screen with a hard or sharp object or applying excessive pressure to it;
  • When folding the device, ensure there aren’t any objects, such as coins or keys, placed in between the two screens;
  • Keep magnetically sensitive objects away from the device as it uses powerful magnets for a smooth folding experience; and
  • Keep liquids and small particles away from the device, as it isn't IP water resistant certified.

Now, all the caveats and warnings aside, the Galaxy is indeed a well-made device, and frankly speaking, does stretch the imagination of its designers. The smartphone is solidly built and has everything you’d expect from a premium device.

When looking at the Galaxy Fold, those of you who are as old as me will invariably liken this device to the Nokia Communicator 9000, the great granddaddy of smartphones introduced in 1996 by the then leading, now defunct, phone maker Nokia.

 

Review: Galaxy Fold: Let the foldable games begin

 

Of course there's where it stops as the Galaxy Fold is light-years ahead of the Communicator. The front of the device has a 4.6-inch screen which can be used to monitor your messages and notifications but that's really all it can practically do.

You could answer a message with a quick 'OK' or so, or dismiss a phone call or two but I found the screen too small to do anything meaningful. Holding the phone with one hand seems comfortable enough but the thickness does hamper you from doing a lot, especially for those with smaller hands.

On the right side of the smartphone, you'll find the volume rockers, off/on button and the fingerprint scanner. This is an odd placement but given the design of the Galaxy Fold, I can understand why it's placed there.

The performance of the fingerprint scanner was OK, akin to the one found on other Samsung devices. Of course, you also have the choice of using the facial recognition unlock but note that security may not be as good then.

Open up the device and you'll be greeted with the full glory of the 7.3-inch screen smartphone. This is where the Galaxy Fold really shines. There are six cameras on this smartphone; three at the back, two as selfie cameras and one more on the cover of the device when it is closed.

The display is the best part of the device, IMHO. The dynamic AMOLED screen is not only high quality but the extremely high contrast ratio on this device makes it a joy to look at. That said, I do feel the colour balance is a little too saturated for my liking. You can tune this down on Android 9.0 though.

 

Review: Galaxy Fold: Let the foldable games begin

 

One thing I couldn't shake off is the vertical crease running from top to bottom in the middle of the device. When looking directly at it with the screen lit up, it wasn't a problem. But when viewed at an angle the crease was annoyingly obvious. Ditto when the screen was off.

Samsung claims this can't be avoided as the screen isn't made of glass but a special polymer to enable its ability to fold. I'm not sure if this will ever improve but this is something you ought to take note of.

From a usability standpoint, I found myself being quite conscious of all the usage rules to ensure the device isn't damaged. Given Samsung's reputation, I don't doubt this second iteration of the Galaxy Fold is durable and robust, but I couldn’t help but feel as if it could break any time.

While the opening and closing feels sturdy and solid, I didn't have the confidence that this is a device that will survive the outdoors very well. And it certainly won’t survive a fall into the pond or swimming pool.

Usage and performance

 

Review: Galaxy Fold: Let the foldable games begin

 

Back to the front screen. Samsung has taken great pains to ensure that what you're doing on the outside screen gets a nice follow up through a feature called app continuity.

For instance, if you're answering an SMS, and open the device, you'll be opening into the SMS app. Ditto for other apps such as WhatsApp. This a nice touch so you won't be scrambling to open the app you're on. But do note, not all apps support this. During my testing, most of the apps I used were OK on this, such as browsing and map navigation.

Speaking about browsing and maps, the expanded screen is really a great experience. You won't find any other smartphone on the market today having the ability to display such detailed information.

When browsing, it's nice to drop the Galaxy Fold into landscape mode so you can have desktop view instead of the mobile view when in portrait mode. You can do the same with other smartphones but the large real estate makes it just great to view. The same goes when navigating.

 

Review: Galaxy Fold: Let the foldable games begin

 

However, the large screen does have its disadvantages. Try lying down and holding the 276g device with one hand while watching Netflix or YouTube – you probably won't last more than five minutes.

Or try placing the opened Galaxy Fold on the dashboard of your car for navigation purposes – I did try, but it just didn't work out. And the small screen isn't useful to display anything. This is where there’s a catch 22.

On to business productivity. For the most part, the Galaxy Fold can be used to replace a tablet, say an 8-inch unit, assuming you have an external Bluetooth keyboard and a dedicated stand. If you're more used to an 11-inch device, then it might be a challenge as at 7.3-inches, the device isn't meant for you to meticulously look at financial reports on your MS Excel app.

In my test, I could easily access all my productivity apps such as Google Docs, MS Office, Dropbox, Chrome browser. Switching back and forth between the apps takes a bit of getting used to but the portability gains from not having to carry another device is the plus point.

This is where support for multitasking comes in handy. Android has long supported multitasking but for the most part, most of us don't use it simply because the typical smartphone is just too small to make having two or more screens up useful to invoke.

But with the Galaxy Fold, this is different as the multitasking feature works quite well. What you get when turning on two apps simultaneously is that the screen will be divided into half each along the vertical axis. So you can easily read emails while having a quick look at a word document. You can even open up to three windows under multitasking mode.

The primary app uses the left side of the screen, while the other two share the top and bottom halves of the right side of the screen. Practically however, I find the right side too crowded and not really useful when using three apps, so sticking to two apps is best.

Battery life on the Galaxy Fold was also great. Note that the battery resides on both sides – the smaller of the two on the front side of the Galaxy Fold – of the folded device, a design feature to ensure that the device won’t be off-balanced due a large battery.

Also with the more-than-adequate 12 GB RAM and 512GB storage, I didn’t have any problems with hardware performance. I could easily get through the day without any issues, using all the aforementioned apps and more. Speaker performance from the dual-firing ones are also very good, so you won’t have to worry about not being able to hear your favourite shows.

So as a business device, it could work as a compromise between a smartphone and a tablet, or as some say a “phablet.” But don’t expect to replace the tablet – and certainly not your laptop – if you’re already using such devices for serious work.

Camera and video

 

Review: Galaxy Fold: Let the foldable games begin

 

As mentioned earlier, the Galaxy Fold has virtually the same specs at the Samsung Galaxy S10+, and the pictures taken with Galaxy Fold are pretty much the same as what I remember the S10+ was able to do.

I found the colour saturation quite balanced although the display did make it brighter than it actually was. Some reviewers have quibbled about the camera not being up there with the latest Apple iPhone 11 or the latest Google Pixel 4, but I personally don’t think it’s that far off the mark.

That aside, the physical size is again a bane when it comes to handling picture-taking. When closed, the picture taking is difficult as the device is really too thick to handle comfortably. Open it, and it gets better but you’ll have to contend with the sheer breadth of the device and constantly worry about whether you’ll drop the unit – I certainly was very cognisant of this for fear that I would drop it.

On the whole as a productivity tool, having an all-in-one device where you will find your pictures, email and productivity apps is a real boon. Yes, you could probably do a little more with say a Samsung Note 10/10+ with the additional S-Pen and some other related apps, but the sheer size of the Galaxy Fold is where it shines. The size of the screen plus the app continuity and multitasking feature is a really good combination.

Verdict

So the final question is: Should you buy one? At US$2,017 (RM8,399), the Galaxy Fold isn’t a mass-market smartphone. To sweeten the deal, Samsung is throwing in a pair of Galaxy Buds, travel adapter and Aramid fibre cover as a phone casing.

But foldable devices, IMHO, are just too early in the game for now but nonetheless Samsung and its bitter rival Huawei Technologies Co Ltd are trying their best to push the limits of design and technology to showcase what foldable phones can do.

Like many other innovations that have come in the past, including the Nokia Communicator, the Galaxy Fold provides a roadmap of where device makers are going with foldable variants. Even as i review this, Motorola has launched its version of the foldable smartphone dubbed Motorola Razr (Foldable).

The iconic device goes on sale Dec 26 and costs US$1,500, about US$480 cheaper than the Galaxy Fold. The Lenovo-owned device maker boasts of a screen that it claims does not have a crease on the display where it folds. And Huawei has already gone to market with its Mate X foldable phone albeit only in China, while LG has been seen with some sketches of its initial designs.

My senses tell me that unless the price points drops to about RM5,000 to RM5,500, foldable smartphones will not become mainstream. Firstly, RM5,000 is the psychological price mark first touched by Apple iPhones, which have been positioned as premium devices. Paying anything more would be difficult for most.

Secondly, whilst foldable designs are still a novelty, I suspect it will wear off soon enough. At the end of the day, the mass market would want a smartphone that is practical to use, reasonable enough to buy even at premium levels, reliable and robust. Foldable smartphones aren’t quite there yet.

For now, the Galaxy Fold is out of reach for most, and only those flush with cash could afford it. Personally, while the Koreans and Chinese have thrown down the gauntlet and it’s for the rest of the competition to keep up, I don’t think they have a significant advantage over the market and it’s still a long and winding road to success.

 

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