Galaxy Z Flip 3 review: Samsung's best foldable yet is still a tough sell

2021-12-25 08:56:48 By : Mr. ydel ydel

In many ways, the Galaxy Z Flip 3 should be the first foldable for a mainstream audience. It's basically a regular smartphone you can fold in half and it could appeal to the swaths of people who miss the satisfying snap of a flip phone. Plus, with a price drop, the new Flip now costs about the same as an iPhone or Galaxy S flagship. Samsung’s latest foldable also features a larger external display than its predecessor, making it more useful when closed, and has water resistance for some peace of mind. It’s even got a faster screen than Apple and Google offer and nifty software that makes better use of the screen when you prop it up on a surface. But the question remains, even at a more reasonable $1,000, is the Flip 3 good enough to usher foldables into the mainstream or are they still a gimmick?

One of the most important factors in determining if the Flip 3 is ready for daily use is durability. Samsung used stronger aluminum for the Flip 3’s frame, refined its hinge and made the screen tougher with a new flexible PET protector. I can’t tell exactly how much more durable the Flip 3 is compared to its predecessor, but I have been taking more risks with it. In fact, I consider my placing the Flip 3 (and the Fold 3, for that matter) into my bag along with my keys, laptop and DSLR the bravest thing I’ve ever done during a review.

I’m mostly worried because of a bad experience when I took the original Z Flip out for a day. It vibrated off a table and cracked its corner. I’ve been fairly careful with the Flip 3, but I’ve avoided babying it, and so far it’s survived being tossed into a bag with various sharp objects. While it’s still prone to sliding around due to its glossy glass exterior, it’s yet to fall off anything. I’ve placed it on treadmills, ellipticals, window ledges and restaurant tables and I don’t want to jinx it but: so far my Flip 3 is scratch-free.

Does that mean it’ll remain pristine a week, a month or even a year from now? Probably not. But as someone who’s cracked her fair share of phone screens, I feel like the Flip 3 is about as sturdy as most glass-covered flagships.

That is, with one exception: Its flexible internal screen is still more likely to break than others, if for no reason other than you’ll invariably end up pushing into some part of it to close the device. I’ve yet to damage the Flip 3’s screen, and I’ve been careful not to push my thumb into the middle of the panel to close the phone, but I’ve been shutting it with some force. Whether the durability is indeed improved is something that’s hard to tell without months of testing or deliberately trying to damage the device, so I might have to revisit this after some time.

Speaking of closing the phone: Like its predecessor, the Flip 3 isn’t easy to shut with one hand. It can be done, but the hinge is stiff and provides enough resistance to let it stay open at various angles. Unless you have Dwayne Johnson’s hands, you’ll probably need some leverage to open or close the Flip 3.

Oh and thanks to the IPX8 water resistance, I was a lot less worried about leaving the Flip next to my sink when I washed my face and dripped all over it while reaching for the soap.

Besides improved durability and a larger external screen, not much has changed between the new Flip and the last generation. They weigh the same 183 grams (6.45 ounces) and the Flip 3 is a hair thicker. Samsung’s also offering a few new color options, including my two favorites: green and lavender. My review unit is a boring cream/off-white, though.

Phones in the same size and price range like the iPhone 12 Pro Max and Galaxy S21+ are slightly heavier and thicker, but not by much. Of course, these devices are dust-resistant and sport triple cameras, while the Flip has just two. The conventional flagships are also not as narrow. But aside from the aspect ratio, the Flip 3 feels very much like a regular smartphone when unfolded. Bonus: It’s more compact when folded in half, which helps it fit into most of my pockets without peeking out. It actually almost reminds me of a pager when closed. Remember those?

The greatest difference between the Flip 3 and a typical smartphone is that you can close it, which is not only a satisfying means of putting your phone away, but also introduces a new way to interact with the device. The 1.9-inch external screen is four times larger than the previous model, and can show up to four lines of notifications at once. There are currently six widgets available for this window, which Samsung calls the Cover Display. To interact with this panel, you’ll have to first double tap on it, then swipe vertically or horizontally to see your notifications or widgets respectively.

This was a little confusing initially, as I didn’t know I needed to tap the screen before swiping. But after figuring it out, I’ve come to appreciate it because it prevents accidentally dismissing notifications and skipping songs on Spotify. That’s pretty helpful since I often unintentionally touch the Cover Display when closing the phone or picking it up.

Most of the time, I leave the Flip 3 closed until I need to reply to a message or when I start browsing my feeds. It’s certainly a lot less distracting to be able to put my phone aside and not have a long list of notifications that I can see from a distance. I initially set all six widgets to appear on my Cover Display, so scrolling sideways would bring up the weather, media controls, Samsung Pay, Health, Calendar and so on.

While I appreciated having all those options, after a while it became clear three widgets is plenty — the endless swiping got tiring eventually. The software is also a little buggy at the moment. The alarms widget, for example, will randomly abandon its countdown if you pause and resume it.

Another feature that sounds great in theory is using your Cover Display as a viewfinder. With the larger panel, you’ll have more room to frame up your selfies on the Flip 3 with the screen closed. I used it to snap a picture with three staff members of my building and while we were able to squeeze everyone in, the novelty wore off quickly.

The only time I can see preferring the outside screen as a viewfinder is if you need the sharper or wider rear cameras or when you’re really in a hurry and can’t spare the one or two seconds it takes to open the phone. I like that Samsung gives us this option, but even a selfie-obsessed person like me was never in that much of a rush to snap a portrait. Plus, the photos taken this way end up in a strange squarish crop, while those snapped using the main screen as a viewfinder are taller or wider.

When you’re back on the main screen, aspect ratio is still somewhat of an issue. The Flip 3’s 6.7-inch display runs at 2,640 x 1,080, which comes up to an uncommon 22:9 format. This didn’t cause too many problems — most apps fit nicely on the screen — but every now and then something will overflow. The pop-up dialogs in Settlers of Catan, for example, disappear into the edges of the display and I can barely tap the buttons I need to move on.

Fortunately, I didn’t encounter this on most of my frequently used apps, but for now Samsung doesn’t have a workaround to help ensure you can see everything on the Flex.

That’s my main issue with the Flip 3’s internal screen, which is otherwise a lovely canvas for browsing Instagram and YouTube thanks to its flexible AMOLED panel and 120Hz refresh rate. Images were vibrant with deep blacks and high contrast, and the display never stuttered when I scrolled my feeds in a frenzy. Oh I also didn’t mind the crease in the middle — yes it’s noticeable and does cause some distortion, but it doesn’t get in the way of readability. I also like how it felt beneath my thumb as I scrolled past it. It’s like stroking a soft, naked tendon, which is a lot better than it sounds.

Another update that makes the Flip 3 a better multimedia device than before are its stereo speakers. Now, when you hold it up to watch a video, you’ll hear its audio from both ends. It’s a little too easy to cover the bottom speaker with your hand when holding the phone horizontally, though.

Something else the Flip offers that regular smartphones don’t is a Flex mode that kicks in when you half-fold the device. This only works on some apps, like Gallery, Camera and YouTube, where the screen is split in half to show your photo, viewfinder or video on top and navigation, controls or more info at the bottom. When you set the Flip 3 up on a table in Flex mode, you can watch your show as if it were full screen on the top half, while scrolling comments or suggested videos below.

I thought I’d only find Flex mode useful with the Flip 3 sitting on a table (propped up like it has its own kickstand), but it actually was more helpful in enabling one-handed use. Because the screen is so tall, some elements are out of my thumb’s reach. Flex mode makes scrolling pictures in my gallery or snapping a picture much easier with one hand. So far, though, only a handful of apps support this, so Samsung will need to work harder to make more of them compatible.

The Flip 3’s dual 12-megapixel cameras hold their own against the likes of the Pixel 5 and iPhone 12 Pro. While Samsung, Apple and Google all have minor differences in the color temperature of their photos, they deliver similar quality and clarity in most situations. The Flip 3’s picture of a yummy bowl of noodles was just as bright and vibrant as those taken with the Pixel and iPhone, though it’s a little soft and failed to capture some detail on the ceramic surface.

Photos the Flip 3 shot at night are also similar to those from the competition — you’d need to really scrutinize minor exposure and noise differences to tell them apart. The pictures I snapped of a dog park and the city skyline at night all came out bright and colorful, though Google delivered a better closeup of the New York City nightscape thanks to its superior processing software.

The selfies captured by the Flip 3’s 10-megapixel camera were also bright and sharp. And, based on an informal poll on my Instagram, the majority of my followers preferred a portrait shot by the Flip 3 to the Pixel 5.

With a Snapdragon 888 processor and 8GB of RAM, the Flip 3 performed smoothly during my testing. I haven’t encountered many delays when using the main screen to message my friends, post to Twitter and browse websites. It didn’t let up even as I recorded the screen while using the camera to capture footage of my friends trying to perform TikTok dances, either.

Occasionally, I felt like websites were scrolling more slowly than I was used to, and there are still some small software bugs (like the Cover Display’s alarm widget) that make the Flip 3 feel like it needs a bit more polish. But aside from these minor gripes and the fact that you can fold it, this phone feels very similar to its Samsung siblings.

That is, until we consider battery life. The Flip 3 never made it through a full day before needing a charge, and that runtime dropped when I enabled the Always On Display for the outer screen. On our video rundown test, the Flip 3 only clocked 11 hours and 27 minutes, which is shorter than most flagships I've tested recently. The S21’s 4,000mAh cell typically stuck around for a day and a half, while the latest Pixels and iPhones easily outlast the Flip 3. Despite offering a larger Cover Display and a higher refresh rate on its main panel, the Flip 3’s 3,300mAh battery is the same size as its predecessor, which might explain its disappointing endurance.

After spending some time with the Flip 3 in the real world, I’ve come to realize a few things: I like being able to fold a phone, put it away and focus on work or living in the moment. But I can also turn a regular phone face down to do that. I enjoy the nostalgia and novelty of closing the Flip 3 when I’m mad at a caller or an app, too.

In general, the satisfaction and space savings from being able to fold a phone in half are not worth paying a premium for. The good news is that with the Flip 3, Samsung isn’t charging a hefty premium or making many compromises. Battery life is an unfortunate victim of the Flip 3’s larger external screen, but it’s at least not so short that you’ll need to charge it twice a day.

Ultimately, the Flip 3 is proof that Samsung can deliver a good phone with a foldable display at a relatively reasonable price. It’s also a satisfying upgrade from its predecessor, thanks to its water resistance and bigger outside screen. The most important question now is: Who should buy this? If you pride yourself on being an early adopter and want to get on the foldables bandwagon before they become more common, that might be you. The Flip 3 is a device capable of being a daily driver for those nostalgic or curious enough to buy one. But for a more mainstream audience, there simply aren’t enough benefits yet. 

The Z Flip 3 is a satisfying upgrade from the original, thanks to water resistance and a larger, more useful Cover Display. Its $1,000 starting price puts it in the same class as flagships from Apple, Google and Samsung itself, too. While it mostly behaves like a regular modern smartphone that you can fold in half, the Flip 3 is held back by battery life and potential durability issues.

Processor: Snapdragon 888 or 5nm 64-bit octa-core processor (2.84Ghz + 2.4GHz + 1.8GHz)

RAM / Storage: 8GB with 128/256GB storage

Main display: 6.7-inch 120Hz AMOLED Infinity Flex Display

External display: 1.9-inch Super AMOLED

Rear (or external) cameras: 12MP f/1.8 wide-angle camera with OIS and 78-degree FOV, 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (123-degree FOV)

Front (or inside) camera: 10MP f/2.4 camera (80-degree FOV)

Operating system: Android 11 with One UI

Charging: USB-C with fast wired charging at 15W (QC2.0 and AFC) and fast wireless charging at 10W (WPC and PMA). Reverse wireless charging at 4.5W (WPC Qi).

Dimensions: 72.2 x 166.0 x 6.9mm (unfolded); 72.2 x 86.4 x 17.1mm (Hinge) - 15.9mm (Sagging) (folded)

Fingerprint sensor: Yes, on power button.

Photos by David Imel (@DurvidImel)

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