Galaxy Z Fold 3 Review: Awesome If This is What You Want

Galaxy Z Fold 3 Review

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Last year’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 was a phone I thoroughly enjoyed, thanks to major improvements over the original and the fact that we were living during a time where sitting on the couch, not stepping into a public toxic death plume of air was the norm. It was the ultimate stay-at-home phone when we were at home a lot. But now it’s a year later, the world is trying to move forward and find a sense of not-at-home-all-the-time activities. Does a big ass foldable still work?

With the Galaxy Z Fold 3, Samsung hasn’t changed the formula at all. This is very much a device like the Galaxy Z Fold 2, but Samsung did improve it in a couple of ways that make it an even better device from screen to screen. However, it’s still a couch-friendly device, not necessarily one for those on-the-go.

After spending the past week or two with a Galaxy Z Fold 3, let’s talk about what I like and dislike about it and whether or not this device can still work in 2021.

What do I like about the Galaxy Z Fold 3?

Displays. In the improvements department, the displays standout to me as an area that got a couple of really nice upgrades. For one, the cover display now sports a 120Hz refresh rate, but we also have an under-display camera on the main, inside display, giving you a cleaner look with the device unfolded. Overall, the display situation here is as good as it gets on any device.

The front 6.2″ cover display has just under a 1080p resolution, but it might be the smoothest 120Hz display I’ve ever used. This AMOLED panel, when cranked to 120Hz for a game or something, will blow your mind with smoothness. It gets really bright too, it’s super colorful when you need it to be while hitting up Instagram or consuming a quick video, and it no longer feels like the discounted display between the two.

In the original Galaxy Fold, as well as the Z Fold 2, we couldn’t ever figure out why Samsung put such mediocre displays on the outside, since the cover displays get just as much (and maybe more for some people) use as the inside. With the Fold 3, they absolutely did not mess around and delivered a top tier display, even if it is still a weird shape.

As for the inside panel, with its super high resolution foldable AMOLED, we still have the 120Hz refresh and a panel that looks so good you’ll always be shocked that it can fold in half. I can’t sit here and tell you that it looks dramatically better than the Fold 2’s, but it does indeed look great. Colors are super punchy in that old school OLED way, viewing angles are surprisingly solid, and it’s very responsive to the touch.

It’s also very different to look at and interact with than the cover display. Not necessarily in a bad way, but the inside display always seems to present content in a floating manner, while the cover display is like any other phone display you’ve used. It’s hard to describe unless you use it, but the softness to the inside display, with the refresh rate and size makes for such a unique experience that I hope everyone can play with at some point in life.

The only real change to that inside display is a new selfie camera that can hide under the display. Samsung is able to light up pixels over the top of it when you are  viewing content to try and mask the fact that there is a black circle there that you’d typically stare at all the time. The effect is kind of cheesy and doesn’t really look great once you notice it, but it is an improvement over the black circle we had on last year’s. Unfortunately, it also means a garbage internal selfie camera.

I could probably talk longer about the displays, but I think you get it. The display experience here is so good that words can’t really describe it. The cover display is fabulously smooth now and the inside display looks like you are getting more display than ever, while remaining beautiful.

Hardware. Like the Fold 2, Samsung has built a ridiculously solid feeling foldable with the Fold 3. It’s metal. It’s glass. There’s matte pieces and shiny chamfers and weight. When you hold the Fold 3, you know that it is a close-to-$2,000 device. It reminds you that it is premium and that it can do cool shit.

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a work of art, because let’s be honest – it’s kind of an ugly device. However! This is still some engineering magic. Folding and unfolding a phone, knowing that a giant and beautiful display inside won’t shatter on the first attempt, will never get old and that remains the case here.

Samsung even built in IPX8 water resistance to give you more confidence in more life situations, the back is clean and almost mark-less, and it comes in several fabulous colors (I went with silver, which is the best because I said so – take that, green folk).

The specs here are also incredible, with a Snapdragon 888 processor, those two displays I talked about above, 12GB RAM, 256GB storage, 4400mAh battery with all the charging options, WiFi 6, Bluetooth 5.2, dual speakers, and a triple rear camera with wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto lenses.

Samsung didn’t really leave anything out here and also happened to build a device you’d have confidence in holding.

Performance. The combination of the Snapdragon 888, 12GB RAM, super fast UFS 3.1 storage, and 120Hz displays give you a really fast experience. I don’t think I’ve seen this device stutter over the past two weeks, and it shouldn’t. Samsung has dialed in its software with this high-end hardware to provide one of best performing devices I’ve used.

I often take advantage of multi-window when using the bigger, inside display and this Fold 3 can handle that without pause. You can quickly snap apps into place, change them out for new ones or adjust alignment. The camera is mostly fast to open and focus, folders and animations snap around, and sleeping apps quickly awake. The only slowness you’ll find is when you have an app open inside, close the phone and wait for it to open on the cover. I’d imagine that’s quite the task, with a potential need to refresh an app, adjust resolution, etc. It’s not a sluggish process, it’s just not instant – yes, I’m being nitpicky.

With last year’s Fold 2, the jarring jump between inside and outside display refresh rates often left you wondering if the device was performing as it should. It was performing fine, of course, but now with 120Hz everywhere, you really get to take in all that Samsung wanted you to without compromise. This is a fast phone.

Software. Samsung has done a pretty good job with the software on the Galaxy Z Fold 3 by improving upon their One UI with v3.1.1. New features include an option to grab and drag links (in Samsung Internet) to open them in a new window, having multiple active windows, and an option to force apps into multi-window and easily adjust their resolutions.

You can still setup separate experiences on the cover and inside displays, setup easy shortcuts for pairs of apps to open with the touch of a button, and fire up Flex mode to use the device when it’s folded into an L-shape. All the cool foldable features are here with subtle improvements.

But mostly, this is Samsung’s One UI on top of Android 11, which means a robust feature set, updates for 4 years, and Android 12 likely without much of a wait. You have all of the display settings (Night and dark and blue light filter modes), Edge panels, easy integration with Windows, all sorts of gestures and advanced features, a Game Launcher, Digital Wellbeing, always-on display settings, and so much more. We dive into a lot of this in our “First 10 Things” video below.

I’m not sure what else Samsung could do to further improve this One UI and foldable mash-up. I think they’ve done a decent job of letting you utilize screen space on the inside display while giving you the right amount of controls over a device that happens to have two separate displays.

Camera. The cameras on the Fold 3 are OK. By no means am I going to tell you that these are top notch and that they compete with the Galaxy S21 Ultra or even Google’s Pixel 5. But for this device, sort of like a tablet, where you are probably going to use it only in specific settings, I think it could do the job.

Samsung baked in another 12MP triple rear camera setup with wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto lenses. You have OIS in the main and telephoto shooters, Dual Pixel autofocus too, and dozens of camera features from portrait modes to night and food and pro options. It’s a pretty typical Samsung camera setup, where you’ll find shot suggestions and settings for video formats, Auto HDR, and scene optimizers. Most of this stuff you won’t mess with, but it’s there if you want to fully customize your camera experience.

As for the results, I took plenty of pictures I was happy with when outdoors with all sorts of lighting conditions. When indoors, I got some OK shots, but nothing to write home about. At 12MP, you lack some detail at times and you will see pretty wide arrays of colors from one lens to the next. Performance when hammering the shutter button is also quite slow and I often couldn’t tell if I was snapping pictures or if the delay caused me to miss the shot.

Again, the camera situation on the Fold 3 is OK. Should it be better than this at $1,800? Ehhhh, I guess that depends. We don’t typically find the best cameras in really expensive tablets and this is basically a tablet. Now that I’ve typed that out, I actually feel like I’m being too nice here. The camera is by no means a winner, it’s just better than what I was expecting. Take that as you will.

What don’t I like about it?

Weight and size. I know that I just got done saying a whole lot of nice things about the Galaxy Z Fold 3, it’s software, set of specs, displays, and build quality. But yeah, this is where I tell you that this device is absolutely not for me in 2021. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is kind of a nuisance to use if you aren’t sitting on your couch still and want to get back out into the world.

The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is a big, heavy, clunky, and awkward to use device. The Galaxy Z Fold 2 was as well, it’s just that as I mentioned in the opening, life is trying to find ways to get back to normal, and lugging this thing around with you isn’t that fun. Leaving the house with a phone that weighs 271g and is 16mm thick in the pocket is quite unpleasant unless you have a bag to throw it in and don’t need to use it in a pinch or while moving. Samsung did manage to trim off about 11g of weight from the Fold 2 to the Fold 3, but it’s still very heavy.

I’ve been frustrated while testing it because I’ve found it hard to bring with me almost anywhere. I can’t bring it to play soccer with my son or go for a scooter ride. I can’t take it on runs or on a quick trip to the store in my workout shorts. If I’m meeting someone for a beer, I have to consider what I’m wearing, if I’ll need to use it while out, etc. Even doing yard work or other activities around my house typically forces me to just leave the phone inside and grab my Pixel 5.

I get that this is a big personal preference type of situation and that you may still be on your couch, happen to leave the house all of the time with a bag, or don’t mind the awkward shape and weight because the added benefit of a secondary display is worth it, I’m just telling you my opinion. And my opinion as of today is that this phone is a tough recommendation for anyone who lives any sort of active lifestyle or who doesn’t plan on simply sitting around the majority of the day.

Battery life. This is an area that I have been pretty disappointed in. Battery life just hasn’t been good for me, and Tim made it sound like he hasn’t been impressed either. That’s in comparison to the Fold 2, where we both had really solid battery life that would easily get through a day.

Now, in my testing I’ve been juggling between the Fold 3 and other devices because as I just talked about, taking this phone out of the house isn’t exactly something I want to do…ever. But in the days where I spent a lot of time at home, messing with the Fold 3, I can’t tell you how many had me looking for a charger by the late afternoon because I knew it wouldn’t get me through the night.

It’s hard to say if it’s the added 120Hz to the front display or my usage has changed or the Snapdragon 888 isn’t efficient at all or that f*cking Eufy app is still draining battery on all devices I own. What I do know is that if the Fold 3 was my only phone and I typically hammer on a device throughout a day without the option to charge frequently, I’d be worried.

And I’d especially worry if I didn’t have much time to charge during those charging session. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 doesn’t come with a charger and is only capable of charging at 25W speeds. That’s not insanely slow, but charging a 4400mAh battery isn’t going to happen in an hour.

Apologies for not having battery screenshots, but my usage of the phone has been quite sporadic.

S Pen. This might seem like a weird item to complain about, but the S Pen situation here is indeed that, a weird one. Yes, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 works with a special S Pen. That’s great! However, I feel like Samsung should have just given it to you. You spent $1,800 on this phone and they couldn’t toss in this chintzy little plastic S Pen? They want you to pay $50 for it!

And for $50, you don’t get Bluetooth, so your set of S Pen features is somewhat limited compared to the S Pens you got with the old Galaxy Note phones. The S Pen only works on the inside display, not the cover display. And if I’m being brutally honest, it’s not that fun to use on the inside display, partly because of crease in the middle and also because it doesn’t feel as precise as I’m used to. For example, I typically only use S Pens to color with and the coloring experience leaves a lot to be desired.

My other issue is that this is such a secondary, after-thought type of accessory that there’s no where to put it. The $50 piece of plastic Pen comes in a goofy little case that is hard to get the pen out of, plus the S Pen doesn’t stick to the Fold 3 and there’s no where to store it within the device itself. It’s really just an S Pen you have to keep in a bag or pocket and remember to bring with or not leave behind.

I get that some people will like having an S Pen on their foldable screen, this just isn’t the winning formula yet. I’m sure Samsung will get to where we were with the Note series and its S Pen, but this is a ways off.

Videos

Unboxing and first impressions

First 10 Things To Do

Should you buy the Galaxy Z Fold 3?

The Galaxy Fold 3 is a very, very cool device. This foldable thing is absolutely a tech niche I hope lives on and continues to improve. The Fold 3 showcases the best of foldables of today, with its brilliant displays, high-end set of specs and hardware, and that magical hinge system that will forever be fun to play with.

At $1,800, getting into this device is easier than ever and should you be in the market for this type of phone, you will be quite happy. There is so much to enjoy here.

But for me, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is a tough device to keep around. The size and awkwardness of it when not stuck under a stay-at-home order has made it difficult to want to leave the house with. As much as I enjoy using it while at home, just give me a regular phone, please.

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