Samsung Galaxy Z Flip initial review: More confidence, fresh controversy

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

Samsung Galaxy Z FlipSource: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

I was one of the first people outside of Samsung to use the Galaxy Fold, which of course ended up having a very rocky launch that left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Some diehard fans still love the Fold (at least the revised hardware version), but it was never going to be a phone for me. It’s too big and heavy, and the screen is inherently so fragile and so odd feeling in the fingers for me to consider making it my daily phone.

That’s why I’m ecstatic to have used the new Galaxy Z Flip. Whereas the Fold starts, nominally, at the size of a normal phone and expands into a mini-tablet, the Z Flip starts at the size of a normal phone and folds down to something more more compact and pocketable. At the same time, Samsung’s introduced a screen covering that’s much more resistant to damage in daily use, with hinge improvements that promise better longevity as well.

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There are, theoretically, far fewer compromises at play here. We now have a folding phone that has more shared with a “normal” phone than not, and that’s instilling me with confidence in the entire foldable category. Here’s my initial review of what it’s like using the Galaxy Z Flip.

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Note: This review is based on my limited time with a review device provided to Android Central by Samsung. Unfortunately, Samsung only allowed for a very short period of time — 25 hours, to be exact. Because of this, my conclusions will not be as complete as I would hope in any other review where I have several days of use. This will particularly impact my evaluation of the phone’s battery life. We will update this review after spending more time with the phone at a later date.

A better, and yet still imperfect, foldable screen

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

Samsung Galaxy Z FlipSource: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

Samsung is proud of its technological advancement in the Galaxy Z Flip’s display — or, more accurately, its display covering. As it proudly said many different ways, the Z Flip’s screen is covered with glass, not plastic. After using the Fold and having a general distaste for its display covering and related compromises, the Z Flip’s glass was all I needed to know about in order to be immediately intrigued.

There is of course already considerable controversy over whether this is actually ‘glass’ or not.

There is, of course, already considerable controversy surrounding whether this is actually “glass” or not. After the whole Fold launch went down, Samsung was already going to be under a microscope with the Z Flip — but it didn’t do itself any favors calling this “ultra thin glass” rather than some other marketing name that maybe more accurately represents what this material is.

It is clearly not glass as we know that material from our time using smartphones for over a decade. And that’s where the issues come in. As soon as you use the word glass, people are going to assume it’s as strong as other phones — even though Samsung explicitly warns you that it is not that strong. We are then somehow surprised when it’s damaged easier than non-folding phones.

At some point these “complaints” cross over to “hit job,” and it’s a bit tiring to to see people see this as black and white rather than understanding the necessary nuance. Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time around my friend MrMobile, but I’m taking an optimistic viewpoint on foldables here. Yes, this display covering is clearly more fragile than the Gorilla Glass 6 on a Galaxy S20 — considerably so. But it also folds in half, folks. And it’s clearly more durable than what we’ve seen on any other foldable phone up to this point. It isn’t free of compromise, that’s just the reality of the situation — and if you can’t deal with the compromises, buy a Galaxy S20.

At some point we need to stop nitpicking and understand that these displays are going to be less durable.

And importantly for me, the Z Flip’s screen feels the best out of any foldable I’ve touched. By a longshot. Yes there’s still a creased area where the screen folds. That’s completely expected. But the rest of the screen is flat, doesn’t creak or flex when you press on it, and feels considerably harder than the Fold — even though it has a plastic covering over that ultra thin glass. And because of how tall the Z Flip is, you don’t frequently swipe over the creased area, so for the most part as you scroll, tap and type it basically just feels like any other phone with a plastic screen protector on it. I wasn’t constantly reminded that I was using a subpar display.

That’s major progress for foldables, and makes the Z Flip the only foldable up to this point I would actually consider using every day.

Getting to know a new form factor

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

Samsung Galaxy Z FlipSource: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

The next exciting part of the Z Flip is just the size and operation of it. Whereas the Galaxy Fold — and really any foldable other than the Motorola RAZR — was ungainly and too big to comfortably use one handed or fit in a pocket, the Z Flip is explicitly designed to be compact. And again unlike the Fold, there’s no massive compromise of weight or thickness when the device is closed.

The best trick the Galaxy Z Flip pulls is feeling like a ‘normal’ phone when it’s open.

When the Z Flip is open, it feels very similar to just using any other modern Samsung flagship. From the way the metal and glass feels on the outside down to the general size, shape and weight. It feels like a slightly narrower and taller Galaxy S10+. It doesn’t feel foreign or weird, which is absolutely a feature.

You’re getting the benefit of having a rather normal phone experience when the phone is open, with a phone that can be folded in half when it’s not in use. And yes, the Z Flip is pretty darn compact when closed. It’s thicker than a regular phone when closed, of course, but because it’s so much shorter it feels very comfortable in my pocket. And it’s so darn easy to wrap your hand around the Z Flip when it’s closed.

Samsung has clearly only begun to explore what’s possible with the software to support, and take advantage of, this vertical folding form factor. For the most part this is simply Android 10 with One UI 2, putting more weight behind the “it’s just a Galaxy S10” feeling.

Flex mode has a couple of neat use-cases, but generally feels like an answer to a question nobody asked.

Samsung did some interesting things with a multi-window interface on the Fold, but even that still feels partially baked. The same is true of the “flex mode” view options on the Z Flip, which let you bend the phone to a roughly 90-degree angle and have a split view on the vertical and horizontal planes. Flex mode only works in a few apps — like the camera, gallery, Duo video calls, and the always-on display clock mode. The Z Flips I used at the Unpacked launch event also had YouTube working in flex mode, but that wasn’t on my retail unit.

In either case, this feels more like an answer to a question nobody asked. Yes it’s neat to be able to prop up the phone for a video call, but then again it’s also likely to be a very unflattering angle shooting up your nose from the table. You’re probably more likely to use the phone in this mode to set up a group photo on a timer, or steady the camera for a night mode shot. The rest of the use cases feel tacked on and frankly limiting compared to just folding the phone flat and using it like a regular phone.

Folding brings quirks and compromises

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip closed

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip closedSource: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

The Galaxy Z Flip’s clamshell style has clear advantage over the larger foldables, but Samsung’s implementation has a few compromises as well.

The only inherent issue with the hinge is it makes opebning the Z Flip one-handed difficult.

The whole reason why the Z Flip can sit at that angle between open and closed is Samsung’s decision to re-engineer the hinge to be dramatically tighter than other foldables. While most foldables constantly want to force themselves to be locked open or closed, the Z Flip can sit at any angle between roughly 20 and 160 degrees. It’s neat for those limited use cases I mentioned above, and surely has a positive effect on the longevity of the hinge and the screen, but makes it more difficult to open the Z Flip one-handed. You can’t really “flip” it open easily, which is ironic given this phone’s name, as you can on the RAZR. Closing is no issue, and you eventually figure out how to best position your fingers to pry the phone open, but I struggled to find a way to make opening feel natural.

When opened, you’ll see and feel a thick raised bezel around the entire screen, which takes a little getting used to since we’re all accustomed to curved glass on phone screens. It doesn’t necessarily impede your side-in gestures — which is good since Android 10 relies on them — but it’s definitely a different sort of tactile experience than any other phone. But the bezel is necessary for protection of that inherently fragile folding display.

The RAZR absolutely beats the Z Flip with its cover display.

There’s also the quirk of using the Z Flip while it’s closed. There’s a 1.06-inch rectangular display on the outside, adjacent to the “rear” cameras, that ostensibly recreates the information you’d normally get from Always On Display on another Samsung phone … except, it doesn’t. The display shows the time and date, and lets you scroll through select notifications and media playback. But it requires double tapping the tiny display to activate, and then takes another series of taps to display some limited scrolling information.

This is the one place where the Motorola RAZR has a clear advantage with its larger cover display, that actually shows you full notification content and lets you quickly peek at what’s alerting you. That’s even more true when it comes to photos with the rear cameras, where Motorola gives you enough space to actually frame up a shot whereas the Z Flip’s display is so comically small it’s impossible to get a feel for what photo you’re taking — it’s better than nothing, but just barely.

Cameras, performance and battery life

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

Samsung Galaxy Z FlipSource: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

As noted at the top of this review, I haven’t yet had enough time with the phone to give a definitive take on battery life. But I can give you my experience thus far: with 3300mAh to work with, I’m not surprised that battery life is a weak point of this phone. On my first full charge, unplugging while I was still moving through installing apps, downloading data and starting to evaluate the phone, I hit 5% battery just under 11 hours — but with a quite high 4 hours 50 minutes of screen-on time and heavy use.

You’re going to give up battery life, but won’t deal with a compromise in performance.

The next day, unplugging at 7:30 a.m. and just using the phone as I normally would any other, I hit 50% battery at 12:00 with 2 hours of screen-on time. Numbers like this don’t give me confidence that the Z Flip is an all-day battery phone like its flagship counterparts. It does at least offer Samsung’s S10-generation quick charging, though, as well as wireless charging, so there’s that.

I can, however, speak to performance. The Z Flip, unsurprisingly, performs just like a Galaxy S10. It has a Snapdragon 855+ processor, 8GB of RAM and is pushing just a 1080p display with the same software as the rest of Samsung’s phones. There’s nothing groundbreaking or crazy there, and so it performs exactly as a Galaxy S10 does.

And there’s more positive news on the camera front, though it isn’t all good. The Galaxy Z Flip is using effectively a parts-bin special of Samsung’s 2019 sensors and lenses, with a pair of 12MP cameras, one wide and another ultra-wide, on the back. The 10MP front camera is of little consequence since you’re far better off shooting with the rear camera using the cover display to guide your shot (even though it’s incredibly awkward). Rear camera quality is, expectedly, about the same as a Galaxy S10 — minus the zoom quality, because it has no dedicated zoom lens.

The cameras are a generation behind, but that won’t be a deal-breaker for the Z Flip.

I can’t say for sure whether the Z Flip has improved camera performance over the Galaxy S10, which would come by way of improved software processing, but it seems to take really solid photos. You can tell it’s a generation behind in low light still, where dark scenes are blotchy and lacking definition in fine details, and I think we’ll look even less favorably on this camera system once the Galaxy S20 is on sale.

But of all the compromises you’re going to face with the Galaxy Z Flip, the cameras are pretty low on the list. Particularly considering its direct competition, the Motorola RAZR, has downright horrible camera quality.

Should you buy the Galaxy Z Flip?

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

Samsung Galaxy Z FlipSource: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

The pivotal question surrounding whether you should consider buying a Galaxy Z Flip is whether you can trust Samsung’s claims about the screen’s durability. That is, consequently, the one question I simply cannot answer with such a short period of time using the phone. This is likely the most durable folding screen in a smartphone by some margin, but we know it won’t be as durable as a standard smartphone and can’t know for months and months whether it holds up to continued daily use.

Samsung’s closing the gap between flat and foldable phones — but it isn’t quite there yet.

If you land on the positive end of the spectrum on the display, and are willing to give it a try, there are general philosophical questions about how much value you place on having your phone fold in the first place. Unlike the Galaxy Fold, you’re not paying to get more … you’re paying to get less. To be able to fold the phone when it’s not in use. The Z Flip is absolutely more compact and pocketable than any other smartphone when folded, but whether that benefit of compact storage is actually worth it to you is a personal decision.

When the Galaxy Z Flip costs $380 more than a base Galaxy S20, you should probably be certain that you see value in the combination of the compact form factor and novelty (or wow factor, if you will) of folding the phone in half. Because in order to get those two things, you’re compromising and giving up several other little things that all detract from the smartphone experience we’re all used to. With the Z Flip, Samsung’s closing that gap between flat and foldable phones — but it isn’t there yet.

Next generation



Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

Another way to think about foldables.

The Galaxy Z Flip takes a modern smartphone shape, and lets you fold it in half. There are compromises aplenty, namely in price and potential screen fragility, but this foldable gets closer than any prior to being a well-rounded phone.

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