2021 may well go down as the year foldable phones stopped being an expensive proof-of-concept and finally went mainstream.
This was the year when the execution started to match that immense futuristic promise, and where meaningful quality-of-life improvements and lower pricing finally brought them within range of ordinary consumers.
While I count myself among those ‘ordinary consumers’, however, I wouldn’t count myself in with the foldable converts. There are still too many rough edges, annoyances, and open questions surrounding this cutting-edge section of the market.
I watched the foldable market closely in 2021, both through personal interest (I very much like shiny new gizmos) and a sense of professional duty.
As a freelance tech writer, I’ve had to research and write about the latest foldable phones for countless news items and features. But my current view of foldable phones really only took shape in August, when I received the two most prominent examples of the format for testing.
The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 and the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 arrived together, bundled up in a large glossy black box. They made an instant impression on me and a largely positive one at that.
If there’s an archetypal foldable phone, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is surely it. Essentially a fold-out 8-inch tablet with the bonus of ‘normal’ phone functionality when closed, it assuredly treads the same foldable design path that the likes of Huawei, Oppo, and Honor have, or will shortly follow.
The Galaxy Z Flip 3 is slightly less familiar – a clamshell device that essentially serves as a regular phone folded in half. It’s decidedly cute, with a sharp style that screams fashion accessory. It also reminds me a little of the Game Boy Advance SP, which is never a bad thing.
Perhaps best of all, the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 finally brought the price of a foldable phone down to below (just about) £1,000. Here was the first such device that you could recommend to a mainstream audience.
The official TechRadar opinion of both phones has been positive. They’re both great handsets with the Galaxy Fold 3 taking a half-a-star lead as “the best foldable phone so far” and “the first foldable phone that we recommend to people who would normally call themselves early adopters”.
The Galaxy Z Flip 3, for its part, is “the best clamshell foldable you can buy”. I’d agree with each of those statements. But I still wouldn’t buy either phone myself.
In my own extended testing period, I have found that I like using the Flip 3 more than the Fold 3 on a day-to-day basis. The clamshell phone’s more compact form factor simply made it way more pleasant to use as an actual phone. The Galaxy Fold 3 proved to be prohibitively thick and heavy.
The Fold 3 weighs 271g and measures between 14.4mm and 16mm thick when closed. For context, the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra – a non-foldable 2021 flagship phone that was universally panned for its unwieldiness – weighs 234g and measures around 12mm when you factor in the mammoth camera module.
While the Flip 3 is more practical than its big brother, I’m still not quite sure what it’s for. Whereas the Fold 3 genuinely justifies its chunky form factor whenever I’m playing Slay the Spire (the Fold being the only phone series that does this wondrous roguelike game justice) or viewing a spreadsheet, I never once found a practical justification for the Flip’s foldable nature.
Sure, it fits nicely in a pocket, but not significantly better than my iPhone 13 Pro. I can imagine there’s a case for those with tiny pockets getting something out of it, or those who carry their phones in tiny handbags. But in my experience, the Flip 3’s form factor is a gimmick.
That’s not even to mention the glaring flaws that put both phones well behind equivalent ‘normal’ phones. While Samsung has improved the ruggedness of both significantly, making these the two toughest and best-engineered foldable phones yet, they still only get an IPX8 rating. This means they’re waterproof but not dustproof.
In addition, both phones have camera systems that are varying shades of underwhelming. While the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s system is the better of the two, it still falls well short of the iPhone 13 Pro that I ultimately ended up putting my money towards.
Admittedly, that’s comparing these phones with the absolute best in the business, but this is a £1,600 smartphone we’re talking about. It takes inferior pictures to both the iPhone 13 and the OnePlus 9 Pro, both of which cost around half that price.
Flip to the future
I’m not sure the immediate future of the foldable market is going to solve any of my major issues, either. The Oppo Find N looks like it will get the closest. It has a similar but more compact design to the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and a superior set of cameras that look much closer to the flagship standard.
Meanwhile, the Huawei P50 Pocket looks like a Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 doppelgänger. It looks similarly cute and stylish, and just as pointless. It’s not going to make much of an impact outside of China with those US sanctions still in place, either.
Any follow-up to the Motorola Razr 2020 would surely have its hands full matching the very first Samsung Galaxy Z Flip, let alone besting the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3.
At the time of writing, it remains to be seen what the Honor Magic V has to offer. Reports suggest another Galaxy Z Fold 3-a-like, which means it’s likely to be another phone that’s great when you’re sat on your couch or a train, and wearisomely impractical everywhere else.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m hopeful that future foldable phones can win me over. However, they need to be more than just a cool proof-of-concept or a bulky fold-out tablet.
The regular, non-bendy smartphone market is now mature, which means your average flagship phone has pretty much nailed all the basics. If I’m to sink good money into a foldable phone it needs to at least match the best in all those areas, and also offer something beyond looking cool. And it needs to do this while being easy to lug around and not significantly more expensive than a premium flagship.
Tell me, smartphone manufacturers: am I asking for too much to hop onboard the foldable bandwagon? If so, I think I might just have to fold for another year. Or rather, not.