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Galaxy Fold: Samsung's phone-tablet hybrid is the most exciting phone we've seen in years

Samsung's thrilling, dizzying Galaxy Fold debut makes one thing clear: Phones will never be the same.

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Samsung isn't shy about its ambitions with the Galaxy Fold.

James Martin/CNET

There's so much I want to say about the Galaxy Fold, the foldable phone Samsung launched this week that I don't know where to begin. I guess I'll start with the fact that Samsung only demoed the Galaxy Fold on stage, but didn't give journalists a chance to see, touch or even breathe on the phone-tablet hybrid up close, not even behind a protective glass barrier. So I can only base my first impressions on Samsung's stage demo and what I know of the Fold's specs (cruise to the end for all of those). Regardless, it made a huge splash.

The Galaxy Fold in action.

Samsung

The Galaxy Fold feels like a moonshot, and that's Samsung's masterstroke here. We were given just enough information to be intrigued, but not enough to ruin the mystique. Even if the Galaxy Fold falls short of the hype, Samsung -- the world's largest phone maker -- has successfully grabbed everyone's attention. The Fold may not be a device everyone owns, but from what I can tell so far, it's a viable example of a brand-new type of phone.

At $1,980, the Fold costs twice the starting price of the Galaxy Note 9 or iPhone XS. When Samsung Mobile SVO Justin Denison announced the Galaxy Fold's price, the presentation hall rippled with audible gasps and groans (but really, I'm not surprised). Denison didn't sugarcoat it, but he did prime the pump by calling it a "luxury device."

In the US, the Galaxy Fold will sell with AT&T and T-Mobile starting April 26. Global colors are Martian Green, Astro Blue, Cosmos Black and Space Silver. There will be 4G LTE and 5G versions. UK and Australian prices were not announced, but the US price converts to about £1,500 or AU$2,800.

Galaxy Fold design: Two screens and a magic hinge

The Galaxy Fold is made up of two screens: a 4.6-incher on the outside of the device as it's closed like a book, and the other, a 7.3-inch display that stretches across the "inside" when you open it up to become a tablet.

We're still not sure if that smaller screen is made of glass or plastic, but we do know that the screen inside is the first example of the Infinity Flex Display, an ultrathin polymer (plastic) that uses a new adhesive that Samsung developed to laminate the phone's many display layers so they can flex and fold hundreds of thousands of times.

Now playing: Watch this: Samsung flaunts Galaxy Fold at Unpacked
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Samsung also needed to make the Infinity Flex Display thinner than any other mobile display. It cut the thickness of the polarizer layer, which helps make the screen legible, by 45 percent.

I'm interested in trying this out since glass is typically more premium material than plastic -- will it feel just as responsive and smooth? CNET was the first to report that the company behind Gorilla Glass, Corning, has been working on creating superthin glass that can bend, but that's still in development.

Now we need to talk about the fold itself. Samsung said it made a hinge with interlocking gears, which is hidden away in the casing. "Samsung" is etched on the hinge. It's hard to tell exactly how flat the Fold folds, but from what we can see, there's at least a small gap at the hinge end -- stay tuned.

Google software is key, and we don't meant Android Pie

The Galaxy Fold runs on Android Pie with Samsung's new One UI interface on top. But what you really need to care about is Google's specific support foldable Android devices, which it announced in November 2018.

It would be disastrous to close or open the Galaxy Fold and see your apps lag or judder when you picked them up again on the other screen. Google's task is to make sure there's a smooth handoff between the two, so that apps move instantaneously between the expanded view you see on the 7.3-inch display and the 4.6-inch screen.

Google

To make the most of a larger screen, you can open up to three separate apps at once, so an article, a video and your text messenger app. We were also told last November that any app could also give you up to three active windows when you're full screen. We've seen demoes for Flipboard, but the feature will only catch hold if Samsung can successfully lure the developers of today's top killer apps.

Six cameras total

Samsung has placed six cameras around the Galaxy Fold: three in the back, two on the inside and one on the cover. These are the same sensors we see on the Galaxy S10 phones (the Galaxy S10 5G has six as well, in a slightly different configuration). But it's clear which are for selfies and which for taking portraits, landscapes, food shots and everything else.

I'm curious what the photo flow will be like on the Galaxy Fold, because the camera arrangement on the ZTE Axon M phone of 2017 had you flipping and repositioning that two-screen device to take pictures. It was a hassle, and one that Samsung has hopefully figured out.

Galaxy Fold's six cameras

Cover camera 10-megapixel (F2.2)
Rear cameras 12-megapixel dual aperture wide-angle with OIS (F1.5/F2.4)

12-megapixel telephoto with OIS, 2x optical zoom (2.4)

16-megapixel ultra wide-angle lens (F2.2)
Front-facing cameras 10-megapixel (F2.2)

8-megapixel RGB depth camera (F1.9)

Galaxy Fold's battery doesn't fold

The thing about batteries is that they don't bend so well. But if you don't balance out the load, you wind up with a side-heavy phone like the ZTE Axon M. Samsung said it's solved the problem by putting a typically rigid lithium-ion battery on each side. The two lobes work together, like your brain, to give the Galaxy Fold 4,380 mAh of power.

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Is a folding phone a recipe for camera confusion? We'll find out.

Samsung

Who's the $2,000 Galaxy Fold really for? 

I'm still not over a $1,000 phone, and my guess is that you aren't either. Samsung knows that most people aren't going to run out and buy one. But some will. The Galaxy Fold will appeal to wealthy early adopters who want to be on the bleeding edge of technology.

A phone that can open into a book is the ultimate status symbol because it's immediately recognizable, especially if you buy it in Martian Green.

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Samsung

There's another population that the Fold would also interest, and those are the app developers that want to test their programs on a folding device. Say you're making a camera app that takes advantage of all six of the phone's lenses. You'd need to perfect that on a foldable phone with all the icing and sprinkles.

Foldable phones are the next wave

Samsung may have been the first major brand to announce a foldable phone, but the Galaxy Fold isn't in a field all its own. Unlike the Note family with its large screen and stylus, competing foldable phones are about to flood in.

Xiaomi and Huawei are working on one, and Alcatel and Motorola are said to be as well. Even Apple has filed patent applications for a foldable iPhone design.

Now playing: Watch this: Xiaomi's double-folding phone looks impressive in teaser...
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Even if the foldable phone trend doesn't join the mainstream, they're poised to lay the groundwork for more to come. Samsung already told us last November about the next challenge it set for itself: rollable and stretchable displays. 

Most industry analysts agree that foldable phones will become an inevitable part of the smartphone landscape in 2019 and beyond.

"This will be the best way to deliver on that consumer demand but it is likely a multiyear process before pricing, software, apps and the product itself have the kinks worked out," said Stephen Baker, VP of industry analysis at NPD Group.

There's also a sense, however, that something else is yet to come. "It is essential that we move beyond devices with folding screens being a solution looking for a problem," said Ben Wood, chief researcher at CCS Insight.

Samsung's Galaxy Fold is the first solid step in that direction, and sink or swim, that's exciting stuff.

Galaxy Fold specs we know so far

Samsung Galaxy Fold specs

Display size, resolution 4.6-inch Super AMOLED; 7.3-inch QXGA+ Dynamic AMOLED
Mobile software Android 9.0 with Samsung One UI
Camera 16-megapixel (ultra wide-angle), 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto)
Front-facing camera Two 10-megapixel, 8-megapixel 3D depth
Processor Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
Storage 512GB
RAM 12GB
Expandable storage None
Battery 4,380
Fingerprint sensor Right side of phone
Special features Foldable display, wireless charging, fast charging
Price off-contract (USD) $1,980

Published: Feb. 20, 2019
Update: Feb. 21 at 7:40am PT