Galaxy Z Fold 3, Z Flip 3 edge foldables closer to mainstream
Samsung's new devices start at $1,000 and feature improved materials to make them sturdier.
Shara TibkenFormer managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Samsung's newest foldables are here, complete with lower prices, water resistance, and sturdier materials for the hinges, body and display. The updates found in Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3 are meant to reassure consumers that foldables aren't as fragile as they may seem.
The new Z Fold 3, which expands outward from a phone into a tablet and comes with S Pen support for the first time, starts at $1,800. The Galaxy Z Flip 3, which features a compact clamshell design that shields the inner display, starts at $1,000. Samsung showed both phones off Wednesday during an online Unpacked event.
In virtually every way, Samsung sought to address the problems found in its earlier foldables, ranging from worries about the screens being too delicate to criticism that only tech ultra-fans could afford their steep prices. The South Korean electronics giant hopes the changes make its devices -- now in their third generation -- appeal to more consumers and eventually become a bigger chunk of the overall smartphone market.
Watch this: Galaxy Z Fold 3: Our first look at Samsung's newest foldable
"We really do think we're finally at that price point ... with the foldable Z series that we can take these mainstream," Drew Blackard, vice president of mobile product management for Samsung Electronics America, said in an interview ahead of Unpacked. And "we wanted to make sure that there's no compromising ... including durability."
Samsung and other vendors are counting on foldable devices to be the future of the mobile market. The company has incorporated the screens in its highest end products since 2019, but they haven't yet taken off with consumers. Early flaws in the initial Galaxy Fold's display raised doubts that foldables were strong enough to withstand daily use, let alone a rainstorm or a fall from a nightstand. And prices, which reached as high as $2,000 for last year's Z Fold 2, were aimed more at one-percenters than at typical smartphone buyers. The durability and pricing questions prevented most consumers from buying foldables, particularly in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Samsung hopes the Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3 will change that.
In 2020, the first year with both a Fold and Flip in its lineup, Samsung sold about 2 million foldables around the world, nowhere near the 1.29 billion total smartphones sold globally, according to Strategy Analytics. This year, Samsung should sell about 5.2 million foldables, the research firm said, versus a smartphone market of 1.35 billion units.
With the Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3, Samsung incorporated more durable materials in the phone hinges and bodies, included a sturdier protective film on the foldable displays, redesigned the hinge to make it make it stick out less from the screen and added water -- but not dust -- resistance. The higher end Z Fold 3 works with two different S Pen styluses, both of which are designed to be more gentle on the foldable display and one of which also works with older S Pen-compatible devices.
Samsung has taken important steps to make its Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3 more durable, Strategy Analytics analyst Ken Hyers said, but "you only get 30 seconds or less in a commercial to make that argument."
"I think that a lot of people are going to be concerned," he said. Making consumers more comfortable with foldables is "going to take time," Hyers added.
At the same time it boosted the sturdiness, Samsung lowered the starting prices for its new devices from their older siblings. The Z Flip 3 starts at $1,000 for 128GB of internal storage, which makes it $380 less than the first Flip version and $450 below the 5G model's initial cost. That price tag puts it in line with regular flagship smartphones, including Apple's iPhone 12 Pro and Samsung's Galaxy 21 Plus. (Samsung skipped over a Galaxy Z Flip 2 to keep its foldable names consistent, executives said). Samsung also will sell a 256GB model for $1,050, and both versions come with 8GB of RAM.
Both foldables run on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 processor, inside the US and out. Typically, international models use Samsung's in-house-designed Exynos, but that's not the case this year. And in the US, the phones work on the 5G airwaves of all carriers -- including super-fast millimeter wave -- rather than requiring dedicated variants for each network.
For the first time in foldables, both the Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3 feature IPX8 water resistance -- which means they can be submerged in up to 1.5 meters of freshwater for as long as 30 minutes -- but they lack dust resistance and aren't meant to be used at the beach or the pool. By comparison, the Galaxy S21 lineup features IP68 water and dust resistance, which means the phones can withstand dust, dirt and sand, and can be submerged up to 1.5 meters underwater for as long as 30 minutes.
Samsung wasn't able to pursue a dust resistance rating because of the foldables' design. "Dust will get in" through the gaps in the hinge, Blackard said, but it continues to integrate Sweeper brush inside the hinge to reject those particles.
To make the foldable phones water resistant required a new sealing design that blocked off areas near the moving components. The internal components all have a water-resistant coating, Blackard said, and Samsung configured the phones so both the top and bottom halves can withstand dunkings in water, said Jongmin Kang, who works in Samsung's product mechanical R&D group.
"To do this, we punched a hole in the interior so that water would flow into the device," Kang said in a company-provided, Korean-language video that was translated into English. "We blocked the hole with rubber on the side of the device and filled up the open spaces with a liquid solution we newly developed."
Samsung didn't immediately provide more details about that particular process when asked by CNET.
The company also applied an anti-corrosive solution on the hinge, as well as a lubricant so it won't rust, Kang said.
Along with adding water resistance, Samsung redesigned the Hideaway Hinge, which first appeared on the original Z Flip, to make it thinner, lighter and less obtrusive. It's built from what Samsung calls Armor Aluminum, a material that's reinforced with other metals -- like how building concrete includes metal rebar -- to make it 10% more durable than the hinges found in Samsung's earlier foldables. There are also fewer gaps that can let in dust or water. The updated Sweeper technology inside the hinge has bristles that are shorter than earlier versions but are still able to repel dust and other detritus that make it past the hinge.
"We developed Armor Aluminum to be harder and more durable so it is less likely to be deformed or scratched due to external shock," Changyoung Hwang, who works in Samsung's advanced color, material and finish lab, said in a company-provided, Korean-language video that was translated into English.
Samsung also incorporated a new protective film made of stretchable polyester resin and optimized the main screen panel layers to make the Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3 displays 80% more durable than earlier models.
The Flip's redesign
When it comes to Samsung's two new foldables, it's the Z Flip 3 that received the biggest design changes. The company increased the size of the cover screen fourfold, stretching it along the edge of the phone instead of cramming it into a small box in the corner. The screen now can do more than display alerts or control the selfie camera. Without ever opening the Z Flip 3, users can launch Samsung Pay, access quick settings, read notifications and use widgets for music, weather, schedules, alarms, Samsung Health, Galaxy Buds controller, voice recorder and timer.
The interior display remains at 6.7 inches diagonally but fits into a slimmer body than the original Z Flip. The new model is 72.2 millimeters wide versus 73.6 mm for the older device, and the Z Flip 3 is also slightly shorter and thinner when closed. The display now has a 120Hz refresh rate, double the first Z Flip's rate.
On the back of the phone by the cover display, Samsung included two cameras -- 12-megapixel wide and ultra-wide lenses. The interior selfie camera is 10 megapixels.
The cover screen displays more camera-related features than its predecessor, such as a quick shot mode that switches between photos and video when swiping left and right or between the wide and ultra-wide lenses when swiping up and down. Dual preview lets two people view images while looking at opposite sides of the device. For instance, if a user is helping a friend with a headshot, one can view the photos through the cover screen while the other sees them on the main display.
The dual battery is the same size as the older Flip's 3,300mAh, and the Z Flip 3 supports wired and wireless fast charging and reverse wireless charging to power up gadgets like the new Galaxy Buds 2.
The Z Flip 3 is available in cream, black, green and lavender, and Samsung also has two exclusive colors for people who buy the device directly from its store -- white, pink and gray.
For the Z Fold 3, Samsung largely stuck to the same design as the Z Fold 2, with one notable exception -- the camera lens on the big interior screen was embedded underneath the display. Most newer Samsung phones contain a pinhole lens, which has a small black circle around the camera. With the Z Fold 3, the lens is hidden by whatever's on the display, which Samsung said provides an "uninterrupted viewing experience" (but could also lead to confusion about where to look if taking a selfie with that camera).
The lens underneath the main, foldable display is 4 megapixels, while the cover selfie camera is 10 megapixels. The back of the device features three cameras -- 12-megapixel ultra-wide, wide and telephoto lenses.
The Z Fold 3 still sports a 7.6-inch interior display, but it weighs slightly less than the Z Fold 2 -- 271 grams versus 282 grams. It's also a fraction of a millimeter narrower when opened and is only 6.4 mm thick versus 6.9 mm in the older model.
The Z Fold 3 sports a slightly smaller dual battery than last year's Z Fold 2 -- 4,400mAh versus 4,500mAh in the older model. The new device works with wired and wireless fast charging and contains reverse charging.
When it comes to software, Samsung still faces some problems with app compatibility. For the Z Flip, apps made for regular smartphones work fine. But the Z Fold's inner display is more like a tablet -- of which there are few Android apps. To get around that, Samsung has worked with developers to encourage them to design for foldables, and Google at its I/O conference in May vowed to do more to support the devices.
Blackard said during a recorded press briefing ahead of Unpacked that Samsung has worked with developers like Google, Microsoft, Disney and Spotify to tailor more than 50 popular apps for the Fold's screens. For apps that aren't optimized for foldables, Samsung has a new feature called Labs. It lets users tweak the size of the app window and use it at the same time as other apps.
Along with Labs, Samsung on Wednesday showed off an improved user interface for the large inner screen. It aims to support more intuitive interactions with a new drag-and-drop feature, and the edge panel can be pinned to the right side of the inner display, giving users faster access to their top apps. Samsung introduced new productivity features, including split view, customizable aspect rations and a multi-view feature that lets apps open in pop-up windows.
The Z Fold 3 comes in phantom green, phantom black or phantom silver.
S Pen support
The Z Fold 3 gets two new S Pens, a first for the foldable lineup. Samsung's stylus, which debuted in its Note phablet, is popular with users but also previously was too risky to use on the more delicate foldable displays. The new S Pens -- the S Pen Pro and S Pen Fold Edition -- both feature retractable tips with "force limit technology" to protect the main display.
"In terms of everyday usage, like your average consumer pressure when they're writing or drawing, it'll be … perfectly fine" and won't damage the display, Peter Park, a Samsung product manager, said in an interview ahead of Unpacked.
The S Pen Fold Edition only works with the Z Fold 3 and doesn't have Bluetooth. At 132 mm long, it's shorter than the S Pen Pro's 173.7 mm length.
The S Pen Pro can be used by older Galaxy devices, and it contains Bluetooth to let users perform tasks like copy something from one Galaxy phone and pasting it on the Z Fold 3. Older S Pens from other devices won't work with the Z Fold 3 and "may damage the screen," Samsung said. The new S Pens "operate on a different frequency compared to our legacy devices," Park said.
The S Pen Fold Edition costs $50 alone or $80 with a specially designed S Pen case, while the S Pen Pro retails for $100.