How Using Google's Pixel Fold Sold Me on Foldable Phones
Commentary: Maps, games and videos all look better on the big screen.
Stephen Shanklandprincipal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertiseprocessors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, scienceCredentials
I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
But after a couple of weeks trying a review model of Google's Pixel Fold, I believe folding phones are no gimmick. They aren't for everybody, especially given the price, but they deliver real utility when you can benefit from a bigger screen.
I loved the big screen for consulting maps, playing games, watching videos and editing photos. Mentally, I categorized the Pixel Fold like a tablet, but unlike my iPad, I could fit it in my pocket.
Folding phones like the Pixel Fold, Motorola's Razr Plus and Samsung's competing Galaxy Z Fold 5 are an important development. Though today folding phones are an expensive product for a narrow market, improvements could coax us to upgrade instead of sticking with the same old same old. And with bigger screens, foldable phones could be important for those of us who spend hours a day working or playing on our phones.
Here's a look at what it is about the Pixel Fold that won me over.
Meet the Pixel Fold
The Pixel Fold, which Google just released in June, has two screens: a reasonable if not gigantic 5.8-inch external screen that works when the phone is closed and a spacious, squarish 7.6-inch screen that activates when you open up the phone. The Pixel Fold is spring-loaded to stay closed unless you pop it open, a two-handed operation akin to opening a book.
Folded, it's noticeably thicker than a conventional smartphone, but it's still pocketable. Open, you'll notice the crease in the screen only when you look for it.
The Fold costs $1,799 with 256GB of storage and $1,919 with 512GB — a premium price in the same league as Samsung's competing Galaxy Z Fold 5, due to be released Aug. 11. Google's capable if unspectacular Tensor G2 processor powers the phone. The gadget also comes with a main wide-angle camera, along with ultrawide, selfie and 5x telephoto cameras that are good if a small step down from the Google Pixel 7A's.
It's one of a few models from companies like Samsung and Motorola that embrace a hinge to stand out from the "ubiquitous slimline slab" designs, as my Galaxy Flip-curious co-worker Katie Collins aptly describes just about every other model in the saturated smartphone market.
I was most impressed with the Fold when using my favorite hiking and biking map app, Gaia GPS, where I could get a better grasp of my surroundings without as much zooming and panning. The screen worked no worse than most phones in bright sunlight, which is to say not terribly well unless I shaded the phone, but the big screen helps.
When solving the crossword in the The New York Times' Games app, I could see both down and across clues for a selected square in the puzzle. On regular phones, you have to toggle back and forth, which is a hassle, especially if you're racing against the clock.
I take a lot of photos with my phones, but when it's time to edit, I mostly synchronize them to Lightroom Classic on my Mac. On the Pixel Fold, though, Lightroom photo editing is easier to use, more precise and more useful. With the bigger screen, I wasn't as likely to inflict my photos with the exaggerated color saturation and contrast that's common when I edit photos on phones.
I'm not a big gamer, but I was pleasantly surprised by the more immersive view of the racecourses in Asphalt 9: Legends.
Many other apps were usefully larger if not paradigm-shiftingly better. For example Gmail showed my inbox on the left and the selected message on the right. Bigger YouTube videos looked great when the phone was fully open, and I liked being able to plop the phone half open on a table or my bed to watch videos without holding it up or using a stand.
Finally, as a photographer, I appreciated the way I could use the phone's high-quality main camera for selfies by opening the phone and using the external screen to compose the shot. For selfies, the Pixel Fold trounced my Pixel 7A in image quality. However, the Pixel 7A's cameras are much better when shooting in low light or at 5x or 10x telephoto.
More software polish required
It's clear that many apps are geared for conventional phone screen aspect ratios. The Pixel Fold is hobbled by the fact that Android tablets are something of a hardware backwater that many developers don't race to support.
Happily, plenty of apps scale to the larger screen fine, thanks to the fluid layouts made possible with modern responsive design. But I encountered lots of glitches.
The Amazon Kindle app didn't display illustrations large until I tapped on them, and its text size controls didn't fit on the screen properly. The NYT Games app's Spelling Bee cropped off controls and didn't take advantage of the space available. Google Play Books wouldn't let me read in two-column format.
And deciding how to handle both the outside and inside screens also is complicated. The worst offender here was Google's own podcast app, whose lock-screen widget worked only when I opened up the Fold. That was a bother for pausing, playing and fast-forwarding. I also had problems turning on the flashlight from the lock screen.
Foldable phones are a fine idea
These software problems were merely nuisances. I hope that with the Pixel Fold and Samsung's Z Fold competition, folding phones will catch on and software developers will address the shortcomings.
Watch this: Review: The Google Pixel Fold Has Room to Improve
If developers better support foldable phones' big screens, that'll also benefit Android tablets, a market that's generally lackluster despite some promise from new products like Google's Pixel Tablet.
I'm not going to buy a Pixel Fold. I'm deterred by the price. I need the Pixel 7's better overall cameras. I'm worried about how well the hinge and screen will hold up over years of flexing.
But none of those concerns are strong enough to quash my optimism. For people who live on their phones, where a big screen brings big improvements to work and entertainment, the Pixel Fold is a breath of fresh air.