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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3: Can the upgrades win over foldable skeptics?

Samsung announced a new Galaxy Fold 3 with an under-display camera, beefed-up durability and a $200 price cut. It now costs $1,800.

Samsung Z Fold 3 foldable phone

The new Galaxy Z Fold 3 is lighter, smaller, more durable and less expensive.

Drew Evans/CNET

After what seemed like an endless string of rumors and leaks, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 is finally a reality. Samsung announced the third-generation folding phone along with the Galaxy Z Flip 3 at a virtual Unpacked event on Wednesday. Both phones prove that Samsung hasn't given up on foldables. In fact, the Z Fold 3 angles to be the best foldable phone you can buy.

Last year's Galaxy Z Fold 2 addressed many of the issues people had with the original Fold. Yet, despite a much-needed infusion of premium features and specs, the Z Fold 2 still needed to earn our trust. The second Fold left a lot of us wanting a foldable that felt more like a phone and less like an experiment.

On paper, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 seems like an improvement in every way. Samsung gave the Fold a Fitter Happier upgrade: It's slimmer, lighter, more productive, more durable and more affordable. Add on a 120Hz adaptive refresh rate to the cover screen, an under-display selfie camera, S Pen support and a lower price and you have a solid all-around phone.

Read more: Phones from ocean plastic? Samsung aims for 2025

You can tell Samsung feels confident about the durability improvements to the Z Fold 3 because the company is encouraging you to take a small pointy thing and use it on the folding screen. All these nips, tucks and additions give the hardware and software a more streamlined and approachable vibe. 

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The Galaxy Z Fold 3 (how to preorder) starts at $1,800 (£1,599, AU$2,499), which is $200 less than the original price of the Z Fold 2. I wouldn't call it cheap, but the price is going in the right direction. By the way, the Galaxy Z Flip 3 starts at $1,000 (£949, AU$1,499). Preorders are now open and both phones launch on Aug. 27.

Prices for the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3

Phone Storage RAM US price
Galaxy Z Fold 3 512GB 12GB $1,900
Galaxy Z Fold 3 256GB 12GB $1,800
Galaxy Z Flip 3 256GB 8GB $1,050
Galaxy Z Flip 3 128GB 8GB $1,000

Samsung made the Galaxy Z Fold 3 more durable

The main screen on the Z Fold 3 has a new protective film which Samsung claims is smoother, more scratch resistant and 80% more durable than the one on the previous Fold. The metal frame and hinge are built with a new material called Armor Aluminum, which Samsung says makes it 10% more durable than the hinge on the previous Fold.

This new aluminum also makes the phone 11 grams lighter than the last Fold. That's a lot of weight to take off of a phone. But to put it into perspective, the Z Fold 3 is still one of the heaviest phones to come out in 2021. In comparison, it weighs 42 grams more than the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which I consider a hefty phone. It's only 30 grams less than an iPad Mini, which has a 7.9-inch display.

The Z Fold 3's main display is 7.6 inches with a 120Hz adaptive refresh rate. Samsung says the "Eco display" on the Fold 3 is brighter and consumes less energy. That's important since the dual batteries are smaller than the ones in the Z Fold 2, but Samsung says we can expect a similar battery life.

The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is rated IPX8 for water resistance which means it can survive under 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) of water for up to 30 minutes. As nice an addition as that is (especially in terms of keeping your Z Fold 3 clean) there isn't any dust resistance. If you remember back to the review samples of the original Fold, dust was one of the factors that caused screen damage on some reviewers' phones.

The cover screen is upgraded to Gorilla Glass Victus and now supports a 120Hz adaptive refresh rate. The Z Fold 3 comes in three colors: phantom silver, phantom green or phantom black, in a naming scheme that echoes the Galaxy S21 Ultra's color options.

Use an S Pen on the screen of a Galaxy Z Fold 3

2021 is the year of the S Pen. The Z Fold 3 now supports the stylus, with two new S Pens available to buy. There's the $50 S Pen Fold edition and $100 S Pen Pro. The S Pen Fold Edition doesn't have Bluetooth but lets you take a screen capture or jot down a note by clicking your S Pen. Samsung is also selling a specially designed $80 Fold 3 cover case that comes with an S Pen Fold edition.

The S Pen Pro has Bluetooth and works as a remote and supports gesture controls. You can even copy and paste between S Pen devices with an onboard memory feature. It's thicker and feels more like a traditional pen.

Samsung Z Fold 3

You can use one of two new S Pens on the Galaxy Z Fold 3.

Samsung

Both S Pens have a new auto retractable tip to protect your Fold 3's display. You can't use other S Pens with the Fold which has less to do with the screen and more to do with the new S Pens using a different frequency.

The Galaxy Z Fold 3 has an under-display camera

In terms of cameras, there are five of them. The outside camera bump has a 12-megapixel wide lens, 12-megapixel ultrawide and a 12-megapixel telephoto with 2x optical zoom. Both the wide and telephoto cameras have optical image stabilization.

On the cover screen is a hole-punch cutout for a 10-megapixel camera. And you have to open the Z Fold 3 up to see the fifth camera -- or to try to see it. It's Samsung's first under-display camera, which means the main screen is free of notches and hole punches. You get an uninterrupted view of the screen.

Samsung Z Fold 3 foldable phone

If you look closely at the top right side of the display, you can faintly make out the outline of the new under-display camera. At certain angles and under certain lighting, it is visible.

Drew Evans/CNET

Samsung uses display elements to hide the camera along with transparent wiring which allows the camera to see through the screen. The camera is only 4 megapixels (which also helps it see through the display) but uses AI image processing to create photos and videos.

The Z Fold 3 has built in AR filters, can record 8K video and offers a bevy of capture and preview modes that take advantage of the Z Fold 3's unique build.

Samsung Z Fold 3 foldable phone

The camera bump on the cover has three cameras: a wide, ultrawide and telephoto.

Drew Evans/CNET

The Galaxy Z Fold 3 software gets more support for its folding screen

The Galaxy Z Fold 3 runs Android 11 and comes with a slew of software updates that move the Fold past the limits of a traditional phone. There are big improvements to multitasking, the addition of new UX elements and more ways to use Flex Mode. The edge panel can now be pinned like a Windows taskbar for quick shortcuts to apps.

Samsung worked with companies like Google, Microsoft and Disney to optimize their apps for a foldable screen. Optimized apps include Spotify, YouTube, TikTok, Zoom and more.

Samsung Z Fold 3

Flex Mode lets you use the Galaxy Z Fold 3 in an open position similar to a laptop.

Samsung

2021 flagship specs come to the Galaxy Z Fold 3

The Z Fold 3 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip which is the same as the Galaxy S21 Ultra. I'm a little surprised it's not the newer Plus version that's been in some gaming phones. The Z Fold 3 packs a whopping 12GB of RAM and comes with either 256GB or 512GB of storage. 

The foldable phone supports sub-6 5G and certain carrier versions will also support mmWave 5G.