Samsung needs to make its Z Fold 3, Z Flip 3 cheaper and sturdier to attract buyers
To push its devices mainstream, Samsung will need to make some key changes. It will show off the phones Wednesday at Unpacked.
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 will unveil on Wednesday the next generation of its foldable phones, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3. But to get consumers interested, the devices need two major updates: improved durability and lower prices.
The Korean phone giant has led the field for foldables. Its first device, the $1,980 Galaxy Fold, hit the market in 2019, after a five-month delay because of screen defects in some reviewer models. Samsung fixed the problems -- which included a screen bulge and flickering display -- and refined its design for a second version a year ago, the $2,000 Galaxy Z Fold 2. Both devices fold outward from phone to tablet. In February 2020, Samsung launched another foldable variant, the $1,380 Galaxy Z Flip. That device resembles a flip phone, closing like a clamshell to protect its inner display.
Even though Samsung has worked to improve the durability of its foldables, the early hiccups didn't do much to convince consumers that foldables were strong enough to withstand daily use, let alone a rainstorm or those accidental drops that have spelled the end of many regular phones' glass displays. None of the devices was anywhere approaching cheap. For most consumers, $2,000 was too steep for a device that's more delicate than cheaper, traditional smartphones.
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"Consumers have to be convinced that a foldable is not a super expensive device that's going to break right after they start using it," Strategy Analytics analyst Ken Hyers said. There are worries that if "the display is going to tear, or the crease gets worse or if gets wet, do you all of a sudden have a $2,000 paperweight?"
In 2019, Samsung and other foldable phone vendors sold only 730,000 such devices, according to Strategy Analytics. By comparison, overall smartphone sales totaled 1.37 billion units. This year, those companies should sell about 7.4 million foldables, with about 63% of them coming from Samsung, the research firm said, versus 1.35 billion smartphones overall.
At its Unpacked event Wednesday, Samsung has the chance to convince consumers that its devices are sturdier and more affordable than before. The company is expected to add water and dust resistance to its foldables for the first time, as well as use improved materials for better resilience. The Z Flip 3, for one, will feature "an even more refined style, armed with more durable, stronger materials," Tae-moon Roh, the head of Samsung's smartphone business, wrote in a blog post in late July.
At the time Samsung introduced the S21, an executive told CNET that the company's lower prices likely were here to stay. "This is kind of where we want to be," said Drew Blackard, Samsung Electronics America's vice president of product management.
The S21 pricing was possible because of three factors: lower component costs, some minor tradeoffs in the S21 and S21 Plus, and the world we now live in. At least two of those factors -- lower component costs and the current environment -- are likely to hold for the Galaxy Z lineup. Because this is Samsung's third generation of foldables, it's managed to streamline the manufacturing process and lower costs. Those improvements will be passed on to consumers who buy the likely less expensive foldables.
Both Samsung and Motorola, which introduced a Razr foldable in late 2019, faced manufacturing and component problems with their folding devices when first introducing the technology. When Motorola's Razr finally hit the market, it had a squeaky hinge, among other shortcomings. Samsung delayed the launch of its first Galaxy Fold to fix problems with the screen and hinge.
Such issues aren't unusual when introducing completely new -- and somewhat experimental -- technology, but they didn't inspire confidence in the durability of foldables.
Samsung eventually revamped the Fold's display and design to fix issues experienced by early reviewers. With the Z Flip in early 2020, it included flexible, bendable glass in the device. That was a first for foldables and fixed many of the problems that plagued the early review units of the Fold. Glass doesn't scratch as easily as plastic, is generally more durable and also gave the Flip a more premium feel than the Fold and Motorola's Razr, which used a plastic display.
The Flip also included Samsung's new hinge design, which has a freestanding ability called "Flex Mode." Unlike the original Fold, which would snap shut at the hinge, the Z Flip's Hinge could be kept open at different levels. CNET's Dolcourt called it "the Z Flip's most unique, interesting and effective feature by far because it lets you interact with the phone hands-free."
When it came time to introduce the Galaxy Z Fold, Samsung incorporated the best new features from the Z Flip -- including a glass display and the Flex Mode-capable hinge -- and also tweaked the design to give it a more premium feel.
With this year's Z Fold 3, Samsung is expected to embed a front-facing camera beneath the screen. That gives it more protection and allows the screen to stretch across the front of the device, uninterrupted by camera lenses. It will also bring S Pen support to the Z Fold 3, giving buyers the ability to use a stylus with the ultra-premium foldable.
The Z Flip 3 likely won't get S Pen support, but it will get new materials, Samsung's Roh said. That could include a new hinge, more scratch-resistant glass or other components that make it sturdier. The Z Flip 3 is also expected to get a larger exterior screen for when the phone is folded shut.
So far, Samsung's foldables haven't resonated with consumers, at least when it comes to opening their wallets. But Wednesday's updates will see if that changes.