Having a tablet that fits in your pocket is great, but it comes at a cost.
After testing and reviewing new tech products for about a decade, it can be hard to get excited about a new phone. Even foldables, which usually represent a refreshing change of pace from the metal and glass slabs that dominate the market, are starting to feel less exciting than they used to four years ago.
But after spending an extended period of time with Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold 4, I learned much more about both the promise and compromises that come with today's foldables. Although I tried the Galaxy Z Fold 4 briefly around the time it launched, I recently decided to use it as my regular phone for about three weeks.
Roughly eight months after the Z Fold 4's debut, many of the main takeaways from my colleague Patrick Holland's review remain true. But I've also come away from the experience with a few surprises — some pleasant, and some not so pleasant — that make me both excited and apprehensive about the future of foldables.
The best thing about the Galaxy Z Fold 4, of course, is its tablet-sized inner screen. The Galaxy Z Fold 4's 7.6-inch display meant I was able to leave my iPad at home when taking a recent flight since I could rely solely on my phone to watch Netflix on a bigger screen. Some other tasks that the Z Fold 4's big screen came in handy for include browsing online menus at restaurants, video chatting and reading news articles.
The idea of having a phone that also doubles as a tablet is nothing new for early adopters and tech enthusiasts. But it's still a novel concept for the rest of us. When I showed the Galaxy Z Fold 4 to my mom, an avid iPad user, she was fascinated by it. I've never seen her get so excited about any of the tech gadgets I've brought home to review over the last 10 years.
I've gotten some similar reactions from friends, who reacted with a mix of curiosity, excitement and skepticism. One friend exclaimed that she thought I had brought a Kindle to dinner when I opened up the Z Fold to view the restaurant's menu on a larger screen.
That underscores my primary learning from using the Galaxy Z Fold 4 over the last few weeks. Right now, being able to view apps on a tablet-size screen is its biggest attribute. I care less about using apps in split-screen mode and more about dedicating the entire screen to a single purpose. I never found myself using Flex Mode, which is Samsung's feature that splits the software between the top and bottom portions of the screen when folded halfway. I made a point to try it, but never found myself using it naturally.
Aside from the large screen, I came away impressed with the Galaxy Z Fold 4's speakers. I often use my phone to play music as I'm cleaning or getting ready for the day, and the Z Fold 4 was able to fill my bedroom with sound much more easily than the smaller phones I typically use. It's another trait that makes the Galaxy Z Fold 4 an ideal entertainment device.
Battery life is decent on the Galaxy Z Fold 4, but nothing to get too excited about. With regular usage, I can get through a day easily on a single charge. However, when I was traveling and relied on my phone for directions, streaming Netflix on the plane ride and calling plenty of Ubers and Lyfts to get around, I found myself in need of a charger fast.
The Galaxy Z Fold 4 has a 50-megapixel main camera, 12-megapixel ultra wide camera and 10-megapixel telephoto camera, much like the Galaxy S23. Both phones also have a 3x optical zoom and a 30x digital zoom. I didn't do an exhaustive comparison, but I did notice that the Galaxy S23's photos have more contrast in the shadows, making the images look a little better than the Z Fold 4's overall.
That's likely thanks to the updated processing happening on the back end, driven by the S23's new Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor that's been optimized for Samsung's Galaxy devices. The Galaxy Z Fold 4, by comparison, runs on the previous generation Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. But both phones were great at taking photos in low-light scenarios, as the photos of my cat below show.
Those interested in a phone like the Galaxy Z Fold 4 likely aren't overly concerned about the camera since the screen is the star of the show. But if you're going to splurge on an expensive phone, it should have a great camera, too. The Galaxy Z Fold 4 checks that box, but just keep in mind that Samsung usually reserves the best cameras for its Galaxy S devices.
The Galaxy Z Fold 4 gets enough right to prove that there's promise in a device that can function as both a phone and a tablet in one. But there are some setbacks that prevent it from being as useful and enjoyable as it could be — most of which are design and software-related.
The Galaxy Z Fold 4's crease is still noticeable even now that it's in its fourth generation. If rumors from The Elec, ETNews and prolific leaker Ice Universe prove true, Samsung could address this with a new type of hinge in the Galaxy Z Fold 4's successor. But companies like Huawei and Oppo are already ahead of Samsung in this regard, as my colleague Sareena Dayaram has written.
The Galaxy Z Fold 4's outer screen feels more natural than on previous versions thanks to its slightly wider design. But there are still times when its squarish aspect ratio shows. When taking photos, for example, the cover screen provides a smaller viewfinder than what you'd get when using a normal phone.
The phone itself is also still fairly heavy, weighing 263 grams compared to the 233-gram Galaxy S23 Ultra and 195-gram Galaxy S23 Plus. My 5-year-old nephew commented that it looks like two phones stacked on top of each other, and that's an accurate characterization.
Although I loved using the Galaxy Z Fold's large screen for reading and watching TV, the general software could still use some work. This is a criticism I've had about foldable phones for a while, and it still holds true. Today's devices lack software features that are compelling enough to prove the promise behind foldables.
With the Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Flip 4, Samsung added a new feature that lets you use the bottom half of the device as a trackpad when the phone is in Flex Mode. While that does make it easier to navigate the phone while in Flex Mode, the larger issue is that I never felt inclined to use Flex Mode in the first place, as I mentioned earlier.
Overall, the Galaxy Z Fold has come far enough to show that there's a future for foldable phones. But most of all, I found myself using it as a regular phone. And maybe that's the most telling takeaway of all. Right now, most people probably just want a really good phone. But that doesn't mean we aren't excited about the other gaps in our lives that phones like the Z Fold may fill in the future.