Want a new Z Flip 3 or Z Fold 3? Be prepared to hold onto it for a while

When it comes to high-end phones, three years is the new two years.

Eli Blumenthal Senior Editor
Eli Blumenthal is a senior editor at CNET with a particular focus on covering the latest in the ever-changing worlds of telecom, streaming and sports. He previously worked as a technology reporter at USA Today.
Expertise 5G, mobile networks, wireless carriers, phones, tablets, streaming devices, streaming platforms, mobile and console gaming
Eli Blumenthal
4 min read
Samsung Z Flip 3 and Samsung Z Fold 3
Drew Evans/CNET

In the early days of the modern smartphone two-year contracts were standard. In exchange for a device, you'd agree to stay with a wireless provider for two years. In more recent times, as contracts were abolished and device costs rose, installment-plan financing has emerged. You'd pay down the price of the phone over the course of 18, 24 or 30 months. 

If you financed through a wireless carrier and wanted to switch providers, you'd need to pay off whatever the remaining balance is before you left.

With Samsung's latest Galaxy Z Flip 3 and Z Fold 3, which start at $1,000 and $1,800 respectively, a new push has emerged: three-year financing agreements. 

The South Korean giant has partnered "very closely" on rate plans with its carrier partners in the US, Drew Blackard, vice president of mobile product management for Samsung Electronics America, told CNET's Shara Tibken, Patrick Holland and Scott Stein ahead of Wednesday's Unpacked. 

Last year, most carriers offered the Z Flip and Z Fold 2 foldables for 24- and 30-month extended plans, he said. "This year,  you'll see more of the 30- and 36-month rate plans," Blackard said. "So on a monthly payment perspective for the consumer that ... makes it much more accessible." 

At Verizon, the Z Fold 3 5G starts at $60 per month on a 30-month payment plan, compared to $75 a month for 24 months. The Z Flip 3 5G runs $33.33 a month for 30 months or $41.66 a month for 24 months. At AT&T and T-Mobile, the Z Fold 3 runs $50 per month, but you'll need to commit to a 36-month installment plan. The Z Flip 3 at AT&T runs $27.75 per month for 36 months. 

In a bid to soften the blow of ever-rising smartphone costs, the carriers are offering a variety of trade-in deals to both new and existing customers that could bring those high monthly rates down. 

Samsung's partners will be offering trade-in plans higher than they've had before, Blackard said. In "a lot of cases, [consumers are] going to be able to look at these at a similar monthly price as they were looking at a Note 20 last year," he said, referring to last year's device that started at $1,000.

Both AT&T and T-Mobile are offering a free Z Flip 3 (or $1,000 off a Z Fold 3) if you trade in an "eligible" phone, choose to finance the device through its installment plan. T-Mobile requires you to sign up for its top unlimited plan (known as Magenta Max) to get this deal, while AT&T is making its deal available to anyone with one of its unlimited plans. 

For the carriers, the longer terms can function as a new form of contract. As the discounts are doled out as monthly bill credits, if you switch to a new provider before the financing is up you'd be on the hook for paying off the remaining balance of the phone.

"Carriers like longer terms because it effectively locks subscribers to their networks even without service contracts," Avi Greengart, an analyst at Techsponential, tells CNET. "In the US, we've seen AT&T use heavy device subsidies to boost subscriber growth, and spreading out those subsidies over 30 months is a key element of that strategy."

Longer terms, longer concern?  

Samsung Z Fold 3 foldable phone

The foldable Z Fold 3 features two batteries. 

Drew Evans/CNET

Expanding the financing of a device to 36 months comes as consumers hold on to their phones for longer periods of time. A 2019 survey found the average time to replace a smartphone was up to 33 months, suggesting consumers are already growing accustomed to longer upgrade cycles. 

Device manufacturers have similarly adjusted. While Apple has been known to support iPhones for several years, a number of Android manufacturers have made public pledges for software and security updates. 

In February, Samsung announced that it would provide "regular security updates for a minimum of four years" to models from 2019 or later. This was an expansion on a 2020 promise of at least three years of major software updates for its flagship lines of phones and tablets. 

One area that remains an unaddressed concern, however, is battery life. As devices age their battery capacity and performance decline with it. In 2017 Apple admitted to slowing down older iPhones to offset dwindling battery health. 

Given the complexity in designing foldable phones, it remains to be seen how Samsung will address battery replacement even as it expects consumers to hold onto their devices for longer periods of time. This is a particular concern for the Z Fold line, which has multiple batteries and may not be as simple a repair as a traditional slab smartphone like a Galaxy S21 or iPhone 12. 

Even last year's Z Flip was a tough device to repair, with iFixit giving the device a 2 out of 10 on its repairability scale (with 10 being the easiest to repair). 

Samsung did not immediately provide information about battery replacement.

The Z Flip 3 has an eye-catching design and comes in 7 colors

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