With the Galaxy Z Flip, Samsung looks for its foldable do-over

The company's new device, with a design similar to Motorola's Razr, could give the foldables market a boost.

Shara Tibken Former 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."
Shara Tibken
6 min read

Motorola's Razr (left) and Samsung's Galaxy Fold were the first major foldables available in the US.

Angela Lang/CNET

A year ago, Samsung took the stage at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco and unveiled a device poised to change the entire smartphone market: the Galaxy Fold. It captured the attention of everyone at the event and even intrigued the non-tech-savvy tuning in from afar. But it wasn't long before the Fold had problems: defects in the foldable screen, shaky app compatibility and a delayed launch. 

This year, Samsung is poised for a do-over. 

The South Korean electronics giant again will host an event in San Francisco -- this time taking the stage at the Palace of Fine Arts on Tuesday at 11 a.m. PT -- and again it'll show a new foldable. But this iteration, believed to be called the Galaxy Z Flip, could avoid many problems faced by its predecessors, including high pricing and lack of apps. 

The event is notable for another reason: It's the first show that Samsung's new head of mobile, Tae-moon Roh, will lead. Along with the Flip, Samsung is expected to unveil a trio of Galaxy S20 phones and new Galaxy Buds Plus earbuds, and it might even introduce its long-awaited Bixby-powered smart speaker. But it's the Galaxy Z Flip that'll likely capture the attention of attendees.

Watch this: Details about Samsung's next foldable phone pop up everywhere

At a time most companies don't even have one foldable phone, Samsung now will have two. And they're expected to be very different from each other. Samsung first teased the new foldable during its developer conference in October. The Flip is believed to resemble an ultra high-tech flip phone, with a bendable glass interior display, versus the Fold's phone-tablet hybrid design.

On Sunday, during the Oscars telecast, Samsung ran an ad showing off a phone that clearly appeared to be the Galaxy Z Flip, although it didn't name the device, and pointing ahead to Tuesday's Unpacked event.

If the Z Flip's design sounds familiar, that's because we've essentially already seen it. Motorola's new Razr foldable, which hit stores Thursday, has a design that hearkens back to the hugely popular Razr flip phone, and the Z Flip is expected to use the same clamshell design. Samsung's Galaxy Fold is essentially a smartphone that expands outward into a tablet. 

When it finally went on sale in September, the Fold was difficult to find in stores, and its $1,980 price tag was high for many buyers. Five months after it became available, there still aren't enough apps that transition well between the Fold's small front screen and the large, interior display. And reviewers criticized that smaller front screen, saying it wasn't large enough to actually be very useful.

Motorola, meanwhile, faced multiple delays of its Razr before finally launching the device, and the version now on sale for consumers has some issues, like a squeaky hinge. It's tough to find in stores, is back-ordered online and includes less-advanced technology -- like a weaker processor and more-limited camera capabilities -- than what most high-end smartphones boast. 

The Flip, which some rumors say could go on sale as soon as this month, presents an opportunity for Samsung to again capture the buzz in the foldables market. The Galaxy Z Flip, with its familiar interior smartphone screen, could attract a lot of buyers right away, unlike the Fold, which mostly seemed geared toward early tech adopters.  

App compatibility shouldn't be a problem for the Flip. (The interior screen is expected to be the same size as that of regular smartphones and there's likely no front display). The response to Motorola's Razr has shown that people are intrigued by the clamshell foldable model. And the Flip is expected to cost about $1,400, much less than the Fold, and even $100 less than the Razr.   

"With [the Flip] you're not giving me necessarily something different in terms of user experience and creating new workflows," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "But you're giving me something visually different, something that's sexy and exciting."

Foldable troubles

By the end of February 2019, foldable phones had captured everyone's attention. They were something never seen before, devices with expansive screens that actually can fold in half to become more compact. Samsung, Huawei and Xiaomi had shown off their designs, and essentially every other major handset maker was rumored to be working on a foldable. 

Within months, though, foldables faced troubles. Samsung delayed the launch of its $1,980 Galaxy Fold by five months after some reporters found screen defects in their review units. Huawei pushed back the introduction of the Mate X by several months, to Nov. 15, blaming the slow rollout of the 5G networks in China that the device would run on. Xiaomi teased a foldable early last year but never actually launched it, and Microsoft opted to design a phone with two screens held together by a hinge instead of a device with a foldable display.

Motorola in November unveiled one of the most anticipated foldables of the year: a revamp of its popular Razr flip phone, this time with a foldable interior display. It too had delayed the foldable from a planned summer launch, and it delayed the phone again late last year. Instead of an expected January sales date, the Razr didn't hit stores until the first week of February, less than a week before Samsung's expected Flip unveiling. 

The Razr's delays and shortcomings represent an opportunity for Samsung and its Flip. The Razr uses a less advanced processor than what the Flip is expected to sport, which can be noticeable when doing activities like playing games. Reviewers have criticized the Razr's camera capabilities, one of the most important considerations for smartphone buyers. 

A notable rumored feature of the Flip -- never before seen in such a foldable -- is flexible, bendable glass. As CNET's Jessica Dolcourt noted, that's "a design element that promises to fix nearly every problem that befell early review units of the Galaxy Fold." Glass doesn't scratch as easily as plastic, is generally more durable and also will give the Flip a more premium feel than the two other foldables. 

It remains to be seen if Samsung has addressed all of the Fold's design issues, like the big, noticeable crease on the interior display, or whether the Flip is still dangerously delicate. 

Flip's chance

The Galaxy Z Flip is expected to unfold into a 6.7-inch screen, while the Galaxy Fold has a 4.6-inch display when closed and a separate 7.3-inch display when opened into a tablet. The Razr's exterior Quick View display is 2.7 inches, while the internal screen stretches to 6.2 inches. 

One of the biggest differences is the cost. Samsung is expected to price the Flip at $1,400, nearly $600 less than the Fold and $100 less than the new Razr. 

While the starting price is still high for a smartphone, it's not as extreme as the Fold's and is more in line with the cost of other high-end devices. The iPhone 11 Pro Max, Apple's 6.5-inch device, starts at $1,099 and tops out at $1,449 for 512GB of storage. And a 5G version of Samsung's Note 10 Plus, introduced in August, costs $1,300. 

Foldable phones to flex and bend: Galaxy Fold, Motorola Razr and more

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One possible shortfall of the Flip is the belief it won't come with 5G. Nearly all high-end smartphones launching this year are expected to have the technology, including the Galaxy S20 phones that Samsung is poised to launch Tuesday. The Razr doesn't have 5G, nor did the US model of the Fold. Samsung introduced 5G versions of the Fold only in places like Korea. 

For the Flip, like the Razr, the decision to include only 4G could have to do with the physical size. The modems and antennas required to connect the devices to 5G networks take up more space than 4G versions, and 5G still impacts battery life.

"5G is going to become standard on every premium smartphone, but not everyone will necessarily need or use it right away," Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell said. "Eventually, we'll see foldables with 5G."

The Flip's debut doesn't mean the Fold's design is going away. It's likely Samsung will introduce a refined successor to that device later this year. Its strategy has always been to give buyers plenty of options, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach earlier pushed by Apple. The Fold and Flip could coexist much like Samsung's Galaxy S and Note lines, with one debuting in the spring and the other hitting the market in the fall. 

"They're different," Milanesi said. "And there will be different markets for them."

If the Fold was about showing the world what Samsung could do with foldable displays, the Flip is about making foldables accessible to more people.

"I'm excited to flip the industry on its head," Samsung's Roh said late Saturday in a blog post, likely coyly referring to the new Z Flip.

Now Samsung just has to pull it off.

Originally published Feb. 9.
Updated Feb. 10: Added reference to Samsung's Oscars ad.