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With Z Fold 3, Z Flip 3, Samsung's doing all the right things. But it may still struggle

The company is dropping the price and stressing the durability of its newest foldables, but consumer appetite may still be lacking.

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Samsung's Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3 arrive in stores Aug. 27. 

Patrick Holland/CNET

Samsung has its newest foldables ready for buyers. Now, it has to see if buyers are actually ready for them. 

The South Korean company unveiled its $1,000 Galaxy Z Flip 3 and $1,800 Galaxy Z Fold 3 on Wednesday during a virtual Unpacked event. Both feature tweaks in materials and design that make them more robust than their predecessors. Both also have prices lower than Samsung's earlier foldables. 

By starting its foldables lineup at $1,000 -- nearly $400 less than last year's original Z Flip and the same price as Apple's iPhone 12 Pro -- Samsung's aiming to make its foldables mainstream. That's particularly true of the Z Flip 3, which CNET's Patrick Holland called a "scene-stealer" and said "might be the first foldable phone aimed at a mass audience that has a chance of living up to such hype." But it may take more than lower prices and sturdier materials to attract customers. 

Read more: CNET's ongoing review of the Galaxy Z Flip 3

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The past year has been tough for the phone market. When the coronavirus pandemic started spreading across the globe, consumers stopped buying smartphones and instead spent their money on laptops, webcams and other work-from-home equipment. Phone sales are now recovering -- partly thanks to new, inexpensive 5G phones -- but consumers may find they're not yet willing to take a risk on a new category of devices, especially when they're not out-and-about to show them off.

This no-win situation underscores a key dilemma for companies looking to create new device categories. Samsung is refining its products and making foldables more accessible, but others (read: Apple) may swoop in once consumers finally settle on getting one. But the market never develops in the first place if companies like Samsung don't take that initial gamble.

"A lot of big products really take several iterations to get right," Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell said. The new Z Flip 3 "is the right price point to get people going and possibly start to make an impact," he said. But even with the improvements, it's still early days for foldables, O'Donnell added. 

Three-year lock-in

The Z Flip 3 is "still very much a premium product," as is the Z Fold 3, Drew Blackard, vice president of mobile product management for Samsung Electronics America, said in an interview ahead of Unpacked. But "Samsung aside, at the market level, [$1,000 is] a volume-driving price point that we're really excited to bring foldable technology to," he said.

One way Samsung is making the devices more approachable is by encouraging customers to sign up for installment plans with carriers that last 36 months, which is longer than previous phone payment programs. The belief is the extended payment plans -- and higher trade-in value for older phones -- will make the devices "much more accessible" to consumers, Blackard said. 

Ultimately, the longer plans mean each monthly payment is lower, for both the Flip and the Fold. 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," Blackard said. That device started at $1,000. 

The longer device payment plans aren't completely out of nowhere. On average, users in the US now hold onto their smartphones for three years. 

But none of Samsung's foldables -- not even the first, problematic Galaxy Fold, which hit the market in late 2020 -- have actually been on sale for three years, so it's difficult to know how those devices will hold up over a long time period. Will the batteries still work by then? If not, how difficult and expensive will they be to replace? Will the crease in the display become so noticeable, the foldable becomes a pain to use? What other problems could pop up by then? Those answers aren't yet clear, and they're not all addressed by the Samsung Care Plus warranty plan.

Still, reviewers and analysts largely applauded Samsung's revisions in its new devices, especially the addition of water resistance and the Z Flip 3's price cut. 

"The Flip is a much easier sell," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. Making the entry price close to the Galaxy S21 lineup could make it appeal to consumers who are "wanting to be different," she said.

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Falling flagship prices

The $1,000 price tag puts the Z Flip 3 in line with flagship phones, although prices for top-tier devices have been coming down. The base phone in Samsung's Galaxy S21 lineup now starts at $800, a $200 cut from last year's S20 series. And Apple's iPhone 12 lineup from a year ago came with two less expensive models, the $700 iPhone 12 Mini and $829 iPhone 12. CNET's Holland said the iPhone 12 and the pricier, $1,000 iPhone 12 Pro are "basically-the-same-phone similar," and for many consumers, the lower priced device is the way to go. 

Still, analysts expect growth in the new foldables category. Samsung's 2021 foldable sales will more than double last year's tally. In 2020, the first year with both a Fold and Flip in its lineup, Samsung sold about 2 million foldables around the world, according to Strategy Analytics. This year, Samsung should sell about 5.2 million foldables, the research firm said. Even though sales should see a big jump, foldables will still be a tiny fraction of the overall smartphone market. Globally, vendors should sell 1.35 billion smartphones this year, Strategy Analytics said. 

It's not until Apple introduces its first foldables, possibly in the second half of 2023, that the devices start selling in higher numbers, Strategy Analytics analyst Ken Hyers said. Almost immediately, Apple will capture a big chunk of the market, despite the Samsung's head start, Hyers said. His firm expects about 15 million foldables to be sold around the world in 2023 and more than double that amount the following year. In 2026, the number of foldables sold across the globe should hit nearly 170 million, Strategy Analytics said. 

"That is the power of Apple," Hyers said. It "can immediately, with a new tech, a new device, take over that market in a really significant way." 

For now, Samsung will hope its Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3 improvements are enough to get that mainstream push started -- and that it can maintain a lead in a market that it essentially built.