This story was originally published 2021/08/30
6:00am PDTon Aug 30, 2021 and last updated 2021/09/04
8:00am PDTon Sep 4, 2021.
When I started reviewing smartphones, there was always something new happening. There were physical keyboards, tablet docks, sliders, flippers, and every hinge conformation you could imagine. Then, everyone settled on the flat glass slab, because let’s face it, most of those ideas were terrible. You know what’s not terrible? Foldables. I know, I was surprised, too.
Samsung’s ever-evolving foldables give me hope that the future of mobile will be more than a sea of the same boring old form factor. The Galaxy Z Fold3 comes perilously close to being ready for prime time, having received numerous improvements over last year’s Fold. It’s still very expensive and heavy, but the more I use it, the more I’m convinced this is the future. It might not be a future most people are ready to jump into with both feet, but for some of you reading this, the Z Fold3 is absolutely the phone to buy.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
If you’ve seen one of Samsung’s previous Fold devices, you’ll get the gist here. When closed, the Z Fold3 looks like two phones glued together. When I first held the Fold3, I would have wagered heavily that it was at least a few millimeters thinner than the Fold2 when closed. I would have lost that bet, though. It’s only 0.8mm thinner, which is basically nothing. What makes it feel sleeker in the hand is that it tapers less. The Fold2 was 3mm thicker at the hinge end than it was on the side with the buttons, contributing to its awkward heft. The Fold3 varies only by 1.6mm—that’s still not a huge amount, but it’s made all the difference when you add in the 0.8mm thinner body. It’s much more comfortable to use folded than the last-gen phone. Still, none of that mitigates the sheer mass of the phone. Clocking in at 271g, the Z Fold3 is no lightweight. If you need a device that fits in a small bag or pocket without bulging, this is not it.
But you don’t want to use this phone folded, even though the cover display has been upgraded to 120Hz. Unfold the device, and you have a big, beautiful 7.6-inch OLED with vastly improved durability compared to last year’s phone. Both screens use Samsung’s latest OLED technology, so they have superb brightness ranges. Whether you’re using the Fold3 in a dark room or direct sunlight, it’ll look as good or better than any other phone. It also feels more like a tablet when it’s open rather than a big phone pretending to be one.
I’ve been stabbing the screen with the S Pen, and it still looks pristine
The foldable OLED still consists of multiple layers, including a semi-replaceable screen protector. That top layer has been strengthened considerably with the use of PET plastic, so it’s no longer softer than your fingernails (I think it might repel fingerprints better, too, but the jury’s still out). The added strength means you can use Samsung’s new S Pen stylus with it. The S Pen’s tip retracts to protect the screen, but it takes more force than I expected to depress it—probably on the order of a few pounds. I’ve been stabbing the screen with the S Pen, and it still looks pristine. This makes me feel much more confident that the Fold3 will survive daily usage, and it’s the same story with water resistance. Samsung found a way to seal all the internal components, so even if water gets into the hinge assembly, it can’t hurt anything. I used the Fold3 in a rainstorm, and it’s still ticking.
I’m pressing reasonably hard on the screen here.
There is one thing about the S Pen that annoys me, and it’s not the Pen’s fault. It’s the crease. This is an unfortunate reality of most foldable devices right now, but the crease has not been a problem for me in the past—it’s one of those things you stop noticing after a while. However, you can feel the dip when the S Pen glides across the middle of the screen. It doesn’t affect the functionality, but it feels weird and throws me off while I’m writing. It’s a minor drawback compared to non-folding S Pen devices like the Notes and Tab S.
I’ve already had some things to say about the Fold3’s under-display camera (UDC), and my opinion mostly hasn’t changed. I still notice the pixelated area of the screen where the camera sits, and I’d say it’s more distracting than a hole-punch camera. On light backgrounds, it stands out quite clearly. If you use dark mode all the time, you probably won’t notice the UDC as often. With a dark, patterned background, the camera can disappear almost entirely. One upshot of the UDC is that you don’t have a black bar on that edge when watching video. Unless you stare right at the camera, you should have a more immersive experience watching full-screen content on the Fold3.
The Fold3 has to relocate the indicators when you pin the Edge bar (bottom) so they don’t appear on the UDC portion of the screen.
I am obsessed with the hinge mechanism on this phone. It’s a small thing and hardly a real selling point, but the hardware feels so refined and “premium” when you open (and especially) close it. The firm “thwack” when the magnets come together is so satisfying. I find myself idly opening and closing the phone at my desk, which is probably not great for longevity. Still, I did the same with my Z Fold2 over the past year, and it survived. I expect the Fold3 to be at least as durable.
The non-hinge edge of the phone has the power button and volume rocker. There’s a fingerprint sensor in the power button, just like last year. It would be nice to see an in-display option, but there are two displays. At least this design is consistent—you touch the same spot to unlock the phone regardless of whether it’s open or closed. The sensor is fast and accurate enough, but it’s a bit finicky adding fingerprints on your left hand because the phone has to be unfolded to register them. There’s also a rather large plastic inlay above the volume rocker, which is there to aid millimeter-wave reception. Last year’s Fold had a tapered frame and a bit of extra glass in that corner for the same purpose, and I think that looked better. The window is an eyesore but a mild one. At the same time, this is a $1,800 phone. Even minor aesthetic complaints matter.
The Z fold2 (bronze) vs. the Z Fold3 (black)
Spending $1,800 on a phone, you’d probably expect that it comes with everything you need. Sadly, no. You don’t get a charger with the Galaxy Z Fold3. I understand the arguments for not including one, but at this price, Samsung should not skimp on the included accessories in any way. You just get a USB-C-to-C cable, the usual bundle of manuals, and a pre-installed screen protector on the cover display. I took mine off.
Software, performance, and battery
The Galaxy Fold3 runs Android 11 with Samsung’s latest One UI 3.1.1 interface. In years past, Samsung’s version of Android was a pain, but it’s improved to the point that it’s no longer a deal-breaker for me. I’d even say One UI is good in some ways, particularly when it comes to multi-app management on foldables. While the Z Fold3’s hardware is excellent and a meaningful improvement over the Fold2, it’s the software that really makes it feel like the future.
The windowing system has gotten a fresh coat of paint with the rounded app “cards” now slotting into a gray background. There’s also a new rotate button in the control bar, which lets you spin the apps clockwise to control which one is in which location (see above). The old ‘split’ button only went between horizontal and vertical. You can also drag apps around to rearrange them and move the dividers to change the size.
Samsung has not improved the way you save app combos, though. With a saved combo in your Edge panel, you can open all the apps at once in split-screen mode—it’s very handy. You might expect you could create these combos in the app panel settings, but no. You have to build the layout, and then you can save it from the multitasking controls. You can see the button next to ‘rotate’ in the video. An important feature like this should be front and center.
Last year, Samsung’s foldable multitasking felt a bit incomplete until I added Good Lock. Now, some of those experimental options have moved into the new Labs section of the Fold3’s settings. Being able to force multi-window support and custom aspect ratios for all apps is a lifesaver, and that’s not all. Samsung has added some entirely new goodies in Labs, like the ability to pin the Edge panel so it works like a Windows taskbar. I don’t know if I’d use this all the time, but I could see some people going crazy over it. I would like to see even more of Samsung’s experimental settings come to Labs. After all, this phone exists to be a showcase of foldable tech. The rest of the device settings, well, they’re already pretty bulky. Even though Samsung’s software has gotten cleaner and faster over the years, the settings still feel convoluted. I often have to check two or three sub-menus before I find what I’m looking for.
Flex mode (left) and multi-window (right) are big parts of the foldable experience.
Powered by the Snapdragon 888, the Z Fold3 is as fast as any Android device you can buy. Even when running multiple apps in parallel, it rarely stumbles. I was able to get some stutters while swapping between four apps and recording the screen, which isn’t even remotely possible on most phones.
This phone has 12GB of RAM, but does it do you any good? Samsung has a reputation for killing background processes—it’s still rated poorly on Don’t Kill My App. The phone seems to close background apps somewhat more aggressively than it probably needs to with 12GB of RAM, but nothing recent gets booted. It just doesn’t behave much differently than a phone with 8GB of RAM.
We’re still stuck with 25W charging here, which is the same as Samsung’s Galaxy A52, a phone so cheap you could buy four and a quarter of them for the price of a Z Fold3.
The flip side of the powerful SoC is the battery life. The 888 has not been the most efficient chip in my experience, and this phone’s battery life suffers for it. Because of the folding design, Samsung was only able to cram in 4,400mAh of capacity—600 less than the Galaxy S21 Ultra and 100 less than last year’s Fold. The battery life is just this side of okay. It will last you a day, but only just, and you’ll probably experience some range anxiety if you end up using it more than usual.
It’s hard to translate my usage into general guidelines—there are two displays, and they use very different amounts of power. Samsung says that over the long haul, people use cover displays as much as they do internal ones, but I believe I use the larger folding OLED much more than I do the cover display. I can pull around seven hours of screen time total in a day. The phone isn’t dead when I drop it on the charger, but it’s getting down there.
Samsung’s default keyboard isn’t my favorite, but the split layout is great.
I’m not crazy about the battery life, but that shortcoming would sting less if the Z Fold3 charged faster. We’re still stuck with 25W charging here, which is the same as Samsung’s Galaxy A52, a phone so cheap you could buy four and a quarter of them for the price of a Z Fold3. Samsung has always lagged behind the Android competition when it comes to charging speed, but it’s harder to overlook when a phone costs this much.
The Galaxy Z Fold3 gets essentially the same camera setup as last year’s phone. There are three sensors, all 12MP resolution. Despite the low resolution, the hardware is high-quality with wide apertures, big pixels, and OIS on the main and 2x telephoto. There’s also an ultrawide sensor with a 123-degree FOV. It’s great that Samsung didn’t dump any space-wasting macro or depth sensors into this phone. All of these cameras are useful, but you won’t be able to do 8K video because there’s no super-high-resolution sensor on board. The 2x telephoto is also on the anemic side—I’d really like to see something with a bit more reach.
The Z Fold3 might not have the impressive hardware from the S21 Ultra, but I understand why. There isn’t a lot of room in a foldable for enormous periscope assemblies and 108MP sensors. The photos are better than you might expect, given the resolution. A lot of cheaper phones are pushing the megapixel count, but the sensors just aren’t very good. The Z Fold3 images are sharp, bright, and vibrant. Maybe a little too vibrant, actually. Samsung likes to pump up the colors, which makes photos look nice, if not entirely realistic. Dynamic range is above average among the top Android OEMs (note how the stadium lights don’t overwhelm the pics above), and the processing is also a bit less heavy-handed than it was a few years ago, so you shouldn’t lose as much fine detail.
Selfies from left to right: Cover 10MP, UDC 4MP, rear 12MP
There are two selfie cameras on this phone, a 10MP on the cover screen and a 4MP under-display camera. Results on the former are fine, but the 4MP UDC is ugly. Images are hazy, take too long to capture, and end up looking ridiculously over-sharpened. It’s acceptable for video chat but not for taking selfies. If you’re going to do that, you might as well use the rear-facing cameras. You can enable cover previews in the camera UI and then flip the phone around to take your pic. The results when doing this are much better than you can get with either front-facing cam, but it is more difficult to hold the phone.
Should you buy it?
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3
This is the first foldable that I can wholeheartedly recommend… just not to everyone.
We’ve now seen three generations of foldables from Samsung, and the rate of improvement has been impressive. With the more durable design and refined software features, the Fold3 is very close to being a mainstream device. In all honesty, you had to be a special kind of Samsung fan to buy the first Fold, and the Fold2 was really just for people obsessed with bleeding-edge tech. With the third iteration, I think a lot of people who consider themselves technology enthusiasts and early adopters should seriously consider buying the Fold3. The main drawbacks are the bulk and cost, and you could say the same of high-end non-foldables like the Mi11 Ultra and S21 Ultra.
So who is this person, this smartphone enthusiast who should actually consider spending up to $1,800 on a foldable? Well, if you read aaaaaaaaall the way down to this sentence, you just read several thousand words about a phone. You might be that person. The good news is that you don’t have to spend a whole $1,800. Samsung offers pretty good trade-in values, even after the pre-order bonanza. You can easily get the cost down closer to a thousand, which is increasingly standard for a high-end smartphone.
I’m putting my money where my mouth is, too. Last year, I bought a Z Fold2, and I have pre-ordered a Galaxy Z Fold3 to be “my phone” for the next year. If you’re like me and want to have the most phone possible in your pocket, this is it.
Buy it if…
- You (still) want to have the most phone possible in your pocket
- You don’t mind charging frequently if it means you can multitask like a boss
Don’t buy it if…
- You refuse to spend $1000 or more on a smartphone
- You won’t use the Z Fold3’s advanced features