Review: The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 breaks the mold but isn't quite the ultimate foldable phone

The display is flexible and amazing, so what's holding this back?
The display is flexible and amazing, so what's holding this back? Photo credit: Newshub

Foldable phones have, thus far, struggled to break into the mainstream and appear to be a niche product still looking for an audience.

But their popularity is undeniably on the rise.

Samsung is hoping its new Galaxy Z Fold3 will finally gain the momentum that will have gadget freaks and everyday consumers alike unfolding for fun.

Building on last year's Fold2, the electronics giant has introduced an under-display camera for the first time and there's even been a hefty $700 price reduction over the 2020 model.

So, is it time for foldable screen phones to take over the world? Or does the reduced - but still premium price - make this a lavish luxury?

I've been using the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 for a couple of weeks and here are my thoughts.

The good

There's only one place to start with the Fold3 and that's with the amazing, unique screen that makes this stand out against every other mobile phone on the market.

It's simply stunning. Having never used a foldable phone before I was worried that the mere act of opening it up would have me concerned about the durability, but everything about it makes it feel solid and safe. There is no flimsiness here.

Then I worried that the fold itself would distract me while trying to watch movies or play games on the screen. Again, completely unfounded, as it just faded into the background.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3
Photo credit: Newshub

The colours on the 7.6-inch, 2208 x 1768 resolution, 120Hz adaptable refresh rate screen were bright, saturated and beautiful and watching was a pleasure. The overall experience was aided by the dual speakers on either side of the screen, adding quality audio to the visual extravaganza.

And it's fast. As it should be, of course, with the 12GB RAM onboard and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip powering it - but I was still glad for the lack of lag and the overall responsiveness of the device. 

That helps with the multitasking capabilities offered by the bigger display, even if I didn't use them all that much. I guess I prefer to focus on one thing at a time.

I was intrigued by the under-display camera on the main screen. Pixels are applied on top of the camera, which adapt to what is being displayed to disguise it - and it works, albeit not quite perfectly.

That's fine - it's new technology so it's never going to be flawless, but when you're watching or playing, that adaptive behaviour makes it near invisible to the eye.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3
Photo credit: Newshub

The quality of pictures taken with the camera, however? I'll get to that shortly.

For the first time the Fold is compatible with the S Pen, albeit a new version. Unfortunately the sudden lockdown put a kibosh on getting my hands on one to try out.

Having used an original Note and thoroughly enjoyed the stylus, I suspect it would only serve to make the phone even easier and better to use as a multi-function device.

And, in every other respect, the basics of what you expect a phone to do these days was more than met.

The quality of calling was fine and it worked well with my external wearables, including a Garmin Forerunner, multiple pairs of Bluetooth headphones and one of the new Samsung Galaxy Watch4s.

The battery life was also excellent. Yes, it would drain towards the end of the day when Netflix and Stick Cricket took over my life instead of work - but it wasn't a surprise for me to see the battery sitting at well over 50 percent when I plugged it in at bedtime.

That's especially impressive considering how much more screen this is powering than your usual smartphone.

Add in IPX8 water resistance for the first time, meaning it can withstand up to 30 minutes in a metre and a half of water, and you've got something which ticks a lot of the boxes.

But not quite all...

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3
Photo credit: Newshub

The bad

The front screen, used when the phone is folded or closed, has been upgraded this year to boast a 120Hz adaptable refresh rate display, which makes it very high quality to look at.

Unfortunately, it feels too squished and thin for my liking. It could be that the direct contrast with the lovely big screen is doing it no favours, but I just didn't find it particularly useful.

It also makes it a slightly odd shape for carrying around - the elongated form and slightly heavy overall package was less comfortable than other devices I regularly put in my jean pockets.

As someone who much prefers their phones on the big side, it wasn't too much of an issue, but it's something to bear in mind if size is important to you.

One of the big letdowns for me is the lack of updates to the main cameras on the device. They aren't bad and you can still get great quality shots with little effort. But the specifications weren't that impressive last year, as Newshub noted in our review of the Fold2 at the time.

Morning in Helensville taken with the iPhone 12 Pro (l) and the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 (r)
Morning in Helensville taken with the iPhone 12 Pro (l) and the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 (r) Photo credit: Newshub

"The primary camera of the Galaxy Z Fold2 is a triple camera, each of them 12 MP. A few years ago this would have been amazing, but in 2020 it is not," we wrote at the time.

"If you're forking out this much for a Samsung's most premium phone, surely they could put their most premium camera in it?"

For comparison, the Galaxy S21 Ultra's quad rear camera offers a 108 MP primary lens, 12 MP ultra-wide lens, a 10MP telephoto lens and a 10MP periscope telephoto lens.

For serious photographers that leaves the Fold3 looking a little dated. Maybe that's just the trade-off that's needed for the big reduction in retail price?

And while the technology behind the under-display camera is very nice, there's nothing impressive about the 4MP camera that lurks there. In 2021 it's low quality and I can't see anyone opting to use it for selfies.

It has to improve to take it from being cool to being truly useful.

Yours truly taken with the iPhone 12 Pro (l) and the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 under display camera (r)
Yours truly taken with the iPhone 12 Pro (l) and the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 under display camera (r) Photo credit: Newshub
Yours truly taken with the iPhone 12 Pro (l) and the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 front facing camera (r)
Yours truly taken with the iPhone 12 Pro (l) and the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 front facing camera (r) Photo credit: Newshub

Also with the cameras, I found the facial unlocking to vary wildly under different levels of light. A bright room proved no problem at all, but at dusk or with artificial lighting I often had to resort to fingerprint or PIN unlocking.

One final thing about the phone itself, while I loved the screens, I did find they attracted dust to a surprising level. I used a cleaning cloth more on the Fold3 in a two-week period than I remember doing with any other phone, even over much longer periods.

All that said, the biggest frustrations for me were with the operating system itself: Android 11 with Samsung's One UI 3.1 on top.

Notification indicators for apps were all over the place. I was constantly told I had messages in LinkedIn, Facebook, Messenger and more - yet going into those apps yielded nothing. 

And even something as simple as updating the wallpaper is made more painful than it should be. If the phone is unfolded, changing the wallpaper for the main display and lock screen doesn't change the wallpaper or lock screen for the outside display.

Maybe it's just me, but I want to see that choice replicated. Having to repeat the same process again just seems unwieldy.

Those little annoyances just sort of added up over the couple of weeks I used the device to the point where I wanted just a plain Android installation or to iOS. I think there's work to be done there, for sure, if they want to make it easier for non-Samsung users to migrate.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3
Photo credit: Newshub

The verdict

I have never been so conflicted by any electronic gadget before, never mind a mobile phone. There's not even an easy comparison to make with one of the other phones I've tested recently, given the Fold3's uniqueness.

Kiwis looking for non-standard phones have the Oppo X 2021 to look forward to as Aotearoa's first rollable phone when it's released, along with the Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold; but otherwise, it's pretty much bog-standard rectangles all the way.

On the one hand the software issues combined with the dust-attracting screen and camera tech that was outdated even last year makes $2699 for the 256GB or $2899 for the 512GB version seem almost ridiculous.

On the other hand, that screen is an absolute pleasure to use. There's no better experience outside of a high specification laptop or one of the new iPad Pros for streaming television and movies on the go.

Throw in the great fun of playing games on the unfolded expanse along with the pleasing functionality of typing on the bigger keyboard and suddenly I really want one of these - even if I never make another phone call on it.

If you hesitated last year over the Fold2, then I think there could well be enough here to finally embrace the technology and climb aboard the flexi-screen express.

Overall, however, my suspicion is the Fold3 isn't quite yet the device that's going to break through to the mainstream and become a consumer favourite.

But by God, I'm glad there's a company like Samsung which is willing to push the envelope and try.

Did I mention how awesome the screen is and I want one for keeps? Aarrrghhhh!

Newshub was supplied a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 for this review.