Monday 19 September 2022

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3 (a year late)!

I'm always keen to look at the latest technology, especially in the smartphone world, but more often than not these days, I'm priced out of the market and rely on PR firms loaning devices or even people lending me theirs to review.

Which is just what's happened here with last year's Samsung Flip model. Thanks to Mark McAneny for sending it over for me to look at. Thanks goes too Steve Litchfield and others for chipping in and to Ben Wood of the Mobile Phones Museum for having long-term loaned me an original generation Microsoft Surface Duo, these two making the only pair of folding phones I've ever had hands-on with. These two are very different devices, of course, aimed at very different users, but it does at least give me some sort of comparison point to consider the world of folding phones.

I used to have 'flip' phones back in the old 'dumbphone' days - the Motorola Razr for example - but also a few Symbian (smartphone) powered Nokia devices too (N76 comes to mind) - and even KaiOS ones now, going back to dumb! It's something that had, until recently, simply gone away in the smartphone market. Anything with moving parts, it seems, fell out of favour with OEMs trying to minimise production and repair costs, presumably. I still think people wanted them, however - as is now being proved. There's nothing quite like being able to flip your phone closed to cut off your caller at the end of a call.

We've now got so used to the 'candybar' form factor as we expect all our apps and services to fit that mould. The trick, then, was to get to the point where that exact 'candybar' design could be retained, but also folded in half - whether sideways or longways. We all know that various OEMs have been producing 'fold' devices which open 'longways' (so the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold series, for example) but here, we're talking about folding the other way. Sideways. Flip. But it has to be good. It has to be as good as any 'fixed candybar' phone when open, same as the 'fold'. The 'crease' in the screen can't get in the way of using the phone.

Folding or flipping phones are different from those in the past (and to the Surface Duo) in that they are now actually folding the screen (and not made up of two panels). We've had to wait for the technology around this key feature to become good enough to use - and will last the expected length of the life of the phone in use. This Flip3 is last year's model, as I say, but Samsung are confidently claiming to update it with software going forward for a long stretch. Of course, software support isn't the same as hardware - which here, has the usual warranty period for any other phone. Technology will eventually crack this and make it great! Point being, it's all very well to have updates for long periods into the future, but if the screen is knackered in 2 or 3 years time, you're on your own in stumping up for repairs.

First impressions out the box are a big WOW! It really is impressive to see the technology and hold it in one's hand. Unfolded it's a big phone with a 6.7" plastic panel with a factory-fitted screen protector on the front. It feels plasticky too. Normally, the first thing I do when I get a new phone is rip that off - but Samsung say not to. Unlike other phones which have glass underneath (to then take your chances with) there's just more plastic directly underneath this one. If you're going to scratch the screen, do it on the cover, not on what's underneath - which will be much more expensive and difficult to replace, is what they're saying. It seems to be a woolly area in terms of warranty as they are not saying categorically not to take it off, but that resulting damage won't be covered if you do. I think!

Anyway, it's nothing like glass. It's not as responsive, even with the setting thrown to make it more so. You can see the surface 'press in' when you touch it hard, much like 'resistive' screens from 15 years ago. It seems that, for now at least, you can't really 'fold' glass. So, folding the device in half leaves you with a 'crease' down the middle. When you run your finger over it, you can feel the 'lump'. Every time. If the screen is bright/white you can see it. All the time. If the screen is dark, not so much - but even then, depending on ambient light. Take the phone outside or use it under bright indoor light and you can see it all the time.

Maybe I'm being a bit hard on the screen (and not so much with a finger)! It is still very touch-responsive - it's just that ordinary glass is better and we have got used to how that works and how it is. It's not like you have to press hard to register a tap, nothing  like that, it just isn't the same as glass. That's all. People will have to try it for themselves to decide. So that's the payoff here anyway until technology moves forward - and the question is about how much that will annoy the user over the benefits of having a folding device.

The phone is very slim, 6.9mm when open but the user can't really enjoy that too much as it's all made of slippery, shiny metal - so in practice, you really need to case it. Cases tend to come in two halves, one for top, one for bottom, with some having a hinge-protecting 'ribbon' between. Skinning is an option and much thanks goes to XtremeSkins in the UK for sending over a number of sample skins. Some are more 'grippy' than others, some are more pretty than others, but the White Waveform option, I find to be the most 'grippy' and helpful for those who want to take the risk. The skins are about a tenner each.

As usual with phones which are gorgeous in the hand, it seems a bit of a shame to case them. The metal feels cold, premium and delightful. Perhaps some insurance, then! When folded up, it is slightly 'wedge' shaped - the two 'ends' come together, but the 'fold' can't get flat. Samsung have taken the decision to not keep the 'ends' apart from each other as it would let even more dust in than the way they've done it. (The advantage of the Microsoft Surface Duo is that it closes flat on itself, neatly tucked away.) It's a very slight gap, but it's there and ready for pocket-debris. Most of the cases I have tried get away from this and tend to 'close the gap'.

The hinge on the outside feels solid and as well made as the rest of the phone - it really is a delight to hold. You can stand the folded phone on its end (opposite end to the hinge) and it balances (just about) to face you. However, if you even slightly open the fold to try and sit it in front of you in 'tent' mode, the cover display extinguishes and the inside display activates. This is a shame as I'd use it in 'tent' mode a lot if it stayed on.

On the 'front' of the folded phone we have a 1.9" Gorilla Glass Victus protected Super AMOLED Cover Display, two circular camera lenses and an LED lamp/flash. There's a setting which can be thrown to force the LED lamp to shine on Notifications, which is just fabulous! I use that all the time (except during DND) and you don't miss a thing! The time, day, date and battery can be set to stay on all the time on the cover screen or when moved, lifted, tapped or whatever you want really. I have it on all the time and don't see any hit in my tests here on battery over it not being so. I guess there must be a hit of some sort, but it clearly isn't significant. I'll come to battery later though!

One UI 4.1.1. arrived this week with some enhancements to the options for the cover display. You can choose what it displays on the 'panels' as you swipe left and right. Swipe right to see notifications, some you can give 'canned' replies to but mostly it prompts you to open the phone to continue. Scroll up/down to see them all. Back on the 'home' cover screen, you can swipe down to get to some quick toggles - for WiFi, Sound, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, Torch and Brightness. Swiping left you can pick'n'mix what panels you want included from Weather, Music Playing controls, Month-to-view Calendar, Quick Dial for 3 Contacts, Timer, Alarms, Schedule and Galaxy Buds control. These can all be rearranged for position relative to each other.

The 260 x 512 cover screen is really very useful, you can also control the specific brightness independent of the inside screen. It's true that to do most useful things you need to open the phone, but you can also take on-the-fly decisions about whether or not you want to do so, or deal with stuff later if it's not urgent. You can control phone calls from the outside, too, making (via the quick-call) or answering via swipes and hanging up, the same. I'm sure that I've missed some of it too, but knowing Samsung they will continue to roll in more features going forward.

When closed, the volume-rocker (which is on the right-side of the half nearest you) switches the up/down around smartly, so whether the phone is open or closed, up is up and down, down. The capacitive long-pill fingerprint scanner/power button is above it (so below it when open) and works perfectly of course. First time, every time. What joy. On the other side there's a SIM Card Tray with pokey-hole and a tool in the box to open it. Incidentally, the box is minimalist. No power-brick and just a USB-C to USB-C cable.

Apart from various microphones around the edges, there's a USB-C port for data/power on the bottom, next to one of the two stereo speakers, the second being above the screen, front-facing when open - and inward-facing when closed. This doesn't seem to have any impact on the sound, however. It feels like the phone is heavy in the hand but it's clearly deceptive as it's only 183g in weight - which some would consider light. Open it up, and it suddenly doesn't feel so heavy. I guess that the weight is simply more concentrated in a smaller bulk when closed, so tricks the brain!

When the phone is open, it's a little bit taller, but a little less wide than the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE which I have here for comparison, but of course, significantly thinner. So yes, it's a big phone when open. The Armour Aluminium frame apparently is built with tough drop and scratch resistance, so maybe those taking the chance with no case would be OK after all! The phone has IPX8 water resistance, but significantly no guarantee against dust. They're not daft! Because dust may well get in, even though I can't actually see a 'gap' across the hinge mechanism (like you could on the first generation Motorola Razr) and certainly with a plastic screen it's likely to scratch up with pocket debris. By the nature of how the phone is, it is likely to be closed up a lot of the time, so only time will tell about the impact of this.

One handed use with any 'tall' phone is tricky but Samsung provide a very good one-handed mode, which shrinks the screen into either corner by a quick swipe down on the navigation gesture hint-bar. The panel can also be resized with no limitations - just drag the corner. Opening the flipped phone with one hand is tricky too, but with practice it can be done. Closing it down is easier of course, handy at the end of a phone call to cut the line. Those going without a case will find opening it with one hand even trickier, just because it's so slippery. I still find it harder work to try and open with one hand after 3 weeks, so just use two!

Laying aside the previous whine about the screen being plastic and not as responsive as glass, they have in many ways done wonders to make the screen a 1080p Dynamic AMOLED 2X with a 120Hz refresh rate returning a ppi of 426. It's bright and colourful to look at, sat next to the S20FE it actually looks brighter (on full manual brightness). Those deep blacks are still present and, of course, lots of tweaks available in Settings to adjust what is seen. The auto-controlled brightness is capable of 1200nits and testing here today in overcast UK conditions, I can use it perfectly well outside.

There are very small bezels around the panel - again, a marvel of engineering really. There's a central punch-hole selfie camera at the top of the screen, but as usual (with me at least) one doesn't see it after a while of using the phone. The Always on Display is brilliant, as usual with Samsung, and the Face Unlock works perfectly too, supporting the fingerprint scanner when needed.

I won't drill down into One UI too much as I've done it so many times before. It can't be denied that the Samsung skin, love it or hate it, is jam-packed full of options, tweaks, settings, adjustments, controls and personalisation opportunities like no other system. It's incredibly well thought out with oodles and oodles of fun and functionality improvements which can be made. And that's before you start with the likes of Good Lock, theming, third-party Samsung developers and more. It's a veritable playground.

One or two random examples are the control of the Status Bar, Navigation controls, keyboard, clock faces and the aforementioned control of the torch. There's sound assistant to control the audio, deep screenshots control, notification adjustments beyond the standard, Routines to tinker with and if you fancy delving into it, Bixby! It's great to see the Google Discover feed as an option on the left of the home screen, incidentally. This is the first Samsung I've had which has this and it's a great move by the firm.

Not all is good, however, as for some reason Samsung have excluded HDMI-Out support and provide no access to DeX. I've no idea why they might have left this out and it's not something that can be fixed in updates because of the USB-C port specification. Still, Smart View is present for hooking up to a TV to get content out to a bigger screen and there's always Microsoft's Phone Link for those of us who want to use a PC in conjunction (though not a patch on Dex).

Talking of USB-C ports, that's the way to copy data in and out without using the cloud of some sort as there's no microSD card slot here - and it seems to be the trend going forward. I used to kick and scream against this trend, but I'm beginning to see the logic. With cloud so readily available, storage going up as baseline and connectivity becoming better, I do find that when switching phones these days I often forget to put a card in, even if I can! The days of 64GB storage on devices as standard (or best) was when microSD was more useful for me, personally. And this phone does indeed have good storage. There are two - 128GB or 256GB, both with 8GB RAM (which seems plenty in tests here). I can live with 128GB if needed (and access to a PC and/or USB-C card-reader), so I'm OK with this 256GB. It also makes it arguably more straight-forward for OEMs to streamline timely and longer update periods.

The SnapDragon 888 (5nm) is driving the show here and I've experienced no slow-down even when testing with various games. My test games tend to be car-racing ones rather than 'serious' gamers' titles, so pushing it hard may give different results. This year's Z Flip4 got the 8+ Gen 1 (4nm) but given that I see no issues with the 888, I'm not sure it was needed. Talking of which, comparing the 3 with the 4, it looks very much like an evolutionary upgrade and the impression I get is that anyone who already has the 3 would be nuts to shell out another grand to 'upgrade'. But I haven't used one, so just going on specs.

The battery supplied with the Flip4 is bigger than the Flip3 by 400mAh. So an increase from 3,300 to 3,700. I'm not sure that this will make a huge difference, day-to-day. The battery performance is not great and I don't see that slight increase making a big difference. The saving grace is that the phones have Qi Wireless charging. Depending on a person's lifestyle, having Qi chargers dotted around the place may or may not work. For someone out and about sightseeing or attending business meetings, jumping on planes and trains, they would need some backup arrangements in place. Carry a powerbank or be sure that there is power where you go.

To make it worse, there's no fast charging either. We're used to seeing faster charging these days and this would have made a big difference here. 15W charging by cable is just poor. And slow. It's been upped to 25W for the Flip4, but it's still not enough. Now, I am fairly static in my lifestyle, so I can just have Qi chargers dotted around the place to top-up whenever I'm not moving around, but on tests here (not doing that) there's no way I'd get to bedtime in a 16 hour day if I used my phone within my usual pattern.

Of course, everyone uses a phone differently, but if I was considered a 'light' user (outside of phone reviews) then even a 'medium' user would struggle. let alone 'heavy'. I guess there's only so much Samsung could do to keep the phone slim enough to sensibly fold (and make it too much of a chunky brick). Reverse wireless is present, incidentally, should you dare to offer any of your precious charge to anyone/anything else! For the record, my 10% Reading Test returned 1 hour and 15 minutes, which is not great (much like the Samsung Galaxy S10) 

One of the specific features related to the phone's design is the Flex Screen mode. This is a feature which is available in 'Labs' on the phone, so kind of Beta I suppose, but seems to work well. You can select individual applications to automatically split their UI between the different halves of the screen when you fold the phone into 'laptop' mode - so 'L-shaped' sat facing you on a desk. Different apps put different UI elements on each half, but typically, you'd get controls or keyboard on the 'flat' with the content facing you. Works really well and I've not caught any app not playing ball with this, so I guess it'll soon be out of Labs. Some apps are built to just work with this, such as YouTube.

The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3 arrived with Android 11 last year. Incidentally, it was just updated to 12L (though it can't really benefit hugely from the 'tablet' enhancements to that like the Duo will and Fold does) and is currently on September 2022 Google Security - so bang up to date. They have promised that this phone will indeed be a part of the new wave of Samsung support, being 4 OS updates, taking it to Android 15 in autumn 2024. This makes it 'good' for use with the latest software up to autumn 2025 (when Google roll out Android 16) and presumably then quarterly Security Updates to autumn 2026. Whether the screen fold lasts that long is another matter! They say it's been tested for 200,000 activations. Autumn 2021 to autumn 2025 is, let's say, c.1,300 days. That works out at 153 folds per day. In a 16 hour day then, that's c.10 fold per hour. Sounds good to me!

Talking of sound, the stereo speakers do seem to do a decent enough job. Unlike the majority of phones I test with a stereo setup including the earpiece speaker, the earpiece speaker seems to be the one pushing out more of the low-end frequencies. Usually it's the other way round. Anyway, there's clearly limited space here with such a thin chassis and the sound is not as good as I had hoped. It's OK and will be absolutely fine for most people, but on the test bench here against the Motorola Edge+ (2020), Sony Xperia 5ii and even S20FE it doesn't keep up. Dolby can be switched on (system-wide) to adjust and tweak in the usual way and can make a difference - but you can't defy physics! But reader beware - I'm nit-picking and it's decently loud and good enough quality for general use in a bedroom, office or lounge - just not for a party! Bluetooth 5.1 works extremely well for audio, as we'd expect. We have 32-bit audio tuned by AKG here and it's loud and good quality. There's no 3.5mm audio-out so you need to find a dongle, adapter or USB-C head/earphones to go the wired route.

The two camera lenses I mentioned earlier facing the front when the phone is closed, obviously face outwards from the rear-top when the phone is open, so in the usual kind of place for a candybar smartphone. There's two 12MP units, one f1.8 with OIS and the other, a wide-angle, f2.2. The Selfie (inside the phone - all very complicated) is a 10MP f2.4 unit (and is obviously out of action if the phone is closed! When the phone is closed, going back to the cover screen, the power button (by default) can be pressed twice to get the main camera looking at you. You can then swipe down (on the cover screen) to change it to the other lens, giving a wide view. Swipe left and right to switch between Photo, Portrait and Video and double-tap to switch between portrait and landscape orientation for your photos. Then you can press either of the volume buttons (or wave at it if you throw the switch in settings) to take a photo/shoot a video. Good use of the outside cover screen.

If you open the phone into Flex mode (laptop mode to me!) you can point the Selfie camera at yourself to shoot a selfie, video or indeed use Zoom or Meet for a FaceTime-type video chat/share. Tap the turnaround button to switch to the outside camera, sit the phone in laptop mode and you have a perfect 'tripod' to take photos or videos. Some of the benefits of the form-factor and smart Samsung software really do make the most of opportunities when using the camera which you simply couldn't do with a candybar phone. All good stuff.

There's nothing particularly standout to talk about otherwise with the camera. No exciting zooms, 200MP sensors or periscopes. The usual plethora of Samsung modes and software are present though to tweak and play with, which we've covered before mostly. If you want a drill-down with samples, verdict and test bench analysis, I suggest heading over to GSMArena via this direct link who do just this and give you the lowdown.

Connectivity is good on all counts with GPS locking quickly and hanging on, phone call quality is excellent in my tests over the last three weeks, bluetooth range seems good enough without any dropped connection, WiFi seems solid enough tested on a few routers and cellular data seems fine as well, which I use via a 4G Router all the time at home. NFC works fine, tested with other equipment to hook up and also at Tesco to use Google Pay. Yes, all seems good.

The summary is mostly about the form of the device of course. I get the feeling that it's likely to be a big love/hate thing for most people. A Marmite moment. People who will wow at the technology, people who remember and love the flip-phone from the old days, so for nostalgic reasons, people who just won't be able to live with the crease in the screen or, like me, just don't like the feel of it not being the smooth glass we've got used to. There will be those like me who like the 'closed down' capability, so as not to be disturbed at times, those who will like and hate the feel of the phone in their pocket and those who will see that all of this is just a big compromise on different levels.

These devices are not cheap (even second-hand, a year later) so people must be sure that they want this, being far from perfect. You can buy a non-folding Samsung with more functionality and less compromises (like no DeX, for example) for significantly less money and certainly speakers and cameras with many more features and capability. I've really enjoyed my time with the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3. It's very different to the Microsoft Surface Duo, in that it can be taken seriously as a phone too. There's loads of good stuff in Samsung phones to tweak, optimise and focus one's experience and they've now got onboard with very long support and update windows. I am, for now, happy to go on using the phone as my primary, still enjoying the great fun-factor and UX.

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