Hands-On: The Samsung Galaxy Fold is my new problematic fave

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

Whenever someone has asked me about the Galaxy Fold in the last six months, my short answer was always no. 

"You probably shouldn't run out and pre-order it." 

It's cool, it's different and it's exciting. However, the Fold is also freakishly expensive in a way that even Apple can't compete on. Later versions of this product are almost certainly going to be better, cheaper and - while Samsung have adopted a more durable design than what they almost launched with in April - nobody really knows what the real-world durability of this product is until it's out in the wild. 

When we asked whether the reworked Fold was durable enough able to be taken to the beach, the Samsung representative we spoke to wasn't exactly thrilled by the idea. That might sound like a weird example but would you buy a phone that you can't take with you to the beach? 

Samsung's first foldable is real but the idea that the mass market is ready to embrace a smartphone that costs close to double what today's flagships cost and might be more prone to failure isn't realistic. It might come bundled with a set of Galaxy Buds and an aramid case but US$1980 is still an astronomical amount of money to spend on single piece of tech. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

What's more, based on our brief hands-on with it, I can't shake the feeling that the Fold 1.5 is full of caveats and compromises. Even putting the price to the side, the world's first mainstream foldable phone is far from perfect. 

Walking out of my session with the Galaxy Fold, I had a list of a dozen or so things that really bugged me about it. Things that, if I found them in another smartphone, would definitely cost it marks. Yet, I can't say that any of (or the sum total of) these smaller issues and concerns is big enough to be considered a deal-breaker. 

Placed on the scales and weighed up against the things that Galaxy Fold does well, the math doesn't come close to breaking even. The overall and moment-to-moment experience you get from handling, opening, closing and using the Galaxy Fold feels worth it. 

This thing is my new problematic fave. 

If you want to talk specs for the Fold, you can find them here, here and here. The thing I want to talk about is what it felt to actually and finally go hands-on with this device. And, if you want the short version, it felt really good.

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

Even that simple act of folding the device in your hands is incredibly satisfying. There's something like a credible click as the edges of the Galaxy Fold snap together. I must have spent at least ten minutes of my sit-down with this device opening and closing rapidly like a mad-person. 

Directly compared against the version of Huawei's Mate X we saw back at MWC, the Fold comes across as much more prepared for life beyond the tradeshow floor. And the rectangular form-factor of the folded Fold has a weird sort of charm to it. 

2-in-1

Packed away in your pocket, it honestly doesn't feel that different to a regular phone. Yes, it's not as thin or light as some of today's flagships but, again, the things that the Fold does are so distinct and compelling that these rough edges don't feel like they matter as much as they should. 

The thing you get here that you can't anywhere else (at least for now) is a big-and-small phone. 

You get a single device that can offer you fast and easy access to things like checking notifications, answering texts, changing your music or checking Twitter. You also get a bigger device that's great for pretty much everything else. That fundamental experience is good even if all the details are aren't.

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

As someone who loves more-compact form-factors like the Pixel 3a (review here), the Galaxy Fold's unorthodox outer display was immediately endearing. Yes, the bezels on it are ludicrous and placement of the display feels a little bit like a first draft. I suspect it's something users will need time to adapt to. 

Typing on the display was particularly problematic and taking photos using the folded Fold is also a bit trial and error. The HD resolution on the outer display makes it genuinely difficult to discern the finer details of the images you're trying to take. You also can't use it in landscape mode, which is weird. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

At this stage, I'm honestly more concerned about how Android apps will scale to the size of a screen this small than I am them scaling to the tablet-like screen of the unfolded Fold. Hell, the arrival of foldable phones like this one might actually be the kick that the Android tablet ecosystem needs at this point in time.

Samsung have been pretty confident about the Fold's support for app continuity and, despite our best efforts and a few more-abstract issues, it handled everything we could download off the Play Store and throw at it. You do have to manually add each new app to a list before app continuity will work but it does work. 

What about the crease?

If you're looking at the Fold with a fresh set of eyes, you'll totally notice the crease on it but, after a few minutes of using it, I found I more-or-less forgot it was there. Same goes for the shoulder-mounted side notch. It's a bit glossy compared to something like the Note 10 but it's also surprisingly sturdy. 

The Fold's central conceit might seem like novelty but there's a whimsical appeal and utility that sands away the sting of the device's imperfections. I found that holding the unfolded Fold sideways was great for reading eBooks and watching video content. Unfortunately, holding the device sideways often results in you covering up the speakers on either side of the Fold.

Samsung's default internet browser didn't load my website correctly but I'm not going to take it personallyCredit: Fergus Halliday | IDG
Samsung's default internet browser didn't load my website correctly but I'm not going to take it personally

Another concern we have here is battery life. Obviously, we'll have to wait until we use the Fold on the daily before we know how reliable it is. However, our 45 minutes of continuous use saw the Fold drop about 8% of battery life. This isn't amazing but it doesn't feel that far off the standard either. 

And, yet, despite all these problems, I really enjoyed using the Galaxy Fold. Like I said before, it feels like you're getting the best of both worlds. A big-and-small phone. Honestly, after reviewing phone after phone after phone after phone after phone for the last few years, I suspect I've forgotten just how magical an experience that something that feels this new and different can be. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

My 45 minutes with Samsung Galaxy Fold was a powerful reminder. 

It's not a device trying to be best-in-class. It's trying to be different - and while being different is something that's hard to put a price on, there's definitely an appeal to it. The Galaxy Fold isn't going to be the phone that's the best at everything, it's the one that doing things that no other device can.

Is it safe to be excited again?

Like I said before, I don't know if I can tell everyone to run out and pre-order the Fold right this second. In action, the futuristic form-factor here can help the Fold overcome most of first-gen fumbles but I suspect that, for most people, the shadow cast by the Fold's price-tag is going to be too hard to escape. 

Still, if you were to ask me whether the experience of using a big-and-small smartphone with a screen that you can fold and unfold at will is worth getting excited about, my answer is going to be yes. I can't wait to try this thing out as my daily driver and I can't wait to see what competitors, alternatives and innovations it inspires. 

I don't know if you should run out and pre-order the world's first mainstream foldable phone but I'm certain that I want one. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

The Samsung Galaxy Fold is confirmed for Australia but does not yet have official pricing and availability.

Disclosure - PC World Australia's coverage of this year's IFA in Berlin was sponsored by Lenovo who covered the costs of our flights and accommodation.

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Fergus Halliday
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