Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 review: an extravagant success

Patrick

It’s a weird sort of relief to be reviewing the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2.

Depending on how you count, it’s either the second, third, or even fourth iteration of Samsung’s folding phone design. The first was pulled from the market days before release because it was too fragile. The second was the official release, but it was still surrounded by a fog of uncertainty. The third was a different kind of phone, the Z Flip, where Samsung first tested some new screen and hinge technologies. And finally, we’re here, with the Z Fold 2.

Through that persistent iteration, Samsung has achieved two things. First, though I can’t really say it will be as durable as a normal phone, I do have a fair amount of faith that this Fold 2 won’t damage itself through normal use. Second, it’s established the category itself, meaning I can spend a little less time meditating on the meaning and import of folding phones as a concept.

Instead, I can just talk about it as a device and tell you whether I think it’s any good instead of spending all of my time on questions of durability or whether the thing even deserves to exist in the first place. And then, I can just provide a recommendation on whether to consider buying it.

Spoiler alert: no. It’s $1,999, which is way too much to spend on something like this phone unless you truly love extravagance. It’s not worth the money, but it’s worth looking at as the new foundation for a category of device I expect to stick around for a long time.

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Z Fold 2 hardware

Samsung didn’t radically change the formula for the Z Fold 2. It’s still a phone-shaped thing that unfolds vertically into a tablet-shaped thing. There’s still a small gap between the two sides when it’s closed, which adds to the overall thickness of the device. That means it’s still a strange object compared to most phones.

When closed, it’s a tall, narrow, and thick device — slightly thicker than two regular smartphones stacked and the same height as other oversized phones. This oblong object is also very heavy, over 280 grams.

Put those two things together, and you’ll absolutely feel this thing in your pocket, assuming you can fit it in there. Most of your time interacting with the Z Fold 2 will be with it open, though, where it’s a much more reasonable object. It has a 7.6-inch display with minimal bezels and no notches.

As a little tablet, the Z Fold 2 feels quite natural to use, though it’s so dense that it can be tiring to hold after a while. I found myself slightly bending the screen and holding it like a book sometimes.

There is, of course, an entirely different way to talk about the Z Fold 2’s hardware: by discussing what Samsung has done to try to make it more rugged than the original.

Most of that work has gone into the hinge. It now uses eight cams to add more friction and stability when opening it, which allows the device to hold itself up at different angles. Samsung has also added tiny little elastic brushes on the inside to keep the interior mechanism clear. There are also slightly different bits of plastic around the screen to minimize the size of the gap when closed — plus little nubbins to keep the two sides from clacking together too hard.

I won’t speak to whether those changes are enough, but a week in, I have had no issue, and the device certainly feels like it will hold together better than the first or second Fold. Overall, it just seems like Samsung has enforced tighter tolerances on all of the mechanical parts. Everything is just a little less loosey-goosey than before. Of course, because it has moving parts and gaps, water will surely damage the Z Fold 2.

In terms of its shape, Z Fold 2 may still be an unfamiliar and slightly awkward object. But it certainly feels well-made.

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Z Fold 2 screens

The other thing Samsung has done to improve reliability is use Samsung’s relatively new Ultra Thin Glass for the screen instead of plastic. Again, I won’t speak to whether it’s really any more durable than the first Fold’s plastic screen. What I think it might do is add a little bit of rigidity to the feel of the screen under your finger.

I think it feels slightly less spongy, but make no mistake: what you’re touching is plastic. The glass in the Z Fold 2’s screen is just one layer among five others. There are plastic layers beneath it and above it — and on the top is a plastic “protective layer” and then a factory-installed screen protector on the very top, where you will be doing your tapping and swiping.

It feels like plastic, in other words, and the screen protector can pick up dings, dents, and scratches as easily as any other screen protector. Samsung says that you should not try to remove it yourself, but instead, go to a Samsung-approved dealer to have a professional remove it.

If, after all of that, you still somehow damage the screen, Samsung is still offering a one-time $149 screen replacement. Samsung also has its usual warning label about proper use and care on the wrapper and on one of the first setup screens.

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Another thing to talk about with the inside display is the crease between the two sizes. It is there, it is visible, and it is not a big deal. You’ll see it when the light hits at certain angles, but for the most part, it’ll fade from your conscious view when you’re just using the Z Fold 2.

The bigger upgrade is actually on the Z Fold 2’s other screen: the cover display on the outside. It stretches the full length of one side of the phone, making it officially a 6.2-inch display. But it’s important to remember that that’s a diagonal measurement. It has a whopping 25:9 aspect ratio, meaning it is very, very narrow.

The cover display’s narrowness means it’s uncomfortable for typing anything of significant length, though swipe typing works quite well. But its taller size means that it’s no longer actively annoying to use the Z Fold 2 when closed. Other than its size, there isn’t anything special about the cover display.

But there is one more special thing about the inner display: the variable refresh rate. It can ratchet all the way down to 11Hz to save battery life or all the way up to 120Hz to ensure scrolling and animations look smooth.

I am an avowed fan of high refresh rate screens, but I also have to admit that on most phones, they’re a luxury instead of a necessity. On the Z Fold 2, however, it’s vital. It all but eliminates the dreaded “jelly scroll effect.”

The Fold series can suffer from jelly scroll because its screen controllers are on the side instead of the bottom, which means one side of the screen can change its pixels just barely faster than the other side. All phones do this, but usually, it’s vertically so you don’t notice when you scroll. The high refresh rate on the Z Fold 2 reduces this effect so much that I never saw it unless I was specifically looking for it.

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Z Fold 2 software, specs, and performance

Samsung’s system for making Android work on two screens — one of which is more like a tablet than a phone — is both impressive and irritating. It’s impressive because once you understand Samsung’s concepts for multitasking, there’s virtually no limit to what you can do.

It’s irritating because it’s Samsung’s system. I don’t mean to denigrate the system Samsung created, but instead to note that it feels like an entirely different operating system on top of Android. On its own, Android doesn’t have the pieces necessary to make a good tablet OS, so Samsung had to tack them on top.

Once you get past that annoyance, however, there is some elegance to what Samsung did here. The core of Samsung’s system is opening up a custom app dock on the side and then dragging app icons to various regions on the screen to enable split screen, a three-up layout, or even floating windows.

Compared to last year, everything feels a little smoother and faster. You can adjust the various sizes of your panels or drag apps between them by long-pressing an indicator at the top of each app.

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My favorite feature is saving app pairs, which launches two (or three) apps automatically in a split-screen layout. Unfortunately, you can only save those app pairs in Samsung’s dock, not the main home screen.

As before, you can start one activity on the outer screen and then open up the phone to continue it. Samsung also lets you set a tablet layout at the system level, which means a few apps that have been specially coded to see it will give you a layout optimized for tablets with tabs or panes. Yet more apps will do so when you turn the Z Fold 2 sideways.

You can also use the screen folded at 90 degrees to enable something Samsung calls “Flex mode.” It splits some apps in two with different features on each half. This is most effective in the camera, which shows big previews of your photos as you take them. Otherwise, it’s a pretty minor gimmick, given how few apps do anything with it.

On the whole, I constantly found myself bouncing between being absolutely smitten with using the Z Fold 2 and being somewhat annoyed. Lots of apps look great on the big screen, including browsers, reading, video, games, maps, and so on. When I’m using those, it’s great. And similarly, having a split screen makes a lot of productivity tasks so much easier — I kept going back to the Gmail + Calendar combo — but then my window setup would disappear the next time I opened up the phone or an app would look silly on the big tablet display and crush that positive vibe.

If you’re just looking for the biggest screen you can reasonably fit in your pocket, the Z Fold 2 provides that. It’s great for watching videos and especially gaming. Lots of the games I would stream from Microsoft’s Game Pass Ultimate or Google Stadia were designed to be played on laptop or TV screens, so having the Z Fold 2’s tablet-sized screen made them a lot more usable than a smaller phone.

The Z Fold 2 has a whopping 12GB of RAM, which is more than enough to run multiple apps at once without any of them closing. It’s plenty fast and has decent battery life. Perhaps because I found myself using it more or perhaps because Qualcomm’s flagship Snapdragon 865 + X55 combo are battery hogs, I didn’t quite reach two days of uptime. (I suspect it’s both.) Storage is an unexpandable 256GB, which is okay. But at two grand, I was disappointed it wasn’t at least 512GB.

One notable feature is the speaker setup: the Z Fold 2 has stereo speakers, and they get very loud and sound quite good. Samsung says you might be willing to leave your Bluetooth speaker behind, and while you might come close to a small speaker’s volume, the Z Fold 2 doesn’t offer that much bass. Plus, when you’re holding it, you can easily cover them with your hands if you’re not paying attention.

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Z Fold 2 cameras

Even though the Galaxy Z Fold 2 costs two grand, it seems as though Samsung still needed to make some trade-offs for cost. The place where that’s most obvious is the cameras. There’s nothing especially wrong with any of the Z Fold 2’s five cameras — but there’s not a big standout, either.

Both selfie cameras are 10 megapixels and sit within tiny hole punches in their respective displays. The images they produce are totally acceptable but not noticeably better than you’d get on any other flagship phone. I do enjoy using the Z Fold 2 as a videoconferencing phone by propping one side up — though sometimes I’d have to split-screen another app to get the video windows in the right place.

As for the rear camera array, it consists of an ultrawide, a standard main lens, and a telephoto lens. All three are 12 megapixels and are perfectly competent, but a half step behind what the latest flagship phones can do in both features and quality.

I am not knocking the Z Fold 2’s cameras just because Samsung’s other 2020 flagships have higher megapixel counts or even the periscope-style telephoto lenses, nor do I care that this phone can’t do 8K video. It’s just that when it comes to basic image quality, Samsung is still overzealous with brightening things up and with smoothing faces.

Samsung says it has a trick where the camera can zoom and pan on subjects automatically, but I never managed to get that to work reliably. It has another trick that I did use and love: when taking a selfie, you can tap a button to use the good camera instead of the little selfie camera. You unfold the device, use the cover display for framing, and get a much better selfie.

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Using the Z Fold 2, I could see myself pairing the device with a little Bluetooth keyboard out in the world or on a plane, living that cliched “road warrior” lifestyle. (Heck, Google Docs is actually halfway decent on this screen when you put the device in landscape mode.) But I don’t see myself heading out into the world that often for a while. Even if I could, it would be hard to justify the asking price.

Samsung is committed to this form factor. It has already hinted that an upcoming version of the Z Fold series will support an S Pen stylus. The company seems so bullish that it seems likely that someday this kind of device could even supplant the Note line of phones.

That day is likely a long way off, though. As refined and impressive as the Z Fold 2 is, it’s still fundamentally facing three major problems. The first is that the materials for folding screens still make it too difficult to get a closed device that’s fully flat and thin. The second is that Android isn’t doing Samsung any favors when it comes to making everything work on a tablet-sized screen.

Thirdly and most importantly: it’s two thousand bucks. Phones that cost a tenth as much can still run the same apps and do the same basic functions. Phones that cost half as much match or exceed the Z Fold 2’s feature set in every way except screen size. And depending on its reception, Microsoft’s impending $1,400 Surface Duo with its dual-screen setup could also drain away some interest from the Z Fold 2.

And yet, with all of those things stacked against it, I still think the Z Fold 2 is pretty great. I’d never recommend that anybody buy one, given the price. But unlike the first Fold, when I say the Z Fold 2 is an extravagant luxury most people shouldn’t even consider, I also have to admit that big screen is genuinely luxurious.



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