advertisement
advertisement
advertisement

How Samsung’s Galaxy Fold shifts the smartphone paradigm

A first look at a powerful phone that’s small when you carry it and big when you use it—and a possible harbinger of the post-iPhone era.

How Samsung’s Galaxy Fold shifts the smartphone paradigm
[Photos: Maja Saphir for Fast Company]

Over the years, there have been several Samsung smartphones with folding displays. There was the bleeding-edge prototype it showed off in a technology pavilion at its CES booth in 2009, for instance. The sci-fi looking phone a guy used to impress a woman in a goofy video that was part of the company’s 2013 CES keynote. The concept devices it revealed to financial analysts—no photos, please—later that year.

advertisement
advertisement

And then there’s the Galaxy Fold. Unlike previous Samsung foldables, this one isn’t a tech demo or a fantasy device, but a real product that, to riff on the original iPod’s brand promise, offers something no phone ever has: 7.3″ of screen in your pocket. When it goes on sale from AT&T, T-Mobile, and Samsung itself on April 26, it will be the first folding-display phone from a major manufacturer. (A Chinese company called Royole beat Samsung to market with its FlexPai; Huawei’s Mate X isn’t due until midyear.)

Built using Samsung’s own flexible OLED display technology and featuring a variant of the “One UI” interface seen on other Galaxy devices, the Fold is a Samsung creation through and through. The end result of a thousand prototypes, it’s so different from anything else on the market—the iPhone, Samsung’s own Galaxy S10 and Galaxy Note 9—that it gives the company a once-in-a-generation shot at reshaping our idea of what a smartphone is.

ES Chung [Photo: courtesy of Samsung]
“Of course, we went to sell as many as possible,” says Samsung executive VP of R&D ES Chung, whom I interviewed at the company’s Silicon Valley campus in early April. “But it also has a symbolic meaning.” Though the story of smartphones dates back to the 1990s, the moment of truth was when “Apple came with iPhone and showed that this can be a mainstream device,” acknowledges Chung. “And then suddenly all the feature phones with all the buttons disappeared. It was a big paradigm shift in hardware.” The introduction of the Galaxy Fold, he says, “is a similar paradigm shift.”

In recent weeks, I talked to multiple Samsung executives responsible for the Galaxy Fold and got about 90 minutes of hands-on time with a pre-release unit—not enough for a final verdict, but sufficient to form first impressions. The Fold is pricey at $1,980, exhibits some design decisions borne more of expediency than elegance, and won’t live up to its full potential until third-party developers rework their apps with devices like it in mind. But given what a wild departure it is from the norm, it gets a lot of things right. Even if you’re not the least bit tempted by it, it’s worth taking seriously as a first rough draft of the phone of tomorrow.

Samsung says that it went through a thousand prototypes to get to the Galaxy Fold in its final form. [Image: courtesy of Samsung]

Luxury phone, luxury price

When I chatted with DJ Koh, CEO of Samsung Electronics’ IT & Mobile Communications Division, it was the day before Samsung’s February “Unpacked” launch event in San Francisco, and the Galaxy Fold had not yet been announced. After getting my first few minutes of hands-on time with the device, I asked him how much it would cost. Rather than answering, he asked me a question: “How much would you pay?” I blurted out the first price that popped into my head: $1,200.

Instead of giving me any clue about whether I’d nailed the Fold’s pricetag, Koh smiled cryptically. “When it’s ready, we’ll say,” he said. “Samsung is always trying to provide a unique, meaningful experience for the consumer. The price is not decided by me. The price is decided by the market and consumers. I’m always listening.”

advertisement

Samsung turned out to be ready to reveal the Fold’s $1,980 price the next morning at Unpacked. More than the combined cost of a Galaxy Note 9 phone and Galaxy Tab S4 tablet, that figure was eyebrow-raising enough to make it into most headlines about the new device.

If the Galaxy Fold induces sticker shock, it may not be because Samsung built itself a hefty profit into the price. Instead, the company may be sinking much of money it gets into the folding-screen manufacturing process. “I do think that it’s really hard to make these displays,” says Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead. “I think it’s smart from a marketing point of view to price these things stratospherically. Over time, as the volumes go up, the cost will go down.”

Samsung has leaned into the notion of the Galaxy Fold being a high-end, exclusive device—the sort of thing you buy because there won’t be that many other people out there with one. “It’s really designed for that person that is looking for a luxury item,” says Paul Guzek, senior manager of product marketing for Samsung Electronics America. “And it’s also that person that is looking for the latest new trends, looking for the latest in technology, knowing that they want the best of the best and want those premium refined experiences first.”

Along with four color choices—Space Silver, Cosmos Black, Martian Green, and Astro Blue—Samsung will let buyers customize their Galaxy Folds by choosing from two different hinge colors, gold and dark silver. The phone will ship in an extra-large box—so that owners will first see their new possession in all its unfolded glory—and is bundled with Samsung’s AirPods-esque wireless Galaxy Buds ($129 on their own) and a fancy two-piece case. The company also talks about the concierge-like level of service buyers will get. It’s a far cry from the Galaxy S10, which—though really good, and only a few weeks old—is already the stuff of BOGO deals at wireless-carrier stores.

In an era of immersive screens, the one on the Galaxy Fold’s front has “forehead” and “chin” to spare. [Photo: Maja Saphir for Fast Company]
Ultimately, what Samsung is asking people to pay $1,980 for is the experience the Galaxy Fold offers. And though its signature feature is that 7.3″ folding screen,, the Fold isn’t just a folding phone: It’s a two-screen phone, with a secondary 4.6″ AMOLED display you use when it’s closed. That screen is smaller than the display on any Galaxy flagship phone since 2011’s Galaxy S II, and it’s surrounded by bezel—gobs of it on the top and bottom, and even an atypically large amount to the left and right.

The new, notchless Galaxy S10 models, with sprawling screens and almost no bezel, deliver as immersive an experience as any smartphone ever has. By embedding a small display in an acre of bezel, the Galaxy Fold achieves the opposite effect, and it’s inevitably clunky; Business Insider’s Ben Gilbert went so far as to call it a “bizarre, glaring flaw.”

advertisement

But Samsung didn’t make the front screen dinky on a whim. For one thing, a tall-boy display would have eliminated the ability to easily use the folded Fold with one hand; “It was quite important to have a thumbable experience,” says Guzek. For another, the small screen is less power-hungry, and therefore kinder to the Fold’s battery. Or, more accurately, batteries—there’s one inside each half of the phone, for a total of 4,380 mAH of power, compared to 4,100 for the Galaxy S10 Plus. (Guzek says that Samsung isn’t quoting an official battery life for the Fold—and that it would be hard to even hazard a guess until the company sees how real people use the device.)

In my time with the Galaxy Fold, I mostly noticed how small the front screen was when I tapped on its keyboard, which did come off as Lilliputian. I found myself wanting to open the device up and use the big screen as much as possible; the front one feels like it might get used primarily for quick-hit interactions, such as answering a call or checking a map on the go. (The closed Fold is thick and heavy for a modern smartphone, at 17mm and about 9.3 oz., but it felt less brick-like in my hand than those specs might suggest.)

You open the Fold like a book, pulling back its top half from the right edge until the device is a slab rather than a screen sandwich. As you unfold, the hinge, with a diamond-cut Samsung logo designed to create prismatic effects as it reflects light, disappears behind the two halves of phone, which is a pretty nifty trick in itself. Samsung has engineered the mechanism within—which actually consists of two hinges with interlocking gears—to survive 200,000 openings and closings without flinching: “You can fold and unfold it a hundred times a day for five years, guaranteed,” says Koh.

The Galaxy Fold’s branded hinge cleverly disappears when you open the phone. [Photo: Maja Saphir for Fast Company]
The whole opening-and-closing maneuver feels solid and satisfying, like slamming the door on a luxury car. As I unfolded the phone, however, I was prone to accidentally pressed the fingerprint scanner, which doubles as a Bixby button—thereby summoning Samsung’s not-so-great voice assistant. With time, I’d presumably learn to pry the Fold open without any unintended consequences.

Once open, the Galaxy Fold doesn’t feel like its two halves have magically bonded into one: When I wiggled them, there was a bit of flex. The fold down the middle is slightly indented; though I could feel this crease if I sought it out with my fingertip, it wasn’t distracting. Visually, it was almost invisible unless I viewed it from an extreme angle or jostled the Fold around to bounce light off the screen. Like an iPhone’s notch or camera bump, it may be the kind of thing most people forget about unless they choose to fixate on it.

Speaking of notches, the Galaxy Fold’s unfolded screen has a big one, wide enough to accommodate its front-facing camera and another camera that measures depth for selfies with blurred backgrounds. (The front screen makes do with a single camera, and the three rear cameras—available whether the phone is open or closed—are the same excellent ultra-wide, wide, and and telephoto models as used on the Galaxy S10.) This notch sits on the right-hand edge—since a conventional centered notch would have to itself be hinged—and is encircled by a ridge that seems to help prevent the two halves of screen from slamming into each other. It’s hardly an aesthetic plus. But it also didn’t interfere with any of the apps I tried, and as with the crease, I did not find it an obstacle to using and enjoying the Fold.

advertisement

The Galaxy Fold’s big right-hand notch doesn’t even try to disappear into the design. [Photo: Maja Saphir for Fast Company]
And enjoy it I did. At 7.3″, the unfolded display is a skosh larger than the 7″ tablets—such as Samsung’s own original Galaxy Tab from 2010—that were briefly hot commodities until phone screens got bigger and 7″ tablets started to feel redundant. Compared to smaller screens, it’s a better size for movie-watching, game-playing, book-reading, and many of the other things people do on smartphones. The screen is made of flexible plastic, without the glass cover that’s been standard on smartphones since the first iPhone, but looks as gorgeous as other Samsung AMOLED displays and felt fine to my fingertip.

Koh says that the Galaxy Fold design was inspired by the fact that the practical screen size for a conventional smartphone maxes out at “6.5-something” but some customers crave still more real estate. Even if most of those people aren’t about to pony up $1,980 for a Galaxy Fold, my time with the device left me convinced that folding-screen technology holds the promise to give such space-hungry folks what they want—at least once it’s in a package designed for mass appeal rather than exclusivity.

“The younger generation will probably want to have it, but they might not be able to afford it,” says Chung—who, in a refreshing departure from the sort of canned talking points big-company executives often spout, does not appear to feel obliged to pick every fly out of the Fold’s go-to-market ointment. “So that’s a minus, but hopefully the price will come down over time.”

Samsung’s “One UI” take on Android arrives on the Galaxy Fold largely intact. [Photo: Maja Saphir for Fast Company]

Software matters

Throughout the history of the Galaxy line, Samsung has never been shy about tinkering with Android in the interest of building something distinctive. “There were some years we tried to do a little bit too much,” laughs Chung. “And then we learned from that.”

Chung says that Samsung began hashing out the Galaxy Fold’s software two or three years ago, as the hardware—which the company largely wrapped up a year ago—was falling into place. The company decided that the vital thing was not to devise special apps or features for the Fold, but rather to ensure that third-party apps ran well on it. And rather than asking developers to tweak their wares specifically for one $1,980 smartphone, Samsung decided to look at it as preparation for the day when the Fold might be one of many multi-screened folding devices.

“We started to talk to Google quite early in the project, because we wanted to do it the right way,” says Chung. “Not a Samsung proprietary solution, but a general solution that will work for anybody who will want to do this kind of form-factor device.”

advertisement

Samsung and Google teamed up to make Android work well on one device with two very different displays. [Photo: Maja Saphir for Fast Company]
Last November, when Samsung was teasing its upcoming folding phone but hadn’t formally announced it, Google began talking about new features it was adding to Android to support phones such as the Galaxy Fold. They’re designed to let an app start on the front screen and reappear on the main screen once the device is unfolded—an act that both Google and Samsung call “continuity.”

Samsung worked to ensure good behavior by the Galaxy Fold’s bundled software as well as collaborating with others to optimize a few key third-party apps: Amazon Prime Video, Microsoft Office, Spotify, and WhatsApp. When I used the bundled apps on the front screen and then unfolded the device, they were ready to go by the time I’d clicked the big display into its open position. (If I opened the phone slowly and peeked inside as I did so, I could see the moment at which the screen lit up with an app; it felt like catching the little man who turns on my refrigerator’s light.)

When you snap the folding screen back shut again, the Fold doesn’t generally open the app you’ve been using on the front screen; instead, it takes closing the device as a sign you’re done using it for now. It makes an exception for phone calls in progress, and lets you specify other apps you’d like to stay open.

Given the generous proportions of the 7.3″ folding screen, Samsung also provided the phone with a feature it calls multi-active windows. With one app on the display, you can slide out a panel from the display’s right-hand edge to launch a second app, with both apps displayed in tall, skinny windows. Launch a third app from the panel, and it takes over half the space of the app on the right. You can slide the window borders to adjust each app’s size, or shuffle the apps around by dragging and dropping them. The possibilities of this multitasking interface are bountiful, from consulting your email, calendar, and a spreadsheet on one screen to chatting with a friend while you compete in a game.

You can squeeze three apps—one tall, the others more stubby—on the Galaxy Fold’s screen at once. [Photo: Maja Saphir for Fast Company]
When all of this works, it works well. But when I tried installing a few apps of my choice on the Galaxy Fold, the experience often broke down. Instagram photos looked fabulous on the big display, but the app doesn’t support the multi-active window interface. (You can, however, float another app on top of it.) If you open Twitter, Pandora, or Kindle on the front screen and then unfold the device, the apps don’t get automatically resized, leaving unsightly black bars on the left and right. (Relaunching them solves that.) Guzek volunteered that while Amazon Instant Video can run in a window alongside other apps, Netflix cannot. (“Netflix is quite controlling of their app experience,” he says.)

Clearly, anyone who buys a Galaxy Fold sooner rather than later will need to be prepared to live with a device that’s raced ahead of many of the apps it runs. At least Samsung seems to be committed to proselytizing on behalf of its creation and foldable phones in general. Along with the effort it put into helping Google revise Android for foldable devices, it offers developers a simulator that helps them tweak their apps even if they don’t have a foldable on hand. Or they can visit Samsung labs in Seoul, Beijing, and Mountain View to get hands-on time with the Fold. “That’s where developers can actually go in and, in partnership with Samsung and Google, try out their apps and fully understand what this experience is and see where they need to adjust it,” says Guzek.

advertisement

In the long run, it won’t be enough for ambitious apps to merely avoid any blindingly obvious quirks on the Fold; they should take advantage of both of its screens in a way that adds up to something they couldn’t offer on a garden-variety smartphone. “I’m really hoping that the developers will get creative and come up with some cool applications that use all of these capabilities,” says Chung.

If folding-screen smartphones do take off, the Galaxy Fold will have its place in history. But will it be remembered as the category’s iPhone—an epoch-defining device that everyone else chases for a decade or more? Or its Palm Treo—a much shorter-term phenomenon? Or could it be IBM and BellSouth’s Simon—the 1994 device that kicked off the smartphone era without succeeding or even much influencing anything that followed? We might not know until years have passed and additional iterations of the Fold have come and gone.

For now, even Samsung can’t say where this device will lead it and the smartphone industry. The company seems to be OK with that. CEO Koh told me that he’s optimistic about the prospects for devices like the Galaxy Fold going mainstream. But first, he says, “I want to see the response from the market.” So does everybody else.

advertisement
advertisement

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

More