For the past few weeks, I’ve been using the best small tablet you can buy right now.
I’m not talking about Apple’s new iPad Mini, but rather Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold3 5G. While it’s technically a smartphone, the $1,800 Z Fold3 unfolds into a tablet whose screen is slightly shorter and wider than that of the 6th-generation iPad Mini.
The Z Fold3 quickly reminded me how much I’ve missed small tablets, which were in vogue a decade ago, but quickly ceded ground to larger phones and cheaper full-size tablets. They’re the perfect size for reading books, playing mobile games, browsing the web, and typing with your thumbs, but they’re hard to justify when you’ve already got a good enough screen in your pocket. That’s exactly why I neglected my own iPad Mini 2 after buying it in 2013, and never bought another one after that.
By virtue of its foldable display, the Z Fold3 finally solves the biggest problem with small tablets, and it’s drained any enthusiasm I might’ve had for the new iPad Mini in the process.
Getting a feel for the Fold
The Galaxy Z Fold3 is Samsung’s third attempt at making a phone that turns into a tablet—or its fourth, if you count the company’s hasty revisions to the original model—and the changes this time are largely about conveying that it’s not a prototype anymore. The hinge is stronger, the display is more durable, and the design is slimmer when the phone is folded shut.
Samsung is only loaning a review unit to me for a month, so I can’t say how those improvements will hold up over time, but the product at least doesn’t feel like an experiment. The hinge folds open with ease and closes with a satisfying snap, and the inner display feels like a normal touchscreen with a pre-applied screen protector on top, provided you can look past the crease down the middle. While Samsung warned original Galaxy Fold owners against pressing too hard on the screen, now the company just says not to scratch the screen with your fingernail or other sharp objects.
Switching between folded and unfolded modes came naturally as well, in part because the outer screen is slightly narrower than your average phone. I’d keep the phone folded while walking around, but once I was sitting down or lying in bed, that slimmer screen became a reminder to unfurl the Fold3 into tablet mode.
That mode really is a wonderful thing to behold. Suddenly, I was reading Kindle books on my phone again and actually enjoying the experience. I was snapping photos of family and friends, then watching them marvel at big-screen previews of the results. I could play mobile games using my thumbs to comfortably control the action—Zaccaria Pinball was a glorious experience—and I watched TV in bed without having to bring a separate tablet with me. Video chats on the big screen were a blast as well.
Critics of foldable phones have said that they’re a solution in search of a problem or a flashy product without a clear use case. But to me, the utility is obvious: Bigger screens are simply better for many of the things we already enjoy doing on our phones, and the Z Fold3 provides a much bigger screen that you can easily take anywhere.
That’s not to say Samsung’s foldable has no downsides.
Some are inherent to the design: At 0.6 pounds, The Galaxy Z Fold3 is about 12% heavier than even Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro Max, and it’s about twice the thickness of other phones when it’s folded in half, giving it an undeniably dense and clunky feeling. I’m also not a fan of the power button doubling as a fingerprint reader (having both an outer and inner screen presumably makes today’s in-display fingerprint readers unfeasible). The crease down the middle of the display wasn’t a major annoyance to me, but it’s definitely noticeable when the screen is dark.
Android’s shortage of tablet-optimized Android apps is also an issue, albeit a slightly overblown one. I wish that Slack could show both its chat window and channel sidebar at the same time, and that Twitter wasn’t quite so stretched out. And with multitasking, some apps just don’t seem up for the task. Yahoo Fantasy Sports, for instance, rendered my team’s score unviewable when it was sharing the screen with a separate video app.
But the biggest downside I ran into was battery life. Especially at the default 120Hz refresh rate, I either had to be judicious about using the Galaxy Z Fold3 in tablet mode throughout the day or find a few spare minutes to leave it on the charger.
That problem might be the hardest one for Samsung to solve, because it runs up against the physical limits of both the phone and current battery chemistry. A bigger battery would require a larger or thicker design on a phone that’s bulky as is. Samsung is also excluding its best camera tech from the Z Fold3, which has a triple-lens setup rather than the four lenses and laser autofocus found on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. That may be a cost-cutting measure on a phone that already costs $1,800, but it could also be a space-saving one.
For all those reasons, I’m not ready to buy a Galaxy Z Fold3 myself. While the foldable design seems sturdy, and the use cases are clear, the concept still lives on the bleeding edge and demands both a high price and some distinct trade-offs in exchange for the ability to conjure a tablet from anywhere.
That doesn’t mean I’ll be getting an iPad Mini, though. Past experience tells me that after the new-gadget honeymoon period wears off, it would only end up collecting dust, as I gravitate toward the phone I’m already carrying with me.
Instead, I’ll just be biding my time, waiting for a foldable tablet that’s just a little more refined, or at least a bit cheaper. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold3 might be the best small tablet you can buy right now, but it’s still a tough sell compared to the phone you’ve got in your pocket.