Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 Review: We’re almost there

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The Samsung Galaxy Fold lineup, even after its introduction more than two years ago, feels surreal to hold. It combines technology and engineering in a manner that has still not gone mainstream. While the original Galaxy Fold had its share of flaws, last year’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 was an exponential upgrade over it. The latest Samsung Z Fold 3 still addresses a lot of changes we wanted from the second iteration of the folding phone. This is Samsung’s best foldable smartphone ever but should you buy it?

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3

Design and build quality

To compare directly with last year’s Galaxy Z Fold 2, much of the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s design language is unchanged. It retains the same strong and robust feel in hand with a less wide, less tall and thinner form factor when closed. When opened, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is 6.4mm and in the hand, it weighs 271g. This makes for quite the unit especially when the Fold 3 is closed.

The curved form factor of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is a welcome change

Protection

But beyond these changes, there are more crucial ones. For instance, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 has a more curved-off design compared to the Galaxy Z Fold 2’s sharp and rectangular one. This makes a big difference in the hand, adding to comfort when used one handed. The cover display and rear of the smartphone is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass Victus whereas the hinge comes with a new Armour Aluminium material. This gives the Galaxy Z Fold 3 a solid feel which carries over to usage too. Throughout the duration of our usage, we rarely felt scared about using the smartphone roughly which is great.

Water Resistance

This year, Samsung’s foldable flagship also features IPX8 certification. This is a huge leap in engineering and is a design trait that many users will appreciate. Being able to use an expensive smartphone like the Galaxy Z Fold 3 without being worried of water damage relieves a lot of stress when you spill a drink at your desk. We think this is a much needed feature for any high-end flagship and perhaps is the biggest difference between this year’s and last year’s Samsung foldable flagship. Of course, this rating does not make the smartphone dust resistant, which is an equally large threat for a foldable, especially in countries like the UAE, but this is a great start.

We are happy with the performance of the side mounted fingerprint scanner

There are no other stand-out hardware features about the Galaxy Z Fold 3. The volume buttons are where you would find them, just above the power button which also doubles as a fast and accurate fingerprint scanner. The other edges have cut-outs for the dual-speakers, the Type-C USB port for charging and the dual-SIM tray whereas the back houses a triple-camera setup with a slightly more minimal bay compared to last year. Although, regardless of when it is open or closed, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 has a fair wobble to it when used on a surface.

Displays

Quite unsurprisingly, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 retains a 6.2-inch cover display alongside a 7.6-inch inner display. The former is an HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X panel with a 25:9 aspect ratio whereas the latter is a QXGA+ Infinity Flex Dynamic AMOLED 2x panel. The real upgrade here is that the outer display now also supports a full 120Hz refresh rate, just like the inner display.

The usage experience between the inner and outer display is consistent thanks to the 120Hz refresh rate

Multimedia

Having that consistency in experience is great. And during daily use, it was difficult to tell that the outer display is of a low resolution. Perhaps this is because of the unusual aspect ratio of the panel. Despite this though, we often found ourselves using the Galaxy Z Fold 3 in its folded state rather than its unfolded state. For example, during commute, the phone is much easier to hold folded. And when opened, adjusting grip for comfortable use in one hand is something we struggled it.

Using the outer display also meant adapting to a narrow experience. Typing on the virtual keyboard was difficult at first although we quickly adapted to it. Elements on the outer display also feel a bit small at times, so that is a sacrifice you are making. Of course, you have the larger inner display but we felt a more conventionally shaped display would have been perfect.

Videos on the cover display look a bit cramped up

We would also not recommend watching videos on the cover display. The lack of resolution and HDR support hurts but more so, we feel the reservation is because of the the aspect ratio. Loading any video on the outer display leaves enormous black spaces on the left and right. You can zoom into a video but that means you are cropping away detail on the top and bottom.

But just for this scenario, the inner display comes in handy. We often found ourselves using it the most for video consumption and it is fantastic for that. Over the years, we have seen the quality of the inner display improve first-hand and this is yet another step in the right direction. It does not feel gummy like the previous generations and has an impressive 1,200nit maximum brightness for easy visibility outdoors in addition to HDR10+ and the higher resolution.

Content on the large display is great however with traditional media, you will see black bars

Content on this display is so much better than the cover display. But, once again, its aspect ratio comes back to bite you if you are watching traditional online media. You cannot fully take advantage of the screen real estate on offer although it is still much better than a typical smartphone size. Whether you are watching your favorite TV series or a livestream, having the flexibility of a bigger screen in your pocket is undeniably fantastic.

To go with this experience, you find a dual-stereo speaker experience which easily spreads across a small room. Although, when holding the Galaxy Z Fold 3 naturally, our palms had the tendency to cover the speakers. Rotating the device solves this but then, your display experience becomes slightly smaller as the smartphone does not maintain aspect ratio when used at different orientations.

Under-display camera

On of the most talked about aspects about the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s inner display is its under-display camera (UDC). We will address the 4MP sensor’s performance in a later section with this reserved for its performance when watching multimedia. Essentially, instead of finding a O-dot camera cut-out, you find an area with a matrix of pixels above the camera sensor.

In most cases, the UDC can still be seen on the display

This matrix is more pronounced that the rest of the display only because it has bigger pixels. So naturally, the UDC stays fairly visible especially when using a white background. But sometimes, it tends to disappear completely, which we think is what Samsung intended it to be. Most of the time, content blended in fairly seamlessly and the area was hard to distinguish. However, glancing a little more than a second makes the UDC fairly obvious. We think this is a good step into achieving full immersion, although it is still not perfect.

With white backgrounds, sometimes the camera becomes more pronounced and at other times, less visible

While on this topic, it is also worth mentioning the seam of the inner display. At a 90-degree angle, it is extremely difficult to see it. When you are busy scrolling through content or watching a video, it disappears almost completely. But when using the display at an angle, it becomes more evident. You can also feel the seam when swiping across the display. This is not a huge deal personally although many people I showed the Galaxy Fold 3 to said they were put off by the lack of a seamless feel.

User experience and performance

Under the hood, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is decked out. You find a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip inside alongside 12GB of RAM and up to 512GB of storage. This is Samsung’s only flagship alongside the Galaxy Z Flip 3 with the Snapdragon 888 chip, which is known to hold a slight edge over Samsung’s in-house Exynos 2100 found on the Galaxy S21 series.

Multitasking on the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s large display is fantastic

Naturally, daily performance on the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is smooth. It can handle multiple application in memory without budging, and even run split-screen applications and a window on top. Samsung’s software optimization on Android 11 and One UI also truly takes advantage of this hardware. Using its Labs feature, it has finally introduced a way to make all applications run in split-screen. This was a much requested feature over the years that has now made it to the Galaxy Z Fold 3. Another one within the same menu is the ability to vary aspect ratios of applications.

When using the inner display of the device, applications tend to behave differently. For example, Instagram opens in a 16:9 window whereas Twitter expands to take up the entire display. But with the introduction of this option, you can now choose how you want applications to be displayed. Lastly, there is Samsung’s Taskbar. This is a software tweak that lets you have a permanent column of applications on-screen. While useful, we did not feel the need to use it throughout our review period. And this was because we also did not have access to S Pen features. Using the Taskbar comes most intuitively when using the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s S Pen. Naturally, without it, we did not feel the need to enable this feature.

Continuing on this path for a fluid experience, there is another feature that we particularly like. Enabling this in the settings allows you applications to dynamically switch between the inner and outer display. As soon as we set up the Galaxy Z Fold 3, this was the first thing we did. And it proved to be useful until we started encountering a few bugs.

While switching between displays, some applications needed to be closed and re-opened. At other times, the application itself seemed like it could not get optimized for the display change on the fly. For example, if you open up YouTube, you will see five options on the taskbar found on the home screen. However, when you close the Galaxy Z Fold 3, you will only see three options on the outer display. This might either be a software bug for the smartphone or for the YouTube application, however we hope that Samsung can fix this with a future software update.

Using Flex Mode to watch videos with your screen propped up is an added convenience

Taking advantage of the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s form factor, another big feature is Flex Mode. Using this, you can prop up the smartphone like a laptop and use its inner display in two sections. This works well if you want to control the camera and have its viewfinder on the top of half of the display. Otherwise, it is also useful when watching YouTube videos while scrolling through recommendations or comments. Or just having your smartphone propped up when in bed.

Lastly, we want to address gaming. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 can play just about any game thanks to its internals. However, the game in turn will also need to be optimised. For example, Call of Duty: Mobile maintains a 60fps experience even on maximum settings. However, a game like Genshin Impact will push the smartphone to its limits. Performance deteriorates as your gaming sessions increase, presumably because of rising temperatures. Although these were not too concerning, touching about 41C and not more than that.

Camera performance

The most uninspiring part about the Galaxy Z Fold 3 experience is the camera. On its rear, you find a triple-12MP setup made up of a wide, ultra-wide and telephoto lens. However, the actual sensors seem to be similar to the Galaxy Note10 series experience. Therefore, you do not find a high-resolution camera sensor nor high-power zoom range like on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

The camera setup on the Galaxy Z Fold 3 could have been better

For regular photo capture, the trio of cameras perform well. They have good dynamic range retention and color reproduction. Although oddly, we found the shutter speed on the setup to be a bit slower than your typical flagship experience. Furthermore, not having the ability to zoom into far away objects was a huge miss. While 2x optical used to be enough, seeing up to 10x optical zoom from the Galaxy S21 Ultra has spoilt us.

Another aspect of this camera setup that is a bit disappointing is its low-light performance. In situations indoors or during the night, the sensors really show their age. Even with night mode enabled, you tend to find mixed results. Sometimes, the camera does a good job but at other times, you will be disappointed. And the latter is definitely not a feeling you want to experience having paid a premium for the smartphone.

Accompanying the primary setup, you find a 10MP cover display camera and a 4MP UDC. The cover display camera does a good job of retaining dynamic range especially in challenging lighting situations. We found that it also worked well for portrait images. However, it felt like it was trying to overcompensate for something by sharpening photos a bit too much.

With regards to the 4MP UDC, we are not a big fan. This is perhaps the biggest downgrade we have seen on any incremental iteration of a smartphone. Its resolution is just now enough for 2021 and while it may do a decent job in good lighting, it will still not be as good as the cover display camera. In low-light, pictures fall apart and in challenging lighting conditions, it almost seems like you blend in with the lights. This downgrade in quality also impacts Flex Mode video call usage and core functionality, with the UDC not being able to take portrait selfies. We understand Samsung did this for the uninterrupted viewing experience and maybe it was successful to an extent. But living with a downgrade in picture quality especially from the previous generation Galaxy Z Fold 2 is an aspect that does not quite sit right.

Video performance

The rear setup of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 can record up to 4K 60fps footage. Throughout our testing, we found its results to be good. With optical image stabilization (OIS) on both the wide and ultra-wide lens, it gave us a decent amount of flexibility. You also find a steady mode here which works similar to the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s. The cover display camera can also record at 4K 60fps however the UDC cannot. It is capped at 1080p 60fps and performance is visibly different. In fact, when video calling a friend, they asked why our camera quality dropped so much when switching from the outer display to the inner one.

Battery life

Running the show, there is a 4,400mAh battery on the Galaxy Z Fold 3. On paper, this is a downgrade. However, real-life performance showed that with Samsung’s optimization, the battery life on the smartphone is fairly impressive. On its first day, it drained faster than usual however since then, it has been solid. Using the smartphone extensively on 5G and WiFi results in about 6.5 hours of screen-on time (SOT) which bumps up to around 8 hours when on WiFi alone. If you use the smartphone more conservatively, it could last even longer.

But these numbers depend purely on usage. If you are a heavy user throughout the day, especially using the inner display, we feel you will need to plug-in around the early evening if you want your smartphone to survive the night. Another option could be to use wireless charging throughout the day which in turn could keep your smartphone topped up. On the Galaxy Z Fold 3, you get 10W wireless charging support and 4.5W reverse wireless charging for accessories as well. As for wired charging, you are looking at 25W which takes roughly 1 hour and 26 minutes to fully recharge. Like Samsung’s earlier flagships for this year, no charging brick is provided out of the box so you will have to buy it separately.

Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3?

Leading up to the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s launch, Samsung teased it as a smartphone that pushes the envelope even further. We think when it comes to build quality, display, performance, hardware and software, the Z Fold 3 has done it. But its sacrifice in optics lets it down. Today, budget smartphones have gotten incredibly good. Therefore, consumers are willing to pay an extra premium for more reliable optics. And unfortunately, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 cannot provide that. We are certain that Samsung will improve camera performance with future software updates although hardware is the biggest limitation here. For Dh6,799, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is not cheap. And this makes sense given the engineering behind the smartphone. But if Samsung ensured a more reliable camera package on both the front and back of the Galaxy Z Fold 3, it would have made it the most all-rounded smartphone, ever.

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