Folding phones seem, intuitively, like a great idea. Phones are good! Tablets are good! Assemble the two, fold them in half and voila: you have done the best of both worlds. Thanks also to Samsung for willingly putting itself through all the growing pains in figuring out how to make a good foldable phone. Last year’s Galaxy Z Fold 3 was a good foldable, and the new Z Fold 4 looks to be even better, if ever so slightly. (I have many thoughts on the new era of flip phones, like the Z Flip 4, but we’ll save those for another day.)
What Samsung hasn’t done – what no one has done yet, really – is explain why you’d actually want a foldable phone. And until that can explain why it’s worth all the extra cost and compromise, I find it hard to understand why you’d be willing to give up the phone you know and love to have.
What Samsung has to do with the Galaxy Fold (and the rest of the industry eventually will have to do with their own foldables) is convince people that it’s worth buying a phone that’s more expensive, more fragile, and that takes up more space in your pocket.
The worst thing about foldables right now is that they force you to make significant sacrifices on the most important device you own: your smartphone. The new Fold 4 is a bit shorter, about an ounce heavier, and about twice as thick as the Galaxy S22 Ultra. It’s also $600 more expensive. The Ultra has a bigger battery, better camera specs, and a 6.8-inch display that supports an S Pen. The Fold 4, when opened, is noticeably larger, but the candy bar phones still get a lot bigger. And Fold is sacrificing a lot for more real estate.
It’s not even clear to me that Samsung knows why you should make all these sacrifices. On its website, one of the company’s top selling points is that you can prop the screen up on a table by opening it halfway to watch or take videos hands-free. Here, in reality, we call it a kickstand, and this one is extremely expensive. In this mode, you’re also only using half the screen, which defeats the whole purpose.
Multitasking seems to be the foldable’s only real benefit so far. Open your Galaxy Fold and you can run two apps side by side or even three or four on the screen at once! This, I agree, is a delightful thing. Being able to use my browser and my notes app side by side or see my calendar and email together is much better than constantly swiping between two full-screen apps. And seeing two pages at once in the Kindle app is the best. And you know what? Big screens are just plain good – good for gaming, good for reading, good for watching Netflix.
But these aren’t just arguments in favor of foldables; these are arguments for tablets. And so far, the arguments in favor of Android tablets do not seem to convince many users. While Android has improved as a big-screen operating system and the Android 12L-based Fold 4’s software is a good sign, too many foldable-optimized apps are actually just sticking a giant sidebar on one side, which doesn’t accomplish much. Others just stretch everything to fit the bigger screen. Don’t even get me started on how the vast majority of apps deal with Microsoft’s approach of two separate screens attached with a hinge.
Samsung has done an admirable job of weaving all of Android’s quirks into the Fold’s display, and in general, it’s not that the Fold doesn’t work; it’s that there’s nothing in the Fold that’s noticeably better than the phone or tablet you might already be carrying around. And putting them in one device makes them both a bit worse.
Over the years, I’ve been seduced by a number of attempts to make a device that can do it all. There were modular devices, such as Google’s Project Ara and the Asus PadFone. There were Essential’s and Motorola’s expandable phones and others. Either way, they ended up being mediocre versions of everything that somehow amounted to less than the sum of their parts. Right now, foldables are stuck in one place: big, unwieldy, and expensive phones that expand into small tablets that die too quickly, both in terms of battery life and durability.
The other approach to the multi-screen future is to try to create the best version of each device, let users choose which one they want to use at any given time, and ensure that their software, settings and data flow seamlessly into the ecosystem. That’s, pretty much, Apple’s approach: it’ll happily sell you a Mac, an iPad, and an iPhone based on the idea that they’re all for different things, then use iCloud and the App Store to make everything work on these devices. . It might end up costing more – although you can buy an iPhone 13 and iPad Mini for less than the Fold 4 – but it comes with fewer trade-offs.
Yet I say all this and yet I can’t help myself: I want the interpolation devices to work. I want a touchscreen Mac, and I want a foldable phone that’s both a great phone and a great tablet. That would mean less stuff to load, less stuff to update, and less stuff to carry. But I’m not going to downgrade my phone just to get a half-decent tablet, and it still feels like the state of the foldable.