Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 Review: The Most Polished, Well-Rounded Foldable Yet
The original Samsung Galaxy Fold was a bleeding-edge, futuristic product—a screen that folded in half—that was as much about flaunting never-before-seen technology as it is about practical usability. As impressive technically as it was, it was a bit rough around the edges, and I ultimately concluded that only diehard enthusiasts should pay the $2,000 for one.
A year later in 2020, the second-gen Fold 2 made so many major improvements—slimming bezels and making the hinge much sturdier—that I could finally recommend the Fold 2 to smartphone fans.
With this year’s Galaxy Z Fold 3 (the extra Z branding added last year), Samsung clearly aimed to make the foldable more mainstream and accessible, so instead of further chasing big changes, Samsung instead refined and added polish to the foldable.
The result is a phone that feels at first very similar to the Fold 2, but use it for a day or so, and it becomes apparent that the refinements and polish have significantly broadened the foldable phone’s appeal.
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The price is still a bit high to call the Fold 3 a mainstream device for the masses, but a lot of the reservations that interested buyers may have had with the last two Folds have been addressed this year.
Design and hardware
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 looks and feels like the Galaxy Z Fold 2, so expect a 7.6-inch tablet that folds in the middle like a book to become a narrow, candy bar-shaped smartphone. The Fold 3’s brains got the usual annual processor upgrade to a Snapdragon 888, and the outside (non-folding) screen sees its refresh rate double to 120Hz from last year. The inside screen has a new film material that feels less plasticky than before and more like glass. That’s about it as far as noticeable, tangible differences. The camera system, type of memory used, screen resolution and dimensions remain unchanged from last year’s Fold 2.
The Fold 3 is a hair lighter, narrower and thinner, but it’s not really noticeable unless you grab one phone right after the other. If you’ve held a Fold 2, you already know how the Fold 3 feels in the hand.
This is not a bad thing: I love the versatility of the Fold 3 (and Fold 2). When closed, it’s a small phone I can use with one hand easily. Unfolded, it’s a small tablet that shows more information than any smartphone.
But as mentioned, Samsung did, in fact, bring practical refinements that don’t immediately show themselves. For example, the aluminum used to construct the hinge and frame of the phone is stronger, according to Samsung. That aforementioned new film material is also supposedly more durable and scratch resistance than last year’s.
The Fold 3 also gains official water resistance and stylus support. The former is an IPX8 rating, meaning the phone can be submerged under water for up to 30 minutes without problems. Stylus support, meanwhile, only works on the inside folding screen, and requires a separate purchase of new styluses Samsung built exclusively for the Fold 3.
Both of these are feats of incredible hardware engineering previously thought impossible: a folding phone with moving parts and an open hinge that is water-proof? A soft, plastic folding screen that can survive being poked around by a stylus?
Samsung made one more practical improvement: it managed to lower the price of the Fold 3 to $1,800 in the U.S. and HK$14,598 in Hong Kong, this is roughly 10% cheaper than the previous two Folds at launch.
Officially Samsung says they managed to lower the price due to being more efficient at production and assembly, but realistically, I know it’s also because the Fold 3 reused the exact same camera hardware from last year.
This camera system—a triple 12-megapixel lens setup—is pretty good in a vacuum, but falls way short of the standards set by top slab phones like Samsung’s own S21 Ultra or Xiaomi’s Mi 11 Ultra. Even in the foldable space, the Fold 3’s cameras fall behind the Huawei Mate X2.
But this is a smart move on Samsung’s part because lowering the price of a foldable while making it more durable is going to increase mainstream appeal. To most people, the saving and added durability is more important than having a better zoom camera.
One of my biggest gripes with Apple’s stubborn iOS software is that it runs exactly the same across all of its iPhones big and small. This means if you upgrade from a 5.4-inch iPhone 12 Mini to a 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max, you’re not actually seeing more content, just the same content in bigger size. Likewise, Apple made absolutely no adjustments in UX (user experience) for the larger Max screen. The same buttons that are placed in the upper left corners of a small iPhone is still in the upper left corner of a huge iPhone.
Samsung, thankfully, doesn’t subscribe to Apple’s peculiar draconian software quirks. Samsung made a myriad of changes to the Fold 3’s user experience to accommodate the large and folding screen. For example, the Fold 3, like last year’s Fold 2, can fold halfway to become a laptop-shaped device. Samsung has designed many apps to take advantage of this unique form factor. For example, in the camera app, the viewfinder will move to the upper half of the screen, with the bottom half (the base) showing controls. In YouTube, the video will move to the upper half, leaving the bottom half free to show comments.
This form is very useful, as the Fold 3 can essentially serve as its own tripod/stand, allowing hands-free selfies, video calls.
Elsewhere, most first party Samsung apps, as well as the user interface within the phone will adjust to the larger screen size, showing more multi-pane panels and information.
To use a stylus with the Fold 3, you will have to buy a new S-Pen (Samsung’s official name for its stylus) released just for the Fold 3. Due to the nature of the folding screen, Samsung had to use a different Wacom digitizer underneath the panel, so previous Samsung S-Pens will not work.
There are two models for the Fold 3, a $99 S-Pen Pro and a $49 S-Pen Fold Edition. The Fold Edition is more compact and only works for the Fold 3; the Pro is a longer model that works for the Fold 3 plus all existing Samsung products that support the stylus.
I only tested the Pro model, but the stylus experience is good but not without flaws that come naturally with a foldable display. Latency is low, pressure sensitivity is good, and the Pro has built-in Bluetooth so it can be used as a remote control for the phone. But the slight indentations in the crease can get in the way of pen strokes.
I can see the S-Pen experience enhancing the Fold 3 as a do-it-all productivity machine.
There’s one headline grabbing part of the Fold 3 I haven’t mentioned until here: the Fold 3’s inner screen features an under-screen camera. I didn’t bother mentioning this until now because quite frankly, the camera isn’t very good. It’s a 4-megapixel sensor, so it’s not the sharpest photo, and Samsung’s implementation does not hide the camera nearly as well as Xiaomi. When the camera not in use, you can still see an outline of the camera flickering underneath the screen.
However, there is one big caveat: the Fold 3 has two selfie cameras. So even though the under-screen selfie camera is below par, there’s still the normal 10-megapixel selfie camera on the outside screen that does a good job. So this is a non-issue for me. Samsung found the right place to experiment new tech: a secondary backup selfie camera.
With a Snapdragon 888 and 12GB of RAM, the Fold 3 performs like the premium flagship phone that it is. Both the smaller outside screen and the inside folding screen are sharp, vivid, and refreshes at 120Hz for buttery smooth animations.
The cameras are capable, but the zoom lens lag behind the Periscope zoom lenses seen in the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra or Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra.
The Fold 3’s design also makes for a more fun shooting experience, such as the aforementioned ability of the phone to prop itself up for hands-free group photos. You can also use the main camera system to take selfies when it’s unfolded because there is a screen on both sides of the phone.
Conclusion: a refined foldable experience
Despite the fact that I am slightly disappointed by the Fold 3’s cameras, the phone is overall still the most polished and exciting smartphone release of the year so far, because the Fold 3 really changes the way most of us will use a phone.
I am more productive when using the Fold 3 (and the Fold 2 before it) than when I’m on a normal slab phone. The larger screen lets me run two apps side-by-side, and editing documents on the go is less straining on the eyes.
The biggest concerns foldable skeptics have had with foldables is that they’re more fragile and expensive than traditional phones. Samsung has addressed both of these concerns: the Fold 3 uses stronger materials all around, is water-proofed, and cheaper than before. This is almost unheard of in smartphones the past few years, as phones have only become more and more expensive.
If you’ve been curious about foldable technology, this new generation of Samsung foldables may just be convincing enough. For me? I’ve been sold since day one.