Review: Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold4 is brilliant for work but will bend your budget

 

If you want the flagship phone that almost no-one else has, this is it. It’s generally good at everything it does and is unique in its core offering: a screen that folds out into something much bigger. But it’ll cost you at least €1,900, far more than any other smartphone.

or that, you’ll get Samsung’s most refined big-screen foldout phone to date, with a separate 6.2-inch narrow front display that lets you do almost everything a normal smartphone can do, for the times you won’t want a tablet in your hand

So would you use that big, square-ish 7.6-inch display much? And if so, for what?

If not, you could save yourself at least €600 and get Samsung’s S22 Ultra, which does almost everything as good as (or better than) the Fold4, with the exception of not folding out to a much bigger display.

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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Adrian Weckler

 

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Adrian Weckler

 

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Adrian Weckler

I’ve been using the Fold4 as my main phone for over a week. In that time, I’ve learned to appreciate some aspects of the large foldout screen while also seeing some of the compromises it brings.

For obvious reasons in this review, I’m focusing mainly on the pros and cons of that large display, as that’s the main reason anyone would consider buying this.

If you want my verdict on the cameras (very good), battery life (good, but not best in class), S-Pen stylus (good, but no storage on the phone) and other elements, you’ll have to scroll a fair bit down to get past the big screen analysis.

Understood? Okay, let’s get into it.

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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Adrian Weckler

 

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Adrian Weckler

 

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Adrian Weckler

……

Price: €1,909 (256GB), €2,029 (512GB), €2,299 (1TB)

Pros: great for multitasking work apps like Office and Zoom, brilliant for reading, unique gadget

Cons: very expensive, no S Pen storage, crease still very visible

……

1. The big screen

Like its predecessor, the Fold4 folds out to a 7.6-inch 120hz, Super Amoled screen, which is almost square in shape. No other smartphone on the Irish market does this. Samsung is basically giving you a totally separate phone screen and tablet screen – both with nearly the highest specifications in the market – in the same device.

In my testing, the big foldout display was generally most useful for two things: (i) using multiple apps at the same time and (ii) reading. It’s also slightly (and only slightly) better for video, but not enough to justify getting it for that. As for showing off, I found its appeal has definitely waned: people have heard about folding phones being ‘the next big thing’ for a few years, now.

If you like the idea of using or monitoring several apps at the same time, the Fold4 is truly excellent. You can split the screen into two or three different apps, with one half of the screen dedicated to one and the other half cut in half for the other one or two.

For anyone who values use of a stylus, this can be a bit of a game-changer. You can have one app open — email, or Office or whatever — and be using the Notes app to scribble ideas or points with the S Pen on another part of the screen. This is especially useful for Zoom and Teams calls (although bear in mind that the front-facing camera on the big screen is much weaker than the other selfie camera on the front, if you value a professional-looking video image on that call).

There are other use cases where this flexibility lets you sneakily get around restrictions that apps normally have. For example, one reason to subscribe to YouTube Premium is for it to play in the background when the screen is off or you’re browsing another app. But here, you don’t have to — you can just leave it on in one of the app zones while you work in Office, check email or browse the web.

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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Samsung

 

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Samsung

 

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Samsung

While this is great, I found that some apps worked very well being split up and others fought it. Apps like Instagram generally won’t play ball with being sectioned off, while YouTube is temperamental — to get a video to play at a decent size takes a looping combination of taps; it’s clear that they haven’t prioritised this functionality and are just making a basic version of it available to Samsung.

There is also a bit of a learning curve to finding your way around all of the taps and slides to make this happen. I can see some who will pick this up, not intuitively grasp what’s happening or why, and put it down again without learning the tools and tricks that could prove to be useful. It’s well worth doing a little tutorial on how to use this phone, even if this seems like an odd thing to have to do these days with a phone.

2. A wrinkle and a wrestle

The big screen isn’t all good. There is one thing that is still (literally) a wrinkle – the crease in the middle of the giant giant display where it folds over. It remains pretty visible. It’s most noticeable when you’re in a brightly lit area or outside; it’s least noticeable when there’s brightly-lit content, like a video, on the actual screen. You’ll see it almost every time you use it. It will bother some people, while others will probably just get used to it like a ‘notch’. But it’s a reminder that this isn’t actually glass as we know it.

There’s another pragmatic obstacle that I found stopped me using the big foldout screen as much as I thought I might: you can’t open it one-handed, or instantly in any other way. That means it’s double the amount of time, at least, to open the screen up, which will affect the tendency of some to do it or not do it. Typically, you’ll pick the phone up or take it out of your pocket, bring your other hand over to it, position both thumbs on the side of it and force the stiff hinge open. Nothing is spring loaded or automated to help you along. While this design decision helps it to hold a firm shape when you want it to ‘sit up’ at a 90-degree angle for a video call, it also makes it slower and more laboursome to open and close. To be fair, this is obviously why Samsung has also provided the separate, front-facing 6.2-inch display — you don’t have to open the big one out to check messages, scores or adjust your Spotify playlist.

3. Best for reading, joint best for video

Back to one of its best features, though. A thing that took me by surprise was just how good this phone’s big screen is for reading. That may sound low-tech, but consider how much time we now spend reading on our phones, from media articles to social media threads. The bigger screen means less scrolling, more flexibility on font size, or some combination of both. It also makes it easier to glance at the main points or cut through to a conclusion much more quickly. These seconds saved do actually matter when they add up over hours’ of browsing or phone use during a single day. This was probably the purest example I found of the benefit in going from a phone to a tablet-like view.

And it’s really easy to do this – whatever you’re looking at on the front display instantly transfers to the big screen if you fold it out (though not vice versa), so it’s a natural option when you see something you want to really spend some time with.

Curiously, it’s not as much better for watching video as I thought it might be with that big 7.6-inch display.

Yes, it matches the best giant phones on the market, but because of the squarish screen shape, it’s not all that much bigger than, say, an S22 Ultra or iPhone 13 Pro Max. This is especially the case with 21:9 format movies on streaming platforms such as Netflix (regular 16:9 videos on YouTube are mostly a bit larger than rival phones).

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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Samsung

 

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Samsung

 

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Samsung

Also, while the screen quality itself is excellent (and not too spongey, like some previous efforts at foldable phones), its resolution isn’t technically higher than any of the other premium flagship devices.

I should also note that while the rear casing of the phone has a pleasing-to-the-touch matte finish, this large foldout screen is a bit of a fingerprint magnet. Within a few minutes, you’ll see your smudgey digit marks all over it.

4. The second screen

While the foldout screen is the main raison-d’etre for buying this phone, it’s actually the front 6.2-inch,120hz Amoled display that you’ll end up using most. To make the phone manageably less bulky, this display is a ‘skinny’ one. This is fine for most things, but has a few challenges, too. For example, the lack of width means that the keyboard gets reduced to somewhat tiny letters, which there’s little way around. You won’t be able to play quick YouTube or Facebook videos in upright mode, either, as they’re too small to see anything.

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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Adrian Weckler

 

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Adrian Weckler

 

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4. Photo: Adrian Weckler

5. Design, look and in-hand ‘feel’

As for the Fold4’s physical design appeal, the central folding mechanism stops notions of it being ‘sleek’. For example, when folded shut, it’s a lot thicker than any other mainstream phone. That said, it’s actually less bulky in my pocket than either the S22 Ultra or the iPhone 13 Pro Max, because it’s narrower than either.

One question that has followed Samsung’s folding phones ever since the first faulty one (which was withdrawn before retail due to journalists exposing its weaknesses) was how robust it might be. Samsung says that the hinge is good for at least 200,000 folds. It certainly feels sturdy.

On the other hand, it’s fairly smooth and slippy in the hand. Unless you want cracks and chips, I’d advise getting a case for it, whether it’s Samsung’s current freebie offer (see below) or another of your choice.

Aesthetically, Samsung’s hinge design creates a slightly uneven gap, which may be enough to trigger one’s OCD when viewed sideways on a table. Looked at through a gadgeteer’s eyes, though, I can see it might be regarded as a thing of desire. It’s a reminder that you have the smartphone version of a Swiss knife, a device that does something almost no other rival does.

 

It’s also definitely more elegant-looking than some previous versions. In general, Samsung now makes pretty refined-looking smartphones. Gone are its days of putting curved glass at the edges, flashy just for the sake of it. It’s somehow very tidy, too, as well as being quite light (it’s around the same weight as an iPhone 13 Pro Max).

6. Using the S Pen stylus

As mentioned above, the S Pen has something of enhanced usefulness with the Fold4, because of the ability it gives you to take notes (principally on Samsung’s Notes app) when multitasking with other work apps. The ‘Fold Edition’ S Pen doesn’t come with the phone itself, but is included (along with a cover and a 25W charger) for those who buy it from Samsung before the end of this year (2022); if I was buying a Fold4, I’d definitely get an S Pen. It’s a very simple, slim stylus that doesn’t need to be charged and writes very smoothly on the large screen (though not the front screen). It’s handy and appropriately sized for the Fold4.

For those who don’t get it with the special offer pack this year, the only real drawback is that, unlike the S22 Ultra, there’s nowhere to store it on the phone.

7. Cameras

The Fold4 comes with what is basically a fully-stacked set of high-end cameras, with an extra one to cater for its unique fold-out screen.

While these aren’t quite at the level of the S22 Ultra, they’re close enough as makes little difference to the vast majority of people, even those who prioritise really good smartphone cameras.

The main rear cameras comprise, as you’d expect, a 12-megapixel ultrawide (0.5x), a 50-megapixel wide (1x) and a 10-megapixel telephoto (3x) lens.

In my testing, these are generally excellent. Both the main 0.5x and 1x cameras are really sharp and reliable. Samsung seems to have calmed its AI down a bit, too, so you don’t get that slightly harsh, contrasty finish that it used to prize in its high-end cameras.

The 3x optical telephoto zoom camera is pretty much on par with the best zoom cameras you can buy, including the iPhone 13 Pro Max (3x). That means that you’ll get very good photos up to about 7x or 8x and usable ones up to about 12x or 13x. Although it does digitally zoom up to 30x (Samsung calls this a ‘space zoom’), those photos mostly aren’t usable as they’re too indistinct and blurry in all but incredibly bright conditions.

Video recording is generally very good, too, with decent stabilisation at 4K up to 60 frames per second. Samsung also throws in an 8K recording mode, which is a waste of everyone’s time.

There are actually two selfie cameras – one (10-megapixel) on the front display and another (4-megapixel) on the foldout screen. It’s the latter that you’ll use for Zoom calls and, unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as good as the primary selfie camera on the front display. This is partly because it’s located under the actual display. It’s not awful, but it’s closer in quality to something from five or six years ago than a 2022 flagship phone.

There’s a night mode here, too, on both the rear and selfie cameras.

8. Battery life

Despite only having a 4,400mAh battery – which is smaller than some €200 phones you can buy – battery life ranges from good to very good; I rarely had a problem getting to 9pm with around 15pc left to spare. That doesn’t quite match the S22 Ultra, let alone battery monsters like the iPhone 13 Pro Max, but it’s just about good enough not to be larked in the ‘downsides’ category. I am expecting Samsung to keep working on this, though, as the ultimate productivity flagship phone should really have the battery life to blow all other phones away.

9. Engine power and other things

As you’d expect, this has relative megapower under the hood. My test version (€1,909) had 12GB of Ram, a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 Plus chip and 256GB of storage. Another €120 gets you 512GB of storage, which seems like a reasonable deal to me. There is a top-spec model with 1TB of storage for €2,299, but that seems to have patchier availability in Ireland.

The phone comes with face recognition, which is hit and miss. It often didn’t recognise my face, forcing me to go back to a pin number or a fingerprint. This was the case even when I put it at the least secure setting (allowing it to be unlocked from a photo of me).

There are also the usual foibles that you get when buying a Samsung phone, which may annoy you if coming from an iPhone. While it’s not the bloatware monster it used to be, there are still spammy apps loaded on here to confuse and disappoint you when you first switch it on. Samsung continues to let itself down with ‘ecosystem’ apps that are ignored or flat out useless in Ireland, such as Samsung Wallet (Ireland has no Samsung Pay), Samsung TV Plus (“not available in your country”), Samsung Free (“isn’t available”) and low-quality AI apps such as Bixby.

As a reviewer, I have to tap on these apps and services to see what their worth is. But by the time I’m through being rejected or underwhelmed by them, my faith in Samsung’s disjointed, gap-riddled ecosystem is sapped to the point of frustration.

10. Conclusion: should you get one?

Hopefully, this review should have made one thing clear: this is a phone with a very specific appeal. Not everyone will get value for it. But if you’re one of those who do, it could be the best phone you ever use.

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