Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 review: incremental innovation

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 review: incremental innovation

I have a confession: I’m not really into tablets. The last one I bought was in 2012, and I think my cat technically owns it now. They feel too much like a neither-here-nor-there device to me — too underpowered to do computer stuff, too big and cumbersome to do phone stuff.

The Galaxy Z Fold 4 tricked me into liking a tablet.

There’s a seeing-is-believing aspect to using the Galaxy Z Fold 4. I get what it is in theory: small when you need to do phone stuff and big when you want to do tablet stuff. But it wasn’t until I used the Fold 4 to compile and submit an expense report that I really understood the power of this device. It’s the power of not having to get up off the couch to go get my laptop. It’s glorious.

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This is all true of the Fold 3 (and the previous versions, but those had more significant problems). So what exactly does the Fold 4 bring to the table? As best as I can tell after a week living with the phone, not much. This isn’t a fundamentally different experience, but it is a tiny bit better. Take the cover screen — it’s only a few millimeters wider, but it’s ever so slightly nicer to use than the screen on the previous version, which felt more like a remote control. The cover screen is the thing you look at and type texts on a hundred times per day, so those few millimeters make a difference.

That’s the whole gist of this phone. Lots of things are a little nicer; nothing is radically better. In some aspects, that means playing catch-up to what virtually every other flagship phone offers, like a decent telephoto camera. In other ways, it’s a refinement of the unique features this foldable brings to the table — it’s just a little more intuitive and comfortable to use. The Fold 4 is still very expensive, and it’s still a gadget person’s gadget. But if you’ve been interested in the Fold and watching for Samsung to work the bugs out of the system, then this is the foldable phone you’ve been waiting for.

There is one minor catch: the price. The Galaxy Z Fold 4 costs $1,799, like the Fold 3 did when it was introduced. Yes, it is a remarkable innovation. Yes, it could replace a phone and a tablet. But even so, that’s a heck of a lot of money. We also don’t know how well the design will hold up four or five years from now. Sinking eighteen hundred dollars into a phone is just not an option for most people before we even consider the long-term durability concerns.

A little more phone-like, a little less of a remote control.
Photo by Allison Johnson / The Verge

Let’s start with screens. The hinge and bezels are a little smaller than on the Fold 3, which gives the 6.2-inch cover screen a bit more room. It has a resolution of 2316 x 904 resolution and a 23.1:9 aspect ratio — a little wider than the Fold 3’s 2268 x 832 display with 24.5:9 ratio. Coming from a standard, large slab phone, it felt a little cramped at first, but after about a day, I was used to it. The keyboard still requires a little more concentration than I’d prefer to hit the right keys. But this experience feels about 90 percent of the way to a normal phone with something closer to a 19.5:9 screen.

Likewise, the main screen still measures 7.6 inches like last year’s, now with a 2176 x 1812 resolution and 21.6:18 aspect ratio compared to 2208 x 1768 and 22.5:18. The screen is so big to begin with that the slight shift in aspect ratio really doesn’t make a difference. It is, was, and (probably!) always will be a big-ass screen for a phone. The inner and outer screens all offer up to 120Hz refresh rates, so scrolling is smooth no matter how you’re using the phone.

Looks normal-ish from here.

Still about as thick as two phones glued together.

At 263 grams, the Z Fold 4 is a heavy, chunky phone compared to even the biggest slab-style phones: the iPhone 13 Pro Max weighs 240 grams, while Samsung’s own S22 Ultra is 229 grams. These are all more than half a pound; Pop Sockets are having a real moment!

I can use it one-handed for a minute if I need to, but it’s too heavy and unwieldy to try that for much longer. It’s also prone to tumbling out of the pocket of my joggers when I sit down, and hearing this $1,800 phone thud onto a hardwood floor makes me sick to my stomach.

Samsung didn’t provide a case with my review unit, and I’m not normally a case gal, but for the Fold, I’d make an exception. As it was, I ended up setting it on a counter rather than keeping it in my pocket throughout the day. It’s technically smaller than the Fold 3, but just barely: 8 grams lighter — roughly the weight of a quarter and a penny — and 0.2mm thinner.

When unfolded in tablet mode, there’s still a prominent crease on the inner screen. Depending on the viewing angle and what’s on the screen, though, it’s not very noticeable a lot of the time. It’s something I got used to easily, and even when I could see it, it didn’t bother me — not even when my thumb ran over it while gaming.

The UDC is obvious when you look right at it, otherwise it blends in well.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

The crease is visible in the right light, but it’s not usually bothersome.
Photo by Allison Johnson / The Verge

The under-display camera (or UDC) on the main screen is a little better hidden than previous models — Samsung rearranged the pixel layer on top of it to try and mask it better. It has a weird kind of blind spot effect. If I’m not looking right at it, I don’t see it at all in my peripheral vision. But as soon as something on the screen draws my eye to it, it’s glaringly obvious.

This is definitely a me thing, but it looks similar to the visual aura I see right before I have a migraine. I’m sure I have some low-level PTSD response to it, so maybe it’s not all that noticeable to most people. In any case, the image quality from the 4-megapixel UDC is still bad, but thankfully, there are plenty of much better cameras you can use on the Fold 4 for selfie purposes. The UDC will do in a pinch for video calls, but it’s best thought of as a last resort.

Samsung has tweaked some of the big-screen software features on the Fold 4, starting with relocating the taskbar from the side of the screen to the bottom. It’s on by default, too, which is a change from the sidebar behavior on the Fold 3. Tapping and holding the taskbar will hide it from view, and repeating the same gesture will bring it back. You can also turn it off entirely if you don’t like it. Again, these are subtle moves, but they make the experience right out of the box more like what you’d expect from a laptop or an iPad.

The taskbar along the bottom of the screen stays put by default.

The Fold 4 also provides more ways to enter split screen mode to start doing what this phone was made for: multitasking like there’s no tomorrow. With an app open on the main screen, you can still initiate split screen by dragging and dropping another app to the display. This time around, you can also start split screen view by swiping with two fingers from the bottom or sides of the screen.

This is off by default, so you have to enable it in settings, and it works well enough, but personally, I didn’t find it as useful as the old drag-and-drop method. You can also have apps always show a button for multiscreen options — that’s a little handle at the top of an app window that normally appears once you’re in a split screen view. With the handle always visible, you can just tap it for split screen or to open the current app in a pop-up window.

Samsung was non-committal when we asked whether these software features would be ported to previous Fold devices, but it seems highly likely that the taskbar will at least. I hope they do. They don’t radically change how you use the phone, but they feel intuitive to me, a first-time Fold user.

It didn’t take long to figure out the multiscreen interface, and once I did, my entire understanding of the Fold changed. I have a mental list of tasks that I’d rather complete on my laptop rather than on my phone — things that require cross-referencing an email and a browser window or jumping between apps frequently. While using the Fold 4, that list got way shorter. I put together a grocery order, comparison-shopped baby gates, and even published a blog post about the Fold 4 while using the Fold 4.

Take that expense report, for example. That would normally go on the “must do on a laptop” list since it requires cross-referencing my Starbucks app order history, my credit card statement, and Concur. I kept all three apps open on-screen at once, and it was a fairly pleasant experience — I mean, as pleasant as compiling an expense report can be. Best of all — and this bears repeating — I didn’t have to get off of the couch to get my laptop. I also didn’t have to set down my laptop and pick up my phone when a two-factor authentication text arrived. It was all just there in my hand.

Of course, the Fold 4 has to deliver the performance to keep up with all of those tasks, and it does. It uses a Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 processor, like every other recent Android flagship not made by Google, and all variations come with 12GB of RAM. In my testing, it ran Genshin Impact without a problem, and it handled multiple apps at once with ease.

The $1,799 base model comes with 256GB of storage — there’s no card slot for expansion (not that you’d need one with all that space), no headphone jack, and no charging brick in the box. All par for the course these days. As on the Fold 3, the Fold 4 supports Samsung’s S Pen stylus — specifically, the foldable edition of the S Pen designed for the delicate inner screen on the Fold series. The cover screen doesn’t support the stylus, which would be really useful for taking quick notes, and the S pen itself is $49 — sold separately, of course.

I didn’t find much use for Flex mode on the Fold, but it looks neat, I guess?
Photo by Allison Johnson / The Verge

The Fold 4, like its predecessor, has a 4,400mAh battery. There’s no change to wired charging speeds — still 25W — but wireless charging is a little speeder at 15W versus 11W (provided that you’re using one of Samsung’s own fast wireless chargers).

In my experience, the battery got me through a day of heavy use, but I wouldn’t count on more than that. I got five hours of screen time during a demanding day, including 30 minutes of video streaming, some navigation, and most time spent on wireless data rather than Wi-Fi, and the phone was right down into the single digits by bedtime. If you’d like the Fold 4 to replace a tablet, then this is one thing to bear in mind — you’ll get good battery performance for a phone, not the days-long battery life of a tablet.

There’s no change in IP rating this year — the Fold 4 is IPX8 rated, meaning you can submerge it in freshwater, but it’s not dustproof. Dust is something to worry about, too. Particles getting into the screen by way of the hinge would wreak havoc on the screen, as we learned with the Fold’s first (doomed) iteration. The hinge now includes sweeper brushes to try to keep dust out, but it’s hard to say how effective they’ll be over the course of three or four years of daily use. On the surface level, there’s a pre-applied, non-user-replaceable screen protector. Samsung says it’s using stronger adhesive this year to keep it in place, likely as a response to reports from prior Fold owners of the protector coming unglued and creating “bubbles” between it and the screen. Fingers crossed it works better.

The Fold 3 may have marked a serious step in taking foldables mainstream, but its camera system still fell short of the mainline flagships. The question this year is whether the Fold’s cameras are fitting for a flagship phone, and I think the Fold 4 gets a passing grade this time around. The main camera sensor gets a bump from 12 to 50 megapixels, but the best improvement might be the increase from 2x to a 3x telephoto. There’s no 10x zoom, but maybe Samsung’s saving that for an (inevitable?) Fold Ultra.

The portrait mode improvements we saw on the S22 series are here, too, and that’s a great thing. The 3x tele lens on the S22 produces some of the best portrait mode shots I’ve ever seen, and the Fold 4 is capable of excellent portraits, too. Photos from the 3x zoom taken in the standard photo mode look good, too. And anyway, a 2x lens just doesn’t get you much closer to your subject, so I’m glad to see the bump up to a more useful 3x here.

Otherwise, there’s nothing remarkable about the Fold 4’s rear cameras. The phone’s image processing goes for a punchy look with vivid colors and sometimes gets a little overzealous with the HDR, just like any other Samsung flagship. The cover screen’s 10-megapixel selfie camera does just fine, even in dim light. The 4-megapixel UDC still looks fairly smeary, and I’d only use it as a last resort.

The Fold 4 lacks any serious competition in the US market.

In my mind, there are a few things holding the Fold 4 back from being an incredible device. The first is the price — it is just too high. I hope the focus of Samsung’s foldable innovation in the future will be on making this kind of product accessible to more people. And then there’s the Android tablet app ecosystem. When I encountered problems using the phone in multiscreen mode, the Fold didn’t let me down — Android apps did. Most of them are still just phone apps stretched out over a bigger canvas rather than tablet apps. This leaves a lot of unused blank space, and I found myself opening more apps just to use the empty space for something.

Even with the slight size adjustments this year, there’s still a bit of a Goldilocks situation — some apps feel a little too cramped on the cover screen but don’t take up enough space to justify using the main screen. Instagram feels a little too small on the cover screen, but it opens up in the middle of the main screen in a 16:9 window with letterbox bars on either side. You can change it in settings to open at 4:3 or across the full screen, but then you won’t be able to see the full content of some posts at once. Just build a tablet app already, Instagram.

Apps are also prone to the occasional bug I don’t have to worry about when I’m completing the same task on my laptop. I encountered a couple of these while trying to push the limits of what I’d comfortably do on a phone. While putting in an Amazon Fresh order, every time I tried to search Fresh for an item and use the search bar autocomplete, it returned results from Amazon, not Fresh. That would be fine if I wanted 140 frozen breakfast sandwiches in two days, but I just wanted four of them the next morning. I stopped using autocomplete and just typed out whole words, and it worked fine. None of this is the Fold’s fault exactly, but it’s one way that the tablet experience still falls short of a good ol’ personal computer.

The Fold 4 still feels too thick and cumbersome when folded (maybe Samsung can copy Xiaomi’s homework on the next generation Fold). I can use it as my daily phone, but it’s just heavy and chunky enough that I don’t want to. I couldn’t quite figure out a comfortable way to watch video hands-free either, which seems like something you should be able to do. In its L-shaped Flex mode position, content moves to the top half of the screen with controls — including a new touchpad — on the bottom. It works well enough, but the top half of the screen is so narrow it’s like looking through a letterbox. It’s fine for one YouTube video while I’m eating lunch, but I definitely wouldn’t want to watch a whole movie that way.

More than once during my time testing the Fold 4, I caught myself marveling that the device I was using was also a phone. Maybe I was cross-referencing an email from my mother-in-law with Amazon reviews of baby gates. Or I was hitting “submit” on an expense report. I am nothing short of amazed at what this device can do, and I’m impressed at how mature it feels. Using it doesn’t feel like using a kind of supercharged prototype. This feels like a product that has hit its stride.

Multitasking like there’s no tomorrow doesn’t come cheap.
Photo by Allison Johnson / The Verge

The Fold 4 is an achievement, but it’s also a luxury item. The high price, the question mark around long-term durability, and the occasional fussiness of the Android tablet app ecosystem make it a device you have to really want to use. And personally, I’m too hard on my phone to comfortably make this my daily driver. The bottom of my purse is the dustiest environment in the world, and I don’t love the main screen’s chances against my toddler if he ever got ahold of it.

This is the point in a review when I’d normally steer you toward alternatives to the phone I’m reviewing — devices that have X feature that this one doesn’t or do Y better. Samsung has made my job very easy this time around: if you live in the US, then I have no alternatives to suggest. For a serious multitasking folding phone, this is the only game in town (sorry, Surface Duo 2, but you’re just too awkward as a phone). If you’re a Fold 3 owner, there’s no reason to upgrade — it’s a marginally better experience but not worth the price of trading it in, even with Samsung’s aggressive incentives.

If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines waiting for the Fold series to mature, then I think now’s the time to get in. But before you plunk down $1,800 of your hard-earned money (or sell your soul to your wireless carrier), just promise me that you’ll go forth with open eyes, understanding its shortcomings. It’s heavy and chunky. It sometimes feels like overkill for basic tasks, and you have to live within the boundaries of the Android tablet app ecosystem. It’s not for the faint of heart. But if you agree to those terms, then the Fold 4 is just the gadget-y gadget you’ve been looking for.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge

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