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Galaxy Fold fragile screens and more: The good and bad of Samsung's new foldable phone – CNET

 Life with the Galaxy Fold took a turn on Wednesday as four of my fellow reviewers experienced bulging, flickering and malfunctioning screens. Although my particular review unit seems to be unaffected, the incident has cast doubt on the Fold's daring new bendable design. 

Let me start by telling you what I know about the review units before sharing how the device works. The Galaxy Fold goes on sale April 26 for $1,980, and Samsung handed out review units on Monday, April 15 so reviewers could get the word out the day preorders officially began. That's a common practice, and so is delivering early production devices into reviewers' hands.

These handsets are usually one of the first run, but not meant for retail sales. They may not have completely final hardware or software, which means that reviewers may experience bugs or irregularities. If that happens, reviewers usually alert the company. In this case, Samsung told me that our version of the Fold is the unlocked model for the European market. US services like Samsung Pay, Bixby and Samsung Health won't work on it, and calling might be subpar because these particular Folds aren't optimized for US carriers. Fair enough.

Look closely beyond the bezel and you can see a thin film ringing the Galaxy Fold. Samsung says this protective layer isn't a screen saver, and you shouldn't peel it off or you might damage the screen.

Angela Lang/CNET

The phone "is manufactured with a special protective layer," to cover the plastic Infinity Flex display, Samsung said earlier this week. "It is not a screen protector – do not attempt to remove it."

Because of the Fold's early production status and these screen incidents, CNET will hold our Galaxy Fold rating until the final production unit we purchased arrives. Until then, I'll continue to share my wins and losses with the Fold here.

Read: Why Galaxy Fold screens are having a meltdown and what you should do if you bought one

How my screen's holding up

I'm at Day 4 with the Galaxy Fold and thankfully no screen meltdowns so far. There is one wrinkle I noticed earlier today. More accurately, it's a dent, a tiny one on the left side of the display. 

The screen is made from plastic, not glass (because we don't have bendable glass yet), which means the cover material doesn't have the same hardness as Gorilla Glass. 

It's likely that something vicious in my purse marked up the screen when I tossed the Fold in open to finish a benchmarking test while deboarding the train -- it's really designed to be closed when you're not actively using it, but I didn't really want to stop the benchmarking test. It's a pretty tiny divot -- I'm not even really sure when it happened -- but it does speak to the fragility of this type of newborn design.

Where we are as of Thursday, April 18

My thoughts on Samsung's almost-$2,000 Galaxy Fold are taking shape. However, they're still far from set, and now I'm keeping a watchful eye on potential screen issues.

I'm definitely getting the hang of navigating the three active windows, and getting used to typing and taking photos with such a large screen. It's great how natural it's feeling to snap the phone closed to stash in a pocket or purse, and open up again to do more. 

I've passed the Galaxy Fold around to a lot of coworkers and friends in my time with it so far. I love watching their faces -- the act of bending and unbending the screen is such an "aha!" moment. For me, the first thing I noticed was its weight as I lifted the Fold off its stand. I appreciated the heft of it and the smooth, glossy glass backing. And the first time you bend it in half.

The Fold is a phone you have to understand on a physical level that words and photos don't do justice. You have to feel how much force you need to throw into it to close the device and open it again. To gauge the smoothness of that big hinge as the "wings" open and close. It isn't hard, but you do need to be deliberate, and I like the little bit of exertion the Fold demands from you. 

Galaxy Fold fragile screens and more: The good and bad of Samsung's new foldable phone     - CNET

Now playing: Watch this: Galaxy Fold is a foldable phone with a bendable screen

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It may have a large notch along with its plastic interior screen and bezel (not my favorite things), but overall the Fold still feels like a premium, cohesive device that's building a case for why it exists apart from the novelty. So far, I've used the Galaxy Fold on a very crowded subway, in a cab, on the train, in a car, walking down the street, sitting at a cafe and on an airplane. There are things that work and things that don't.

I've read the news, Tweeted, Slacked, emailed, taken photos and watched Netflix and YouTube videos. I'm not totally thrilled by some of Samsung's design decisions -- like a too-small virtual keyboard on the outside and a cumbersome one on the inside -- and I'm still waiting to see how certain features will pan out. 

But I love that I can actually zip the Fold into the pocket of a short-waisted, fitted leather jacket, and that when I've finished a session of use, I can simply close it up with a snap and stash it away. Opening and closing the Fold still feels a little special, but I was surprised at how quickly that's becoming second nature.

Although I'm excited to be exploring the Galaxy Fold, I'm not blind to questions about its durability and usability. But at this point, the novelty of learning a completely different type of device is still intoxicating. Remember, the Fold is a first-generation device. There are bound to be issues as Samsung and the industry hammer out what works and what doesn't. Samsung knows that the Fold is a luxury device that will become a status symbol for early adopters. What none of us knows is how long foldable phones will last -- fad or future?

ReadHow to buy the Galaxy Fold

Foldable phones are an insane idea, not because the phone itself bends, but because the screen does. That's a hard trick to pull off and even harder to do well -- I'll eventually let you know if this one manages it. A few years ago, a foldable phone sounded like a futuristic joke: We can't stop our regular glass phone screens from breaking, and now you want to bend them? 

But now there's enough critical mass, thanks to phone-makers like Samsung, Huawei with the Mate X and TCL, that foldable phones are becoming more real every day. Even Google's in on the action, pledging Android support so that its software will switch from one screen orientation to another as you fold and unfold the display. A little-known company sold the first foldable phone, the Royole FlexPai, but Samsung's Fold is the first "real" foldable phone for most people. 

Foldable phones will start off as ultra-expensive -- the 4G version of the Fold starts at $1,980, and the Mate X costs about $2,600 -- and there may be kinks to work out. (UK and Australian prices are TBA, but $1,980 converts to about £1,500 or AU$2,750.) But if enough people clamor for a device that puts a big screen in a little body, then a foldable phone design has the chance to change the way people use their phones: multitasking, interacting with the device and possibly even making other devices, like tablets, obsolete. I've said it before: foldable phones are the wild west.

Galaxy Fold fragile screens and more: The good and bad of Samsung's new foldable phone     - CNET

Now playing: Watch this: Epic Galaxy Fold unboxing: Samsung makes it count

6:26

I'm starting my review period in earnest and will update this frequently along the way. Come back for more observations!

When the Galaxy Fold is closed...

You can use the Galaxy Fold closed like a book or open like a tablet, but Samsung has clearly designed the Fold to be used open most of the time, and closed when you just want to do or check on something quickly. Closed, it's tall and narrow, and the 4.6-inch exterior display feels small. 

The Galaxy Fold's screen sits in the middle of the body, surrounded on all sides by thick bezels, if you want to call them that. This design gives the screen the impression of being even smaller than it is. The alternative, I suppose, would be to have an even taller screen, which might present some of its own challenges formatting common apps.

Talking on the closed-up Fold is comfortable and makes sense.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Closed is how the phone feels its most solid and sturdy (though you do get a two-part case in the box). Its weight and smooth, glass finish lend a certain gravitas. Samsung even tries to dress up the hinge by allowing you to customize with a gold or silver color if you're buying the phone in green or blue. 

The Fold's hinge moves smoothly, but a large mechanism here also makes the width of the phone's "wings" quite narrow. Closed, it looks like a sandwich. On the right side, there's a volume rocker and a power button, and the fingerprint reader doubles as the Bixby button. I've accidentally pressed it a couple times already.

I will say, when it's folded up, it feels a bit like a flip phone or older candybar phone, and is pretty convenient for placing calls. It's less convenient to launch the camera by double-pressing the power button, or unlocking the phone when it's folded up, because those buttons are on the second camel hump when the Fold is closed, so you have to reach across one layer to press them. That leads to inaccuracy.

Life is different with a 4.6-inch screen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Using apps in closed position 

When it comes to the real business of a phone -- using apps -- the more compact configuration is a bit more of a challenge.  Although the Fold's screen is much smaller than any phone you're used to, you can still access all your installed apps. Samsung preloads a large clock widget, which you can tap to get into your clock app (handy for setting an alarm), and you can change this widget up if you'd like. 

There's also the Google Search bar, and space for three app icons. You can make folders, so that helps put more on the page, and of course there are multiple home screens, so you can quickly get to your apps. The app tray is also easy to invoke by swiping up from the bottom, as you would on other phones.

Typing on that tiny screen can be a challenge.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Font size and icons are both miniaturized, which feels like a throwback to the days when we all hunched over our phone screens hunting and pecking our way through. As I tried responding to Tweets and messages while on the go, it became clearer and clearer that this screen, and its virtual keyboard, are too small to be really useful. I can almost type accurately when I'm immobile, but once I started walking or being bounced by a train or bus, the mistakes grew to the point of being unreadable.

Maybe it's be easier to type on the 4.6-inch screen if the Samsung keyboard supported tracing. I could switch to Gboard, the virtual keyboard I prefer, but then I'd lose the split-screen keyboard when I open the Fold. I scoured the settings and it doesn't look like you can use different inputs on the front and interior screens the way you can set different wallpapers.

My solution was to use voice input, but Samsung's default software only mangled my words more. I was able to turn it off in the settings, which fell back to Google's voice input, my preference all along. That helped tremendously.

I have smaller fingers, so it this was hard for me, it's certain you'll struggle if you're blessed with girthier digits. I'd definitely rly on Google Voice or Bixby to do certain things, like place a call, search for store hours or turn Wi-Fi on and off.

The one thing I will say is that the Fold is easy to use one-handed when folded up, especially if all you want to do is follow map navigation or snap a quick photo. 

When you open the Fold...

Samsung expects you to unfold the device to its full 7.3-inch glory when you want to fine-tune your photos and compose longer messages. 

When you do open the Fold, any app you have open on the outside will also unfurl on the inside. This is called App Continuity, and it's something that Samsung and Google worked on together to make sure that the fold doesn't experience lag. 

I was shocked that the Galaxy Fold completely zipped into my jacket pocket.

Sarah Tew/CNET

So far this works as expected, without delay. But if you want the app on the inside screen to follow you to the smaller exterior one, you'll need to select those apps in the Display settings. This is because you may not want every app to dog your heels -- you might decide that, for most apps, closing the phone means closing out what you're doing.

Right now, WhatsApp, Microsoft, Spotify, Amazon Prime Video, Samsung and Google apps have all been optimized to use the design. If the app doesn't support app continuity, it still works, but you'll need to resize the app for full-screen -- otherwise you'll see black bars on either side.

But back to the small screen. Start typing something in this folded-up view, say an email, and you'll notice that Samsung splits the keyboard to make typing more comfortable on the larger screen.  I'm not the world's biggest fan of the Samsung keyboard (this may be an understatement), and it's irksome that you can't trace to type in split screen mode. I'm sure that third-party virtual keyboard replacements will rise to the challenge. 

For now, I'm going to stick with the default to see if I can improve my typing speed. I'm already getting faster, though I can't tell if my fingers are sore from all the overwork testing and writing up the Fold, or if stretching my hands out to type is starting to take its toll.

The split screen keyboard is helpful.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There's an art to using three apps at once

Multitasking is one of the Fold's biggest selling points. Being able to use up to three apps at the same time is, after all, one advantage of using a larger screen. But multi-active windows, as it's called, is still something I'm still learning. It's complicated and a little confusing, but bear with me and I'll do my best to explain it.

Most of the time, you'll open an app the way you normally would, either by tapping the icon on your home screen, picking it from your Recents tab, or swiping up from the bottom to select from the app tray. Now say you want to chat with someone while you're playing YouTube videos. You swipe from the right side of the screen (where the edge display is on other Galaxy phones) and launch an app that way. 

You can use up to three apps at once.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You'll notice that opening the second app scooches the first one over to the left so the second one can load as a tall, narrow panel. Then, if you add a third app (same way you add a second), the secondary panel divides in half to make room for the third panel. You can slightly resize these windows, close them out, and drag and drop to reposition them using blue "handles" at the top of the app. For example, if you want your third app to become your main window, you can drag it over into that position. 

I noticed right away that the more apps you have open, the smaller the font, so you may not really want to use all three at once all the time. But if you want to quickly open the calculator while you're reading a news story, you don't have to stop what you're doing to switch focus. You can also turn the phone to landscape mode to change the orientation, which makes the windows wider and shorter. 

To load an app on the main window, you swipe up to access the app tray. To open an app on one of the other windows, you flick from the app tray on the right and launch an app that way. One more pro tip: You can also build out your multiwindow screen by dragging and dropping icons from the Recents tab. 

Everything I just described happens in a perfect world, but there are limitations. Some apps you'll never have the option to open as secondary or tertiary panels, and that really sucks. I'm hoping Samsung will work with top app developers to make this happen.

Interestingly, I noticed that some apps might open not as a panel, but as a pop-up (see my embedded Tweet above). In this case, I opened Netflix to start a download, and then opened Google Drive to find a file while I waited. I had expected Drive to open as a panel, and was surprised to see it as a window in a window, a lot like the picture-in-picture view that lets you see Google Maps navigation as a thumbnail while focusing on something else entirely. I expanded the pop-up and moved it around using the same "handles."

Closed, the Fold looks like two phones stacked one on another. You can see the fingerprint reader/Bixby button below the lock button. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Speaking of the Netflix download (two episodes of the British period spy drama Traitors), the image doesn't naturally fill the screen and I didn't see an onscreen control to expand it -- just black bars on the top and bottom. Samsung will definitely want to work with Netflix on formatting, because this is not an ideal arrangement. You can force the app to expand if you dig around in the display settings, but that didn't change anything for Netflix.

What about the air gap? The notch? The crease?!

Three design decisions are causing quite a stir. Let's define some terms.

Air gap: The opening closest to the Galaxy Fold's hinge where the two halves of the phone don't touch when closing.

Notch: The roughly inch-long cutout on the right side of the 7.3-inch display, which houses two cameras and some sensors.

Crease: This is the seam in the Galaxy Fold's plastic Infinity Flex display, which exists because the screen folds in on itself. Foldable screens with outward bends have an obvious ridge, too.

The Infinity Flex display is made of a type of plastic because bendable glass isn't available yet.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Now, how do I feel about them all? The air gap is smaller than I feared it would be, and while it's noticeable, it doesn't stand out. The Fold's two edges clack magnetically and securely in place, so you're not getting much stuck in this space. However, I could easily slip in a credit card. Then I slipped in another, which mostly held because of the tension created by the magnets. 

The notch looks...pretty ridiculous, and unnecessarily large. But notch hatred and the necessity for notches are two sides of the same coin, a problem that every phone maker is trying to solve: how to get you more screen. Samsung could easily get rid of the notch if it made its bezel uniformly thick across the top, but then you'd get a smaller screen or a larger device to compensate. 

Or, there's the Huawei Mate X's approach (video), which is to create a big curve and a handle that houses four camera sensors that you use for front and back, but even that design will come with trade-offs (like a rigid portion and two uneven screen halves.

There's that air gap.

Sarah Tew/CNET

And if you hate the notch enough, you can artificially black out part of the screen using some display settings (Display > Full-screen apps > Advanced settings > Hide camera cutout). 

The notch does stick out like a sore thumb when watching Netflix movies. In other apps, like YouTube and games like Riptide Renegade, the screen in line with the notch blacks out to create wider bars on either side. You don't notice the notch so much, but you also don't get the full-screen experience.

Now, let's talk about that crease. Yes, it's there, and it's visible for the simple and enduring reason that foldable phones have screens that bend in half. Until we find a material that fluidly self-heals when bending and unbending, we're going to have to put up with some amount of creasing. 

So far it's not egregiously noticeable. When I press down on the 7.3-inch screen when the Fold is opened, I can feel the hinge mechanism underneath, but I don't really feel it if I'm swiping lightly. We'll have to see how this interferes -- or not -- as I use the phone over time.

The Galaxy Fold comes in black, green, silver and blue.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The deal with the Fold's six cameras

The Galaxy Fold has a total of six cameras: three on the back, one on the front and two inside. It also has that big notch when you unfold the phone. You'll see that the two interior lenses are centered on a black bar (the notch) that extends to the right. Samsung says this is where it's put the RGB and proximity sensors. 

While you can snap shots using the 4.6-inch screen, Samsung expects you to use the Fold unfolded to take most photos, because you'll be able to better adjust the blur and settings that way. I don't love holding the Fold up like a tablet to take my photos. I make fun of those people (sorry, people). Now I will become one of those people. Still, I'll keep an open mind during this testing phase.

You can see two cameras when the phone's unfolded, and a pretty sizable notch.

Sarah Tew/CNET

4.6-inch screen (cover camera):

  • 10-megapixel camera for quick shots and selfies


7.3-inch screen:

  • 10-megapixel camera
  • 8-megapixel RGB depth sensor


Rear cameras:

  • 12-megapixel main camera
  • 16-megapixel ultra-wide angle
  • 12-megapixel telephoto lens 

Taking photos while the Fold is closed up is workable, but not awesome because it's really hard to tell if your photo is in focus, and it's much harder to move tiny sliders for Live Focus (portrait) shots. But if you're honestly taking a quick pic, or don't want to draw attention to yourself by unfolding the Fold, then it's totally fine. You can either share the photo right away, or open the Fold for fine-tuning.

It's a lot easier to take selfies from the closed position than from the open position, and it's also more private -- you don't have everyone and their dog watching you check your teeth on your 7.3-inch screen. 

I'll do a lot more camera testing tomorrow (today I'm flying back to San Francisco from New York), but since Samsung is using the exact same cameras on the Galaxy Fold as it does on the Galaxy S10 Plus (and S10 5G), I'm pretty certain we'll get great quality photos. 

We see the same camera setup as the Galaxy S10 Plus.

Sarah Tew/CNET

However, I'm extremely interested in how the Fold's shape changes the experience of taking photos out and about.  Stay tuned there.

I'm also intrigued by the 8-megapixel depth-sensing camera on the inside, since it's essentially going to be used for selfies, not for AR experiences in front of you (or else it'd be on the rear). Perhaps if Samsung magically turns on secure face unlock using the depth-sensing camera, this would be one way to  open the Fold before unlocking it, and could verify online payments. Until then, the fingerprint reader is fast and easy enough to use open or closed (a little more on that below).

The Galaxy Fold isn't water-proof, so don't even try it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What else? 

  • The Galaxy Fold isn't water-resistant
  • Fingerprint reader: Fast and accurate so far. I'm unlocking it with my index finger and my thumb.
  • It has wireless power sharing like the Galaxy S10 phones.
  • It supports Samsung's DeX dock.
  • In the box: Galaxy Buds and a case (made of same material as a bullet-proof vest).

Galaxy Fold vs. the Huawei Mate X

Specs


Samsung Galaxy Fold Huawei Mate X
Display size, resolution 4.6-inch Super AMOLED; 7.3-inch QXGA+ Dynamic AMOLED 6.6-inch (2,480x1,148 pixels); 6.38-inch (2,480x892); 8-inch OLED (2,480x2,200)
Mobile software Android 9.0 with Samsung One UI TBA
Camera 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 16-megapixel (ultra wide-angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto) Four rear cameras
Front-facing camera Two 10-megapixel, 8-megapixel 3D depth At least one
Video capture TBA TBA
Processor Octacore Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Kirin 980 processor
Storage 512GB 512GB
RAM 12GB 8GB
Expandable storage No No
Battery 4,380mAh dual battery 4,500mAh dual battery
Fingerprint sensor Power button Power button
Connector USB-C USB-C
Headphone jack No No
Special features Foldable display, wireless charging, fast charging Foldable display, fast charging
Price off-contract (USD) $1,980 TBA, converts to $2,600 (2,299 euros)
Price (GBP) TBA, converts to £1,500 TBA, converts to £2,000
Price (AUD) TBA, converts to AU$2,750 TBA, converts to AU$3,620

Originally published April 15 at 6 a.m. PT.
Update April 16: Adds further observations following second day of use.

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