Samsung has revealed its latest smartphones in another Unpacked event, and this time it’s all about flipping and folding your screen, with the eponymous Galaxy Z Flip 4 and Galaxy Z Fold 4 smartphones.
Having had a chance to go hands on with the new units, it feels like a watershed moment for the viability of bendable screen smartphones.
After the first few generations of ironing out the rough edges, these new devices feel like the “oh, of course” versions that will turn heads when someone notices what you just did with your new smartphone.
Smartphone fashion stasis
The device we carry everywhere has been refined amazingly over the past 15 years. A true revolution took root. What a time in the history of communications this has been!
While you can tell the physical differences once you spend a few seconds observing, at a distance and a quick glance a smartphone is like a laptop today. A form that has followed the function of giving us a nice slab of hand-sized screen to live a great deal of our lives through.
But on the fashion front? Afficionados notice the details but it’s mostly become a pretty subtle adjustment year over year.
And that’s fine! Unless you are one of those who craves ‘newness’ in a device.
For years we saw that in new model updates when a new chip in the same chassis would not sell as well as the same chip in a new chassis. Many buyers want to see they own ‘the new one’, and would time their purchase to align with the new hot hardware.
Before the functionality of a large flat screen became the essence of a mobile phone, before the true ‘smartphone’ era arrived, there were some wildly different phones on the market. When the screen was just a very small part of the chassis, there was a lot more room to get creative with how the device itself looked.
Is the Flip ready to reign once more?
Through the ‘90s and ‘00s, the most practical and stylish dumb phones were the flip phones.
No doubt you can argue that the Nokia devices that spawned stores full of swappable covers were definitive of a big slice of that history. But the flip balanced those two factors – form and function – best of all.
Over the past ten years we’ve been shown at lot of prototypes at events like Mobile World Congress. Xiaomi, Huawei, ZTE, Motorola, and Samsung have all been talking about them for a good few years. Flexible OLED panels have been evolving alongside the split cell batteries to make all the bits and pieces fit where they’re needed.
The prototypes always had that ‘wow, this is cool’ factor but were always clearly prototypes. Whether that’s because they were hidden behind a glass panel because touching would break the illusion, or that the hinges creaked and shifted awkwardly like you wouldn’t want to think about how it would hold up after thousands of open/shut movements over the course of a year.
Even the earlier Galaxy Z devices were in that ‘not quite’ stage. Close. But not quite.
Holding the Galaxy Z Flip 4 in hand feels like that form and function balance is here again.
The hingeing feels good.
The screen looks great.
The camera is spot on.
The subtle line where the screen folds doesn’t feel weird or obtrusive anymore.
This thing is ready. It’s just a question of whether your wallet is.
Off the top of my head, I was going to guess it’s been five years since Samsung first launched its Galaxy Z folding phone series. Turns out it was only 2019 with the first Fold and 2020 with the Flip. That’s some really fast-paced iteration to get to this stage.
The Flip 3 and Fold 3 showed great signs for the adoption of this form factor last year. Hundreds of thousands were sold in Korea on day one. The kind of numbers that suggest the ‘early adopter’ phase may be ending and a lot more besides are starting to take notice.
Walk down the street using one of these, a lot of other people are going to start to notice as well. And it looks like a very real ‘new thing’ to be using out there.
Flip or Fold? Flip!
For me, it’s all about the Flip. I don’t really ‘get’ the Fold. It’s a skinny normal-sized smartphone that turns into an almost-square tablet-thing.
Options are great. Yay options. Keep playing with those form factors.
But for me, the Galaxy Z Fold shape doesn’t solve enough of a problem compared to a regular smartphone.
But the Flip? It’s gorgeous.
That’s why I think the Galaxy Z Flip 4 will be one of those iconic devices people remember in future. It’s hit the sweet spot and I’m sure Samsung is about to blitz the marketing on these things to make sure everyone takes notice.
In many ways I feel the iPhone vs Android thing is a dead debate. We use a platform of choice with all our important apps and services set up just the way we like them, and ‘switching’ is not just a nuisance but a bit of a language shift.
So when I say ‘Advantage Samsung’ I’m really thinking about the other Android makers out there. Differentiation has gotten really tough there. The Pixel devices from Google have been my easy go-to recommendation for most buyers for a long time.
But the Flip 4 is a device you can fall in love with again. It has surprises that bring a smile to the face. The taps and gestures to use the camera for selfies when the Flip is closed are a joy to discover. The Samsung case designs have thoughtful features to really make the use experience better for having them.
I think about Motorola’s attempt to launch the RAZR again as its folding screen smartphone. The RAZR was the pinnacle in flip phones in the pre-smart era. It’s a great name to bring back. But that first version was just not ready. I often wonder if Moto should have parked that name until it was truly ready like the Flip 4 is today.
That said, Motorola has a new RAZR hitting the market real soon. It launches in China this week. Maybe it’s going to be the ideal competitor to the Flip 4? Having held the Samsung in my hand, it needs to be pretty great.
The return of joy
I remember a few big moments in mobile phones as a user and a journalist.
Having my first phone and the freedom it offered.
Getting a red cover for it. Nice.
Getting a Kyocera Slider. It was cool.
Having a Motorola Razr. It was really cool.
Using a Blackberry and sending email on the go.
Watching Steve Jobs blow our minds with a touchscreen device to put in our pockets.
It’s been a lot of VERY IMPRESSIVE iteration since then, but iteration nonetheless.
The Galaxy Z Flip 4 feels fun again. I hope at the very least it shakes up the status quo in a big way.