Life With a Foldable Phone Is a Game-Changer With One Terrible Downside

Life With a Foldable Phone Is a Game-Changer With One Terrible Downside
Photo: Sam Rutherford

If you’ve been reading Gizmodo for a while, you’ve probably realised that I’m bullish on flexible displays, due in large part to their ability to expand or enhance the capabilities of smartphones, laptops, and even smartwatches (OK, that last one’s a little iffy). So after I reviewed Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 last year, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and buy one of the super pricey foldables for myself. Now that Samsung is expected to launch a couple more foldables at its Galaxy Unpacked event this week, I wanted to break down what these devices are actually like to live with.

Now before we get into specific ups and downs, I should mention that I’ve never used a case on the phone in the 10 months I’ve owned it, and the only protective measure I took was to replace the factory screen protector on the exterior cover screen about six months in, after it got a bit too scuffed up for my liking.

Even after 10 months, the back of the phone is practically unblemished.  (Photo: Sam Rutherford) Even after 10 months, the back of the phone is practically unblemished. (Photo: Sam Rutherford)

Now admittedly, while the pandemic has almost certainly resulted in the phone suffering from less wear and tear than it would have otherwise, I have taken my Z Fold 2 on a handful of trips and plane flights post-vaccine.

As I’ve said before, the thing I like most about foldable devices and specifically the Z Fold 2 is that their design allows gadgets to adjust to my needs across a range of situations, which is more freeing than traditional glass brick smartphones. So let’s dive in.

Even though it's digital, the Z Fold2 makes a menu feel more like the real thing.  (Photo: Sam Rutherford) Even though it’s digital, the Z Fold2 makes a menu feel more like the real thing. (Photo: Sam Rutherford)

Using a Foldable in the Real World

If you’ve gone out to eat in our post-pandemic world, you may have noticed a lot of restaurants are switching over to digital menus powered by QR codes. And while practically every modern phone has an easy way of reading QR codes, most of these menus simply aren’t laid out in a way that’s easy to read on a typical smartphone display. But with the Z Fold 2, that’s not an issue, as its big 7.6-inch flexible display offers tons of screen real estate, with the added bonus of making you feel like you’re looking at a real menu instead of a screen.

It’s a somewhat similar situation on aeroplanes, where you either forced to rely on whatever screen your air carrier may (or may not have) installed in the seat in front of you, which most likely is a small display with terrible resolution and the kind of touch sensitivity that makes the original Nintendo DS’s touchscreen seem like a triumph (it wasn’t). But with the Z Fold2, not only do I get a display that’s sharp and vivid, I have the freedom to load it up with whatever content I want. And if you still want to watch one of your airline’s in-flight movies, there’s usually an app for that.

The front of the phone is basically pristine, aside from the small wrinkle in the third-party screen protector, which isn't Samsung's fault.  (Photo: Sam Rutherford) The front of the phone is basically pristine, aside from the small wrinkle in the third-party screen protector, which isn’t Samsung’s fault. (Photo: Sam Rutherford)

Even when I’m at home just wasting time on the internet or playing games, the Z Fold 2 can shift between casual browsing and movie watching instantaneously. Recently, my wife and I have been succumbed to a fever for Catan, and while she says she doesn’t mind her smaller screen, I absolutely love the ability to see the entire board at once, without ever feeling the need to squint or scroll around. That said, one of the downsides to the Z Fold 2’s design is that a lot of phone accessories, from simple cases to gamepad attachments, simply aren’t compatible. That’s a bummer.

Let’s Talk About the Crease

While the Z Fold2 is definitely a bit on the thicc side, I found that its more narrow dimensions are actually easier to hold when folded in half, and as long as you use a belt or wear pants that fit, the added weight doesn’t really make that much of a difference.

Which one looks better to you?  (Photo: Sam Rutherford) Which one looks better to you? (Photo: Sam Rutherford)

Samsung was able to include a sizeable 4,500 battery which lasts even longer than its capacity might imply — to the point that it’s changed the way I recharge the thing. Because I often watch movies to help me fall asleep, I stopped charging the phone at night and simply rely on wireless charging to top it back up during the day.

The end result is that I don’t have to deal with wires. In fact, I barely think about battery life at all, which is a small but appreciated weight off my mind. And a couple times, I’ve even rolled over onto the Z Fold 2 while it’s open in the middle of the night without causing the slightest bit of damage.

So, what about that crease? Honestly, I don’t even see it anymore. It’s like Cypher from the Matrix — I only see the content behind it. In low light, the crease isn’t really visible anyway; it’s only in bright light and when viewed from an acute angle that the crease is actually noticeable. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like it, and I hope future gadget makers can make creases on flexible screens a thing of the past, but it’s barely even a con for me anymore.

That bright spot on the right side of the hinge is the only major scratch on the entire device, even though I never used a case.  (Photo: Sam Rutherford) That bright spot on the right side of the hinge is the only major scratch on the entire device, even though I never used a case. (Photo: Sam Rutherford)

In reality, this biggest issue with the me Z Fold 2 isn’t the crease, it’s the screen protector that comes pre-installed across its main flexible display. I called it out back when I reviewed the Z Fold 2, and as expected, the screen protector has begun to peel away from the screen, causing bubbles to form between the screen protector and the display itself.

Now I should mention that while the screen protector wasn’t a problem initially, after 10 months, fighting the spread of bubbles has become an almost daily battle — sometimes even an hourly challenge. The problem is that after thousands of bends, dust managed to work its way under the edge of the screen protector where it bends, which weakened the adhesive and eventually let the bubbles run rampant.

This is how bad things have gotten, and even if you're able to smooth out the big bubbles, there are tiny ones you just can't get.  (Photo: Sam Rutherford) This is how bad things have gotten, and even if you’re able to smooth out the big bubbles, there are tiny ones you just can’t get. (Photo: Sam Rutherford)

Now I’ve talked to some other Z Fold 2 owners who said they’ve removed the screen protector (very carefully, that is), and they say they haven’t run into any issues, unlike what happened to a number of people who didn’t read the instructions that came with the original Galaxy Fold. The problem is that Samsung strongly recommends that anyone who wants to remove the screen protector or have it replaced should go to an authorised service centre to do so, which frankly is a pain in the arse (especially during a pandemic).

That means the least durable component on the entire phone is the pre-installed screen protector designed to safeguard that fancy screen, and at this point it feels like a mean joke. It’s annoying, and by trying to follow Samsung’s guidelines, I almost feel like I’m being punished for not having time to go down to the nearest Samsung service centre (which, depending on where you live, might be a real long haul).

It’s also a shame because in other respects, that flexible screen still looks amazing, and I still get a spark of joy every time I open it up. And if I hadn’t been planning on revisiting the Z Fold 2 to talk about its durability, I probably would have replaced the screen protector months ago.

This close-up shows where the problem lies, because once a tiny bit of dust gets in there, it's only a matter of time until big bubbles start forming.  (Photo: Sam Rutherford) This close-up shows where the problem lies, because once a tiny bit of dust gets in there, it’s only a matter of time until big bubbles start forming. (Photo: Sam Rutherford)

Improving the screen protector on its next-gen devices would be the biggest improvement Samsung can make. The Z Fold 2 has otherwise held up remarkably well despite my case-free lifestyle. The only noticeable blemish is a small scratch on the hinge.

What Foldables Need to Succeed

The Z Fold 2 has other drawbacks. The interior selfie cam is still an eyesore, and the lack of water resistance is a major downside compared to typical premium phones. And even though my Z Fold 2’s flexible screen has held up, it’s still really soft, to the point that I get start to get self-conscious if I haven’t trimmed my fingernails in a while. Thankfully, if all the leaks we’ve seen so far prove accurate, it seems like Samsung may have upgrades in store that address many of these concerns.

But perhaps my main takeaway is that aside from its price (which is without a doubt prohibitively expensive), when used with a little bit of caution, Samsung’s foldable phones really can handle the trials and tribulations of everyday life. And if they get some added durability, they’ll be competitive with more traditionally flagship phones.

However, in a lot of conditions, you simply can't really see either the crease or the tiny bubbles. Though that still doesn't make the bubbling situation OK.  (Photo: Sam Rutherford) However, in a lot of conditions, you simply can’t really see either the crease or the tiny bubbles. Though that still doesn’t make the bubbling situation OK. (Photo: Sam Rutherford)

Foldable phones certainly aren’t for everyone, but for me, living with one has combined the best aspects of a phone and a tablet in a device that’s easy to carry around and use, which is something I think a lot of people can appreciate. Now we just have to wait for prices to come down, which might happen sooner than we think.