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Samsung Galaxy Fold hands on: foldable smartphones are finally here

Samsung Galaxy Fold 1

Foldable smartphones are officially here.

Samsung on Wednesday announced its new Galaxy Fold, a device that kicks off the tsunami of bendable, transforming devices we’ll see this year.

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The company wasted no time peacocking it either, pushing it to the top of its launch roster, much like what Apple did with its iPhone XS Max last year. But unlike the XS Max at launch, this phone is still tightly under wraps.

And we mean it. At its satellite launch in Johannesburg, Samsung set up a secure conference room with some ten of the devices, made us hand in our phones at the door, and forbade photography of the Galaxy Fold. But, surprisingly, we got to use it, even if it was just for ten minutes.

Before I write the rest of this piece, I should also report that at no point did the company warn me that I can’t publish written impressions of my hands-on time.

So, what can I report?

For one, it’s immediately understandable why Samsung didn’t want us snapping pics of the Fold in the guise it presented. We imagine what we saw last night was a prototype, lacking the level of polish of its S10 sibling.

Even so, the design largely adhered to that in the company’s official marketing images and product showcase at its Unpacked event.

Up front there’s a 4.6 inch screen guarded by two notable bezels up top and beneath. These don’t seem too large in PR material, but when the Fold’s in your hand, they sure are tough to ignore. It makes tapping elements on the screen a little trickier too.

We’re used to displays neatly tucked into the corners of our devices, but the Fold’s front screen begins about a quarter of the way up its body. Its slender — note, narrow — profile does improve reachability to some degree, but navigating this device in phone mode is something we’ll have to get used to.

The clamshell — or should I say Nokia Communicator-esque — body is retro cool too. I don’t hate it, and it draws immediate attention to itself simply by being different. And, well, large.

The Samsung Galaxy Fold, excuse my Reddit, an absolute chonker in terms of weight and sheer length. It’s narrower than the S10 and Note 9 though, but a little taller. Folded, it’s also about the thickness of two Note 9’s stacked front-to-back, pushing your pocket out a bit further too.

The clamshell — or should I say Nokia Communicator-esque — body is retro cool

Unfolding the device however is surreal. It’s almost cathartic. The hinge is pretty smart, and neatly tucks itself away when transformed into tablet mode. It doesn’t seem to have memory points, but is rather slick from fully closed to fully opened. You’re going to absentmindedly bend this phone back and forth; the mechanism is that hypnotising.

You’ll also do it as a magic trick of sorts. You know you’re going to get an entire screen — a 7.3 inch screen, mind — but you also don’t immediately realise that this is a phone. With the fold, and while the benefits of a hybrid device are clear, the issues are difficult to ignore.

The Galaxy Fold — at least the unit I handled — had a distinct indent along its fold line. You could see it when on the homescreen, and I imagine it would be apparent when consuming content too. It’s not merely visible either but tangible, running your finger from west to east across the Galaxy Fold.

Unfolding the device however is surreal. It’s almost cathartic

While I did expect a crease, I didn’t expect it to be this distracting. I wouldn’t call it a deal breaker. It’s just one of the pitfalls of alpha technology.

When in tablet mode, the Galaxy Fold didn’t feel at all cumbersome. Surprisingly so too. It’s as if the current breed of oversized phablets have inadvertently conditioned us for such broad, heavy devices.

I felt the Galaxy Fold’s internal screen was lacking in depth and contrast I expect from a Samsung sAMOLED display. Again, it’s nitpicking, but it’s an important factor for enjoying content — something you’re probably going to want to do first and foremost with this device.

When folded, it’s about the thickness of two Note 9s, is slightly heavier but taller and more slender. Overall, it feels awkward in its phone mode, not something you really want consumers to say about what is first and foremost a phone.

A closer inspection of the Galaxy Fold’s frame also reveals a notable omission: there’s no headphone jack. Samsung’s going all in with wireless connectivity on this device.

There is, however, some incredibly smart tech.

If you start a task on the outer screen and open the Fold up into its tablet config, the app automatically scales to the larger screen. It’s seamless. One UI also feels more at home on the Fold. Samsung’s UI designed for larger phones feels snappy, even on a device that’s clearly not in its final form.

You are also getting six cameras — two of which are housed in a rather large corner notch on the internal tablet screen. Gone are the days of dual camera phones, people.

Gone are the days of phones with a single battery too. The Galaxy Fold has two — one either side of the fold — but boasts a capacity of 4380mAh. It’s a smart move too. When in tablet mode, weight distribution feels even enough to not be immediately problematic.

There are some interesting omissions too.

One, there’s no expandable storage slot. Two, no headphone jack to speak of. Three, no S-Pen support.

Of all the devices that would theoretically kill Samsung’s Note line, it would be the Galaxy Fold. Samsung didn’t announce S-Pen support for its hybrid, nor does it seem the device will be sold with a stylus. It really, really feels like it could benefit from one. It would make the ultimate digital notepad.

Ultimately, I don’t hate the Galaxy Fold. I applaud Samsung for pushing the envelope, just as smartphone design and technology has began to stagnate once again.

Of all the devices that would theoretically kill Samsung’s Note line, it would be the Galaxy Fold

The Fold pushes screen technology, battery management, and smartphone mechanics to an entirely different level, and I do hope the company has a device that’s fit for consumption come May — its expected street release date.

Speaking of which, while it is coming to South Africa, there’s no confirmed price as yet. But considering the 512GB/8GB S10 Plus will fetch in excess of R25 000, expect the Fold to come in well, well above that.

For US customers, you’re looking at a $1980 device, which easily gives it the title of world’s most expensive modern smartphone.

But for now, considering the phone that I spent far too short a time with, we saw an exciting future for the smartphone that is, for the moment, nothing more than impressive alpha technology with obvious kinks to iron out. Pun entirely intended.

Feature image: Samsung

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