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A meditation on Samsung’s new foldable phones

From next month well-heeled New Zealanders will be able to spend NZ$2700 on a Galaxy Z Fold3 phone. NZ$1600 will put a Galaxy Z Flip3 in one of your deep, deep pockets.

As the numbers in the names suggest, these are Samsung’s third generation folding phones. That does not mean they are mature, nor does it mean they are heading for the mainstream any time soon.

The first folding phones were a disaster. Within hours of unpacking the devices, reviewers reported broken screens.

No longer embarrassing

By the second generation the technology was no longer embarrassing. But it was no easier to see the point of a folding phone.

Yes, there was the promise of being able to fit a device with a screen the size of an iPad mini in your pocket.

But how necessary is that? You can buy an iPhone 12 Pro Max with a 6.7-inch screen or a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra with a 6.8-inch screen.

The Galaxy Z Fold3 opens out to 7.6-inches. That’s roughly 25 percent more screen real estate, which sounds good, but means less in practice than you might expect.

Heavy, thick

In return for that extra screen you have to carry a phone that is heavier and, when folded, thicker than a conventional phone. It weighs 271g,

Carrying an 300g iPad mini is unlikely to be much more trouble. And you’d have the benefit of an even larger 7.9-inch display and a more robust device.

Prices for the iPad mini start at NZ$680.

Another consideration is the operating system. Android has plenty of fans, but it has failed to ignite in the tablet market. There’s a reason for this. The software can be good on phones, but does not adapt well to larger screen sizes.

Samsung is not the only company making foldable Android devices. Huawei was early into the market with a foldable phone that never made it to New Zealand in any volume.

And then there is Microsoft’s weird Surface Duo. It undoes a lot of the good work the Surface brand has done for what is now a cloud computing company.

Fashion statements

When the first Samsung folding phones arrived, the company positioned them more as fashion statements than practical answers to everyday productivity problems. At the New Zealand launch the company’s representatives stopped just short of saying they had snob value.

The new models are tougher, able to take more punishment. And they are more waterproof. Their ancestors were fragile things.

Much as Samsung would like us to believe folding phones are heading for the mainstream, that is not the case. Not even close. The first models sold about half a million phones.

This year Samsung says it hopes to sell up to 7 million. Given around 350 million phones sold world wide in the first quarter of 2021, that’s a rounding error.