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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2 review: Impressive, pricey, useful

Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold2 is good enough to be the breakthrough taking folding phones in the mainstream.

Or at least it would be if not for the NZ$3500 asking price. Few people reading this can afford to pay that much for a phone. And few of those who can pay need the phone.

For almost everyone, it is a Ferrari option. That is: nice to look at, fun to own, hideously expensive and more show off than practical.

Even Samsung admits this is a luxury item. At last week’s product demonstration a company executive used the giveaway term: “status symbol”. That tells you everything you need to know.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2

Useful

There is a practial argument for buying the Fold2. The bigger screen means you can read more and do more work than on an everyday phone. It’s like an iPad mini that you can stick in your pocket. You can’t argue that this isn’t useful.

Whether it is NZ$3500 of useful is another question entirely.

At a pinch you can use the Fold2 as a laptop replacement. It works with Samsung’s DeX set-up.

Samsung stumbled with its first folding phone. The original Galaxy Fold showed what was possible. Then the stylish Galaxy Z Flip built on that.

We have seen three, more if you count the missteps, iterations of Samsung folding phones. The Galaxy Z Fold2 is the most impressive to date.

Galaxy Z Fold2 updates earlier Fold

The Fold2 brings three obvious advances over original Fold.

First, it feels far more robust in your hands. In particular, the screen can take more punishment. The Galaxy Z Fold2 is not a phone to take on a building site or anywhere the going gets tough, but it will take a lot more rough handling than the earlier Fold.

There is no longer a feeling that you are one small user error away from throwing $3,500 of non-functioning phone in the landfill.

The second advance is related. The hinge design is much improved. There’s a solid, positive feel when you open the phone. More snap when you close it. The original Fold could be open or shut, but positions somewhere between the two were not practical. You can keep the Fold2 part open, if that’s useful.

Advance number three is the much bigger front screen. You can now do many everyday phone things without unfolding the phone.

Bookish

In practice this front screen is like the cover of a small book. It has a 6.2-inch display with 2260 by 816 pixels in a long, thin 25:9 ratio. A thickish bezel runs down the left hand side, it’s part of the hinge. Otherwise the front screen runs edge to edge.

While a closed Fold2 is a lot like an everyday phone, it isn’t exactly like one. It is hard to type on the keyboard because the display is too narrow. I found myself giving up and opening the device if I needed to type more than a handful of characters.

This revealed one of the neatest aspects of the Fold2’s software. It depends on the specific application, not all do this, but often software on the inner screen can take you to the exact point you were on the outer screen before opening the case.

Inside the case is a 7.6-inch screen with 2208 by 1768 pixels. It is much squarer, in a 22.5:18 ratio. There are thin bezels around the edge. In the case of the review model, the edge is a metallic copper colour. Samsung calls this ’mystic bronze’.

When you fold out the phone, the screen can lay flat. You can see the fold, but it doesn’t get in the way at all. At first this looks like a big deal, but soon, you’ll find your brain ignores it.

It’s possible, with the right software to fold the phone to use it like a tiny clamshell laptop.

You need big pockets

Apart from the prestige and status, the big selling point of the Fold2 is that it can fold up and fit in a pocket. You need large pockets in both senses of that term. This fold and carry idea may not even work at all with the pockets on women’s clothing, although jackets should cope.

When folded it is a lot bigger than any other phone. And at 282g it is heavy by phone standards. It is not a comfortable to live with as a standard phone. Let’s put that another way: you’ll never carry one of these and forget that it is there.

Samsung packs five cameras in the Fold2. On the outside is a 10 megapixel ‘selfie’ camera. There’s a similar camera on the inside screen. The back has three 12 megapixel cameras. There’s an ultra-wide angle camera, a wide angle and a telephoto.

You wouldn’t buy a Fold2 for the cameras. They are not as good as the options on other high-end Samsung phones. In practice I found them harder to use, thanks to the physical form of the folding device.

Is it worth it?

You can buy a lot of technology elsewhere for $3500. That is enough for a great phone and a great laptop. There are people who like the idea of owning a head-turning phone. It would be, in effect, like buying jewellery.

When opened, a tablet-format Fold2 is roughly the size of an iPad mini. It’s a useful product to compare. The iPad mini has a large 7.9-inch display and at 2048 by 1536, about 20 percent fewer pixels. It is a touch harder to carry, few pockets can take an iPad Mini. And yet, you can buy five iPad Minis for the cost of a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2.

There’s a lot to like about the Galaxy Z Fold2. It’s impressive and has that living in the future feel that you no longer get from other phone models. From a strictly impractical personal point of view I love this device, but I can’t justify buying one. Nor can I recommend it to you, but you should try to get a closer look at one.

Open source: Why you should care

To most people open source means free software.

Anyone can download this kind of software without paying a fee. It doesn’t break any laws. You have the original developer’s permission to use it.

You can run the software, copy it and pass it on to friends and colleagues.

Free software is only part of the story. It isn’t the most important thing about open source. Yet free software is liberating.

Open source lets you look at code

What matters more is that you can look at the code used to write the software. This means you can see how the developers made the program.

If you have coding skills you can figure out what the developers did. You may be able to understand the assumptions and decisions they made when they wrote the code.

You can tinker with the code and release your own customised version.

Or perhaps you might spot a flaw or an area where the original developers could have done something better. When that happens you can send what you found to the developers and have them fix it, or you can fix it yourself and send them the improved version.

Improving software

This is how software evolves and improves over time. The same process can work with software that isn’t open, but letting everyone interested take a look speeds things up and often means better results.

When you tinker with, improve or fix open source software, you are expected to make your new version as freely available as the original. That way others can follow your work, improve or fix it.

This is a virtuous circle.

Any piece of code can be open source. There are libraries of code snippets you can use to perform simple tasks or include in your own projects.

There are applications and even operating systems. Some of the best known software is based on open source.

Beyond free

While ‘free’ is an important part of the philosophy, there can be open source paid-for software. That is you can look at the code, but you have to pay to use it. The money is often used to pay for further development.

This approach has many of the same benefits. It means that people and companies can earn a living at the same time.

There are also many commercial and semi-commercial products and services that are build on open source foundations.

The opposite to open source software is often known as proprietary software. You can think of this as closed source. It is where someone, usually a company, owns the intellectual property. In some cases this can include patents.

As a rule you don’t get to see proprietary code and you pay to use the software. Until about 30 years ago all software was proprietary. A lot of enterprise and software used by government still is.

Open source now dominates the software world. Most of the world’s systems run on it. The web is open. Most phones run Android, which is a form of open source.

Phone sales stay ugly in second quarter

Gartner says phone sales were down 20 percent in the second quarter of 2020. These numbers mirror the first quarter as the pandemic rages on.

Phone makers shipped a total of 295 million phones world wide in the second quarter. This compares with 370 million phones in the same period a year earlier.

Samsung and Huawei are neck and neck for first place. Both companies sold a fraction under 55 million phones. Apple remains third.

Shifting shares

The relative positions hide a huge shift in performance. Samsung saw a 27 percent decline in units sold during the quarter. Huawei’s numbers dropped almost seven percent. Meanwhile Apple sales were flat. AWhich means the market shares have moved around with Apple being the winner.

Lesser phone brand Xiaomi, which we don’t often see in New Zealand had a 21 percent drop in sales. Oppo, which we do see in New Zealand, but not much, experienced a 16 percent drop in sales.

Gartner says Samsung’s new S Series phones did nothing to revive its business. Huawei did OK in China, it has a 42 percent market share in its home country. Without a strong performance there, it would have seen a Samsung-like drop.

Apple did best

In relative numbers Apple did better than its rivals in both the first and second quarter. Part of the reason for that was the lower cost iPhone SE which attracted upgraders from old iPhones.

There’s a lot of talk and analysis linking the sales drop to Covid-19. It’s true lockdowns and precautions are behind a shift from mobility to home working. Yet phone sales were already in decline.

Some analysts believed the arrival of 5G networks would trigger a fresh wave of phone buying. The faster mobile technology has its charms, but there is no incentive to buy a phone to download data faster. 4G is more than enough for every popular practical mobile application.

Data traffic hits new peak once a Fortnite

Chorus says traffic on its UFB network reached a record high on Thursday evening. It says data traffic peaked at 3.15Tbps.

This was at around 8pm. Traffic always peaks in the evening when people stream television services like Netflix.

Yet that wasn’t the reason for Thurday’s surge. That was when developers released the most recent version of Fortnite, the popular online game.

Once a fortnite

Chorus says the Fortnite update beat the previous network peak. That was earlier in the month when there was an update to the Call of Duty game. A pattern is emerging with big game downloads.

The network coped with the load without congestion. We can’t take this for granted.

Earlier in the year traffic surged when New Zealand first went into lockdown. This was a heady mix of people working from home during the day and using video conferencing. They then stayed in at night and streamed movies or TV shows.

Volume all the way up to 11

In March traffic hit 2.8 Tbps. At the time Chorus pointed out this was well within its theoretical maximum capacity of 3.5 Tbps.

Thursday’s peak came close to this level. Chorus says today’s network capacity is around 4.5 Tbps.

New Zealand got lucky when the pandemic triggered a surge in data demand. Only months earlier telcos upgraded networks to cope with anticipated Rugby World Cup demand.

We’re not so lucky when it comes to blockbuster game downloads. Games software companies time worldwide launches to co-incide with international demand lulls. That happens to be New Zealand’s demand peak. So we push our networks to the limit.

Away from games and streaming, Auckland’s level 3 lockdown saw higher daytime traffic. Although it is up on recent weeks, it hasn’t returned to the levels seen during the first lockdown.

Chorus says traffic was at 1.49 Tbps at noon on Friday. That’s around 40 percent above the level earlier in the month when there were no lockdowns. The company says Auckland traffic was up 69 percent, the rest of the country was up only eight percent.

IA Writer 5.6: Better than a word processor

IA Writer is a text editor. A stripped back, race-tuned greyhound of a writing app. There’s nothing fancy or complicated. That is its attraction.

You can start putting words together within minutes of installing the software.

It is the most productive writing tool I’ve used since learning to type on manual typewriters. It could be the software you are looking for.

You can keep your fancy, feature-rich word processors. They have their place, but they are not always the most productive tools.

I keep a copy of Microsoft Word on my Mac to stay compatible with clients and co-workers. That way there’s no chance of anything slipping between the cracks in a complex editing job.

iA Writer first

Yet when it comes to writing a newspaper feature, a blog post or commercial copy, iA Writer is my first choice. Every time.

That’s because iA Writer’s minimalist approach gets out of the way. There’s no temptation to mess around choosing the right font for this communication. You won’t wonder if the crosshead typeface you’ve chosen is a good fit with the body.

You don’t have choices. There’s nothing to tinker with. Or, at least, not much.

Instead you can focus on your words.

Over the years iA Writer has evolved. It does more today than it did when I started using it about five years ago. Yet you couldn’t accuse it of feature bloat. It remains simple.

Works everywhere you do

One advantage of keeping the software simple is that you get a near-identical experience whether you are writing on a large screen desktop Mac, an iPad or an iPhone.

For years iA Writer was an Apple experience. Today you can get versions for Windows or Android. The cross platform experience is almost as smooth as staying in Apple’s walled garden. This makes it an excellent choice for people moving between Apple, Microsoft and Android.

Text editors in general tend to be a form of lowest common denominator. IA Writer has this to a T.

iA Writer 5.4

Earlier this year iA Writer moved to version 5.4. That added features such as local storage, new export options and context menus.

If this was an ordinary product review, at this point I’d run through how these feature work in practice. But I won’t because I find I never use them all. My understanding of them is abstract. I’ve tested them and seen they work as advertised, but they don’t get a second glance in the heat of battle.

You can do something complex with blocks of copy, which you can insert as content blocks in your document. Again, I’ve tested, but never needed this. It may be the feature you’ve been looking for.

Made for cloud

The new feature that I do use is the ability to make local copies. In normal use iA Writer stores documents in your iCloud account. Because each document is tiny, files are tiny. You won’t chew through iCloud storage the way you might with word processor documents.

For a while iCloud integration was buggy. At times you couldn’t be sure they document was where it should be. Having local backups meant you never faced losing an afternoon’s writing brilliance.

In May iA Writer moved to version 5.5. In part the upgrade brought the software in line with the new features in iPadOS. You can now use a trackpad or mouse with the software on an iPad. Not that I’d want to do that.

Markdown

We’re 600 words into this post and there has not yet been any mention of Markdown. This is a simple markup language that lets you format your text. Type a * symbol either side of a word and it will show up in italics. Put two * around a word and it is in bold.

There are a handful of these Markdown commands to memorise. It doesn’t take long and it means you can keep your hands on the keys without reaching for the mouse or trackpad.

That way you can type faster. It’s more efficient. As a bonus, you are less likely to get a repetitive strain injury. The commands soon become hardwired in your fingertips. Yet I must confess there are times I have to look up the more obscure ones.

In iA Writer 5.5, there’s a new Markdown code. Two equals signs around a word will highlight it. That’s like the yellow marker you find in word processors. It’s hard to miss.

You’re either going to love Markdown or hate it. It works for me. I recommend giving it a try before deciding. There are free trial versions of iA Writer 5.6.

PDF viewer

The other 5.5 upgrade was the addition of a PDF viewer. When I write for my website1 I can publish text direct to WordPress. All the formatting comes with the words. If I work for a client who needs a Word document, yes that is almost every client, I can save my iA Writer document in a docx format.

Adding the ability to save in PDF format takes this further. Yet, like many new features, I don’t use it. Or, more accurately, I haven’t used it yet.

That’s not the point. Each feature upgrade expands the software’s reach to users who need more than basic text editing but not as much as a word processor. IA Writer rolls out a few new features every year, but you couldn’t say the software is bloated or even on the road to bloated.

iA Writer 5.6

We’re now at iA Writer 5.6. It’s been around now for a month. The latest version adds a style checker. It could help improve your writing. The checker looks for cliches, fillers and redundancies. When they appear in your text, they are grey.

You can choose to edit them if you wish.

I don’t always agree with the software style decisions. Journalism relies on short simple language. While that can get hackneyed, it’s a way of getting a message over fast.

And there are words iA Writer 5.6 doesn’t approve of, like also or too, that are useful for journalism.

Good housekeeping

The remaining updates in iA Writer 5.6 are all background housekeeping things that developers do and casual users may not notice. Files now open faster, but that was never an issue for me. The noticeable background update is that huge iA Writer files don’t slow down.

IA Writer’s price has climbed over the years. When I first bought the software I paid NZ$3. It was a promotional price. Today the software costs US$30 for the Mac and $9 for the iPad or iPhone. You can get it from the relevant app store. There are free trial versions.

You have to buy both if you plan to use the software on a Mac and an iOS device. I don’t begrudge it.

Compared with the alternatives it’s a bargain. You have to pay roughly four times that amount every year to use Microsoft Word.

Other word processors can cost more. This is important. Journalists and others who write for a living get paid in ways that make it hard to budget for a regular subscription. A flat one-off fee is better. You know where you are and you know for certain there will never be a month where you face not paying the software subscription or skipping a meal.

Critics

You’ll see critics complain that iA Writer doesn’t have collaboration tools. In part that’s because the idea of collaboration doesn’t sit well with distraction-free writing. Nothing is more distracting than someone jumping it with an annoying, pedantic edit while you are crafting your next perfect piece of prose.

Collaboration is important. It is not the be all and end all of working with others.

The upside is that it’s easy for iA Writer to work in with collaboration tools. At times when I’m asked to work with, say, Google Docs, I will write first in iA Writer, then load the text into a shared Doc for the editing party to begin. I’ve been known to pull paragraphs or sections from the shared document, paste them into iA Writer, make my edits and return the text.

IA Writer isn’t for everyone. Many people feel they need the handholding they get from a product like Word. Or they feel comfortable using the same thing as everyone else. There are companies, clients and individual managers who will insist you use Word.

When I was thinking about this idea earlier, it occurred to me there is an analogy with music. IA Writer is to a word processor what, say, a fretless string instrument is to a guitar or keyboard. If you are on top of your writing game and confident, you can get better results without the guiding baggage. If that’s not you, then fine. You have alternatives.


  1. As an aside, I’m using iA Writer 5.6 now and there’s a neat set of Markdown codes for creating footnotes. ↩︎