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Bill Bennett

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Google’s Android is the most popular smartphone operating system – that doesn’t make it the best or the most important one.

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.

Microsoft Surface Duo a curiosity phone

Microsoft has a different take on a folding phone. While models from Samsung and Huawei have a folding screen, the Surface Duo has two side-by-side displays connected by hinges.

You will be able to buy a Duo next month. It won’t be cheap. The US price is US$1400. In normal times that would put the New Zealand price somewhere north of NZ$3000. Keep in mind that you can buy a decent Android phone for NZ$500 and a first class tablet with a better tablet operating system for NZ$600.

Surface Duo is a curious device on many levels. Above all, it is curious that Microsoft should get back into the phone business after being burnt by its Nokia experience.

Microsoft Surface Duo

Is it a phone, is it a tablet?

To be fair Microsoft isn’t calling the Surface Duo a phone. Although that word could be triggering for a Microsoft marketing executive.

Nor does it call the device a tablet. Yet there’s no question it fits somewhere between the two.

Another curiosity is that Microsoft uses the Surface brand name. The company previously said it uses the Surface name for products that highlight the potential of its Windows operating system. The Surface Duo is an Android phone.

And that’s another curiosity. Because an Android phone means Microsoft has to get into bed with Google, a company that is a rival in many markets.

Mobile productivity

Those curiosities keep on coming. Microsoft is pitching the Surface Duo as a mobile computing device at a time when demand for mobility has hit a pandemic-inflicted low point. Phone sales are down 30 percent. Meanwhile, demand for PCs, which are a Microsoft strength and Windows’ home turf, are riding at a ten year high.

The idea of productivity on the move was a potential winner before the world began working from home. Now, the Surface Duo is another device looking for a meaningful purpose.

There are two 5.6-inch OLED displays. You can run different apps in each or you can connect them for an 8.1-inch screen with a hinge down the centre. This format allows a more robust construction. The screens are made from Gorilla Glass and are less fragile than, say, the Samsung Galaxy Fold.

One screen good, two screens better

A promotional photo from Microsoft shows one screen used for text and the second as a on-screen keyboard with the device turned on its side. In this format it becomes a tiny laptop, albeit one that runs Android.

You’ll be able to run any Android app on the Surface Duo, although apps may be restricted to a single screen. There’s software that allows you to open an app on the other screen from the first one. Microsoft tweaked its own apps to take advantage of the larger display.

The idea behind the Surface Duo is sound enough. During more mobile times there was a healthy demand for devices that could keep you productive while on the run. A bigger screen, even if split in two, is better for reading.

Yet this is not the right product for August 2020.

Part of the problem is price. Upwards of NZ$3000 is a lot for a mobile productivity device if you’re not that mobile. Even if you are, it’s not clear what the Surface Duo brings to the productivity party that isn’t done adequately elsewhere. It could take off with people who have specific needs, but it was never made to be a mass market hit.

How long should you keep a phone?

New phone models arrive all the time. The phone product lines get an annual refresh.

Apple holds its annual iPhone launches all at once. In recent years this has always happened three or four months before Christmas.

Top Android phone makers like Samsung, Huawei and Nokia have more than one product lines. Each line gets its own annual update. The phone makers tend to stagger their launches throughout the year.

Add in the smaller brands and yes, we see a dozen notable phone launches each year.

Goodbye two year phone refresh cycle

Phone makers expect you to hang on to a device for at least two years even if they refresh their model lines every year.

Carriers agree. Their phone plans are two-year contracts. Remember carriers make money when you to buy new phones and roll over two-year contracts. While two-year contracts remain popular, they’re less common today than five years ago.

New Zealand’s Inland Revenue Department depreciates phones at 67 percent a year. That implies a life expectancy of under two years. Depreciation rates are similar in other countries.

We’re holding on to phones for longer

Most of us now hold onto phones for longer than two years. No-one forces us to operate on a fixed timetable.

There’s a noticeable difference between Apple and Android phones. Android phone users tend to keep their phones for a shorter time than iPhone users.

Apple’s sales figures reflect this. iPhone revenues peaked in 2015. Apple now focuses more on selling services to its customers to make up the revenue shortfall.

In 2016 Benedict Evans reported Android users keep phones for under two years. Back then, Apple iPhones stayed in use for more than two years. There are interesting theories about this in the comments on Evans’ post. This also explains why second-hand iPhones hold their value better than Android phones.

One reason people hold on to phones for longer is that upgrades are more incremental than in the past. A few years ago there would be dramatic changes from one year to the next. Now phone makers emphasise cameras and cosmetics.

It’s no accident that phone makers hold launch events that look like fashion shows. They want to create the impression that you need this year’s design. You almost never do.

Phone hardware can live for years

Phones can take a beating. Owners handle them many times each day. They get dropped, knocked, scratched and soaked.

Yet, there are few moving parts to seize up. (Avoid any phone that does include moving parts such as a pop-up camera.)

If you look after your phone and it doesn’t pick up too much moisture, the battery is the first part to wear out. Constant use and charging cycles mean they degrade over time. After about three to four years use they hold as little as half the charge they managed when they were new.

You can replace phone batteries, even those in sealed phones. It can be difficult, there are official repairers and a cottage industry exists.

Although it may look expensive, paying someone NZ$100 to replace a battery is cheaper than a new phone.

Screen life

Screens last three to ten years depending on the technology, build quality and your use. Often the screen backlighting goes first. Again, repairers can fix these problems.

There are times when a new phone model is compelling.

Sometimes moving from one year’s model to the next brings a must-have feature. Even so, you can expect to get at least two years from a device. They should last for three or more. Five years is no longer exceptional.

There are users who give their phones a pounding. If that’s you, or a family member, you have two choices. You could buy a more robust phone model. Or you could opt for a cheaper model that won’t break the bank when replacement time rolls around.

How long should you hold on to a phone?

There’s no simple answer to ‘how long should you hang on to a phone’. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. You should hold on for at least two years. Yet that’s unambitious.

For some people the best time to replace is when the battery life is not enough to get you through the working day. For others it’s when the operating system is no longer supported and there is a security risk. That’s roughly six years for Apple iPhone users.

Apple released iOS 13 in September 2019. It will support the iPhone SE but not the iPhone 5s, 6 or 6 Plus. Apple released the iPhone 5s in 2013, it is now out of support. If you think that is bad, spare a thought for Android users. Six years is more than double the official supported life of Android versions.

Update: If you love Android and worry about phone longevity, chose a Nokia phone. The company has a policy of keeping phone software up to date. It guarantees two years of updates. That’s far less than Apple, but that’s better than rival Android brands.

Petal Search highlights barriers facing Huawei

A US ban shut Huawei out of Google Play Services. It hope Petal Search will make that less of a problem.

Huawei sold more phones than any other company last quarter. It overtook Samsung, mainly thanks to strong sales in China.

For Huawei, success in the home market is a bright spot. Things are less positive in the rest of the world.

Last year the US government issued an embargo that stops the company from using Google’s version of Android.

This makes it harder for people who purchase new Huawei phones to find the big name apps. Among the ones that are hard to get are WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Google Maps.

Popular apps missing

Not having the most popular apps is a barrier to selling phones. Ten years ago Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system floundered because the world’s largest software company didn’t include the most popular apps.

It’s technically possible to run a lot of popular Android apps on a Huawei phone.1 To get them users are required to do a lot of the leg work.

Some popular Android apps can work through a browser, in many cases with less functionality.

In practice the workarounds can be tedious and laborious, the kind of dreary repetitive tasks that technology was meant to eliminate.

That may not be a barrier to people reading this blog post, it will be a huge problem for less tech-savvy phone buyers. There’s another problem to consider that we’ll get to in moment.

Easier, not easy

Huawei aims to make the task easier. Its main, long term, strategy is a Huawei-branded App Store. Many apps have made it to the Huawei App Store. But there are millions, Huawei says around three million, more apps out there.

The company is racing to fill the Huawei App Store, but that will take time. It needs to convince developers to offer tweaked versions of their software. Huawei’s base software is Android, which means Android apps don’t need much work to make the cut. Yet, building Huawei specific versions is not going to be a priority for every developer.

Petal Search is Huawei’s interim alternative. It lets users search for non-Google Play versions of Android apps. In many cases these can be downloaded from developer sites or from third party app libraries.

While it works fine on one level, it is far from perfect. For a start, apps stores have conditioned users to expect timely, automatic updates when software is refreshed. Petal Search doesn’t fix that. You could find yourself running insecure versions of apps – as if the Android world wasn’t insecure enough.

And this brings us to the other big problem. App store owners are supposed to vet apps for quality and security flaws. This doesn’t always work as it should, but there is safety going through the big official app stores.

Petal Search risks

Petal Search can leave you wandering through the seedy backstreets. It can be risky.

Huawei doesn’t need to worry about Chinese customers, they don’t use Google Play Services. There are other countries where Google is less important. But for the western world, the company has millions of phones in circulation that will, in the coming years, be up for renewal. If the Huawei app experience disappoints, they won’t be upgrading to a Huawei phone.

And that’s the huge barrier facing Huawei. It doesn’t matter how great the hardware is, nor does it matter if Huawei sharpens its pencil and drops prices to bargain basement levels. Without access to the apps phone buyers want to run, those fancy phones are lifeless slabs of glass, plastic and metal. They will be almost impossible to sell.


  1. Although paid apps and apps requiring subscriptions can be extra tricky. ↩︎

Galaxy Z Flip: Samsung’s folding phone

In February I posted a short note about the then forthcoming Samsung Galaxy Z Flip. This week I got my hands on one.

It is by far the best foldable phone I’ve seen to date. There’s a satisfying feel to the way it folds.

The way the screen copes with being folded again and again is also satisfying. When you hold and fold the Galaxy Z Flip you are not left wondering if you are dealing with classy engineering.

Impressive

The Flip is technically impressive, cool looking and fun to use. Sadly these three qualities do not necessarily make a great phone.

Mind you, no-one can accuse the Galaxy Z Flip of being boring.

Nor can you accuse it of being cheap.

You could spend the NZ$2400 Samsung asks for the Flip elsewhere, even with Samsung1, and get better value for your money.

The cost of folding

Samsung’s much vaunted foldability adds about NZ$1200 to the device price. Which would be fine. Yet it turns out being able to fold the Flip is not always a huge benefit.

Yes, the neatly folded square is about half the length of and the same width as other premium phones. It also happens to be twice the depth.

In other words, the Flip occupies the same volume of pocket space as any other phone. The difference is that Flip redistributes the volume.

It’s fine in the jacket pockets and loose trouser pockets that might otherwise contain a normal size phone. It’s a problem in the tighter pockets that would struggle with bigger phones.

So while folding could be helpful, it might not always be NZ$1200 worth of helpful.

Samsung Galaxy Flip shown with Apple IPhone 7 for size comparison

Flipping futuristic

Despite all of this, I find myself liking the Flip more and more. It feels right. It also feels futuristic.

Let’s not discount that emotive and subjective response. When you buy a phone you commit to spending a lot of time with the device, you don’t want it to not feel right.

One aspect of being able to open and shut a phone is the distance this activity puts between you and the device. This can be positive or negative.

Most of the time I like the fact that it requires more effect to respond to every incoming stimulus. On the other hand, you can’t surreptitiously glance at the screen without others noticing.

The Galaxy Z Flip has been around for months. You can find plenty of in depth reviews elsewhere. Look harder and you’ll find some long term test drives. For what it’s worth here are my observations:

Screen:

The display is tall and narrow. When you turn it sideways to watch a movie you get black bars unless you watch a widescreen version.

In everyday use the crease stays out of the way although I wouldn’t go as far as to say you don’t notice it. You will, but your eyes and brain adjust so it is less of an issue.

Yet, you constantly feel it with your fingers. There’s also a shallow dip at the top above the selfie camera.

External display:

When the phone is folded there is a tiny display on the outside. You can see the time and date without opening the phone. That turns out to be more useful than you might imagine if you don’t wear a watch.

The small screen will show remaining battery life. I’m not convinced that’s much help.

There are notifications on the small screen. They wizz past fast. Often before you can read them.

By double tapping the power button, you can take pictures with the camera without opening the phone. When you do this, the tiny external display works as a selfie viewfinder.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip closed showing small screen

Durability:

Open or shut, there’s a solid feel to the Galaxy Z Flip. It seems robust enough to take the kind of treatment we usually mete out to phones.

Unlike almost every other modern phone you can buy in 2020 there is no water or dust resistance. This could be a problem for many potential buyers.

I also found dirt, pocket fluff and even hair could get trapped in the fold. It’s not clear what that might mean over the long haul. In the short term it isn’t a problem.

Camera:

Phone makers usually make a great song and dance about the cameras on their phones. There’s a feeling in the industry that people choose cameras rather than phones. I’m not convinced of that. Some will. Others won’t.

Samsung has used the same camera technology as the Galaxy S10. It’s good, but not up there with, say, the iPhone 11. Few people will buy the Samsung Galaxy Flip for the camera.

Verdict

Samsung has got screen folding technology right with the Galaxy Z Flip. You get a phone that looks and feels a little ahead of its time. On paper you might not get a huge amount of phone for the price, in practice this matters less than you might expect.

After a few days with the Flip I found myself coming back to it again and again. Yep, I’d like one. But there is a big problem that I’m saving for another post.


  1. The Galaxy S20 Ultra is $200 cheaper but does more. ↩︎