Will Samsung's newest premium foldable prove third time lucky? Can this iteration finally make bendable phones the go-to option – the rule rather than the exception? Or, are smartphones that open like books destined to be little more than a flippant novelty while Samsung has simply confirmed another old saying, three's a crowd?
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 5G is Samsung's flagship "bookish" (rather than clamshell – that would be the Z Flip3) foldable smartphone, which the South Korean electronics giant proudly states is "built for those who need the ultimate device to power their productivity and maximise every moment".
The headline-grabbers here include greater durability – an updated film covers the stronger Gorilla Glass Victus, the hinge and frame are made from a new outrageously tough material that Samsung calls 'Armor Aluminium', and the device is IPX8 rated, so it can be submerged in freshwater up to 1.5 metres deep for up to 30 minutes and survive. In addition there's a totally hidden front camera lens to maximise screen space and, following apparently extensive consumer demand, S Pen support.
It may have only just been announced, but we've already been hands-on to bring you the early skinny on the skinnier Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 5G.
The new Armor Aluminium hinge and framework makes the Z Fold 3 0.5mm more svelte and 11g lighter than the outgoing model – but those figures don't really tell the whole story. 11g is about the weight of an AAA battery, or two sheets of A4 paper, but when you are manipulating a folding screen and cradling it in your hand, the new handset feels considerably lighter in direct comparison.
The streamlined Armor Aluminium hinge does the heavy lifting here, allowing the thinner Fold 3 to feel much more akin to one seamless, homogenous device rather than two smartphone screens latched together with a rotary hinge.
The slimmer screens make for a more streamlined experience when the phone is shut, too, and while the mechanism is a good deal finer it certainly doesn't feel flimsy in our hands.
The new and unique matte finish (available in Phantom Black, Phantom Silver and Phantom Green) is cool and tactile too, with just enough traction to feel secure rather than slippery in the palm.
The Galaxy Z Fold 3's new Echo Square Display technology boasts a brighter display by up to 29 per cent – tough to quantify visually, but the screen is certainly a little brighter and the colours are vibrant and crisp.
But the biggest draw in terms of design is surely the uninterrupted display and a screen Samsung claims is its most "immersive and advanced smartphone screen ever".
To drill down into why that is exactly, we'll start with the cover screen. Even this boasts an enhanced 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED with 120Hz refresh rate (up from 60Hz in the Fold 2), and with it you can display messages and news, make calls or snap a selfie on the 10MP cover camera without having to open up the phone proper. Think of the Z Fold 3 as a smartphone (closed) and a tablet (open) in one device and you've largely got the measure of it.
Of course, the Z Fold 3 reveals its true colours when you unfold to the large main screen – the same 7.6-inch display ratio as the Galaxy Z Fold 2 but now featuring a number of enhancements. Open the device out and you'll be treated to the first ever under-display camera on a Galaxy smartphone.
Essentially, this 4MP snapper genuinely looks like it's not there, because pixels are located over it, to cover it. It may be a downgrade on the 10MP front camera found in the previous iteration in terms of megapixels, but the trade off is an undisrupted screen and viewing experience and we like that a lot – especially when apps such as Instagram and Netflix can be tailored in Labs (found in settings) to cover that entire screen.
Screen & specs
We search for online news and magazines, rotate the device to landscape mode and the screen responds – it's an impressively large display for something that still fits comfortably into a back pocket. In terms of pixels per inch (ppi) you're getting one extra on both the cover (387, up from 386) and main screen displays (374 up from 373 on the Fold 2).
And arguably the biggest draw (if you'll pardon the pun) is that the Galaxy Z Fold 3 5G marks the first time ever that Samsung is bringing S Pen support to its foldable phones. In fact, you can now choose between two S Pen options for the Galaxy Z Fold 3: the S Pen Pro and the S Pen Fold Edition, both specifically designed for the Z Fold 3.
The S Pen Pro is 6g heavier and boasts Bluetooth for air-action support and device-switching – the tip can either be set to fixed or retractable, so it can also be used with other Galaxy devices such as a Galaxy Tab or Galaxy Book.
The S Pen Fold Edition (which is being bundled with pre-orders of the Fold 3) still boasts neat features such as the ability to pause a show or take a picture just by clicking. As the name suggests, the S Pen Fold Edition is exclusively for Fold 3 use. Want to draw, write, or sign important documents on your smartphone? Now, you can. We take notes across the very middle of the device, on the diagonal, and the handwriting recognition kicks in. S Pen support doesn't extend to the cover screen, just the main display, but it's still a hugely enjoyable and useful new feature.
Samsung has also improved the split view and updated and customised the settings menu on the Z Fold 3, to make better use of that brighter double-screen real estate. By clicking the mini icon, you can now jump to other menus too; no more back and forth clicking, the broader part of the display is used while the smaller menu remains. We load up two apps on one screen and one on the other. Want to play Scrabble, check out the MLS league and check your messages at the same time? Go ahead.
More apps optimised and tailored for the foldable screen are promised, thanks to expanded partnerships with firms such as Google and Microsoft. For other apps, turn to the new Labs feature in settings, which allows you to actually tailor the size and location of the app window and use it simultaneously with other apps – it's all about facilitating your natural workflow (or enjoying Instagram on the full screen) and it offers several new and neat ways to personalise your smartphone.
In terms of performance, the Z Fold 3 runs the latest Snapdragon 5-nanometer AP and 5G connection, backed up with a respectable 12GB of RAM and either 256GB or 512GB of built-in storage. The battery is a beefy 4400mAh dual affair and you also get stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos. Admittedly, we didn't have enough time with the Z Fold 3 to fully scrutinise (and either endorse or deny) its sonic chops or stamina, but the stats are pretty solid.
What we can tell you is that during our limited time with the Z Fold 3, the sound through the phone's speakers was clear, neutral and expansive for a smartphone.
The rear camera of the Z Fold 3 is an improved 12MP triple affair (Ultra Wide, Wide with OIS Dual Pixel and Tele with OIS 2x Zoom lenses) with a 10MP cover camera – remember, there's the new super-clear glass to ensure a great shot.
While the main specs in terms of the cover and rear snapper resolution are carried over from the previous model, Dual Preview and Capture View have both been enhanced to utilise screen space more effectively while capturing and editing your snaps. For the iOS-ensconced, it is quite the levelled-up experience to see all your snaps on one portion of the screen, while posing for, and editing, your next shot in the other.
It is odd to note a downgraded specification when it comes to Samsung's flagship Galaxy Z phone, but the hidden 4MP front snapper is, on the one hand, a downgrade on the 10MP front camera found in the previous iteration. But the trade off is that it's essentially invisible. Pixels have been located above it to provide an undisrupted screen and viewing experience. For us (and considering the other 12MP and 10MP cameras onboard) it's a worthy compromise.
The new Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 betters its older sibling in many aspects, most notably the two flavours of S Pen support, a slimmer and more homogenous design, an uninterrupted and vibrant display (thanks in no small part to that hidden camera) plus the fully waterproof IPX8 rating. And for many this will add up to a smartphone worth the £1599 ($1799, AU$2499, €1799) asking price.
Of course, it's still a hefty recommended retail price, but remember, the original Fold launched at £1900 ($2000, AU$2999) and the 2020 update came with a price tag just shy of that, so the new fee (with the S Pen Fold Edition bundled with pre-orders) is the most palatably priced Fold yet. The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 will be available for pre-order beginning today, 11th August 2021, and will officially go on-sale 27th August.
At first glance, the Z Fold 3 seems practically unbreakable and a worthy update that may finally tempt iOS-lovers into the foldable Android realm. We found the user experience both enjoyable, slicker than the previous Fold and more intuitive. Initially at least, the Fold 3 could be the most convincing argument yet for opening up to a Samsung Galaxy flagship smartphone.
Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 wireless earbuds arrive to take on Apple AirPods
Read all our Samsung Galaxy reviews
Peruse our pick of the best smartphones 2021: best phones for music and movies on the move
Has to be Android? We get it. See best Android phones 2021: Google-powered smarties for budgets big and small