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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 Review: A Big, Yet Iterative Upgrade

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On the surface, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 doesn't have many big upgrades. Instead, it is made up of a ton of smaller upgrades. Which makes the Galaxy Z Fold 3 a really impressive smartphone.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3
$1,799
Rating
star star star star star_empty
Pros
  • Cheaper than its predecessor
  • IPX8 rated for Water Resistance
  • Slightly lighter than Fold 2
  • Both displays are 120Hz now
  • Multi-tasking has improved
  • More apps optimized for foldables now
Cons
  • Lacking rear cameras
  • Pretty awful under-display camera for Zoom calls
  • Battery life is slightly worse than last year
  • Awkward aspect ratio displays make multi-tasking less impressive

Samsung supplied us with a review unit of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 in phantom black 256GB. We’ve used it for about a week before publishing this review.

Here we are. With the third-generation Galaxy Z Fold from Samsung. The first Galaxy Fold was impressive. It was impressive because we could have a tablet-sized display in our pocket. But it was far from perfect. Then came the Galaxy Z Fold 2 last fall. Which was a huge improvement in almost every way. And it even earned an “Editor’s Choice” from us. Now here are with the Galaxy Z Fold 3. Which, on the surface, doesn’t look like a huge upgrade from the Fold 2. But it is.

With the Galaxy Z Fold 3, Samsung opted to include a ton of smaller upgrades. Like making the Cover Display 120Hz, adding IPX8 water-proofing, and improving the hinge. Things that you would not notice if you just glanced at the phone. But they do make the phone an overall, better smartphone.

And of course, we can’t forget about the biggest update for this phone. The price. It is now $1,799, that’s $200 cheaper than its predecessor. So Samsung is improving the foldable, while also working to get the cost down, and make it more affordable for everyone. So let’s jump into the review of the Galaxy Z Fold 3.

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Let’s start with software

Perhaps, more important than the hardware itself, is software. On a foldable, you can’t just slap the same software from your regular Android phone. As it just won’t work. Particularly true with the Galaxy Z Fold 3, with its second display, and the almost-square main display. Samsung has made some pretty big changes to the software since the original Galaxy Fold back in 2019.

The software isn’t largely different here, so the blind eye, you won’t notice anything new. But there has been a lot of optimization behind-the-scenes, and Samsung has added a couple of new features. Like the Taskbar. It’s kinda like the taskbar on your Windows computer. Where you can quickly open up apps, and even pairs of apps. The ability to swipe in and open a pair of apps at once, is very useful. Particularly if you use multi-window or pop up often.

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Another change here is the ability to force apps to work in this aspect ratio. Some apps are pretty stubborn, like Instagram for one. Which even without forcing it to work in the Samsung Labs settings, it does actually work decently.

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Instagram for example, will cut out a 16:9 portion of the screen and center itself. So you are able to use it on the bigger internal display, without it being super stretched out and looking weird. But, you can’t use it in the pop-up mode. But you can force that to happen. Samsung will tell you that the app may not perform properly in pop-up mode, however. But it does work.

A number of other apps have also been optimized for the Galaxy Z Fold 3. Like TikTok, Gmail and Spotify. And you also get the desktop versions of a number of apps like Settings, Gmail and Chrome when you use it on the main screen. Which is honestly, really useful. Instead of having the mobile version of Chrome stretched across the 7.6-inch main display, the desktop version with actual tabs at the top is a whole lot more useful.

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As for what version of Android this is on, it’s Android 11, and has One UI 3.1.1. It will most likely get updated to Android 12 soon, but since this is a foldable and more things need to be optimized here, it might be a bit later than you want it to be.

Finally, the S Pen works!

The S Pen is here on the Galaxy Z Fold 3. But it is not included. You’ll have to shell out even more money for it. Samsung supplied us with the “Fold Edition” S Pen, which does not have a case. So you’re going to be carrying that one separate. And to be honest, that breaks the whole experience.

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Samsung really needs to find a way to put the S Pen inside the Galaxy Z Fold 3 (and the Galaxy S21 Ultra for that matter). Having to carry it separately, or buy an extra wide case for it, is not a good experience. You’re more likely to lose the S Pen Fold Edition because it is separate, or forget and leave it at home. Both of which are not good things.

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The way the S Pen works on the Galaxy Z Fold 3 isn’t really anything new. You can take notes with the S Pen, do some drawing, and much more. This is the Bluetooth model, so it can also be used for swiping through images in your gallery and such. The experience of using the S Pen is perfect, but storing it is another thing.

The design is mostly unchanged, and that’s not a bad thing

The design is where you’ll see a lot of iterative changes on the Galaxy Z Fold 3. For the most part, it looks the same as the Galaxy Z Fold 2. But you will see some differences here. Like the slightly thinner bezels on the Cover Display. And we do mean “slightly”. Unless you have both models side-by-side, you won’t notice the difference.

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The hinge is also stronger this time around, but the phone still has a gap unfortunately. Hopefully that won’t last much longer, as we’d really like to have a Galaxy Fold that can fold flat.

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On the backside, the camera module is also slightly different. Instead of having the flash to the side of the cameras, it is now below it. Making the camera module look a bit like a traffic light.

There is one last change, and it’s on the main display here. There is an under-display camera on the Galaxy Z Fold 3, and to be honest, Samsung should not have included it. We’ll talk more about the quality of it in the camera section. But it does not hide under the display well at all. With dark or black backgrounds it looks like a hole-punch display. But on lighter backgrounds, you can see how pixelated the display is over the camera. It’s almost more of an eye-sore than the hole-punch would be.

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Other than that, the design is mostly the same. There’s a few other very small changes. Like the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is now a bit thinner and lighter. The bezel over the main display isn’t as thick, and such.

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The biggest gripe that I have with the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the weight and thickness. This is still a very thick phone. It’s essentially two phones, in thickness and weight. And if you’re already carrying around another phone like I am, it’s impossible to keep both in your pocket. But even with just the Galaxy Z Fold 3, it’s still pretty tough. Make sure you have a pretty heavy belt to keep your pants or shorts from falling down.

The weight makes it tougher to hold onto the phone too. Since it is resting on your pinky when you’re holding the phone. And yes, it is lighter than the Galaxy Z Fold 2 was, but only by about 13 grams. That’s about 4% lighter, and doesn’t make a huge difference.

Foldable displays continue to improve

While the most talked about change for the displays is on the Cover Display. Which is the fact that it is now a 120Hz display, instead of 60Hz. Technically both displays are Adaptive Refresh Rate. So they will vary from as low as 2Hz up to 120Hz. This is great for battery life, as you don’t need 120Hz on all the time.

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But the internal display also got some upgrades. For one, it is now more durable. Which means that it won’t scratch with a fingernail, or at least we hope it won’t. On top of that, the bezel isn’t as high as it was on previous Folds. However, the crease is still here. And honestly, I don’t think that is going to go away anytime soon.

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The other change with this internal display is the new under-display camera. Which we already talked about before, and it’s not a great change, to be honest.

The quality of both displays is really good. But you can still tell the difference between the glass front display and the plastic internal display. It’s not a huge deal obviously, but there is a difference. These are AMOLED displays, so you’re getting the best picture available on a smartphone right now. The viewing angles are also pretty impressive here. Even off axis, you can see it pretty well, without any sort of distortion.

There is one complaint I have about both displays, and it’s really only one of two complaints I have about the Galaxy Z Fold 3. And that’s the aspect ratios. On the Cover Display, the display is so skinny and tall, that it is tough to use a lot of apps. Like Gmail, I can’t read really any of the subject line, because the screen is so skinny. It does work really well for Instagram and Twitter though.

Then you move to the main display, which is a really weird resolution at 1768 x 2208 pixels. Which is very close to being a square. Instead of the usual 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratios we are used to with tablets. Or even 4:3 like the iPad. That makes multi-tasking tougher. As you basically have two apps that are pretty skinny, like you would on the Cover Display.

I would love to see Samsung go with a more conventional internal display. That would make it wider when folded and make that Cover Display a bit wider as well. Instead of being 25:9.

Battery life is slightly worse than Fold 2

In my review of the Galaxy Z Fold 2 last year, I mentioned that the battery life was pretty decent. As I was getting 5-6 hours of screen on time consistently. Obviously not the best for battery life on the market, but it could get you through a day. That is not the case on the Galaxy Z Fold 3. You can get to five hours of screen on time, but you’ll most likely be hitting closer to four hours.

Why is this? Well there’s a couple of reasons. We now have a 120Hz display on the front, so using that Cover Display doesn’t conserve as much battery power. Secondly, the battery is actually smaller this year. Though not by much. The Galaxy Z Fold 2 was 4500mAh while the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is 4400mAh. That is only about 3% smaller. So it should not make up for this big difference in battery life. But I’d be willing to bet that the Snapdragon 888 5G is using up more juice than the Snapdragon 865 did.

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It can still, mostly get me through a full day. But if you’re a power user and use that internal display a ton, then you may need to recharge at some point. Luckily, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 does support wireless charging and 25W charging, so that’s not a problem.

Cameras are passable, mostly

The biggest let down of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is indeed the cameras. We’ll start with the better cameras first, because this does have five cameras. The rear cameras are the best. Basically these are the same 12-megapixel sensors from the Galaxy S10 from two years ago. That means no Space Zoom here, which honestly, that’s a good thing. The cameras are good here, ultra-wide, wide and telephoto. But they are starting to show their age, and definitely are not the best on the market.

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Pictures come out really good looking, but again Live Photo is just not that great. There’s too much artificial bokeh in the background, and edge detection is not great either. And in low-light environments, it can really struggle.

Now the main front-camera, on the Cover Display. This is also a pretty decent camera. It’s good for selfies. But I can’t understand why anyone would use it, when you can open the phone and use the back cameras for a selfie. The only use for this one, in my opinion is for facial recognition, which I’d much rather use the fingerprint sensor.

Then there’s the front-facing camera that is under the display. This one is bad. There’s no sugar-coating it here. Yes, I can be a bit forgiving since this is a first-generation technology, but I’m very surprised Samsung shipped this. As we mentioned earlier, it doesn’t even hide itself that well. Secondly, it is only a 4-megapixel camera. So it was not going to be an incredible camera regardless. 4-megapixels doesn’t do a lot in 2021. But photos are generally very noisy, and sometimes out of focus, if you don’t have good lighting.

Samsung does do some correction in post-processing to make the photos less noisy, but it doesn’t do much. Unless you’re taking a selfie outside in sunlight, or in a photo studio, this camera is going to disappoint. There’s no way around it.

Below, you can see images taken with all the cameras on the Galaxy Z Fold 3. The full-resolution images are available on Flickr.

Galaxy Z Fold 3 Picture Samples - Google Drive

Why did Samsung do so poorly with the cameras on the Galaxy Z Fold 3? Well, there’s two things I can think of here. One is that this is still geared towards enthusiasts. Who don’t take a lot of pictures, but do use the cameras for other things. Secondly, to get the cost down. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is $200 cheaper than the Galaxy Z Fold 2 was. And I’m sure using older camera parts that Samsung already had left over, definitely helped here.

Should I buy the Galaxy Z Fold 3?

If you’re an enthusiast and don’t have the Galaxy Z Fold 2, then yes. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is an instant buy. But if you are coming from the Galaxy Z Fold 2, it’s likely not worth it at this price. Unless you can get a good trade-in deal from Samsung or your carrier.

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If you are not an enthusiast, then I’d say hold off on the Galaxy Z Fold 3. It’s just too expensive for the average consumers still. Especially with the quick updates that are coming to foldables these days. If you do want to jump into the land of foldables, we’d recommend the Galaxy Z Flip 3, as it is a bit cheaper and better at a lot of things.