Samsung has lost its folding phone edge
The Galaxy Z Fold 5 and Z Flip 5 are underwhelming updates
Samsung Electronics worked its way to a dominant global position through vertical integration and genuine technological innovation. By the time it was clear that the mobile phone would be the most important consumer product of the 21st century, Samsung was all-in on building its own supply chain and designing its devices around cutting-edge, homegrown components.
That's why Samsung phones have always had great displays, for example, even if they might not have been so tastefully calibrated around a decade ago. It's also why Apple had no-one else to turn to when it wanted to build the iPhone X, its first phone with an OLED screen. Samsung's investments into memory, sensors, and SoCs have all paid off when it comes to efficiently designing its own products and selling parts to competitors, while its leadership in displays has allowed it to develop new kinds of devices altogether.
The most recent example of that is folding phones, which followed Samsung's prior research into flexible OLED panels. Samsung launched the first mass-produced example, the Galaxy Fold, in early 2019; it set the blueprint for the category by pairing a smaller external screen with a tablet-style OLED panel that folded in on itself. Samsung had to postpone the release by five months, though, after early reviewers noted durability concerns with the display.
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Four years on, you could call the Galaxy Z Fold line (as it's now known) a qualified success. It's still expensive and not much closer to becoming a mainstream product. But you don't hear much about broken displays these days, and it makes sense as a high-margin halo device at the top of Samsung's lineup. I know lots of people who love theirs.
Still, it's hard not to shake the sense that Samsung hasn't made the most of its huge head start in this space. Google and Lenovo-owned Motorola have released their own folding phones in the US. Chinese giants Oppo, Vivo, and Xiaomi all have credible competitors, albeit restricted to their domestic market where Samsung isn't a player. There are even signs of downward pressure from budget-focused manufacturers.
That was the context heading into Samsung's latest Unpacked event last night. Samsung holds two of these big showcases a year; the first happens roughly around Mobile World Congress in February and highlights the year’s Galaxy S flagship smartphones, while the second takes place in summer and is now established as the event for foldables.
For the first time in recent memory, Samsung decided to hold this one in South Korea, which, hey, why not. Seoul is a great city and Samsung's Suwon campus is impressive in person. As for media folk who were unable to make the trip, well, they didn't miss out on much of substance.
Here's what Samsung announced for its 2023 folding phone lineup.
Galaxy Z Fold 5
This is an iterative update to last year’s Galaxy Z Fold 4. As far as I can tell, these are the only major changes:
A new hinge that lets the two halves of the inner display fold flat against each other
A slightly thinner profile thanks to that hinge
A Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor
The inner display now has 1,750 nits of peak brightness, up from 1,000
Everything else — screen size, resolution, cameras, battery and charging specs, $1,800 price — remains the same as on the Z Fold 4.
Galaxy Z Flip 5
Like the Z Fold 5, the Z Flip 5 is a fairly minor upgrade over its flip phone-style predecessor, though it does have one big visible change:
A new 3.4-inch "flex display" outer screen, up from 1.9-inch
A new hinge design that lets the inner screen fold flat, like on the Z Fold 5
A Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor
Like the Z Fold 5, the other main specs remain the same as last year — including the $1,000 price.
I wouldn't underestimate the new hinges, because that really is a meaningful upgrade to the folding phone form factor. The reason I know this, though, is because every other company to ship a folding phone in the past couple of years has used the same kind of "teardrop" design to achieve the exact same thing. Samsung's Z Fold and Z Flip phones have long felt like clunky outliers for leaving a gap between the two halves of the screen when they're folded in your pocket. It’s inexplicable that it took so long for Samsung to catch up.
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