Galaxy Z Fold 1 to 4: How Samsung’s foldable designs evolved through the years
The Galaxy Z Fold 4 is here, and at first glance, it doesn’t seem much different from last year’s Galaxy Z Fold 3. It is still a book-like inner foldable, with basically the same design language as last year’s foldable.
Examine closer, however, and you may see that Samsung has made small changes that further fine-tuned its tested-and-proven foldable design. The outer screen is a bit wider; the hinge does not protrude as much, making for a more symmetrical and streamlined look when folded. And in a continuation of Samsung’s pursuit of a more compact foldable, the Galaxy Z Fold 4 is 8g lighter than its predecessor.
Can any of these improvements be considered major by themselves? No. But together they make up more than the sum of their parts. They further correct many aspects of the first Fold that, now in hindsight, looked rather ridiculous.
I have used every Samsung foldable phone (heck, every foldable phone, period) over the years, and it’s worth documenting the evolution of this series, because the Fold series went from nearly crashing and burning at takeoff to now, clearly the direction toward which mobile is heading.
Samsung had been teasing a foldable phone since 2013, but it wasn’t until late 2018 at the company’s developer conference did a functional prototype actually appeared in the flesh. That unnamed prototype was only shown on a dimly lit stage from a distance, and no media actually got their hands on it. But even from afar, we can see that it clearly carried the same design language as the eventual Galaxy Fold (there was no Z branding yet) that first launched in April 2019.
Samsung Galaxy Fold (version 1): A disastrous beginning
If you followed mobile news at the time, you surely remembered what happened during that initial launch: the early Galaxy Fold review units Samsung seeded to reviewers began malfunctioning within days of use. The problems all involved the foldable display showing dead pixels to various degrees. Reasons ranged from reviewers unknowingly removing the unremovable screen protector, to debris getting inside the moving parts of the phone. Whatever the case, this was a PR disaster for Samsung, and the South Korean tech giant quickly recalled all review units and delayed the initially planned 26 April 2019 launch date. Samsung was initially supposed to announce updated shipping dates “within weeks,” but months passed without a word.
It would not be hyperbole to say that, at the time, it seemed like Samsung’s foldable aspirations had died before even officially starting.
Galaxy Fold (version 2): Successful lift-off
After three months, Samsung finally announced in July 2019 that it had identified and fixed the problem, and the Fold would be released in September. The fixes include inserting micro brushes inside the hinge (like tiny brooms) and placing two plastic caps at the top and bottom of the folding point to prevent debris entry. The unremovable screen protector was also tucked into the bezel so users can’t unknowingly peel it off.
These fixes sound inconsequential and didn’t exactly evoke confidence from tech media or any reasonably cautious consumers. But nonetheless, there were crazy gadget enthusiasts who were still willing to take the financial risk and buy one. I was one of them, importing one from South Korea on day one at a marked-up price.
But kudos to Samsung, because those fixes did work. There were no widespread reports of device malfunctioning throughout the Galaxy Fold’s entire life cycle despite heavy scrutiny, and I used my unit daily for 13 months without issues.
It’s funny seeing how enamored I was by the original Fold, because looking back, it was clearly a gen-one device lacking polish and refinement.
You know how when you watch movies that came out in the late 90s and early 2000s today, and the cell phones and laptops onscreen would look absolutely clunky and cheap-looking compared to the gadgets we have today? The Galaxy Fold, at just four years old, already feels that way, with huge bezels sandwiching the outside screen, an unsightly and unnecessary notch that eats into the main screen, and worst of all, a flimsy hinge that flops around mid-fold.
But the Galaxy Fold already got one thing very right: the inner fold design. By late 2019, there were already two other foldables in existence (the Huawei Mate X and Royole FlexPai), and both utilized outer folds in which the foldable display wraps around the screen in folded form. I tested both of those phones too, and I was never comfortable using them in the real world due to the fact the soft bendy screen was always exposed. The Galaxy Fold, meanwhile, felt much more secure, because the folding screen was protected when folded.
Even if the Galaxy Fold was expensive, and in hindsight carried unpolished hardware, it did live up to the promise of a tablet that can fold in half and fit into our pockets. And for a digital nomad like me who enjoys working on-the-go, the original Galaxy Fold was absolutely worth it. I was sold on the idea of foldables from day one.
Galaxy Z Fold 2: The biggest generation-to-generation jump in recent mobile history
If there’s a constantly recurring theme in consumer tech, it’s that gen one of a bleeding-edge new tech is usually very rough around the edges, and gen two is when we see a much more polished product. Even with that in mind, the Galaxy Z Fold 2 absolutely blew me away by how much it improved over the original Fold.
First of all, the comically cramped outside screen was no more, replaced by a cover display that spans edge-to-edge. Sure it was a bit awkwardly tall and skinny, but still significantly more usable than what we had before.
The main display also got rid of the ugly notch for a much less intrusive hole punch, but most importantly: the hinge was significantly improved. It felt much sturdier, requiring a bit more force to fold and unfold. And in an ingenious move, the hinge could stay still mid-fold at any angle, like a laptop hinge. Samsung called this “Flex Mode,” and it opened up a myriad of new use cases.
The Z Fold 2 could, for example, serve as its own tripod, allowing the cameras to take hands-free selfies, time-lapse videos, or video calls. I also used it as a mini laptop at times, with the keyboard displayed on the bottom half of the device.
The large foldable screen, too, got a material upgrade, now using an “ultra-thin glass” layer at the top that made the display feel a bit more like glass than the soft, plasticky feel of the first Fold display.
I loved every change Samsung made to its second generation Fold, with the exception of the addition of the pointless Z branding. In my opinion, Galaxy Fold and Galaxy Flip sound clean. Adding another random letter feels redundant. I wrote this in my review of the Galaxy Z Fold 2 at the time and I still believe it to be true: the Z Fold 2 brought the biggest generation-to-generation improvement in recent mobile history.
Galaxy Z Fold 3: Making the foldable more durable, practical and affordable
By the first half of 2021, the foldable scene competition had heated up in China, with Huawei, and Xiaomi introducing foldable phones. Huawei’s Mate X2 in particular introduced a series of foldable hardware improvements that made the Z Fold 2 look a bit outdated. Huawei’s foldable had a hinge that barely protruded from the side, folded flat without a gap, didn’t have a hard display crease, and the camera system featured a 10X Periscope zoom lens.
Everyone assumed Samsung would incorporate all these improvements into the Galaxy Z Fold 3. After all, if Huawei could do it, surely Samsung could too.
But it didn’t happen. The Galaxy Z Fold 3, released in August 2021, brought back mostly the same design as the Galaxy Z Fold 2, with the noticeable screen crease, bulky hinge, and modest camera hardware that was a far cry from Samsung’s own Galaxy Ultra slab phone cameras. All the display measurements and dimensions are identical to the Z Fold 2.
No one but Samsung engineers would know for sure, but my theory is that Samsung didn’t incorporate these crease and camera improvements to the Z Fold 3 not because Samsung lacked the technical ability, but because Samsung wanted to make its foldables more mainstream: instead of cramming the absolute latest cutting-edge components that would drive up cost and weight, Samsung would instead make the Fold more practical for mainstream consumers: more durable, lighter, and cheaper.
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 achieved all three. It was, along with the Z Flip 3 that launched at the same time, the first foldables to gain an official IP water-resistance rating; it weighed 10g less than the Z Fold 2, and its starting retail price was nearly $200 lower than the $2,000 price of the first two Folds. Samsung also added S-Pen support for the Galaxy Z Fold 3, giving reason to justify the larger display.
One controversial change that isn’t necessarily an improvement is the switch to an under-display selfie camera for the main screen. This allowed the Z Fold 3’s main display to appear uninterrupted, at least if you don’t look too hard. Examine closer, and you’ll see the under-screen technology doesn’t quite hide the camera too well, and the quality of this 4MP selfie camera is quite mediocre. There is still a normal selfie camera on the outside screen for those who want higher-quality selfies. For me, this change doesn’t matter much, but it was a divisive decision at the time.
For a gadget enthusiast like me who really like snapping photos, the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s cameras felt outdated, and quite lacking compared to the camera systems offered by rival foldables. But I understand Samsung’s decision: if it had crammed the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s epic camera system into the Fold 3, the foldable surely would have weighed and cost more.
Galaxy Z Fold 4: Another iterative push to the mainstream
Four years later, we have the Galaxy Z Fold 4. As mentioned, the improvements that we can see are subtle: the hinge no longer sticks out as much, improving in-hand feel. The outside cover display is also just a wee bit wider (2.7mm wider, to be exact), which gives the device a less narrow aspect ratio in folded form (it’s now just about 23:9 compared to 24.5:9 previously). This change is subtle, but makes a difference, as I’ve always found the Z Fold 2 and 3 screen too narrow when folded.
The Z Fold 4’s main display is also said to be 45% stronger than the Z Fold 3’s screen thanks to sturdier film material plus the inclusion of Gorilla Glass Victus Plus. Still, most people should still consider using a case to protect the phone from drops.
The battery size remains the same as last year, but the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 chip is noticeably more efficient, which should give the Z Fold 4 better battery life than ever. There’s also faster charging this year around, but the Z Fold 4 does not come with a charger so you’ll have to buy your own Fold 4 charger. S-Pen support returns as well, though the stylus is still a separate purchase.
Samsung also upgraded the Z Fold 4’s cameras, with a 50MP main shooter that offers four times more resolution than the Z Fold 3’s main camera. These resolutions are used for pixel binning, which further improves light intake ability. The image sensor size is also larger, though Samsung did not specify by how much. The zoom lens also got a bump up to a 3X optical zoom lens that’s likely identical to the same lens used by Samsung’s Galaxy S22 series of phones. This is a step up from the 2X zoom lens seen in the previous few years.
While these are still not Samsung’s absolute best camera hardware (it’s missing the large sensor 108MP main camera and 10X Periscope zoom lens used in the S22 Ultra) the improvements are still much welcomed. Of course for a gadget geek like me, I wish Samsung had gone all out and given the Z Fold 4 the S22 Ultra camera system, but again, that would have driven up cost and weight significantly. Samsung’s focus now is clearly to make the Fold and Flip series as appealing to the masses as possible. It’s the right business move. Samsung’s marketing team has been keen to tout how well last year’s Galaxy Fold and Flip 3 series sold, and I absolutely believe them. Anecdotally, I am seeing a lot more Fold and Flip 3s in the wild in various cities across the world than I ever did with the first two Fold or Flips.
It helps that the Galaxy Fold series still has no true competition on a global stage because all other large screen foldables so far have been limited to the Chinese market only. But even with no competition, Samsung has done a remarkable job refining the Fold’s hardware, addressing all the durability concerns that seemed to have initially doomed the product category. If you are interested in your first foldable, now is as good a time as any to jump on board. Samsung has a lot of good Z Fold 4 deals too.