Samsung needs global competition in the foldable space, for consumers’ sake
The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 is an excellent new foldable phone that delivers everything Samsung promises a foldable would do: it can transform from a phone to a mini tablet on the fly, allowing users to do and see more things. For someone like me who’s always working on the go, the ability to have a larger screen to read press releases, or type more comfortably and faster due to a larger keyboard, is game-changing. The Galaxy Z Fold 4 makes my work life a bit easier.
But I could say that about the Galaxy Z Fold 2 and Fold 3 too; the Fold 4 didn’t necessarily elevate that experience much. That’s not to say the Fold 4 didn’t improve over the Fold 3. You get the annual Qualcomm processor bump. Samsung shaved a couple of millimeters off the Fold 3’s bulky hinge, and gave that real estate to the cover display, so you get a more comfortable in-hand feel with a slightly larger screen. The Fold 4’s cameras got an upgrade, but they’re still not quite at the level of any premium flagship camera system seen in any of the best smartphone cameras.
Meanwhile, the shortcomings that most of us bemoaned about the original Galaxy Fold, such as the harsh display crease that can be easily seen and felt by touch, or the phones’ inability to fold entirely flat, making the device thicker than necessary, are still here in the latest Galaxy Z Fold 4. In fact, I think most average consumers wouldn’t even be able to tell the Fold 3 and Fold 4 apart if they saw them side-by-side — that’s how little things have changed.
For more casual smartphone fans, it may be natural to assume that innovations for foldables have plateaued the way they have for slab phones. But that’s not true, because in China, where the foldable space is hotly contested, each new foldable has introduced at least one previously never-before-seen hardware improvement. Motorola’s Razr, released in 2020, had already fixed the display crease problem and folding gap problems. Huawei managed to cram a flagship camera system into the Huawei Mate X2, with a large sensor main camera and a 10X Periscope zoom lens. Vivo’s X Fold also packed a Periscope zoom lens, along with not one but two in-display fingerprint sensors. And Xiaomi’s just-launched Mix Fold 2 shrunk overall device thickness to uncharted territory. It’s currently the thinnest and lightest large foldable on the market.
There’s no sugarcoating this: if you look at purely hardware, the Galaxy Z Fold 4 looks and feels a bit outdated compared to other similar large foldables on the market. These other foldables also retail at a much lower starting price in China than Samsung’s Fold series.
But here’s the problem: almost none of these other foldables are available outside of China (the Huawei Mate Xs 2 technically is, but without Google Mobile Services, it’s a difficult sell). Samsung has, essentially, a monopoly on the foldable market worldwide except for one country.
This is obviously great news for Samsung, but bad news for consumers and foldable enthusiasts. When brands compete, we the consumers win. And right now, for whatever reason, none of these Chinese brands making awesome foldable hardware are trying to compete with Samsung globally.
Imagine if the crazy thin Xiaomi Mix Fold 2, or the Vivo X Fold with an actual flagship camera system, were available for purchase throughout Asia and Europe? Imagine if consumers in the US, UK, EU, India, and South Korea could walk into a phone store and see the Oppo Find N’s almost crease-less display next to a Galaxy Z Fold 4 with a prominent crease? This would put pressure on Samsung to either fix those engineering issues which are clearly fixable or at least lower the price of its foldable. They’d cause the company to react to put its products back on top, whether it be in the form of a better product or a better value proposition.
To be clear, the Galaxy Z Fold 4 is still the best overall large screen foldable due to the little things like software that’s better optimized for changing screen sizes, or having an official water resistance rating for some peace of mind. I’m sure some readers will point out the S-Pen support too (although I personally don’t care about it, as it requires a separate purchase and can’t be stored inside the phone).
But it’s clear that with the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Fold 4, Samsung did not push to innovate as much as it could. If Motorola could solve the creasing back in 2020, if Huawei managed to put a 10X Periscope zoom lens into a foldable 18 months ago, if Vivo can use two ultrasonic in-display fingerprint scanners in its foldable, there’s no way Samsung engineers can’t do any of those things. They chose not to. The reason, I’m guessing, is because Samsung wants to increase the mainstream appeal of its foldables, which required the Fold series to drop weight and meet a lower price point. As I wrote in another editorial, it’s a wise business move on Samsung’s part — a lighter and lower-priced foldable has more mainstream appeal than an ultra-powerful one with the latest bleeding-edge technology. And Samsung can afford to prioritize appealing to the masses rather than chase innovation because it knows most of the world have no other foldable options.
A market dominated by a monopoly is not a good one for consumers — so for us foldable fans and tech geeks, we can only hope Google and Apple bring their foldables sooner rather than later, or that Chinese brands like Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, and Honor finally look beyond just their home country. Maybe when that finally happens, when the Galaxy Z Fold series has competition with more eye-catching hardware, Samsung would finally not hold back and give us that Galaxy Z Fold Ultra some of us have been pining for.