For the second consecutive August, Samsung executives will take to a virtual stage and try to convince us we need to give foldable phones a chance. Sure, the argument will go at Samsung Unpacked event this week that foldable phones may cost more, but their expansive screens allow you to get more done. And when you're done working, you can fold up that device into a more compact and portable size than a laptop or tablet would provide. What's not to love about that?
The thing is, as we get closer to the expected launch of the Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Galaxy Z Flip 4, the argument in favor of foldables is one Samsung looks like it's starting to win. Or at the very least, it's finding a surprisingly receptive audience.
"Foldables are already a large niche, and Samsung has said that its Galaxy Z Flip3 sold around 7 million units, making it a mainstream option at its price point," noted Avi Greengart, president of Techsponential. Indeed, if you look at our rankings of the best foldable phones, it's clear Samsung dominates that niche market.
But the key word there is still "niche." While Samsung's TM Roh announced a few weeks back that his company was responsible for much of the 10 million foldables that shipped in 2021, that's a drop in the bucket of the 272 million smartphones Samsung sold last year, according to Counterpoint Research.
Nevertheless, Samsung is pressing on, making foldable phones the focus of the upcoming Samsung Unpacked event on Wednesday (August 10). "Both [Galaxy Z Fold and Galaxy Z Flip] users have enthusiastically embraced what we have created. Their response is our biggest motivation to push forward, and that’s why we are committed to this journey of seeking new possibilities for mobile innovation," said Roh in a blog post arguing that the mainstream moment for foldable phones has arrived.
"This year, we’ve made advancements in every detail and opened the new experiences enabled by these behavior-shifting devices," Roh added. "I am excited to see people to discover new ways to do more of the things they love with the new foldable."
Still, despite whatever positive reaction the Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Galaxy Z Flip 4 receive at this week's Unpacked event, they're unlikely to usher in an era when people turn their backs on more conventional phones to fully embrace foldables. Then again, that may be beside the point.
"Foldables are inherently more expensive and unlikely to fully displace bar form factors any time soon, but Samsung has refined the hardware and software with each generation, opening up the category to more consumers," Greengart said.
In other words, this year's foldable launch may be less about turning foldables into mainstream devices and more about Samsung continuing to assert itself as the device maker setting the bar for these kind of handsets — an important identity to have when rival companies start rolling out foldables of their own.
What to expect at Samsung Unpacked
Rumors about the upcoming foldable announcement underscore Samsung's desire to build devices that appeal to a wider audience. The Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Galaxy Z Flip 4 are both tipped to get a redesigned hinge, which could result in thinner, lighter devices that are easier to tote around. That would be especially welcome in the case of the Fold, which doesn't exactly slip easily into a pocket with its current design.
We've also seen photos that reportedly show off the new versions of the Flip and Fold where the crease running across the display where the screen folds is less visible than it has been on past versions. While not a deal-breaking feature, it's certainly an aesthetic flaw that suggests foldables have a ways to go before they're fully polished devices, so addressing that complaint is paramount for Samsung.
At the same time, other rumored changes suggest that Samsung isn't about to go cutting features to make its foldables more appealing to phone shoppers. Both the Galaxy Z Flip 4 and Galaxy Z Fold 4 are said to be turning to the Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1, Qualcomm's most powerful chipset. That would put both phones among the best-performing Android devices currently available, whether they're foldables or not.
Other moves outside of Samsung point to a brighter future for foldable phones. Google's Android 13, for example, includes optimization for big-screen Android devices. While those changes seem largely geared toward tablets, you'd imagine that foldable screen devices would stand to benefit, too. And giving users an improved experience that really takes advantage of the expanded screens space of a device like the Galaxy Z Fold would go a long way toward boosting that handset's appeal.
What's holding foldable phones back?
The durability of foldable phones and whether they could hold up to repeated opening and closing had been a concern when the first devices appeared, particularly after the original Galaxy Fold's shaky debut. But Samsung has made big strides here, and the rumors about a hinge redesign suggests that the work is progressing.
Still, other concerns about foldables remain. Neither the Flip or the Fold have impressed with their battery life, and in the case of the Galaxy Z Flip 3 in particularly, it's one fact that's prevented us from more fully recommending the phone. It's unclear how Samsung plans to address this issue with its upcoming foldables — one rumor even suggests the battery on the Galaxy Z Flip 4 will be smaller. But until the devices start lasting longer on a charge, it's hard to imagine them gaining a wider foothold in the phone market.
Of course, the big issue is price — foldable phones are among the most expensive handsets you can buy. Samsung addressed this to an extent with the Galaxy Z Flip 3, dropping the price of that phone to $999 last year. However, the Fold remains a pricey proposition, with the Galaxy Z Fold 3 debuting at $1,799.
Some rumors have hinted at a price drop for the Fold 4, with Samsung possibly offering less storage on the base model to get the price lower. (It's hard to see the Galaxy Z Flip 4 price dropping much lower than $999.) Even a drop of a couple hundred bucks would make the Samsung's premier foldable a more palatable purchase for people
For Greengart, though, the biggest roadblock to Samsung's vision of a mainstream market for foldables remains convincing people that this new form factor delivers a better phone experience.
"Samsung needs to explain why foldables are special — the use cases are different for the Flip and Fold — and reduce the risk of trying something new by emphasizing usability and durability," Greengart said.
Samsung stakes its claim
Whether this is the year Samsung pulls off that feat remains to be seen, but it's clear that there's no going back on the company's commitment to foldables. The August Unpacked event used to be dedicated to introducing the latest edition of the Galaxy Note, Samsung's trend-setting phablet.
But with other phone makers eventually realizing what Samsung had discovered — there's a market out there for large-screen phones — the Note became just another big phone. Samsung has since dashed all hopes of a Note comeback, instead focusing on the Ultra model in its Galaxy S line and its foldable devices to meet the demand the Galaxy Note once commanded.
By committing to foldables now, Samsung hopes to repeat some of the Galaxy Note's success — establishing itself as the go-to brand for this kind of device, even as other phone makers take a chance on foldables of their own.
And other phone makers are coming. Motorola is on the verge of launching a new version of its foldable Razr, that reportedly addresses the flaws that hampered early releases. Both Google and Apple are rumored to have foldables in various stages of development, though nothing's been formally announced or confirmed.
Should those rival foldables ever appear, Samsung wants to be ready to take them on. And what it shows off this week will help set the stage for how ready Samsung winds up being.
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Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.