Samsung still hasn’t given us a good reason to buy a foldable phone

Folding phones seem, intuitively, like a great idea. Phones are good! Tablets are good! Put them both together, fold it in half, and presto: you’ve made the best of both worlds. Credit to Samsung, too, for willingly subjecting itself to all the growing pains of figuring out how to make a good foldable phone. Last year’s Galaxy Z Fold 3 was a good foldable, and the new Z Fold 4 looks to be even better, if ever so slightly. (I have lots of thoughts about the new era of flip phones, like the Z Flip 4, but we’ll save those for another day.)

What Samsung hasn’t done — what no one has done yet, really — is make the case for why you’d actually want a foldable phone. And until it can explain why it’s worth all the extra cost and tradeoffs, I’m having a hard time figuring out why you’d be willing to give up the phone you know and love to get one.

What Samsung needs to do with the Galaxy Fold (and the rest of the industry will eventually need to do with their own foldables) is convince people that it’s worth buying a phone that’s more expensive, more fragile, and takes up more room in your pocket.

The Z Fold 4 is a big, big phone.

The worst thing about foldables right now is that they force you to make significant sacrifices on your most important device: your smartphone. The new Fold 4 is slightly shorter, slightly heavier, and roughly twice as thick as the Galaxy S22 Ultra. It’s also $600 more costly. The Ultra has a larger battery, improved camera specs, and a 6.8-inch screen that can be used with a S Pen. When opened, the Fold 4 is noticeably larger, but candy bar phones are still quite large. Fold also makes a lot of sacrifices in exchange for more real estate.

Samsung doesn’t even seem to understand why you’d make all of those sacrifices. One of the first selling points on its website.

The company provides the ability to prop up the screen on a table by opening it halfway to watch or take videos hands-free. In reality, we call that a kickstand, and this one is quite pricey. You’re also only using half the screen in this mode, which kind of defeats the purpose.

So far, the foldable’s only real advantage appears to be multitasking. When you open your Galaxy Fold, you can run two apps side by side, or even three or four at once! I agree that this is a delightful thing. Being able to use my browser and notes app concurrently, as well as see my calendar and my email together is much better than constantly swiping between two full-screen apps. And seeing two pages at a time in the Kindle app is the best. And you know what? Big screens are just good — good for games, good for reading, good for watching Netflix.

But these aren’t just arguments for foldables; they’re arguments for tablets. And so far, the arguments for Android tablets don’t seem to be convincing many users. While Android has gotten better as a large-screen operating system, and the Fold 4’s software being based on Android 12L is a good sign, too many apps that are “optimized” for foldables are actually just sticking a giant sidebar onto one side, which doesn’t accomplish much. Others just streeeetch everything to fit the larger screen. Don’t even get me started on how the vast majority of apps deal with Microsoft’s approach of two separate screens attached with a hinge.

The Z Fold 4 wrangles Android pretty well, but it’s still mostly just a big phone screen.

Samsung has done an admirable job of wrangling all of Android’s weirdness onto the Fold’s screen, and in general, it’s not that the Fold doesn’t work; it’s that there’s nothing about the Fold that is dramatically better than the phone or tablet you might already be carrying around. And shoving them into a single device actually makes them both a little worse.

Several attempts to create a device that can be and do everything have duped me over the years. There were modular phones like Google’s Project Ara and the Asus PadFone. There were phones that could be expanded from Essential, Motorola, and others. In every case, they were mediocre versions of everything that added up to less than the sum of their parts. Foldables are currently stuck in the same place: big, unwieldy, expensive phones that unfurl into small tablets that die far too quickly, both in terms of battery life and durability.

The other approach to a multi-screen future is to try to build the best version of each device and then let users choose which ones they want to use at any given time, and ensure that their software, settings, and data flow seamlessly throughout the ecosystem. This is, roughly, Apple’s approach: it will happily sell you a Mac, an iPad, and an iPhone based on the assumption that they will all be used for different things, and then use iCloud and the App Store to make everything work across those devices. It may be more expensive in the end — though you can get an iPhone 13 and an iPad Mini for less than the Fold 4 — but it has fewer tradeoffs.

Despite this, I can’t help myself: I want the tweener devices to work. I want a touchscreen Mac and a foldable phone that is also a great phone and a great tablet. It would mean fewer things to charge, fewer things to update, and fewer things to carry around. But I’m not going to downgrade my phone just to get a half-decent tablet attached, and that still feels like the state of the foldable.