Samsung's $2,000 folding phone gave me a brief but tantalizing glimpse of the future — before it broke

Our $1,980 Samsung Galaxy Fold broke after two days, but here's what it was like before
Our $1,980 Samsung Galaxy Fold broke after two days, but here's what it was like before
Key Points
  • The Galaxy Fold has foldable screen technology that may soon be used in all sorts of devices.
  • It shows that a phone can unfold to a tablet, although the small outside screen isn't very good.
  • However, it's too bulky and expensive for all but the most hardcore tech enthusiasts.

Samsung's Galaxy Fold is the first phone you can buy with a foldable display that allows the device to serve as both a traditional phone and, when unfolded, a tablet.

It gave me a taste of the future. Then, two days into testing, it completely broke, making clear that this is not a product ready for today's phone buyers. In response to feedback from reviewers, including CNBC, Samsung has decided to delay the launch of the Galaxy Fold beyond April 26. But we did have a couple of days to see what the phone was like. The phone is still important.

Samsung Galaxy Fold
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Sharper screens and better cameras have not been enough for people to upgrade their phones. Consumers are holding on to phones longer than ever before – up to 4 years according to a Bernstein report from February – and smartphone shipments are down across the globe to levels not seen since 2014.

That means companies like Samsung and Apple are looking for new ways to attract phone buyers.

The Galaxy Fold is a $1,980 example of a new form factor that might get people to care about new phones again... eventually.

Samsung has a history of driving the smartphone market forward with new form factors. People once gawked at the Galaxy Note for having a 5.3-inch screen, which seemed gigantic at the time. But it ushered in a new era of large phones that have been adopted by every phone maker on the planet.

As a major supplier of screen technology, Samsung's foldable displays are likely to be used in millions of devices in the coming years. And while I can't recommend it today, it could give you a taste of the future standard as prices drop.

Here's what I learned.

The folding screen was impressive at first

The Galaxy Fold is bulky. At first glance, it looks a bit like an old luxury clamshell phone with a hideaway keyboard, the kind you might have carried in the early 2000s.

Samsung Galaxy Fold
Todd Haselton | CNBC

When closed, it looks like two phones stacked on top of one another. It has a small 4.7-inch display on the front that can be used with one hand. Samsung said this is by design, since, when opened, it reveals a 7.3-inch screen that requires two hands.

You can use the outside screen like you would a normal phone, but it's cramped, and I didn't like using it for much other than swiping away an email, quickly checking the news or placing a phone call.

Given the outside display is so poor, the Fold felt more like a tablet with a smaller optional screen, not really a full modern phone that doubles as a tablet.

This outside screen is too small to serve as a regular phone for people who are used to today's crop of big phones.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The inside screen was more impressive -- until it broke.

Lots of people were wowed to open the device like a book and see a big tablet screen glowing back at them. (Those same people handed the phone right back to me when I told them it costs $2,000.)

You can do a lot with the big screen, too, like run Google Maps, a browser and your music player all side-by-side at the same time.

Samsung Galaxy Fold
Todd Haselton | CNBC

You can also open an app on the outside screen and continue using it on the big screen inside. This was useful for finding my position with Google Maps in New York City, although I had to stop walking and open the phone to use it.

But mainly, I loved using it for reading and for watching movies. It's just fun to be able to carry a display this size right in your pocket.

Samsung Galaxy Fold
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The crease and a broken phone

Even when it worked, a visible crease ran down the middle of the folding display. I didn't notice it as much when looking right at the phone, but I could see it from the side or when the screen wasn't bright. It didn't bother me while reading or watching movies, but I could definitely feel it while panning around a page.

Samsung says the crease can withstand hundreds of thousands of opens and closes, or about 100 opens and closes per day for 5 years. That's not very much, though, considering I turn on my iPhone about 150 times a day on average.

During my second day of testing, the screen began flickering and would turn off and on at a rapid pace. It became completely unusable and at times wouldn't turn on at all.

Samsung had said not to remove a thin layer that sits on top of the screen. Other reviewers accidentally removed this layer and ran into similar issues that I saw. But I never removed the protective film or used the device outside any way a normal user might.

The broken Samsung Galaxy Fold.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Samsung took the unit to inspect it for problems. In response to the damage, it said this:

A limited number of early Galaxy Fold samples were provided to media for review. We have received a few reports regarding the main display on the samples provided. We will thoroughly inspect these units in person to determine the cause of the matter.

Separately, a few reviewers reported having removed the top layer of the display causing damage to the screen. The main display on the Galaxy Fold features a top protective layer, which is part of the display structure designed to protect the screen from unintended scratches. Removing the protective layer or adding adhesives to the main display may cause damage. We will ensure this information is clearly delivered to our customers.

The company provided a second Galaxy Fold for further testing, but I haven't had a chance to use it extensively to see if it holds up better. I'll provide an update after I use it for a week or so.

A glimpse of the future, but not for today

The Galaxy Fold is a taste of the future.

It would be a winner if it were pancake-thin with an outside display that's akin to what we have on today's iPhones and Galaxy S10 phones. Eventually, I think we'll get to that point, and the Galaxy Fold shows us that we're on the path there.

Foldable displays may one day allow us to carry phones that fold down to the size of a credit card, or phones that – like the Fold – open up to tablets. Apple sources some of its screens from Samsung, so imagine an iPhone that unfolds into an iPad. That's what this technology enables.

I look forward to that day. Given the problems we had with this phone, I'm skeptical it will come any time soon.

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