Samsung made a splash Tuesday with the unveiling of its latest experiment in the foldable phones category. And it appears to be the clearest demonstration yet of how the trend isn't just a gimmick.
The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip is a big improvement on the South Korean electronics giant's predecessor, the Galaxy Fold. That phone started life crashing for floods of gadget reviewers before it even had the chance to hit the shelves.
But with the Z Flip, which CNBC got a hands-on with, we got an early sign that history is not likely to repeat itself. The device, which folds in half like a clamshell flip phone, feels sturdier and the hinge is a noticable improvement on the Fold. The gap in both halves of the phone is barely noticable, and it's built to resist exposure to dust and sand.
Whereas the Fold showed how you can cram as much as possible into a phone that folds out into a huge tablet, the Z Flip demonstrates a much more compact version of that design which could open up the "niche" of foldables to a bigger audience.
It also obviously harks back to a time when such "flip" phones were far more commonplace, injecting both a sense of nostalgia and freshness at the same time — as the Motorola Razr did in its own way. And, given the Z Flip comes equipped with a glass display rather than a plastic one, it feels much smoother to use.
One little drawback for me was that it's a little slower to be able to shut and open the device. A more secure hinge comes with the condition that it takes a little more force to close and open up the Z Flip.
"I believe we're in the very beginning of a ten-year transition where nearly every mid-range and premium smartphone will be able to fold one way or another," Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, told CNBC. "I do not believe this is a passing fad, but a long term trend we will see in phones but also PCs."
He added: "We will even see devices that can fold twice and I believe Samsung is looking to that future as it named the line 'Z' which has two folds."
As with the Fold, there's the ability to interact with apps in different ways. With the YouTube app, for instance, you can view it on the fully-opened phone normally as you would with any smartphone. But start folding it at a 90-degree angle, and the experience changes.
The video you're viewing then collapses into the top half of the display — meaning it doesn't cross into the second half — while recommendations for other clips and the comments section can be interacted with on the bottom portion of the device.
Meanwhile, the way this folding experience — which Samsung calls "Flex Mode" — works with the camera is also a neat feature. When bending it at an angle, like with YouTube, the photo app shows only what the camera sees at the top, while at the bottom you can flick through options like whether to take a picture or video and different effects.
It's only a sneak peak at how practical folding phones could be for apps, but given that's such a key thing these phones will have to get right, it's a promising sign. Samsung could easily exploit this dual-screen function to enable more creative use cases, like it's done with its "phablet" Note range of phones.
"Foldable phones is an iPhone moment for the smartphone industry similar to the transition from a keypad, non-touch form-factor to capacitive slate touch form-factor when the iPhone was launched ten years ago," Neil Shah, partner and vice president of research at Counterpoijnt Research, told CNBC. "4G was the catalyst for the slate mobile phone form-factor then; 5G will play the same role for the foldable smartphones."
But, Shah added: "The mobile ecosystem from supply chain to manufacturers to app developers will have to work hard on standardizing, optimizing the software, applications on these varieties of potential foldable form-factors to keep the experience intuitive and less fragmented."
The Z flip isn't just a copycat of the Motorola Razr, which was revealed to much fanfare late last year. That device is another example in its own right of how foldables could exploit different form factors and provide practical use cases.
Plus, despite Huawei's political problems and a huge $2,600 price tag for its foldable phone, the Mate X released last year was another sign of the amount of investment that's going into creating these things.
The Galaxy Z Flip sells for a cool $1,380 price, which is expensive. But it's worth noting that's significantly lower than the $1,980 you'd pay for a Galaxy Fold. However, the Z Flip won't come with 5G — the super-fast next generation of mobile internet — whereas the Fold has a slightly more expensive variant with 5G.
Paolo Pescatore, tech, media and telecom analyst at PP Foresight, told CNBC he believes the foldable category is still a "novelty," but that Samsung had done a "phenomenal job" with the Z Flip.
"Samsung has raised the benchmark compared to other foldable devices in every single way," he said. "It is far more refined and feels more finished and fashionable compared to rivals."
Still, the Z Flip will need to stand the test of time — and of willingness from consumers to buy it. If we've learned anything from the last two years' dismal smartphone market performance, it's that not everyone is ready to part with $1,000 or more for a new handset.
But it's a promising sign for gadget enthusiasts and casual tech users alike who've been wanting to find a potential entry point for a premium-feeling phone that brings something "new" to the table. The Galaxy Z Flip isn't cheap, but it's cheaper, and that's a start.
We'll also need evidence the phones don't stop working out of the blue like the Fold did for plenty of reviewers — including CNBC's — last year. That's a key thing to watch out for as Samsung starts putting this into more people's hands.
Needless to say, this won't be the last you've heard of foldable phones. Plenty of other manufacturers — particularly Chinese ones — are working on new and innovative folding devices.