The new $1,380 Samsung folding phone is neat, but nobody should buy it, and I'm returning mine

Key Points
  • The Galaxy Z Flip is unique and has a fun new form factor with a folding display.
  • It costs $1,380, though, and you can get much better phones for a lot less.
  • Here's CNBC's Galaxy Z Flip review.
A Samsung Electronics Co. Galaxy Z Flip smartphone is displayed during the Samsung Unpacked product launch event in San Francisco, California, U.S. on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.
Michael Short | Bloomberg | Getty Images

I've been testing Samsung's second phone with a folding display, the Galaxy Z Flip, for five days. It's fun and unique. It looks like a regular phone with a big, 6.7-inch screen but then folds in half like a classic flip phone.

But that new form factor comes at a price: The Galaxy Z Flip costs $1,380, meaning you're paying a hefty premium just to get a phone that can fold in half. There are better phones that cost less, including the latest Galaxy S20 from Samsung. The only people who might consider the Z Flip are tech enthusiasts who want to own one of the first phones with a folding screen. They should know it's very delicate.

The good news is I haven't had any problems like I had with the Galaxy Fold. The screen still works after a few days of use, and it's not scratched, even though the so-called "ultra thin glass" has a layer that scratches and damages as easily as plastic. Samsung still warns you should handle the new screen with care, though.

Here's what you need to know about the Galaxy Z Flip.

What's good

The hinge is strong and stays open even when the phone is propped up.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Galaxy Z Flip has a unique design for the modern smartphone era, but it's difficult to see why it's necessary. It's sort of neat to have a big screen that folds down into a square, but there's no real benefit to that.

I guess the screen is technically somewhat protected from things in your pocket, since it's closed, but there's still a gap where things might get in to scratch it. And it's still really prone to damage when it's open, even from fingernails, unlike the durable glass displays used on other phones. It's still bulky even when it's closed. One friend said it looked like a George Costanza wallet. Folded, it's more than twice as thick as my iPhone 11 Pro Max.

The screen is pretty nice. There's a crease that runs across the middle that you can feel when you scroll across it, but it was hard to see when I was looking directly at the phone, even while reading a website and playing games. Otherwise, it's really bright and colorful, and sharp enough for most people, just not as sharp as other phones that cost more than $1,000.

There's a small screen on the outside for notifications.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Galaxy Z Flip's hinge is strong. It doesn't squeak or feel like it's going to break, and Samsung says it added some brushes inside to help keep debris from damaging it. Samsung says you can prop it up at different angles for things like video chat, but I wasn't impressed. In a Google Duo call with my wife, the video was super tiny. It makes more sense to just hold the phone in landscape mode so you can see more. The same goes for YouTube TV, which played back in a tiny rectangle on the top of the screen when it was propped up. It's neat, but the video is way too small.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There are other use cases for propping the phone up, though. You can use it to take pictures, including long-exposure shots where the images look best if the phone doesn't move. Some apps, such as Samsung's built-in camera app, will automatically adjust to the bend in the screen to display menu buttons on the bottom and the viewfinder up top, which was neat but not necessary for most people.

Samsung's Single Take camera feature is great.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Speaking of the camera, it's good. I like the wide-angle and ultra-wide angle lenses. Most pictures came out on a par with what I expect from my iPhone 11 Pro Max or Galaxy Note 10+. I noticed a lot of dots (called noise) when I took a night shot, though, so it didn't seem as good as other devices for that. There's also a neat new option, also coming to the Galaxy S20 phone, called "Single Take." You tap it and it records videos and snaps pictures for 10 seconds, then gives you a bunch to pick from. I liked that while my dog Mabel was playing with her toys, I didn't have to choose between taking a picture or recording a video. I got both.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I like this design better than the Galaxy Fold, too. That phone was weird. It was sort of like a clunky regular phone that opened into a 7-inch tablet, but I never liked using it closed or open for doing much. It was just too hard to type on when it was closed, and too big to use like a normal phone when it was open. At least the Galaxy Z Flip functions like a regular phone when it's open.

There's a tiny 1.1-inch screen on the front that shows the time and icons for notifications. It can function as a tiny viewfinder for taking selfies, though I normally just opened the phone to do that since it doesn't show very much.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I also really like the way the phone looks. I bought the purple model that sort of changes colors to a slightly blue hue in different light. The outside is all glass and metal, too, so it looks and feels like the expensive phone it is. Samsung includes a free clear case in the box that protects the outside pretty well, which was a nice touch.

The Qualcomm processor inside isn't as powerful as the newest one coming in Samsung's Galaxy S20 phones, but it's still really good. I played a few rounds of Call of Duty without any issues, and the phone never felt sluggish like it might if Samsung had used a lower-powered processor, like Motorola did in its $1,500 RAZR folding phone.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Finally, you get a bunch of the stuff that's expected in most phones these days. I like that the Galaxy Z Flip supports wireless charging, comes with 256GB of built-in storage and has a fingerprint reader that worked well. It can even do Samsung's fancy reverse wireless charging to power up Samsung watches, Galaxy Buds and other wireless-enabled devices.

What's bad

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

Here's the problem: Except for the folding screen, you can get almost everything I just talked about, and more, from a phone that costs well under $1,000, including Samsung's Galaxy S10 phones from last year that now start at $599. You'll get added benefits such as sharper screens, faster charging, water and dust resistance and glass displays that don't break as easily as the Galaxy Z Flip.

Or, you can take that same $1,400 and consider a better phone, like Samsung's new Galaxy S20 Ultra. It supports new 5G networks and has a way sharper screen, a much bigger battery, water and dust resistance, much better cameras, faster charging, stereo speakers (the Galaxy Z Flip only has a single speaker, and it's bad) and more. It's just big and heavy and doesn't fold.

I also worry about the durability of the Galaxy Z Flip's screen. I'm almost always worried that it's going to get scratched or damaged, so I've been babying it way more than I do other phones, including my similarly priced, fully-loaded iPhone 11 Pro Max, which is far more durable.

Samsung gives plenty of warnings to users to be careful, with a sticker and on-screen instructions not to jab it with your fingernail or sharp objects. It also offers a one-time replacement for $119 and a free screen protector that you have to get installed from a professional approved by Samsung.

Ads on the Galaxy Z Flip.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Finally, I really don't like that Samsung stuffs ads into weird places on a $1,380 phone. Here, in the phone app (which you use to place phone calls), Samsung shows me an ad for DirecTV. I opted in to use the "Places" feature, which shows local points of interest, but didn't expect ads. You can install a different phone app if you want, though, but this just feels gross to me.

Don't buy it

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I bought the Galaxy Z Flip because I am a tech enthusiast and part of the target market. I'm curious and excited about phones that fold.

I also bought it because Samsung is letting reviewers test the phone for only 24 hours before they have to send it back (Samsung says it doesn't have many to share). But I worry that means Samsung also isn't confident that the phone won't break when people are testing it.

I'm returning the Galaxy Z Flip, though. It's fun for a few days, and it's neat when you show your friends your new foldable phone. But $1,380 is a lot to spend on a party trick. And I don't really see any benefit here. The Galaxy Z Flip is still big and bulky when it folds down. Maybe when folding phones get really thin but have strong screens (seems like a contradiction, doesn't it?) they'll make more sense.

If you need a new phone, buy a Galaxy S10 or Note 10, one of Samsung's new Galaxy S20s or stick with Apple's iPhones.

Samsung reveals its newest folding phone
Samsung reveals its newest folding phone