(Pocket-lint) - With smartphone sales stagnating, manufacturers are looking at an increasing number of ways to bring the excitement back to the sector and convince you to part with your cash.

We're seeing huge hardware specs - often without real-world justification - and we're seeing new formats, of which the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip is one.

This is a phone that will turn heads in a way that the Galaxy Fold didn't; coming with flip phone retro charm is a huge weapon, it's something that a lot of people want and the interest has already been huge. 

But what sort of compromises will you face when you go folding?

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Galaxy Z Flip design

  • Clamshell design
  • 167.9 x 73.6 x 6.9-7.2mm (open); 87.4 x 73.6 x 15.4-17.3mm (closed), 183g
  • Black, gold or purple options
  • No waterproofing

The design of the Z Flip is instantly recognisable as Samsung. It literally looks like they have taken an older Galaxy S model and folded it in half. Some of that comes down to the heavy bezel that Samsung has put around the edges of the display - mostly for protection - but it reminds us of the original Galaxy S.

Of course, this is a lot more sophisticated, and from the outside there's a glossy glass finish in three colours, black, purple or gold. It's a bit of a fingerprint magnet and there's not going to be much you can do about that - although it does come with a two-piece adhesive case in the box.

The hinge is similar to the Galaxy Fold, forming a spine that neatly vanishes when the phone is open; it's also a really satisfying action, flipping open the phone and closing it again. It can be done one-handed, slipping a thumb into the side to get it to open and we've no doubt there will be plenty who send this phone flying trying to open it with a flick of the wrist. 

There's a fingerprint scanner on the side for unlocking and this does sort of slide naturally under your thumb when opening, so you can unlock and unfold in one smooth action. Importantly, the fingerprint scanner is a lot more reliable than the side-mounted version that Sony use on the Xperia 1, so it doesn't pose a problem, we've essentially had no failures from it. 

With the compact size being the big advantage, there is a downside. This is a flagship-grade phone that doesn't have waterproofing or dust-proofing and Samsung alerts you to this as soon as you get the phone out of the box - although there are fibres in the hinge to reduce the likelihood of debris getting into the mechanism.

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The Galaxy Z Flip has a noticeable bezel - this is a physical lip around the edge of the display, sealing it into place, so you can't catch the edge of the panel and peel it off. It's there for protection and that's a good thing, because you want your phone to last. 

At a practical level this means there's a ridge that's prone to gathering dust - and pocket lint does accumulate around this ridge as well as in the fold in the screen itself. That's just a quick wipe away, but that raised bezel also means that swipes in from the side of the phone are less natural than on Samsung's other phones.

Opt for Android 10's gesture-based navigation and it doesn't work quite as well here as it does on, say, the Samsung Galaxy S20. And on a big phone like this, using gestures is a nicer way around the UI.

Let's talk about the folding display 

  • 6.7-inch Infinity Flex display, AMOLED
  • 21.9:9 aspect, 2636 x 1080 pixels, 425ppi
  • 1.1-inch, 300 x 112 pixel external display, 303ppi

On to the panel itself and you have a screen that Samsung is calling the Infinity Flex. It's a plastic OLED display, with a top layer of what Samsung is calling "ultra thin glass". It's actually a very, very, thing glass layer topped with plastic and it's not like the sheet of Gorilla Glass 6 you might find on other phones.

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This top layer is designed to reduce display damage, but it will still scratch and it does deform. In some areas you can feel unevenness under the surface, just below the front camera for example, although that's not a problem in daily use. After 5 days of use we noticed some surface scratches in high usage areas - where your thumbs go in games, for example - so this doesn't bode hugely well for keeping the phone in pristine condition - although all displays do scratch over time, no matter what they are made of. 

Then you have the fold itself. If you want a folding phone, you have to accept that there's going to be something in the middle of the phone where it folds. Here it's a slight dip, running across the centre of the phone. That doesn't bother us one bit - this is a folding display after all - and it doesn't impact on the quality of the visuals.

Fire up Picard on Amazon Video and you can't see the fold when watching; open up Call of Duty Mobile and it makes no difference to the graphics. But the big difference here compared to the 2019 Galaxy Fold, is that every time you scroll your Instagram or Twitter feed, you're brushing over that part of the display, which on the bigger Fold you don't tend to do.

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That action becomes a subliminal reminder, triggered by your fingertips, so we've found the fold more noticeable than on Samsung's larger device.

There may also be a deeper problem with the Z Flip display and this is not to do with the surface of the display, but the panel itself. We noticed some rippling in the display towards the top of the phone. This wasn't on the surface, it looked like the panel itself had crinkled beneath this. We sent this over to Samsung for an answer and we're awaiting a response.

Whatever it is, it doesn't actually impact on the display's ability to present the visuals you want and, again, when viewing whatever content you're viewing, you can't see it - it is only something you spot when the display is off or dark and it catches the light. But it raises question of how well suited these folding displays are going to be to smartphones in a wider context - and makes that first-gen feeling of this phone stick.

As for the panel performance itself, you have the vibrancy and punch that you expect from a Samsung OLED display: in going folding it hasn't lost the potency that makes Samsung's phones popular - and that's a very positive thing - although to us it seems a little on the warm side.

There's a small external display - 1.1-inches - and this does little apart from notifications, time, charging status and as preview for the camera. This will let you line up a photo without opening the phone, but it's so small that it's pretty useless really. We can't help feeling that Samsung has missed a bit of a trick here. A larger display would be more useful - but then that might bring more compromises with it. As it is, you're better off wearing a watch that will handle your notifications and leave your phone in your pocket.

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Finally - and yes there's a lot to say on the display - there's a problem if you wear polarising sunglasses. The polarising layer on the Z Flip display is all over the place, meaning that viewing it through polarising glasses warps and changes the colours all over the place. It's a bit of niche point, but could upset plenty of people when the sun comes out.

Hardware and performance 

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 855+, 8GB RAM
  • 256GB storage
  • 4G LTE 

Samsung opted for the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855+ with 8GB RAM in the Galaxy Z Flip. Yes, that's a late-2019 flagship platform and we suspect that Samsung used this because of the development time for this phone. Switching to Snapdragon 865 might have just delayed it. The difference, in reality, isn't huge and this is still a powerful phone. 

That gives the Z Flip an immediate advantage over its rival the Moto Razr, which instead has mid-range hardware. There's nothing that the Samsung won't do and it is swift and fast to get around the UI and load apps. But having played a couple of hours of Call of Duty Mobile one evening on the Z Flip, it's evident that this phone gets hot under load. It doesn't seem to have the same thermal management as conventional devices.

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It's a 4G only phone, unlike the Galaxy Fold, although with 5G being in its infancy still, we're not sure that's going to be a huge barrier to potential customers. If you want to go 5G, then all of Samsung's Galaxy S20 devices come with 5G. 

There's 256GB of storage - which seems about right considering the high price of this phone - but there's no microSD card support. There's a single SIM tray as well as eSIM; there's a feeling of inevitability here that we'll soon see manufacturers drop physical SIM and go with eSIM only - but we're not there yet.

It's hard to complain about the performance of the Galaxy Z Flip. It doesn't matter that it's not the latest hardware because this isn't a conventional phone you can compare against all others - and we daresay that those wanting to buy it will do so because of what it does offer, rather than what it doesn't.

Samsung Z Flip battery life

  • 3,300 battery, 15W charging
  • Wireless charging
  • Reverse wireless charging

The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip has a 3,300mAh battery. It's naturally divided between the two halves of the phone and is charged either via wireless charging or the USB Type-C on the bottom of the phone. That's the only physical connection - there's no 3.5mm headphone socket - and while we're taking about sound, there's only a single speaker on the bottom of the phone and it's not great. Basically, get some Bluetooth headphones.

Back to the battery and Samsung offers 15W charging on this device which isn't hugely fast and that's something of a shame, because the 3,300mAh battery doesn't offer the greatest endurance and we really miss being able to connect to the charger for a faster top-up. 

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Again, adding some context here, the battery performance of your phone will come down to what you use it for. During the review period of this phone we've found ourselves topping up in the early evening. We daresay you could stretch though a light day morning to night without having to worry, but for the power user or avid mobile gamer, you'll be needing to hit that charger more often than you perhaps want to.

Like other Samsung phones it also supports reverse wireless charging, but we've never really found much use for this feature.

The camera loadout

  • 12MP, 1.4µm, f/1.8 main; 12MP, 1.22µm, f/2.2 ultra-wide angle
  • 10MP, 1.22µm, f/2.4 punch hole front camera

The load-out on the Galaxy Z Flip doesn't match the S20 series when it comes to cameras, instead offering a pair of 12-megapixel cameras on the rear of the phone. There's an ultra-wide angle in addition to the main camera, but you're limited to digital zoom only, which has implications on the quality - running out to 8x. 

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The cameras are great in normal lighting conditions; they deal well with HDR situations, lightening up those shadows and bringing some punch, while also excelling in taking great daylight photos with plenty of detail. One thing we like is the natural shallow depth of field it will offer - often it's better to take portraits without using the "live focus" option, which can offer fairly mixed results.

Live focus is also off in a separate menu rather than the main run of default camera shortcuts, so some might never find it anyway.

The Z Flip also benefits from Samsung's latest camera app, bringing some new features that were introduced on the Galaxy S20 range - Single Take, Night Hyperlapse and an improved night mode, for example. 

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The night shooting skills of the Galaxy Z Flip aren't the best out there and there's still quite a lot of noise when higher ISOs are used. We also didn't find the phone using longer exposures, so compared to the low light skills of something like the Huawei P30 Pro, Samsung is some way behind. One thing we like is that when it's dark, the Samsung phone recommends that you use night mode, which should help people get better results.

The Night Hyperlapse function is good fun if you've got the patience to setup in the dark and wait for it to capture its magic. The image stabilisation is good on the video camera and you can change from normal to wide lenses as you're filming for a seamless switch, which is nice.

You have a full range of aspect ratio options for video on both the front and back cameras, including 1:1, 16:9, 22:9 - as well as offering these in reverse, i.e., 9:16. As you rotate the phone the aspect will switch around, but you can film in 16:9 (i.e., the aspect of your TV) while holding the phone in portrait. This is partly because you can fold the phone and set it on a table to film and it then offers you basically all the aspects either horizontally or vertically.

Yes, you can film in 9:22, the worst vertical video you can imagine - although it's great to have all these options, as well as being able to have the phone half folded to film the action rather than you having to hold it all the time. Just make sure you use the best aspect for the result you want.

We like the Single Take camera function too, as this will grab images from all the lenses, and some video and then serve you up a platter of shots to store or share. It works on the front camera too, meaning you can take a selfie and have perhaps six different images to choose from - and one might look decent.

The front camera is 10-megapixels and offers a normal view or a wider angle, although both are from the same sensor. You can set it to automatically switch from regular to wide view when it detects more than one face, which is cool. It's a respectable enough selfie camera - although we'd use the beauty mode with caution as it tends to downgrade the entire image.

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Like the other cameras, Samsung isn't class leading here for low light either, so you're better letting the screen flash assist you if taking selfies in low light. We like that the selfie camera is a punch hole - this is much tidier from a design point of view than the Galaxy Fold's ugly corner notch.

Overall, it's clear that the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip isn't hugely aggressive in its cameras and many other flagship phones will surpass it in most areas. The question is whether that matters - it's great in normal conditions, offers plenty of fun options, and we think that will satisfy most users.

Software

  • Android 10
  • Samsung One UI 2.0 

The Galaxy Z Flip comes with Samsung's latest software and there's not a huge progression here from previous versions - and with updates appearing faster, anyone with a 2019 phone probably has nearly identical software on their updated device. 

We've mentioned that the Android 10 gesture navigation isn't the most natural on this phone because of the bezel and you don't have to use that - you can stick to three controls if you wish, because Samsung likes to give you options. 

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And options are what you get throughout this software. On the whole everything runs smoothly and lag free and usefully you can search in the settings to get to the changes you want to make. 

Samsung gives you a range of its own apps, from the keyboard to messaging and calendar and will often omit the Google default; we'd prefer the Google suite of apps but these are easily installed. There isn't too much preloaded and you can remove some elements you might not want, but that doesn't include Facebook. Facebook you have to keep, whether you want it or not.

Overall we like Samsung's software and we think it offers one of the most refined Android experiences around, but the important thing is that it's very much the same overall experience here as it is on other Samsung devices.

Verdict

We approached the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip with plenty of excitement: this is a new form factor, it has that retro cool flip phone action and a folding display, so it's a great departure from the majority of phones which have basically been the same since the iPhone launched in 2007, but getting bigger.

The Z Flip addresses that size issue, letting you fold that 6.7-inch display, meaning you can have a display as large as anyone else, but without that length in your pocket. It's the latest tech and that carries with it some gravitas.

We don't doubt that the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip will make waves and it's a step forward for folding phones - but it's clear that there are compromises outside of the price. The display material isn't as well established or as robust, and we found damage in normal use within a week of testing. Then there's the compromise on the battery and to some degree the cameras - because this isn't going to be technically the best phone out there. 

The real question is how much are you willing to accept those compromises in exchange for novelty? For many people the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip will meet their requirements in battery, camera and power, providing something unique that looks great; but for the gamers, enthusiasts and power users, the Z Flip is probably a compromise they might not want to make.

Alternatives to consider

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Motorola Razr

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The first phone to be announced with this format, the Razr has taken longer to get to market and when compared to the Galaxy Z Flip, it's more expensive and lower spec, meaning it might not be that much of an alternative. 

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Samsung Galaxy Fold

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The original folding phone from Samsung is a little more costly, but a lot larger, basically giving you a folding tablet rather than a folding smartphone. While it could be tightened up in some areas there's something about the Galaxy Fold that still appeals to us beyond what the Z Flip offers.

Writing by Chris Hall. Editing by Mike Lowe.