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(Pocket-lint) - When folding phones first hit the market, there was very much a sense that companies were just trying to show off the technology, rather than give us devices that solved a real problem. The early devices had a screen that wrapped around the outside of the device, making them hugely impractical, and very likely to get ruined due to scratches and so forth.

Samsung took a different approach. With the Flip series it sought to offer a device which you could use as a regular smartphone, but then fold to make it more compact and keep it in your pocket. Making it super portable. 

Its first Galaxy Z Flip and Z Flip 5G weren't perfect, but they were very promising. But they were pretty expensive. For 2021 Samsung has taken that original idea and made it much better and - more crucially - a lot more affordable. You can buy one for around the same price as any other top-tier smartphone - or even less if you're comparing it too the really big, expensive flagships. 

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Flippy joy 

  • Finishes: Black, Green, Lavender, Cream, White, Pink and Grey
  • Unfolded dimensions: 166 x 72.2 x 6.9mm
  • Folded dimensions: 86.4 x 72.2 x 17mm
  • IPX8 water resistant
  • Weight: 183 grams

What's most surprising about the Galaxy Z Flip 3 is how sturdy it feels. With any device with moving parts, bending elements or hinges, that sturdiness is crucial. After all, you don't want to have a product that feels like it might break apart at any moment. 

The aluminium frame all the way around the outside of both the top and bottom halves of the phone gives a solid feel to the device, while the metal spine over the hinge is also strong feeling. Similarly, when you open it up, that aluminium frame ensures that you can't bend it back on itself unless you really, really tried to do it on purpose. 

Add that to a phone that has IPX8 rating against water ingress, and not just capable of lasting the rigours of daily life, but also would survive just fine if you dropped it in water. 

Even the hinge has a smooth, purposeful motion to it. It doesn't feel too loose or wobbly, and doesn't make any grinding noises (unlike some competitors). In fact, it's a pleasure to open and close. Just like any flip phone should be. 

That tactile feedback you get from snapping it shut is far more enjoyable than just pressing a button on the side of a regular phone. It makes it an event; an experience almost.

We get the feeling that the appearance was a big part of the focus for Samsung with the Flip 3 as well. Like any classic, popular flip phone, it's as much a personal fashion accessory as it is a phone. So it's available in seven different colours, plus there are handful of different cases - including models with rings and straps attached for holding onto. 

Despite being a futuristic folding phone, it still has the same buttons and fixtures you'd expect of any smartphone. The volume rocker and power/sleep button live on the right side of the phone, just above the fold, the latter with a fingerprint sensor built into it for unlocking and authentication.

Apart from the metal frame, the rest of the phone's surface is covered in glass. The rear is one single panel, while the front cover has two. This material choice gives the phone a premium feel, but we did find it was very happy to slip off soft surfaces without any encouragement. Perhaps another reason to consider one of the company's range of case accessories. 

The only other design choice that could end up being problematic for some is the gap between panels when the device is shut. Fold the phone to close it and there's a gap between the top and bottom halves of the screen, near the hinge. If it spends most of its time on your desk, that's not an issue, but keep it in a pocket and you will find it collecting particles of dust and fluff - and needing to be wiped regularly to keep it clean. 

When you do open it there's also that 'crease' in the display to contend with. Most of the time when swiping through the phone's interface, you don't see/feel it, because most of those interactions are in the bottom half of the screen. However, we often found we'd feel it in apps - such as when scrolling through a web page, or doom-scrolling on Twitter. It didn't bother us all that much, but we suspect it's very much a personal preference thing. 

There was one specific instance where we really didn't enjoy it though: when playing Mario Kart Tour. That's a racing game which uses swipe gestures for turning, and - in landscape orientation - you have to swipe across the middle of the screen to take some of the turns. And when pressing towards the middle of the Flip 3's screen, its hinge design means it starts to fold somewhat. While it's not a flaw, per se, it is something that requires an adjustment when you're used to pressing against an immovable slab.

Cover display: What can you do with it? 

  • 1.9-inch AMOLED colour panel, 260 x 512 resolution
  • Widgets, clock, notifications and more

Like the design, the Cover Display on the front of the phone is one area that's seen major improvement over the first-generation of Z Flip phones. It's now a full colour AMOLED screen, and it's a touchscreen too. 

Tap it once and you can quickly check the time, day, date and battery level - plus see a dot if you have a notification. Double-tap it and it becomes active, then you can swipe across to view your notifications proper.

This, we think, is its most useful feature. The way you can see which notifications you have waiting, read them, then decide whether you need to unlock your phone to reply or pay it more attention.

That's not its only function though. There are a host of widgets available to load on the Cover Screen, including things like a weather widget, music controls, your next alarm, voice recorder, and a timer. Just little functions you might want every now and then, but don't want to have to unlock your phone to get to. It's very handy. 

You can customise the way it looks, by choosing your preferred clock style, and some of those will even let you have your own images as a background wallpaper. 

More handy, however, is the selfie camera monitor. By double-pressing the lock/sleep button, you launch straight into the main cameras that are built into the phone's cover. The screen next to those two cameras then becomes your monitor, so you can shoot photos or videos of yourself without opening the phone. This also means the added benefit of being able to use the primary cameras for selfies, rather than using the poorer quality camera inside the phone. 

Main display and software

  • 6.7-inch foldable AMOLED screen
  • 1200 nits peak brightness
  • 1080 x 2640 resolution
  • 120Hz refresh rate
  • HDR10+ support 

Spec wise, the AMOLED panel on the Flip 3 is up there with some of the top screens on the market. It's capable of reaching high refresh rates (up to 120Hz) and up to 1200nits peak brightness. It even has support for HDR10+, so will show you Netflix high dynamic range content too. 

In terms of colour and brightness it's hard to fault. It's a fantastic display, especially when you use it to watch an modern series on your favourite streaming platform. Colours are rich, lighting is even, and at the times when you need the peak brightness to kick in - like dark scenes with bright areas like fires/lamps - it handles the contrast very well. 

There is, but of course, the crease. Combined with the plasticky pre-applied screen protector (which you're encouraged not to remove) it can catch reflections in the middle of the screen. That means, often, you'll be unable to avoid the crease if there's a light source shining on it from somewhere nearby. 

Still, it doesn't overly warp the content. There is very minor curving in the centre, but unless you're looking very closely you probably wouldn't notice it. Especially not when immersed in your favourite series or game title. 

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Another minor problem is because the screen is quite a long aspect ratio, it'll sometimes crop the content. With video apps, it's not much of a problem because it just puts black pillar boxes on either side of the video to keep it to its original aspect ratio. However, vertical games will sometimes expand to fill the screen and then end up cutting some of the graphics or on-screen buttons off at the side. Other times, the title will just have a black bar at the top of the screen and keep itself the correct ratio. It's not consistent. 

Battery and performance

  • Snapdragon 888 5G processor, 8GB RAM, 128GB/256GB storage
  • 3300mAh battery with 15W wired charging
  • Wireless charging support (10W)

As far as speed and loading times are concerned, the Z Flip 3 acts and feels like a top-tier device. There's good reason for that: it uses the Snapdragon 888 processor, which is the same platform most high-end Android phones are built on. 

With that raw power combined with a screen that refreshes up to 120 times per second, the feeling is one of responsiveness and fluidity. Interface animations are smooth, plus games and apps all load quickly without much in the way or stuttering. 

There's plenty of storage on offer too: both 128GB and 256GB options are on offer and, unlike some companies, there isn't a massive price difference between them. In fact, in the UK, you only need pay £50 more to get double the base level storage. 

It's in battery life where we found the Flip 3 was lacking in comparison to some of the bigger, candybar-style flagships. Look at the specs and you'll know why: it only has a 3,300mAh battery. That's about three-quarters of what most standard Android phones hold. 

It does offset that lack of capacity somewhat. By its very nature, when the phone is shut it's using very little power, because the main screen is off. And it doesn't take much power to light up the smaller external screen when checking the time or notifications. 

That means, on light days with little main screen time, we had no issue at all making it to bed time after taking it off charge in the morning. Making it last a full day with heavier use and more screen time was much more of a challenge. Put in an hour or two gaming, or group chatting for a couple of hours, and the battery will empty fairly quickly. We found ourselves wanting to plug it in or resting it on a wireless charging pad by around 7pm on such days. 

Camera

  • 12MP f/1.8 primary camera - PDAF/OIS
  • 12MP f/2.2 ultrawide - 123-degrees
  • 4K recording up to 60fps 
  • 10MP selfie punch-hole camera 

The Galaxy Z Flip 3 keeps things solid in the camera department, without going crazy with additional lenses. Samsung opted for a pair of 12-megapixel sensors; one primary and one wider-angle. There's no telephoto or periscope zoom, almost certainly to keep the size compact and the price point down. 

While that means you don't get the wide array of optical focal lengths that you'd get from the S21 Ultra, it does mean you have pretty much all you need to take decent photos day-in day-out. 

Results from both the cameras are good too. Pictures taken are sharp and rich in colour. Sometimes the artificial intelligence (AI) boosts the colours a tiny bit too much, but it's rarely to the point that colours look hyperreal and completely unnatural. 

More impressive though is that the two cameras keep consistent with each other in terms of colour and dynamic range. There are some subtle differences, like the ultra-wide being a tiny bit darker at times, but for the most part the two take photos that look like they come from the same device. 

Being critical, we did find the ultra-wide would sometimes distort towards the edges. It wasn't all that noticeable on landscape shots, but you could definitely see it in images where you're closer to a subject. It has that almost fish-eye like quality to it when you're taking those. 

While the phone doesn't have a dedicated telephoto zoom camera, you do still get the option to zoom digitally all the way up to 10x. As you'd suspect, the results when you do aren't all that great. The further you push the zoom length, the more it starts to look like an oil painting, completely lacking any real detail or sharpness. Still, stick to the two main focal lengths and you'll get good-looking shots that are more than good enough to share on social media.

As for the selfie camera, that's not so great. Results are overly soft and it really struggles when there isn't lots of light. We'd suggest just sticking with the primary cameras and using the Cover Display as a monitor for framing.

Verdict

Every once in a while a product comes along that changes everything or - at the very least - makes you excited about technology again. The Galaxy Z Flip 3 is such a device.

Are there compromises versus choosing one of the top-tier flagships? Of course. But with the latest flip phone from Samsung, those compromises aren't as jarring or upsetting as they were in older generations.

It's water-resistant to high levels, has two decent cameras, and the performance of a proper flagship when it comes to speed. And it folds into a compact shape that's so much easier to carry around than a big flagship phone.

More importantly the technology doesn't come with a flexible phone tax. It costs less than four-figures - and that's a very big deal for what is definitely the best folding smartphone on the market in 2021.

Also consider

Moto Razr (2020)

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Motorola jumped on the opportunity to reinvent one of its most popular phones of all time once flexible screens became available. It's not as powerful as Samsung's, but it's sure to hit a nostalgia bone in anyone who remembers the first Razr. 

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3

If you're after more of a folding tablet than a folding clamshell phone, the Z Fold 3 is the one to go for. It's Samsung's latest top-tier big-screened foldable, and it's got a lot going for it. Although, it's pretty pricey.

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Writing by Cam Bunton and Mike Lowe. Originally published on 11 August 2021.