Folding phones are suddenly everywhere. Are they any good?

Galaxy Z Flip 5. File Image: IOL

Galaxy Z Flip 5. File Image: IOL

Published Aug 27, 2023


Your phone can take award-winning photos, play any song ever recorded and connect you to the sum of human knowledge. But can it fold in half?

The answer is probably no, but your next phone might.

Global sales of foldable smartphones are expected to grow by more than 50 percent this year, research firm International Data Corporation estimates, as Motorola, Google and Samsung are all keen to sell you on their latest models. But what does living with a foldable really get you?

To find out, we tested all the new folding phones these companies have released so far this year - and there's at least one more still on the way - to get a better sense of what's good and what isn't.

If you're thinking of upgrading to a foldable smartphone, here's what you need to know.

Foldables come in two formats

Flip-style foldables will probably feel familiar to anyone who had a cellphone in the early 2000s. They're pretty traditional smartphones when open, but you can flip them shut when you're done. This includes Samsung's new Galaxy Z Flip 5 and Motorola's 2023 Razr+.

The main draw? Portability. You can more easily cram them into a pocket or a small bag, and newer models sweeten the deal with features like large, external screens. That means you can use them to frame up selfies with the phone's main cameras, quickly control your music and respond to messages without having to open the phone.

Your other option is a much bigger kind of foldable that looks like a regular smartphone when closed, but transforms into a small tablet upon opening. You'll often see them with names that include the word "fold," and these gadgets are often called "hybrids" because they're effectively two gadgets in one.

These devices can feel pretty unwieldy compared with traditional phones, but their large inner screens make them ideal for diving into movies, books and games. They're also great for multitasking - you'll be able use at least two apps side by side, and in some cases, you can have up to four apps open at once. That's obviously not something everyone needs to do, but foldables can definitely be helpful if you frequently find yourself juggling lots of tasks.

Foldable prices vary wildly

Expect to see sticker prices that are generally a little higher than normal. That's especially true of those phone-tablet hybrids - they have been around for nearly four years, but none of the companies that sell them in the United States has ever released a new model that costs less than $1,700.

The story is a little different for flip-style foldables - they can now be had for around $1,000 brand new, which is still a lot of money for a phone, but well within the realm of the price of high-end smartphones these days. (Premium phones like Samsung's Galaxy S23 Ultra and Apple's iPhone 14 Pro actually cost more.)

Our usual advice applies here: When you feel it's time to get a new phone, do everything you can to avoid paying full price. It generally doesn't take much work - at most, it'll require a little patience.

Foldables come with drawbacks

For one, battery life can be an issue for some models.

Earlier devices often struggled to last through a full day, which can feel unacceptable considering how much these things cost. More recent flip-style models from both companies have batteries that last at least a bit longer, but if you spend a lot of time on your phone, you'll probably still need to charge it again before the day is over.

If you take a lot of photos, you may be disappointed to know that folding phones rarely get the latest and greatest cameras. That's mostly because of how they're designed - because they fold in half, there's less room inside for the big, fancy camera sensors that tend to wind up in expensive, traditional phones.

And even through current foldable phones aren't as fragile as earlier models, you still need to be at least a little more careful handling them. They're much worse, for example, at shrugging off dust, dirt, and debris than a traditional phone - that's those little bits can wiggle their way inside and potentially damage the device's screen or hinge.

Which ones are worth it?

Wading through all your options can be tricky - here's what we found after testing them.

Google Pixel Fold ($1,799): The Pixel Fold is Google's first attempt at a foldable, and in some ways it shows; it's heavy even by foldable standards, and it sports chunky bezels around its inner screen. Battery life is also just fine - I had hoped for better out of such an expensive phone.

What saves the Pixel Fold is the rest of its design, such as its spacious, passport-shaped screen, and my favorite camera setup of any foldable I've tested. We generally recommend people avoid first-generation products, and the Pixel Fold is no exception - but it gets enough right that I hope Google decides to keep making them.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold5 ($1,799): Samsung has released five of these devices in four years, so it's no wonder the new Z Fold feels so polished. Beyond that, it uses a powerful (and up-to-date) processor, which makes it a touch more future-proof than the Pixel Fold. And its software - while finicky - offers a lot of flexibility. This is also the best foldable we've tested for multitasking; with a little work, you can get up to four apps running on-screen at the same time.

But it's not perfect. The barely-there bezels around the inner screen don't offer much room for your fingers, so accidental taps are common. And the tall, narrow front screen can feel awkward to use as a phone - imagine texting on your TV's remote control and you're on the right track. Even so, it's the safest - and most elegant - choice for anyone considering a phone-tablet hybrid. But don't buy one until you've tried one for yourself.

Motorola Razr+ ($999): Motorola took a years-long break before releasing this year's Razr+, and that time off was well spent. The Razr is sleek and comfortable to hold, and its large outer screen lets you run nearly any app without having to open the phone. (It's also, in my opinion, the best-looking phone of the bunch.)

The catch? It sometimes struggles to get through a full day's use without a charge, and it's the least water resistant of all the foldables we tested. It's a solid choice if you're not accident-prone, but we still have some lingering questions about long-term durability.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip5 ($999): Like its larger sibling, the Z Flip5 is the safe choice for people who want a flip-style foldable. It's a little faster than last year's model, it's a little more durable, and its battery lasts a little longer - though that's mostly because I could do more without having to open (and power up) the larger inside screen.

But thrilling it isn't. It lags behind the Razr - the Z Flip5's outer screen takes more work to set up, I find its blocky design a little less comfortable to hold. But with a longer commitment for software updates and niceties like better water resistance, it's a great place for foldable newbies to start.