Have we reached peak smartphone? Henry Burrell reviews the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip, an engineering marvel which all but highlights how few ways there are to improve phones in 2020.
In the age of smartphones, notifications and constant communication, you might wish for a simpler time when the old flip phone in your pocket was the only way anyone could reach you. It was smaller than your current phone and you could hang up calls with a cathartic snap, something which Samsung can now relate to. Its new Galaxy Z Flip is a smartphone with a flexible screen that folds open to double in size, reminiscent of a compact mirror. Its plan is to tap into nostalgia – and your wallet – to convince you that you want a flip phone again in 2020.
Old technology can make us nostalgic for a simpler time before smartphones pinged us 300 times a day. The resurgence in popularity of vinyl records and Polaroid cameras is proof that some of us yearn for the past, but these are still old technologies.
Modern tech companies rarely develop brand new products that tap into our misty-eyed reminiscing, which is why the Galaxy Z Flip is so notable. Smartphones in 2020 are nigh on impossible to improve on, so Samsung has made one that looks like something from 20 years ago.
The Z Flip takes the modern smartphone, makes it more fragile, and all but doubles the price. Samsung estimates the device will cost around $2,499 when it launches soon (the also new and technologically more capable Galaxy S20 starts at $1,499).
Of course, Samsung doesn’t see it that way, and neither does Motorola – the pioneering mobile company that beat the Z Flip to market with the Motorola Razr, a folding display version of the popular mid-2000s handset. The flip designs of both devices open up at a hinge but instead of buttons and number pads, there’s just a long, tall screen.
Folding displays can’t be made entirely of glass for obvious reasons, so Samsung has developed incredibly thin flexible displays made mostly of layers of plastic and components fused together to move as one single unit.
The engineering that Samsung has put into the Z Flip is undoubtedly incredible, but its existence can’t help but highlight how few ways there are to improve phones now. Black slabs of glass that replace the computers on our desks and cameras around our necks are all so good that the only way to stand out is to create one that has a larger screen but can physically fold down to a smaller size.
With that advantage comes several disadvantages. The Z Flip has a very tall display, one that won’t be all that fun to watch videos on. It’s also mostly plastic which means it’s very reflective and picks up fingerprints like nobody’s business. And while Samsung says the hinge has been tested to fold and unfold 100,000 times without breaking, these moving parts simply mean there’s more to break compared to a regular phone.
Samsung’s already got a folding phone to market with the $3,399 Galaxy Fold, something that exists simply because it can. But that device looks like a tablet out of Star Trek and wasn’t invested in nostalgia. To most people it’s a very expensive, inconvenient extravagance. When Samsung lent me one recently, I showed it to my 26-year-old sister and she said it looked “really stupid”.
The Z Flip is different as it takes the idea that because you prefer 12 inch LPs to Spotify, you might also want your phone to look like it’s from the 1990s. Samsung recognises that you don’t want to completely regress and buy an old-school flip phone since you’re already entrenched in all the conveniences and distractions afforded by smartphones. So instead, it’s found an awkward way to mesh old design with new capabilities.
Samsung is also flexing here to prove it can beat rivals like Huawei and Apple to market. Apple usually isn’t first to put brand new technology into its iPhones, but when it does, the technology tends to finally go mainstream.
Yet the iPhone keeps a stranglehold on much of the Western market. If Apple does release a foldable iPhone – and that’s a big ‘if’ – the company will have waited patiently in an attempt to deliver a product that will likely be superior to these flawed first-generation Samsung efforts.
Despite my love of consumer technology, it all leaves me a little bewildered. In the space of four years or so, high-end smartphone prices have skyrocketed as companies try their best to outdo one another with larger screens, improved cameras and flashy designs. But in reality, your three-year-old iPhone 7 can do most of the things the Galaxy Z Flip can do in a cheaper, simpler and less breakable way.
Realistically, smartphones can’t get any better in 2020. We’ve reached peak smartphone, and companies are worried. We’re holding onto our older phones longer because they’re still very good.
It’s clear that foldable phones aren’t the answer right now, but we’ll continue to see these experimental products disguised as cutting edge innovation as tech companies jack up the prices and, in the Z Flip’s case, the nostalgia, to try and get you to upgrade.
Tech enthusiasts and early adopters will buy folding phones in tiny numbers, while the rest of the world won’t pay much attention – until there’s one with ‘iPhone’ stamped on the back.