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Settling the foldables versus flagships debate

Foldable phones offer a novel technology that come with extra features and incremental convenience. Is the new form factor finally better than standard flagships?

Both the Motorola Razr 40 Ultra and the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip5, seen above, cost a pretty penny—priced, respectively, at  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>89,999 and  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>99,999 onwards.
Both the Motorola Razr 40 Ultra and the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip5, seen above, cost a pretty penny—priced, respectively, at 89,999 and 99,999 onwards. (Samsung)

Nearly two decades ago, Motorola launched the irreverent, iconic Moto Razr, cementing the folding mobile phone form factor’s place in the consumer electronics hall of fame. It faded, though, with the advent of industrial-design smartphones. But while the latter have brought plenty of front-line innovation, brands—led by Samsung and Motorola—have been looking to revamp the potential of phones that fold and flip.

Four years ago, foldable phones couldn’t capture the fancy of mainstream buyers. Concerns about the durability of folding and flipping phones came up and much of it felt like a work-in-progress draft that didn’t add to usability and utility.

This year, though, Samsung claimed to have received 1,500 crore worth of pre-bookings for the latest-generation foldable smartphones—its highest to date in India. Motorola, too, claimed to have had a stellar early-season sale this year. With sales picking up, is it finally time for you to buy a foldable phone?

A brief history

The first disruption came from Samsung, which unveiled its first Galaxy Fold in February 2019. Motorola followed up later that year with a new Razr. Samsung followed with the first Galaxy Z Flip in early 2020. The next year, 2021, saw the advent of China’s brands—Xiaomi launched its first commercial foldable, the Mi Mix Fold, in March. Oppo followed with its own take on the segment in December 2021.

Also read: Samsung Galaxy Z Flip5 review: Another stride forward

2023, though, has likely been the biggest year foldables have had so far. Google, the makers of Android, launched the Pixel Fold. Though it’s not available in India, it shows intent from Google to lend its Big Tech might to this nascent sector.

Have brands finally pushed the envelope to make the new form factor qualitatively better than standard flagships?

No spotlight needed

The fundamental idea of owning a smartphone today, in good user experience design language, would be a device that does not need attention. Smartphones today are extensions of our life—extending their presence to where we eat, how we travel, what we read and listen to, and pretty much everything else. For such a ubiquitous device, your smartphone shouldn’t need extra care and attention.

Yet, both the Motorola Razr 40 Ultra and the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip5 cost a pretty penny—priced, respectively, at 89,999 and 99,999 onwards. For about the equivalent price of a luxurious five-day Goa holiday, you definitely would end up offering and attracting extra attention towards this device if you use it as a primary smartphone. The Razr 40 Ultra is a touch better in this regard, offering a smoother, slimmer phone body you can grip more comfortably. While the Galaxy Z Flip5 definitely looks more premium, it also feels more of a handful in terms of grip.

To be sure, this isn’t the first premium phone that lacks grip. Google’s Pixel 7 series is super prone to slipping, and so are Apple’s latest-generation iPhones and Samsung’s Galaxy S-series flagship. They are also rather large—even as phone body sizes upwards of six-inch displays have become the norm, these devices would always feel uncomfortable to cram into denim pockets. The foldables have an advantage here in being more compact.

What makes the difference, though, is that even if devices such as the Google Pixel 7 Pro, Apple iPhone 14 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra are massive, you don’t really need to pay extra attention to them because you are used to holding a device of such form factor. With the new crop of foldables, you will have a learning curve. Till you get used to them, you will keep feeling it isn’t a usual phone.

This, however, is a matter of habit. While the Razr feels sturdier and closes flat, the Z Flip5 has a slight bend to it even when opened fully, and a hinge gap that allows dust to accumulate. Flat-closing hinges, once brought into the mainstream and made more affordable, will make foldable phones perfectly acceptable for everyday use. For now, we are almost there—but still at least a year or two away from greater mainstream acceptance.

FILE - Apple iPhone 14 phones sit on display at an Apple Store at The Grove in Los Angeles, Sept. 16, 2022.
FILE - Apple iPhone 14 phones sit on display at an Apple Store at The Grove in Los Angeles, Sept. 16, 2022. (AP)

Why bother, then?

The entire range of flagship smartphones is accessible to you at the price of the Razr 40 Ultra and Z Flip5. But if foldables haven’t been perfected yet, should you even bother getting one?

The primary factor that favours a foldable phone today is that the flip phones are indeed compact, while folding phones aren’t drastically bulkier than standard phones. With this design, the external display also becomes a big contributing factor. While the interface design of external displays is work in progress, there has actually been a lot of progress.

So far, Motorola has what looks and feels like the best external display in flipping phones—offering app-specific widgets and access to essentially the entire phone from the outer display. The latter is up to global standards, offering 144Hz refresh rate, a 3.6-inch AMOLED screen and Full HD+ resolution.

In their present generation, both the Razr 40 Ultra and Z Flip5 allow access to apps on the outer screen. Samsung is at a more experimental adoption stage—for instance, the Z Flip5 gives access to Google Maps, WhatsApp and YouTube on its 3.4-inch HD+ Super-AMOLED screen, though Microsoft’s Teams and Outlook, or even Google’s Gmail, remain inaccessible on it.

Also read: How to design a modern-day flip-style foldable smartphone

Once configured correctly, these external displays offer enough for you to make quick calls on the go, check and respond to messages, navigate and play music. This gives foldables a big fillip.

On larger foldables such as Samsung’s Z Fold series, Oppo’s Find N (fold) series, or the Google Pixel Fold (the latter two aren’t available in India), the external display offers everything that a flagship smartphone today does. The larger folding panel needs a better niche—the present display size is not big enough to emulate the use of a tablet, yet it’s also too big and tablet-like to be used as a phone when opened.

Multi-tasking, however, is a key strength. Once further app support builds up (and can be added through software updates), you will be able to watch a video and take notes live on a Google Doc. Other similar use cases may include simultaneous use of a spreadsheet and a calculator—such as Microsoft Excel and the default calculator app; or a browser and a video streaming app. This is a true value addition to the smartphone usage experience, even on the cramped screen real estate of foldable phones.

Is the novelty good or bad?

Once you get used to flipping or folding the phones open, they feel just like any other smartphone. Some may perceive this negatively because foldables continue to retain the novelty of being different. But they do not have the kind of effect good technology typically does—in terms of resolving a point of conflict or inconvenience.

Yet, that’s also their strength.

A gadget only becomes commercially successful when it moves beyond novelty and turns into a device that can be used at any point, for anything. And it is clearly edging towards becoming more of an everyday device. With compact pocketability, sturdier hinges and useful external displays, foldables give you reason to consider them well-designed, premium phones that look different from others. This, in turn, offers the kind of social equity Apple’s three-camera “Pro” iPhone design has aced.

The pricing game

Should you be spending more to buy foldables? Of the standard flagships, the Apple iPhone 14 costs 89,900, Google Pixel 7 Pro, 70,999, OnePlus 11, 64,999, and Samsung’s Galaxy S23, 74,999. In comparison, Samsung’s cheapest new-gen foldable, the Galaxy Z Flip5, starts at 99,999, while Motorola’s Razr 40 Ultra starts at 89,999. Both firms offer cheaper products too—Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip3 is still on sale at 49,999, while Motorola’s basic Razr 40 starts at 59,999.

From a strictly pricing point of view, then, you won’t really be paying too much more, or less, for a foldable smartphone. This is where discretion applies. The Razr 40 Ultra and Galaxy Z Flip5, the two new-gen, entry-level foldable phones in India, do not add anything functional but do bring a new experience that is different from the curve while not being disruptively unique.

So, if you opt for the conventional flagships, you won’t miss out on anything that will significantly make your life easier. But if you do spend on a foldable phone today, you will get a novel technology that gives you some additional social glitz, while offering extra features that add incremental convenience.

Also read: Motorola razr 40 ultra review: Making smartphones fun again

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