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After last year's competition, foldable phones are near a tipping point in 2024
Samsung started selling the first foldable phones in 2019, and almost five years later, foldables only make up about 1% of the smartphone market, and almost all of them are made by Samsung. The Korean tech giant was the undisputed leader and then 2023 rolled around. Google released the Pixel Fold, a capable but toasty foldable to rival Samsung. Then OnePlus released its first foldable, and the OnePlus Open is arguably a better piece of hardware than the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 5. Motorola has also revived its clamshell Razr line.
But don’t weep for Samsung; competition is what foldables need to be viable.
Samsung is still leading the way in this segment, but that could change very soon. For five years, Samsung got to set the tone and, with no meaningful competition, the shortcomings of the Z Fold and Z Flip series just became the nature of foldables: clunky, heavy, and middling battery life, with a display crease as deep as the Grand Canyon.
The shortcomings of the Z Fold and Flip became the nature of foldables: clunky, heavy, and middling battery life, with a display crease as deep as the Grand Canyon.
Samsung is by far the largest Android brand in the world, and that gives it a great deal of power, even when dealing with Google. The company’s foldable exploration was one of the factors that led Google to re-engineer Android for large displays, starting with the release of Android 12L midway through the Android 12 lifecycle. These features benefit all foldables, but Samsung has used them to particularly great effect. The Korean giant’s robust engineering and manufacturing operations gave it an early lead in developing foldable hardware, too, but innovation has been slow. The latest Samsung foldables look almost the same as the ones it released years ago, which themselves look very similar to the ones we saw in 2021.
With no competition, Samsung was able to rest on its laurels. After all, foldable sales were increasing year over year, so why re-engineer the phone to compete with nothing? Instead, we got small generational improvements, like the flat-closing hinge this year or water resistance with the Z Fold 3.
Comparing even the latest Z Fold 5 to devices like the Pixel Fold and OnePlus Open, Samsung is starting to look like it’s standing still. And that wouldn’t be a shock—Samsung routinely sticks with the same physical design for multiple generations. The upcoming Galaxy S24 will probably be a dead ringer for the S22 Ultra and S23 Ultra. In 2024, the brand’s position does not look as unassailable as it once did.
Samsung’s foldable phones are fun, and they can multitask like no other mobile device. However, these slow-to-improve foldables may simply be a bridge to the foldables you’ll actually want to buy. And it might not be Samsung that sells them to you.
The OnePlus Open almost perfectly splits the difference between the too-narrow Galaxy Z Fold 5 and the too-wide Pixel Fold.
Surprisingly, the most impressive piece of foldable hardware in 2023 was a first effort (on paper). The OnePlus Open almost perfectly splits the difference between the too-narrow Galaxy Z Fold 5 and the too-wide Pixel Fold. In both folded and unfolded states, the Open is incredibly comfortable to hold and use, and the display crease is almost nonexistent.
OnePlus presumably drew on parent company OPPO’s foldable experience with the Open, but however it got there, the result portends big things from OnePlus. The Open’s hinge design has the same solid feel as Samsung’s foldables, but the phone is considerably thinner. The Pixel Fold is a very thin device, too, but it has a mushy hinge that doesn’t flatten out all the way when open. It feels like a first-gen device, whereas the OnePlus Open can stand toe-to-toe with Samsung.
That’s not to say the Pixel Fold doesn’t bring anything to the table. It takes the best photos of any foldable, even though it’s not Google’s best camera hardware. Samsung has consistently skimped on camera hardware in the Z Fold and Z Flip series, presumably to save on space and weight. Google’s flat Pixel phones spurred improvements from Samsung and others, and the same could happen with foldables.
The past year also showed prices are beginning to shift, too. OnePlus debuted the Open at $1,700, slightly undercutting the $1,800 Samsung and Google large-format foldables. The most encouraging development, however, is what we’ve seen from Motorola. The Razr Plus is a typical $1,000 foldable clamshell, but the regular 2023 Razr steals the show. This $700 phone has solid performance, a fantastic display, and streamlined software. It also folds in half, and there’s almost no display crease.
A future for foldables
Looking back at 2023’s foldables, OnePlus might come out on top with its late entry. While the OnePlus Open’s software still has some pain points, the hardware is fantastic. The device is impressively slim and light without making major compromises to battery life or the camera. The faux leather on the “Voyager Black” model below is also much more grippy, which is important for a phone you’re going to be twisting and torquing all day.
We are nearing a tipping point. With devices like the OnePlus Open and Motorola Razr, foldable phones are almost as light, powerful, and portable as similar flat phones. Prices are still out of control when it comes to large-format foldables, but clamshell phones are within spitting distance of reasonable prices. And recent rumors of Samsung budget foldables suggest the foldable pricing war may be coming down the pike.
Soon enough, you won't have to come up with reasons to get a foldable phone—you'll struggle to come up with reasons to buy anything else.
All the pieces of a breakout mainstream foldable phone are here, but no one has put it together yet. It’s inevitable that foldables will eventually become just as good and affordable as similar flat phones. This past year marked the first time since the original Galaxy Z Fold that we’ve moved noticeably in that direction. Once the market tips, you won’t have to come up with reasons to get a foldable phone—you’ll struggle to come up with reasons to buy anything else.