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Trust me, a foldable phone is not a tablet replacement

Size matters, but there's a lot more at play in the large-screen Android world.

Published onSeptember 27, 2022

samsung galaxy z fold 4 home screen open
Z Fold 4 (unfolded)

There’s an old saying, “tech that forgets its history is doomed to repeat it.” That’s not the exact saying but bear with me. Every few years, one piece of tech is tapped to replace another, no matter how ingrained the original device is in our everyday lives. First, it was tablets coming after laptops. Now, it’s foldable phones coming after tablets. As someone who’s spent time with both large-screen devices, I’m here to put a stop to this idea early. A foldable phone is not a replacement for a tablet.

The power of portability

samsung galaxy z fold 4 standing foldable phone
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4

Unless you have the world’s largest pockets, you’re probably not carrying a full-size tablet every day. You can, however, easily lug along a foldable phone thanks to its compact form factor. It acts as a phone for the times when you need one but doubles as a tablet when you have a lot on your plate.

I regularly turn to my Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 when I’m out and about in a new place. Its large display offers more than enough real estate for Chrome and Google Maps to coexist, allowing me to track down a restaurant and browse the menu simultaneously. I could multitask the same way with a Galaxy Tab, but then I’m bound to draw eyeballs when I’d rather blend in. There’s no discrete way to pull out and check a tablet on a bustling sidewalk.

Have you ever tried to use a tablet as your GPS? Or as your camera at a child's recital? I certainly hope not.

Then, there’s the matter of cameras. Foldable phones take after, well, phones, while tablets add rear cameras only for the sake of appearances. The Galaxy Z Fold 4 borrows its cameras from the flagship Galaxy S22 Plus, but the Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra — Samsung’s top-tier tablet — offers a lens setup on par with the rock-bottom Galaxy A11. You can use the Fold’s cameras as you would with any other smartphone, but trying to take pictures with the Galaxy Tab is liable to get you laughed out of your child’s recital.

A tablet is a tablet all day long, but a foldable phone can be used open, closed, or sometimes halfway open. It still has a few formatting wrinkles to smooth — and some creases to eliminate — but it’s much easier to bring as a companion in your everyday life.

Related: The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold is great, but it’s Android 12L I really love

Streaming stardom

samsung galaxy tab a8 netflix

No matter how powerful the foldable phone might be, if I want to sit down and stream a movie or a TV show, I’m reaching for a tablet. The crease down the center of a foldable display has nothing to do with it, either — this is all about aspect ratio. Where foldable phones offer nearly square aspect ratios as a byproduct of the folding rectangular design, tablets embrace the widescreen world with open arms.

Get ready for a lot of numbers, but I promise it’ll explain how difficult it is to watch a movie on a foldable phone.

Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 4 has an inner aspect ratio of 21.6:18, which we’ll round to 5:4 for the sake of simplicity. The Galaxy Tab family, on the other hand, offers a 16:10 ratio, which is much wider, as seen above. It’s tuned for modern ratios like 1.85:1 and 2.35:1, so most movies and shows will find a way to skip — or at least minimize — the effects of letterboxing.

Letterboxing isn't anyone's best friend — especially the Galaxy Z Fold 4.

You can, of course, watch videos on a foldable phone. It’s my go-to when browsing YouTube on a train, but I’m well aware of its shortcomings. The Galaxy Z Fold 4 loses as much as half of the display to letterboxing — black bars that appear above and below your content — sometimes resulting in a picture no larger than the one on a Galaxy S22 Ultra or another traditional device. It doesn’t appear that the Galaxy Z Fold 4 is willing to adapt to aspect ratios where it should shine, either.

If anything, I thought Robert Eggers’ film The Lighthouse — shot in 1.19:1 or about 4.8:4 if you expand the ratio — would be perfect for the Fold. Instead, you get this:

galaxy z fold 4 the lighthouse

That’s right, even thicker black bars, and not just on two sides. The entire movie is letterboxed into an even smaller picture, and pinching in to fill the screen comes at the cost of clarity. On the Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra, however, The Lighthouse stretches to the top and bottom of the display, ironically resulting in a picture that’s almost exactly the size of the Galaxy Z Fold 4. There are still bars on the left and right sides, but I’ll take the larger picture any day.

Replacing the replacement theory

samsung galaxy z fold 4 foldable phone laying flat open

I’m not anti-tablet, nor am I anti-foldable phone. What I’m against is the idea that one piece of tech needs to replace another full stop. Tablets and foldables have their shared strengths, just like tablets and laptops shared a few strengths at the peak of their rivalry. However, they’re also unique enough to stand on their own and meet different needs.

After all, Google developed Android 12L as a way for both tablets and foldables to make the most of their large displays. The taskbar makes controlling the extra real estate feel within reach, and improved app layouts keep you from feeling like you’re using a blown-up smartphone. Even still, curated software can’t overcome hardware choices. It won’t make the Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra’s cameras rival a phone, and it won’t make a modern widescreen movie fit perfectly on a square’ish Galaxy Z Fold 4.

Ultimately, it’s all about having the right tool for the job. If I’m heading on a road trip or trying to catch up on House of The Dragon while lying in bed, I’m reaching for a tablet. If I’m on the go and need portable multitasking power, the foldable phone has my back. Why can’t we all be friends who have multiple large-screen devices in our lives?

Read next: Foldable laptops make more sense than foldable phones