[Academic Tech] Samsung Galaxy Fold 3

A few weeks ago, and with the upcoming Society of Experimental Biology annual meeting coming up, I decided to try out the Samsung Galaxy Fold 3. I was interested in a device I could use for taking notes on during talks, much as I have in the past with my Surface devices (mainly the Go and Go 2). I was also very interested in a device that would be easier to read papers on on the train, both to SEB, but also on the daily commute. The Surface Pro X I have is great, but it’s just a bit too bulky for comfortably reading on in public. I’d tried the Fold 3 in-store several times, and had tested what a science paper looked like on the unfolded screen, and decided I’d take a punt. I picked up the phone itself (black, 256gb version) second hand from eBay for £625, and I got the pen and case from WeBuy.com for £30. At retail, the phone (with pen and case free) is £1599, though Samsung do offer good trade-ins, and have a 15% educational discount option, so it would be rare to pay that much, I think. I’ll come back to benefits of buying via Samsung later.

For reference (this will probably explain some of my thoughts later), my previous phone was the Samsung S10e, which is one of the smallest and lightest phones that’s been on the market for some years now, so this was about as drastic a change as I could make.

Specs/Performance

This isn’t a technical review as such, and if you want benchmarks and what have you, you’re in the wrong place. The Fold 3 has a snapdragon 888, 12GB of RAM, 5G, fast wireless charging, and a 4400mAh battery. It has a boat load of cameras – a front facing 10MP on the front, a front facing 4MP on the inside, then on the back three 12MP cameras (ultrawide, or 0.5x, Wide, or 1x, and Telephoto, or 2x). I really don’t care too much about cameras (we’ll get to their quality later), and would prefer poorer cameras with no camera bump, but there we go. I really like that the inner camera is an under-display camera. You can very obviously see it when you look at it, but when I’m reading a paper or browsing the web, or frantically responding to emails, it’s just completely invisible. Both the outer and inner screens are 120Hz panels.

All of those specs amount to significantly more power than even my Surface Pro X has, and the phone has been nothing but buttery smooth for everything I’ve thrown at it. Which admittedly isn’t much – reading PDFs and the web, handling email, taking photos/video, and note-taking in OneNote. I’ve found the battery to be stellar. Even while at SEB, I had the phone out for long portions of the day taking notes during talk sessions (and showing the phone off on an evening), and used only about 63% of the available battery. It also has a powersaving mode that can be activated from the notification shade, which underclocks the processor and knocks the screen refresh rates down to 60Hz, etc. You can choose what the powersaving mode does, and I’ve read that leaving adaptive framerate on is actually better for the battery than locking it at 60hz, though I’ve not done any tests about that.

The S-Pen needs to be the specific Fold edition. I had an old wacom pen lying around, and when I put it near the Fold’s screen, a warning message came up that only the Fold pen was compatible so as to avoid damaging the screen. Clearly other pens can be recognised, and a software lock prevents using them. Fair enough.

I just got the 256Gb version and it’s more than enough. I’ve got 50Gb of music on there, a bunch of PDFs, applications, and email, then everything else lives in OneDrive and gets downloaded as and when I want it. Conveniently, I can set my ‘to read’ OneDrive folder to sync to the device, and now all my PDFs to read are available all the time.

Ergonomics/Usage

This is the most important, and most surprising aspect for me – just how good the device feels in hand. I think this might be a fluke, and that it’s not ideal for everyone, but when it’s folded I absolutely love the narrow form factor. I can grip the device really comfortably, and scroll and do basic stuff with my thumb. The fingerprint reader/power button and volume controls are perfectly placed. It feels very weighty, at 271g, but it’s not obnoxious. It’s also the thickness of two phones, because of course it is. It does fit in most of my trouser pockets comfortably.

But then you open it out, and it suddenly feels incredibly light, given it’s a nearly 8″ tablet. Easy to old with just one hand (though I wish they had thumb rejection like Surface devices do, so you can hold it with your thumb on the screen and still interact with it). A PDF from a journal fits snugly on the screen, and the text is crisp and sharp and completely readable (though even slightly older eyes may need glasses). It’s absolutely increased my paper reading rate, even if only through novelty and convenience.

With the case on, I think the phone is too thick, too wide, and too heavy. It’s like the case just pushes it over some tipping point for me. The case has a neat design where the pen holder can be removed, and for the conference I ended up taking the pen off the case and carrying that in a shirt pocket.

I usually use the phone without a case, but this is an expensive phone, and one trip to the Galaxy Fold subreddit will fill your heart with all the fears you can ever have, with people showing their spontaneously cracking and breaking screens. So far (touch wood), it’s held up fabulously, but I live in fear of the folding screen cracking for seemingly no reason. Which is why buying devices like these from Samsung, with Samsung care+, definitely appeals. I’ve definitely seen the camera bump get worn, because of course you put the phone down on it’s back, balancing it on the camera (there is a small lip so the lenses don’t directly contact surfaces, but even so….). That camera bump also means it can’t lay flat to take notes – it has to be an in-the-hand device, really.

Some people have lamented the aspect ratios of the screens, complaining that the outer screen is too long and narrow to be useful, and the inner screen’s 4:3 aspect ratio is no good for watching movies. Poppycock – I love both aspect ratios. The outer screen is perfect for samsung pay, reading emails, twitter, messages, and making calls. The inner screen is perfect for PDFs, reading, and browsing. I don’t watch films on this thing, and I guess that’s a good place to talk about…

…The Crease

Yep, it exists, and it’s obvious. No two ways about it. If you’re looking at the inner screen straight on, it does tend to dissapear, but there’s no getting around the fact it’s there. The pen flows over it perfectly fine, as long as your own hand control is good. But the good thing is a) it dissapears a bit when you look at it straight on, as I say, but also b) most science PDFs are two-column, meaning the crease doesn’t hit the text. Similarly, email splits on the screen so that message list is on the left and the message itself is on the right (this is resizable). I have zero problem with reading and writing on the device, and the crease doesn’t bother me at all.

Camera

I have a camera for when I’m really in the mood for specifically taking photos, but I don’t carry it everywhere, and as the old adage goes, the best camera is the one you have with you. The photos the Fold 3 takes are lovely. They don’t hold up to zooming in, but then phone photos rarely do. Samsung’s filters are bit strong for my liking – zooming fully on an image shows it to be a little water-painterly in the details, but you can always shoot in raw. Anyway, here’s some example shots from Montpellier:

A neat little feature is you can fold the phone and use it as it’s own tripod. The camera app resizes and changes to present the camera view and the edit view:

Software

It comes with Android 12, and will get the 3 years of Android updates that Samsung promises (plus 2 years security updates I think?), so there’s no issues there. Multitasking isn’t quite as seamless as you might hope, requiring a swipe into task-switcher, then a long press, then select split screen. However, if you download Good Lock, you can just drag down from a top corner to resize a window and then launch another. This is almost a requirement for decent multitasking.

Lots of floating windows. These can also dock to each side of the screen for a split view.

The Fold 4?

One thing I’ve briefly tried, but not used a great extent, is DEX – Samsung’s software that lets you project the phone to another device and use it like a desktop computer. It’s pretty neat, and works over a wired connection, or via wireless connection. I’ve connected to my surface Pro X, where I’ve then been able to use the keyboard and touchpad and screen of the Pro X, all running the Android of the Fold 3.

The Fold 4 is meant to get released (or at least announced) on August 10th. All the leaks indicate that the aspect ratio of the device will be changing – shorter and wider when closed. I am not excited about that, as I think it’ll make it less comfortable to hold when closed, and less ideal for reading papers on when open. It also won’t have a silo for the Pen, so no improvement there either. The one thing that could tempt me is if Samsung are offering spectacular trade-in deals on the Fold 3, that mean I can get the Fold 4 with Samsung care for a low price. The piece of mind of having insurance and warranty from the start would be worth a bit.

Conclusion

While I was at SEB, I don’t think I even got my Pro X out to check/respond to emails. Maybe once, for a long email. Otherwise, the Fold 3 gave me everything I needed in portable device. I can see myself getting a small folding USB keyboard and my Arc Mouse, and just using the Fold 3 when travelling, either directly or using DEX on a hotel TV. As a reading/note-taking device it really is unparalleled in it’s portability, and so makes a superb companion device for academics. The current aspect ratio is perfect for reading PDFs on the go.

I will note that to take some of the pictures of the Fold 3 for this post, I had to get my S10e out. The old phone feels almost weightless compared to the brick that is the Fold 3. I may keep the old phone for when I’m out walking.

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