Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 review: The normal flip phone

If what you want from your next smartphone is a foldable screen, the Galaxy Z Flip 3 is your best bet.

Last updated:
Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3
Pros
Fantastic folding screen
Bigger Cover Screen
Great performance
Water resistance
Costs the same as other flagships
Cons
Battery life is pretty bad
Cameras need improvements
You need two hands to open it
More delicate than your current phone
7.5

The Galaxy Z Flip 3 is a flagship smartphone that happens to fold in half.

Since the inception of foldable screen technology, companies like Samsung have been dreaming of reaching the point where they can sell a device that has a foldable display and still works like a normal phone. No serious hardware limitations, no unorthodox compromises, just a phone that works normal and can fold in half.

Samsung’s latest phone in the Galaxy Z Flip series is that phone. Priced at $999, the Z Flip 3 is as close as you can get to having a normal phone while still having a flexible screen. It has all the flagship specs you want in a phone, and it’s got some nice design improvements over its predecessor. And while it has a decent list of shortcomings, only a couple of them involve the bendable form factor itself.

If you want to buy this phone, the most important foldable phone yet, you have to decide how much you really want your phone to fold. Otherwise, you should just go buy a different Samsung phone or an iPhone or something. You’ll get a better experience in the end.

That being said, I’m not telling you to consider your folding phone desires because there’s something inherently wrong here. On the contrary, Samsung has done a terrific job at implementing the foldable aspect while maintaining common flagship smartphone qualities. There are actually only a couple of compromises you need to make to get that folding form factor. Whether they’re worth choosing this phone over a Galaxy S21, iPhone 13, or OnePlus 9 Pro is something you’ll need to think about. At least for most people, though, this will prove to be a great phone.

Design

The Galaxy Z Flip 3 looks and feels premium, as it should. Samsung is using smooth aluminum rails this generation opposed to shiny metal like on the old Z Flip, and the rest of the device is covered in glass. I got the Phantom Black model which comes with frosted glass which a) looks incredible, b) doesn’t collect many fingerprints, and c) is slippery as all hell.

I kid you not, the second I got the Z Flip 3, I said to myself “Yep, no way I’m making it the whole weekend without buying a case.” So I ordered one the next day and used it until Spigen (not sponsored) sent me a package of their cases. I’ve been using their Tough Armor case for the device which even comes with a rubber protector for the hinge to prevent dings and scratches. That being said, like many other Z Flip cases, this one uses adhesives to stick to the phone. I’m not sure when the design of foldables will be good enough that case manufacturers don’t have to do this, but I assume it’ll be a long time.

Using the Z Flip 3 without a case is a bit of a treat. You can appreciate just how well-built this device is without a case on. It’s slim, it’s light, and it’s sturdy.

That same experience extends to the hinge as well. When I took the Z Flip 3 out of its box (a box that didn’t have a wall charger in it, by the way), I stripped it of its plastic wrap and started bending it. This device is my very first exposure to a foldable phone. I’ve never reviewed one or touched one before, so naturally I was gonna play with it.

The hinge feels extremely well built. You can open the Z Flip 3 to pretty much any position and the hinge will hold just fine. Samsung made this a feature for this generation as it tries to promote the unique software tricks you get when you bend the screen. Apps fly to the top of the display and cut off right at the crease so you can prop your phone up without having to get a kickstand or something. It’s when you get the device to roughly a 10-degree angle that it’ll shut automatically, but that shouldn’t be a problem for anyone (are you really using your phone’s display at a 10-degree angle?).

A feature that’s important to me when it comes to the design of the Z Flip 3 is IPX8 certification. I’ve been hesitant to get excited about foldables because I’d be too afraid of using them near water (a.k.a. the place I live). The Z Flip 3 changed that for me thanks to that extra protection. It’s still not dust or dirt proof (hence the “X” in “IPX8”), but at least it won’t freak out if it gets wet in the rain.

When the Z Flip 3 is open, it looks like any other smartphone. There are volume buttons on the right, a side-mounted fingerprint reader/power button, a SIM tray on the left, a USB-C port, and stereo speakers. Besides its unusually tall aspect ratio, anyone who holds this phone without bending it (or knowing it bends) would just assume it’s a normal Samsung phone.

However, when you bend it, that’s when things get interesting. The device becomes half the size it is when its opened up, so it’s much easier to fit in a pocket or purse. It’s the style of flip phone a lot of people are already familiar with, given how many flip phones used to be on the market before the all-screen smartphones came along. It has a satisfying clapping sound when you close it, and in case you’re wondering, you can absolutely slam your phone shut if you want to hang up on a phone call.

This is a large part of what makes the Z Flip 3 so popular. It has a certain nostalgia with its clamshell design, and Samsung knows that. That’s why it gives you the ability to open it to answer the phone and close it to end a call.

It’s also incredibly unusual. I’ve lost count of the amount of times where I’ll whip it out, unfold it, and have a cashier or customer behind me go “Whoa, what phone is that?!”

I went to a party during my testing period and passed it around to a few people. They were all very impressed with how well built it was and how small it got when you folded it up. A few of them were even considering it when it came time to upgrade their phone. The Galaxy Z Flip 3, and any foldable phone for that matter, is a statement piece which does nothing but add to its appeal.

Cover Screen and foldable display

When you don’t want to open the Z Flip 3, there’s a screen on the top that shows you information, just like old flip phones. This cover screen, in particular, is a pretty big deal. Previous Z Flips only had a 1.1-inch display beside the rear cameras, so you could only see a single line of text when a notification came in. It also didn’t make for a very good viewfinder despite, for some reason, Samsung thinking it was good enough to ship.

With this generation of Z Flip, Samsung enlarged the cover screen to 1.9-inches. Now, you can interact with notifications, check the weather, and more since you have a lot more room to work with.

Obviously, the cover screen isn’t as versatile as the cover screen on the Galaxy Z Fold 3. That screen is much larger and acts sort of like its own phone. The way to think about the Z Flip 3’s screen is like a dumbed-down, integrated smartwatch. That’s how me and lots of other reviewers have used it.

Instead of pulling out the device to check notifications on its main screen, I’ll keep it closed and just double-tap on the cover screen to see why my phone just buzzed. If I’m wearing a smartwatch, I do the same thing. I can then take limited action on the notification by dismissing it, replying to a message (from a supported app, obviously), or muting notifications outright.

The cover screen is also useful for seeing information. Samsung includes a variety of widgets you can swipe through like a calendar, a music player, the weather, and your Samsung Health stats. I’ve found this to be pretty useful when I wanna check something fast on the go with one hand since opening the device takes two.

The viewfinder is also vastly improved. You can use both rear cameras to take higher-quality selfies, and there’s even video capabilities. Just know that whenever you do this, you’ll be stuck with square images and videos with no way of changing it.

All of this functionality combined, it’s abundantly clear that the cover screen on the Z Flip 3 is a thousand times better than what was on the original Z Flip. It isn’t as versatile as the cover screen on the Z Fold 3, and Motorola still has Samsung beat when it comes to overall versatility (the Razr’s top display can open full-blown apps, for example). Regardless, there’s no denying this is a much improved experience, some the the Z Flip line was in dire need of.

Speaking of year-over-year improvement, the actual folding part of the device is also a lot better. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip 3 includes a 6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED display with a 2640×1080 resolution and a hole-punch cutout for the selfie camera.

There are two areas where I think you’ll notice the most improvement, the first being the strength of the glass. Samsung includes stronger Ultra Thin Glass on its newest foldables that should prove to be more durable in the long term. It’s protected by a pre-installed screen protector which, while is annoying to look at sometimes, isn’t something I’d recommend removing. You wanna protect that Ultra Thin Glass at all costs.

Luckily, the screen protector feels a lot more like glass than rubber or plastic, like on past devices. It feels harder this time around, too, so it’s more difficult to accidentally scratch or dent the display with your finger nail. It’s obviously still not as strong as the glass you find on typical smartphones, but it’s getting better nonetheless.

Of course, long-term durability is something that will take time to explore. I’ve seen year-old Galaxy Z Flips crack right down the crease after a while for no apparent reason, so there’s a chance that could happen on the Z Flip 3 after extensive use over a period of time. I’m sure I’ll be doing some type of piece a year from now on whether it’s held up, so stay tuned.

The second area is the refresh rate. Samsung is finally including a 120Hz refresh rate on the Z Flip 3, and it’s fantastic. Everything from swiping through One UI to scrolling Instagram feels silky and smooth. You can turn it off in Settings if you wanna revert to 60Hz and save some battery life, but once you use it with 120Hz enabled, you really won’t wanna go back. It looks that good. It’s definitely one of those features where you don’t think you need it until you have it, then you realize you can’t live without it.

The rest of the display is great. Samsung still makes colors a little too vibrant for some people’s tastes, but I don’t really mind it. It gets bright enough to see outdoors with 1200 nits of peak brightness (much brighter than the older Z Flip), and it’s large enough to suit anyone’s needs. The aspect ratio is a little strange at 22:9, but that does make it easy to use with one hand. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll be needing your second hand if you wanna reach something at the top of the display.

There’s one more thing to talk about when it comes to the screen, and that’s the crease. It’s there, you can see it, you can feel it, and it’s not going away anytime soon. I’ve seen some people call it “the new notch” since it’s the latest odd design quirk on a smartphone that some bash and some discard.

I’m in the group of people who discard it. It’s really not that big a deal. Text can look a little wonky when it glazes over it, and in the right light it you can’t help but stare right at it. However, it’s a small inconvenience to deal with when your phone can literally bend in half.

Performance and software

When you’re not bending it in half or using the cover screen, the Galaxy Z Flip 3 feels shockingly normal. I was actually surprised at how normal the device felt after I used it for a while.

It has all the specifications you expect in a 2021 flagship phone. There’s a Snapdragon 888 processor, 8GB of RAM, and either 128GB or 256GB of storage. I have the 128GB version which happens to be one of the reasons Samsung was able to price this phone at $999.99. Previously, the Z Flip was only available with 256GB of internal space, but by cutting that amount in half, they were able to drive the price down significantly so it sits a penny below a grand.

Pricing kept in mind, this phone feels like a flagship when you use it. It’s plenty fast, switching between apps is fluid with little to no app crashes, and everything from social media to gaming is jitter-free. It would be nice if Samsung had a version with more RAM, but I didn’t have any real problems with the 8GB onboard.

Samsung includes One UI 3 based on Android 11 out of the box, and I’ve gotta say, I’m kind of into it. The company has done a good job over the years at refining how its software works, what it looks like, and how well it runs. There are a few odd spots in between the good stuff (animations, in particular, can be a bit hit or miss in terms of quality), but it’s an overall good skin.

It’s also extremely well-adopted for the unique form factor of the Z Flip 3. Using all of the Flip-exclusive Flex Mode features in apps like YouTube and the camera, I’ve never noticed any glitching or weird incompatibility. Samsung even lets you turn on Flex Mode support for every app installed on your phone through an experimental setting. Depending on the type of app, you could have a poor experience, but generally everything’s stable.

Camera and Battery Life

It’s time to talk about the two areas of the Galaxy Z Flip 3 that have let me down the most. Up until this point, everything about the device has surprised and delighted me. However, both the camera and the battery life need to improve if I’m going to use one of Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip devices as my daily driver in the future.

Starting with the camera, Samsung is using the same 12MP main and 12MP ultra-wide cameras as the last Z Flip, which were nearly identical to the cameras on the Galaxy S10 series. That means we’re dealing with hardware that hasn’t been updated in over two years. You can tell where I’m going with this.

Photos from the main shooter with its f/1.8 aperture and dual-pixel phase detection autofocus (PDAF) look decent. Colors are very vibrant, leading to some unexpected pinks where reds should be and much more aggressive blue skies. Ultra-wide photos are also fine with decent contrast and sharpness, but the whole scene tends to take a step down in quality compared to the regular lens.

Nighttime photos, in contrast, aren’t very good at all. The night mode Samsung includes isn’t great at reproducing good color temperature or detail, and the ultra-wide lens makes things even worse due to lack of light intake. Video quality is passable, if a bit underwhelming, and portrait mode photos aren’t really anything to write home about.

The selfie camera also is just that, a selfie camera.

I’m a person who cares about camera quality, so when I’m shopping for a new smartphone, I want one that has a camera system capable of great photos during the day, at night, and in every other light setting I find myself in. I also need one with good video capabilities. These are all traits you won’t find on the Z Flip 3. Nothing’s necessarily bad here, but these are certainly not worthy of pitting against the very best other smartphones have to offer.

Of course, a lot of reviewers have brushed off these issues since you really aren’t buying the Galaxy Z Flip 3 for its camera quality; you’re buying it because it flips. I get that argument, and I would agree with it to an extent. My issue is that when you spend $1,000 on a phone, you expect the camera to be top-tier, if not close. The Z Flip 3 doesn’t supply that.

By the way, I think this is totally fine. Samsung had to skip camera quality to focus on improving the experience of the rest of the phone. It’s more important to master the art of folding a phone in half than incrementally improving the cameras year-over-year. I just hope the Z Flip 4 takes some major strides in this department so that my feelings aren’t so luke-warm.

An area where Samsung absolutely has to make major strides next year is battery life. The Z Flip 3 kept the same 3,300mAh cell as the previous Z Flip, which was a really bad idea. When you add a brighter, 120Hz display, improved 5G connectivity, and a more powerful processor, you’re bound to have less than stellar endurance which is exactly what I experienced.

When I unplug the Z Flip 3 in the morning (around 7:30 a.m., usually), I have to plug it back in to charge at around 5 p.m. This is not a full day. I don’t like having a phone that’s at 45 percent in the middle of my work day. Obviously, I have a charger at my desk to plug it in during the day, but I’d rather not have to worry about dealing with battery anxiety if I don’t have to.

Also, the Z Flip 3 only supports 15W charging for some reason, so you won’t be able to maximize charging efficiency if you use a faster wall adapter. You also get wireless charging, but it isn’t any faster.

“Do you like it, Max?”

That’s the question everyone asked me during my testing period when I showed them the Galaxy Z Flip 3. It’s such an interesting phone, with its unique form factor and appealing price tag. It has the right specs, the right screen, and even the right amount of colors you can choose from. And I do like it, but I like the direction it’s going more than the device itself.

Like I said earlier, I value camera quality and battery life. I need both of them to, at the very least, meet my expectations when I’m paying $1,000 for something. The Z Flip 3 didn’t do that for me.

However, that’s nothing against the device. I get why Samsung skimped on those two areas. It’s to get a foldable phone below $1,000 and make the case for why it’s “as good as the phone currently in your pocket, plus it folds in half.” That’s an important step in the story of the foldable phone’s uprising. People need to realize that it’s better to have a foldable phone.

Whether that’s true is up to you to decide. Foldables are certainly more exciting, and the Galaxy Z Flip 3 is nothing short of that. What’s even more exciting is how normal it feels when it’s open. You don’t feel like you have to adapt to the device since there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it once you flip its lid. Even when you close it, it’ll still feel familiar if you’ve ever owned an old school flip phone thanks to the larger cover screen.

I like the Z Flip 3, and I’m happy it exists. It’ll help pave the way for better foldable phones in the future. If you’ve been wanting to get on the foldable bandwagon, now’s the time to buy. This is a good phone, and if all you want is to be able to fold it in half, you’ll be happy with it. Everyone else who cares more about the granular details should wait for the Z Flip 4, which will inevitably be better.