Samsung’s second Unpacked event of the year took place slightly earlier than it normally does and brought us the latest generation foldable phones, new tablets and smartwatches.
The new Tab S9 series of tablets — the S9, S9+ and S9 Ultra — all boast OLED displays and are powered by the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chip set. Other than that, these are basically the same tablets as their predecessors with a few minor improvements. The same can be said for the new Watch 6 series, consisting of the Watch 6 and the Watch 6 Classic. Other than sporting bigger displays and the return of the physical rotating bezel on the Watch 6 Classic, these too are very minor upgrades to the Galaxy Watch 5 series.
Which brings us to the Galaxy Z Flip 5 and Galaxy Z Fold 5.
To quote tech YouTuber Marques Brownlee: “This is what it looks like when Samsung settles.”
Foldables as the future of the smartphone industry is something we’ve heard many times over the past few years — ever since the dawn of this new smartphone category. The feeling of excitement it conjured up waned faster than it should have and by the time of the Galaxy Z 4 series, stagnation and incrementally iterative updates had become the norm. Back then, the odds that the average person would be able to tell the difference between the Fold 3 and Fold 4 were almost impossible. The difference between the Flip 3 and Flip 4? Well, that was easier to spot because the Flip 4 had a larger cover display and a newer design.
Fast forward to 2023 and the Flip 5 and Fold 5 and you have exactly the same issue. The average person won’t be able to tell the difference between the Fold 5 and the Fold 4 and the only way to tell the difference between the Flip 5 and the Flip 4 is the Flip 5 has a larger cover display.
This means that the Fold 5 is now the third iteration of Samsung’s most expensive phone to sport exactly the same design.
The similarities run deeper than just the design. Samsung has used the same display, same cameras, same under display camera and the same battery as last year. There have been no improvements on any of those fronts. Sure, they’ve improved the hinge and swapped out the processor in favour of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, and they’ve redesigned the S-Pen, but that’s it. Arguably the most talked about new “feature” of the latest Fold is that it can now fold completely closed. And for this privilege of having a device that is near identical to last year’s with a few quality-of-life upgrades that the average person will probably never really notice, you get to pay R8,000 more compared with the launch price of the Fold 4.
Thankfully, this isn’t exactly the same situation with the Z Flip 5. While it’s using basically the same everything found in the Z Flip 4 and has the same quality of life upgrades found on the Fold 5 (Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chip set and a new hinge that allows the phone to fold fully flat when closed), it also has a larger cover display. This new Flex Window measures 3.4-inches and allows you to interact with various widgets and do things such as taking pictures and replying to messages without having to open your phone. What you can’t do is use Google Wallet on Flex Window, which appears to be an intentional decision by Samsung and is very much a step backwards for consumers.
For this wonderful privilege of a bigger cover display but the same middling cameras and the same battery, you get to pay an additional R8,000 over the launch price of the Flip 4.
Sure, Samsung offers industry-leading software support and OS updates in the Android world and sure, they’ve got some of the best hardware design and build quality in the industry, but is that worth it when other smartphone manufacturers are releasing their own foldables with better cameras, slimmer designs, better battery life, faster charging and similar specs for a lower price? These same manufacturers also include the fast-charging brick and a case in the box with their foldables, something Samsung doesn’t. In fact, you could arguably get better devices in Samsung’s own line-up for less money. The S23 series has better cameras, better batteries and Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processors without the eye-watering price increases of the Z-series.
With the last few generations of smartphones, both the S-series and the Z-series, Samsung appears to be playing it safe by settling into a routine of only offering minor, iterative updates to their devices. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re Apple and you have zero competition, it’s a completely different story if you’re the market leader in a segment defined by freedom of choice and competition.
OPPO’s Find N2 series has been widely acclaimed as some of the best foldable phones on the market in terms of design, build quality and innovation, with the Find N2 Flip hailed as the first true global competitor to Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip line. Then came Google’s Pixel Fold which many people are jumping to because of the design, size and pure Android operating system.
There’s also the fact that HONOR is intending to bring its latest foldable, the Magic V2 — hailed as the world’s thinnest foldable measuring only 9.9mm when folded closed — to SA and has announced its intention to launch a flip fold in 2024.
Chinese smartphone brands are innovating faster than Samsung and are looking at ways to bring their devices to more markets at lower prices to ensure mass consumer adoption. Samsung needs to step up its game if it wants to stay at the top because right now, that position appears to be under significant threat.