While the rest of the world has seen no shortage of foldable options, buyers in the US have, for the most part, been limited to just one brand for nearly half a decade. Aside from some half-formed Motorola devices in 2020, Samsung's Galaxy Z Flip and Galaxy Z Fold series have held a monopoly in North America. But look at what's happening elsewhere, and brands like Oppo and Tecno have either been innovating in design or bringing the price down by hundreds of dollars.
By all accounts, Samsung is set to stick to the status quo with its next two phones, the Galaxy Z Flip 5 and Galaxy Z Fold 5. But this year, something is different. From Google's just-launched Pixel Fold to Motorola's excellent Razr+, the foldable market has some real competition this year. And with OnePlus looking to dive in later this summer, the US market is finally set to get a real taste of the kind of competition the rest of the world has enjoyed for years now.
With these new options comes an important question: what is the correct form factor for a foldable? I'd be lying if I didn't say it wasn't an intensely personal inquiry, almost entirely based on exactly what you're looking for in a smartphone. That doesn't mean we can't break down some of the nuance of what makes a foldable special. For those of you finally upgrading to a folding phone in 2023 — devices quickly becoming some of the best Android phones you can buy — knowing what matters about this form factor can actually help you make the right decision, potentially saving you hundreds of dollars in the process.
Let's start off with the design that first made it to market: the phablet foldable. While devices like the Galaxy Note series cemented "phablet" as the portmanteau-du-jour, folding phones actually make that hypothetical dream a reality. In its most generic form, the front display looks and feels like a fairly typical phone, while the inside expands into something more akin to a tablet.
Of course, depending on the manufacturer, the shape and size can change. Samsung, for example, has stuck with its candy bar shape, with the Galaxy Z Fold 4 utilizing an ultra-tall front screen. Companies like Google, meanwhile, have gone with a different approach: The Pixel Fold opens up like a book, allowing for a more traditional aspect ratio on the front screen. It can make Google's foldable look and feel larger, despite sporting an identical screen size as the Z Fold 4.
Frankly, neither approach is perfect. Samsung's outer display can feel useless in some cases, requiring needless fumbling to perform basic tasks. Google's layout forces a ton of apps to run with large black bars on the left and right of each side; I guarantee you plenty of the apps you rely on everyday fall into this category. It can feel like there's no winning here, at least not in the current state of Android software development.
But when these large screens work right, it's hard to argue with how impressive they look and feel. Folding a massive slate closed and placing it in your pocket still feels like the future, every single time, and whether you're stuck on a long road trip or flying cross-country, it's the perfect layout for watching endless movies and TV shows. And as long as games have been optimized for the display, you won't find a better handheld device on the market — give or take a Steam Deck.
If you're a power user, you're bound to fall in love with something like the Galaxy Z Fold 5 when it launches in July. For everyone else, though, there's a better option that trades productivity for portability.
If phablet foldables transform from a big phone into a tablet, clamshells morph from a small phone into a big phone — at least, in theory. Most clamshell foldables to date have been pretty limited with their front screens, usually providing little more than a ticker for showing the time, date, and incoming notifications. Try to type a text on your Galaxy Z Flip 4 without using voice controls, and you'll find it impossible without opening the inner screen every single time.
But it's been a few years since this smartphone style debuted, and as devices evolve with each generation, so do their capabilities. The Motorola Razr+ lets you do nearly anything you want from its front screen, and as leaks for the Galaxy Z Flip 5 have shown, Samsung seems likely to follow suit. This marks a sea change in what clamshells excel at, and it's likely to open this style up to new users.
Using the Razr+ as an example, you can do nearly anything you want on the front screen. Sending texts is now a cinch thanks to a full QWERTY keyboard that, surprisingly, actually feels pretty comfortable to type on. Checking email, skipping a song on Spotify, looking up a lunch spot, scrolling through Twitter — it's all possible on that 3.6" front display, and much of the time, you don't miss that standard massive screen.
Of course, when you do miss a larger panel, you still have it. Just flip open that bad boy, and you'll be back to a standard Android layout — hard to argue with those results.
And hey, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how fun it is to slap the phone closed when hanging up on someone. Admit it — you've missed that feeling.
Which foldable form factor is favorable?
Well, it really depends on personal taste, and that could be a problem. The best way to figure out which form factor is right for you is to, well, use one of these smartphones. That can be a challenge considering the high price tags on these phones. Even if you exchange a phone within its return period, you're usually charged some sort of restocking fee, especially through the carriers. That threatens to make any kind of trial and error process a real headache.
Once you do put some time into each device though, you learn pretty quickly which fits your style. In my view, however, the modern clamshell — that is, the style embodied by the Motorola Razr+ — is exactly what I'm looking for in a smartphone, even if it took a few days of using it to really realize that. I find that gluing a small phone to the front of a "normal" phone is the best of both worlds, keeping me in touch with the world around me without becoming a distraction.
Meanwhile, phablet foldables feel completely novel, but I find it difficult to fit them into my life in a natural way. Even with their expansive displays, it's not enough screen real estate for me to get the things I want done… done. It can also be frustrating to carry these phones around, as they're significantly heavier and bulkier than any other smartphone. That might be fine for some people, but I've found myself gravitating towards lighter, smaller designs in recent months.
Really, whichever manufacturer figures out how to squeeze reliable camera sensors into a clamshell device — while keeping a large front screen intact — is likely to win over my heart and my wallet. Small phones might be long dead, but this new style of foldable seems like it's a great candidate to take that place. If Google can work its Pixel Fold magic and squeeze usable smartphones into a Razr-like design, consider me first in line to add one to my cart.
- Source: Motorola
Moto Razr+ (2023)$900 $1000 Save $100
Motorola might have taken some time off from launching its foldables in the US, but it's raging back with the Moto Razr+. This year, the focus is all on the outer 3.6" display, which promises to let you do virtually anything without opening the phone. And when you need a larger screen, the 6.9" display inside feels just like the company's other smartphones.
- Source: Google
The Pixel Fold is Google's first foldable, and while it's definitely got some first-gen energy, that doesn't stop it from being a fascinating device. With a wide outer display and a book-like hinge, there's a lot to like about the Pixel Fold — especially if you're a multitasker.