There's nothing quite like unboxing a new smartphone, even if it's not the most exciting year-over-year upgrade. The Galaxy Z Fold 5 — Samsung's latest ultra-expensive foldable — fits that description to a tee. While it's been a while since I used last year's Z Fold 4, I did rock that model as my daily driver for more than a month last fall (which is an utter lifetime for someone who reviews as many phones as me). And as I came to learn during my hands-on with the device prior to its announcement last week, there's a serious case of déjà vu affecting Samsung's entire smartphone lineup this year.
But holding a phone for a couple of hours — alongside six other gadgets while capturing photos and videos — is a lot different than, you know, actually using it in your daily life. So when my Galaxy Z Fold 5 review unit arrived Friday morning, I was eager to unbox it, boring upgrade or no. Coming off my mixed thoughts on the Pixel Fold, I was excited to see if Samsung could win me over with a slimmed down variant of last year's hardware.
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 5
The Galaxy Z Fold 5 is Samsung's latest foldable. It keeps the same $1,800 starting price as last year's model, along with most of the specs we saw in 2022. But with a new hinge that allows the phone to fold flat — not to mention a processor that could bring along improved battery life — there's plenty to look forward to here.
Day one: Getting started, again
Unfortunately, things got off to a rocky start right away. I'm not the biggest One UI fan around; I don't hate Samsung's skin like some bloggers you'll find online, but I do find Google's software ethos fits my personal needs a little better. Switching back from both the Pixel Fold and Motorola's excellent Razr+ left me feeling something akin to homesickness. That said, I really enjoyed my time on the Galaxy S23 Ultra earlier this year, so I was ready to dive back into One UI.
Regardless of manufacturer, Android's setup process has never been perfectly smooth sailing — believe me, I go through it often enough — but for whatever reason, the Z Fold 5 threw every problem it could my way. Immediately, the wireless transfer system unveiled with the S23 series this year failed, leaving my apps and other data trapped on the Razr+. I couldn't get the phone to want to restart the process; it was stuck at 68 percent even after getting to the home screen. Even several Samsung apps were stuck downloading from the Galaxy Store with an odd "waiting for Wi-Fi" error. I ended up having to factory reset the phone to start over, eating a solid thirty minutes of my day right off the bat. Glitches may be a fact of life, but this was not off to a great start.
The second time around, I opted for a wired transfer that got me up and running after about ten minutes. Already feeling a headache coming on, I decided this was my best opportunity to try and fix two different Google Wallet errors that have plagued me for a couple of months now. No dice — I still can't make mobile payments with those cards, and both banks invited me to try and contact Google Wallet support, which, best I can tell, doesn't exist.
If that weren't bad enough, Samsung Wallet — a service that certainly has its defenders —gave me nothing more useful than a generic error message when I attempted to sign in. After several attempts, it seems I'm locked to just using a single card for mobile payments.
It gets worse. I quickly realized that, despite signing in with my Samsung account, my One UI settings had stopped backing up a couple of months ago. For whatever reason, nothing synced, which means I needed to go through and spend more than half an hour tweaking various settings. Lock screen notifications, edge panels, quick settings — digging through Samsung's densely packed options menu can be a real headache, and I'm frustrated these didn't properly carry over from my other One UI devices.
That's a lot of bad first impressions software-wise, but who knows if that's all because of problems on the phone, or issues with Samsung's cloud infrastructure? Anyway, what about the hardware? The Galaxy Z Fold 5 is frankly pretty boring if you're coming from a Z Fold 4, but I have to admit that the limited changes we do get here are pretty nice. Who doesn't want a thinner, lighter foldable, after all? The decrease in width actually makes using a case on this model a possibility, all without any annoying slider pieces. Samsung sent me its (ludicrously expensive) eco-leather case, and while I initially thought I wouldn't use it — faux leather isn't my thing — it only adds enough bulk to match last year's caseless phone, while giving my hands somewhere to grip that doesn't smudge up the front screen.
By early afternoon Friday, I'd basically killed the phone while setting it up and logging into various apps, so I plugged it into charge and… completely forgot that this is an $1,800 smartphone that still charges at an anemic 25W. I'm sure I'll do plenty of yelling about this in my full review, but in the middle of such an otherwise boring year for its foldables, the idea that Samsung couldn't be bothered to improve even this spec really says a lot about its current philosophy behind smartphones.
That night, I headed over to a friend's house to swim — always keep a friend with a pool close by — and hung out for the rest of the night. I'd be lying if I said I used the phone much while I was there, though the big screen did make it easy to browse various local menus for pizza and wings. Props to Samsung for that one.
Day two: A familiar phone
Despite the early Friday delivery, Saturday was my first full day with the Galaxy Z Fold 5. Unsurprisingly, my time spent with this phone reminded me a lot of my experience with its predecessor, something that allowed it to adapt to my lineup of weekend tasks pretty well.
I went on a walk in the rain without worrying about permanent damage. I wrote a shopping list, only to realize I forgot to add a few things to it after returning from the store. I ran into some odd issues with apps on the outer screen, particularly when it came to Snapchat, where text captions continuously disappeared until I opened the main display. And, of course, I used Flex Mode to watch YouTube videos while cooking.
But with the first Galaxy Z-series rival on the market in the US, my time spent with the Pixel Fold really underlined some of the problems with Samsung's current design. Yes, I prefer using the Z Fold 5's taller display for most tasks. But something like Flex Mode really pales in comparison to how it works on Google's hardware. YouTube videos — or, really, any video content — has a ton of black space on the left and right of the window in Flex Mode, something that is far less of a problem on the Pixel Fold.
Really, Saturday was a day of discovering that, surprise, surprise, the things the Galaxy Z Fold 4 really shined at doing are still excellent here. My biggest fear as I head into my full review of this phone, however, is Samsung failing to make any ground on my qualms with its previous folding flagship.
Day three: The real fun begins
By Sunday, I had settled into my regular routine with the Z Fold 5, treating it, essentially, like I would any other smartphone. I spent the morning catching up on news stories while drinking my coffee, listened to a podcast while I cleaned the house, and watched a few YouTube videos when I had a spare moment. Some of these things — YouTube videos, primarily — are enhanced by the foldable form factor. But really, it's nothing that any other smartphone can't do.
What is different, though, is how the large screen changes every interaction you have with your phone. That's true on the Pixel Fold, too, but because of the way that phone opens, I usually found myself interacting with the outer screen and treating it like a (very thick, very heavy) smartphone. When I did open that display, I almost always rotated it to give myself a friendlier aspect ratio for apps.
Samsung's outer screen is far less comfortable for performing anything beyond basic tasks, which only invites you to open up the phone. From there, you're left with something more recognizable as a tablet than a smartphone, and by day two of being back on a Galaxy Z Fold device, I was starting to use it a little differently than any run-of-the-mill smartphone. Crafting to-do lists, running apps side-by-side, editing documents while I'm on the couch — the Galaxy Z Fold 5 pushes you to want to do the types of things you usually reach for a tablet or laptop to accomplish.
Just a handful of early photo samples from this weekend. They... look a lot like last year's photo output.
Now, that's not to say it's perfect at these things — I'll have plenty to rant about in my review and beyond in the coming weeks. But it is interesting how the swap to a new form factor can make you want to tackle different tasks than you otherwise would.
Still, there are trade-offs for a phone this large. When I went running at my local track Sunday morning, I found that — like other foldables — the Galaxy Z Fold 5 feels a little too bulky and heavy to run with, either in my hand or my pocket. But, in fairness, I don't like running with most modern smartphones, so take my thoughts on this with an appropriate grain of salt.
Something old, something new
Ultimately, my initial thoughts on the Galaxy Z Fold 5 seem to have been borne out in real time. This is a boring phone for current users, even those coming from the two-year-old Galaxy Z Fold 3. It's depressing to think we're already out of the cutting-edge upgrade cycle for foldables, where every new generation is more exciting than the last. It's not like this phone is perfect in its current iteration — far from it — but rather than innovate on its most expensive smartphone, Samsung seems content with churning out half-measures for its most powerful, expensive devices this year.
Whether this makes 2023 a simple stopgap, or if this is how the world's most popular Android manufacturer is set to behave from here on out, remains to be seen. Either way, it's an answer we won't have for another twelve months. In the meantime, though, keep an eye out for our full Galaxy Z Fold 5 review in the coming days. I have plenty more to say about this particular foldable.
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 5
The Galaxy Z Fold 5 might seem like a boring upgrade, but if you're new to Samsung's foldable lineup, there's a lot to like. With an upgraded hinge system, the phone is thinner and lighter than ever before, all while rocking a brand-new processor for improved performance.