Samsung announced the Galaxy S20 family of phones earlier this week at an event in San Francisco. And as impressive as they are, they’re also not very exciting. Don’t get me wrong—they look great. But the fact of the matter is that incremental screen updates, processor speed bumps, and trivial camera upgrades just aren’t what everyone wants to talk about anymore.
Now I know I’m far from the first to give this “phones are boring!” trope—I’ve read similar takes from various journalists throughout the last several years. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Phones are, by and large, great now—and the better they get, the harder they are to continue to improve.
Just like when the iPhone came along and absolutely destroyed the feature phones and “smart” phones of the day, we need a new gamechanger. Something that changes the way we see, use, and think about phones. Faster processors and more megapixels aren’t going to do that.
But foldables can.
The Galaxy S20 Lineup is a Great Incremental Upgrade
If you watched Samsung’s Unpacked event, then you know what the talking points of the S20 were: 5G standard on all models, 120Hz displays, and camera specs galore. Those are all great because it’s faster, smoother, and more efficient than anything we’ve had before. Everyone’s talking about 5G, and Samsung is the first manufacturer to fully embrace this tech by not only offering it as a mandatory bullet point on the spec sheet for all the S20s, but by making sure that all the phones will work with all the Gs on all the carriers. That’s cool—but that’s all you can really say about it. Cool.
As much as I like the 90 Hz display on the OnePlus 7 Pro/7T, I readily admit that high refresh rates are vanity updates at best. Search through Twitter for any little bit of time, and you’ll see plenty of arguments on whether 90 Hz is really that different than 60 Hz. The manufacturers, of course, would have you believe that it’s a night-and-day difference, but you and I both know that isn’t true.
While 120 is, in fact, 30 better than 90, that doesn’t mean 120 Hz refresh rates are any more game changing than 90 Hz displays are. It looks good. It’s buttery smooth. It can make the phone feel faster. It’s a great thing to have, but it’s also something you won’t miss if you have to go without it. When I went from the buttery-smooth always-90Hz display on the OnePlus 7T to the I-can’t-even-tell-what-refresh-rate-this-is-running Pixel 4, it took me all of a couple hours to get used to the same 60 Hz rate that I’d been used to using for years.
This year, like so many years before, Samsung spent a lot of time talking about the camera setup on the S20, S20+, and S20 Ultra. The S20 has dual 12 MP rear shooters along with a 64 MP telephoto lens, while the S20+ adds a “depth sensor” to the mix, and the S20 Ultra bumps the telephoto lens to a whopping 108 MP. Wow! So many megapixels.
You know what this reminds me of? It reminds me of five or six years ago when manufacturers just kept adding higher megapixel sensors to phones because higher numbers means better pictures, right? Right.
Wait, no. Not always. Sometimes, yes. But sometimes also no. And honestly the 108 MP telephoto sensor the S20 Ultra is just silly—they claim it’s capable of 100x zoom, which even in the absolute best-case-scenario is going to look pretty terrible with a digital sensor. It’s just a fact. No one needs a 108 MP telephoto lens and 100x digital zoom in a phone camera. Sorry.
Of course, we also have to consider video—all three phones can shoot in 8K, which is, again, impressive. But it’s also very limited. According to MKBHD, who has spent significantly more time with these phones than I have, when you record in 8K, it automatically switches to the phone’s telephoto lens (because 8K requires at least a 33 MP sensor), which slightly distorts the video compared to the standard lens. The effects you can use on the video are also limited, which isn’t a problem when shooting in 4K or lower.
Plus, you know, where the hell are you even going to watch 8K content right now? Not many people even have 8K TVs yet, and if you are among the millions who have not yet taken the thousands-of-dollars plunge into an 8K set, then you can’t even enjoy the less-than-ideal 8K video you just shot with your $1000 smartphone. Hoo-haa.
Now, is all that to say that these updates to a storied smartphone line are bad? Of course not! These are all great steps toward making smartphones even better. And that’s precisely what the new S20 phones are—better.
But we’ve honestly reached a point where we’re just, like, doing stuff. It’s the natural progression of innovation—it’s not sexy or exciting.
It just is.
The Z Flip is Everything the S20 Isn’t…
As I walked through the crowded hands-on area after the Unpacked keynote, I noticed something: I could walk up to any table at almost any point and grab any one of the three S20s and play with them. And I did just that—I flipped through the screens, chuckled to myself at the laughably large size of the S20 Ultra, looked at at the refresh rate options…then put them all back down and walked off.
As I progressed toward the back of the floor, though, there was a sea of people all collected in the back area. What was going on back there? As I got there, I realized what was happening: it was the hands-on area for the Z Flip. All those vacant spots from the S20 tables were filled by people clamoring to check out Samsung’s newest foldable.
And that’s what we need right now. It’s new. It’s fresh. It’s exciting. Even if it’s not perfect—and believe me, we won’t get “perfect” foldables for years from now, when someone will undoubtedly write an op-ed about how “foldable phones are boring”—it’s still something worth talking about. The Galaxy Fold started something big with foldable phones, and despite how flawed (and honestly just kind of pointless) it was at the time, it opened the door for all sorts of new, fresh ideas.
…And It’s a Sign of True Innovation
Samsung took what it learned from all the mistakes with the Fold and applied that to the Z Flip. As a result, it’s a better foldable in every way. It has a stronger, more robust hinge. The display is foldable glass instead of plastic. The whole design just makes more sense. I always say that the best way to get something right is to first get it wrong, and that’s exactly what Samsung did with the Fold and the Flip.
But yeah, let’s go back to a point I just mentioned that you might have glossed right over: the Z Flip’s display is glass. Like, real glass. That folds. How the hell do you make glass fold, anyway? I don’t know—but Samsung figured it out. And you know what that is? That’s sexy innovation. It’s not a natural progression. It’s not a faster refresh rate or 100x digital zoom. It’s game-changing, exciting, and honestly pretty mind blowing.
And Samsung knows that this is the future of phones. If you’ve been following along with Samsung news leading up to the announcement, then you probably noticed that it teased the Z Flip during the Oscars. That was, of course, by design. The company then opened the show with the Z Flip—not the S20—because it was the hype phone. The one that was going to get everyone excited. Sure, if you follow phone news closely, then you already knew everything there was to know about the Z Flip (Thanks, Max), but honestly, I don’t feel like that made the announcement any less exciting.
To be clear, I wasn’t originally a fan of the foldable concept. My regular, boring-ass smartphone is good enough, and there’s no reason to start messing it up with a bunch of moving parts. Then I used the Z Flip for a while at Unpacked 2020, and my mind changed. Suddenly I saw some utility in a folding device. I saw a phone that felt old and new at the same time—something that took me back to my first flip phones back in the day (am I showing my age?), but with all the same stuff I use my current phone for. Something that feels like a new, exciting, and real product—not a half-phone-half-tablet-but-good-at-neither device like the Galaxy Fold.
You want to know what I think? I think this is the future of smartphones. And probably tablets. And laptops, too. Maybe not the Z Flip itself, but the concept. The hidden hinge and flexible glass are just the start of what will undoubtedly pave the way for smarter and sleeker devices.
5G, faster processors, and better cameras were all inevitable, but folding technology is the future.