Galaxy Z Fold 3 long-term durability report: Here’s what Samsung still can’t get right

Foldable phones are still kind of awkward and unproven devices. But over the past three generations (with a fourth generation on the way), Samsung has made huge strides in its designs, paving the way for innovative (though sometimes expensive) alternatives to the typical glass brick. And when you combine that with sales of nearly 10 million devices last year, it looks like Samsung’s foldable devices are finally starting to break into the mainstream.

But despite a number of improvements over the years, there’s one aspect of Samsung’s foldable that still needs a lot of work: durability. Last year, after purchasing my Z Fold 2, I documented some of the issues I encountered after owning it for 10 months. And after upgrading to the Z Fold 3 last fall, I’m here to report on how Samsung’s latest foldable flagship was pushed back after just a year.

Even a year later, the Z Fold 3's external display is still almost immaculate
Aside from a single scratch on the bottom (which I take the only blame for), the screen of the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s outer cover is still almost immaculate.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

Now at this point, some people may be wondering why you upgraded at all. The bubbles on the Z Fold 2’s screen were certainly annoying, but they weren’t so bad that I thought I’d go back to the standard phone for a candy bar. Instead, my main goal in buying the model (aside from professional curiosity) was to get a foldable model that might better survive my newborn.

Compared to typical smartphones, the Z Fold 2’s lack of water resistance was guaranteed to become an issue after my son was born. I felt like I would have to keep the phone in a separate room, lest I get a small amount of spit or drool to ruin the device. And that simply wasn’t something I wanted to do, which is what drew me to the Z Fold 3 and its IPX8 rating. I’ve found that if a phone can withstand sitting in water for up to 30 minutes at a depth of up to five feet, it can handle just about anything a kid could throw (or spit) at it, too.

The back of the phone is also held very well, apart from a single ding on the edge of the bezel.
The back of the phone is also held very well, apart from a single ding on the edge of the bezel.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

Fortunately, I think my strategy worked, because even though it cost about $800 to upgrade after trading the Z Fold 2, it actually paid for itself. My Z Fold 3 peed, vomited on it and splashed milk on it, and it was perfectly fine. The phone has also been gnawed more than a few times without any effect. So while adding water resistance to Samsung’s foldable devices might not be very exciting, given the regular phones they’ve had for years, it’s a huge improvement for everyday use.

The rest of the phone’s body is well held together as well. There is a relatively large scratch on its frame and a couple of scratches on its hinge, but these are all cosmetic strokes. I should also mention that I’m not someone who puts phones in leather or cases, this thing has lived naked since the day I got it. So while I haven’t traveled much, the sheer number of times this phone has had to slip out of my hand or fall to the floor while rushing to catch my baby after a nap is kind of impressive. Even dust and crumbs are handled by the extra bristles that Samsung has placed inside its hinge.

There are also some small wrinkles on the hinge, but that's kind of to be expected since I've never put the phone in a case.
There are also some small wrinkles on the hinge, but that’s kind of to be expected since I’ve never put the phone in a case.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

The big exception to the Z Fold 3’s improved durability is once again the built-in screen protector. For this model, Samsung says it switched away from the TPU it used on the Z Fold 2 to a new PET film while using an adhesive adhesive, which is designed to prevent bubbles from forming between the protector and the screen itself. But in my experience, none of that helped.

In the first six months, the Z Fold 3’s display was immaculate. There were no blemishes or bubbles or anything. But one winter’s day as I was walking down the street, I turned on the phone and heard a crack. At first, I feared the worst, thinking that the outer casing screen had shattered or that something important inside had shattered. But upon closer inspection, I noticed a thin line running down the middle of the phone near the crease, as if the protector had been pulled or stretched.

This is what the bubbles looked like in June, when I first tried to fix them.
This is what the bubbles looked like in June, when I first tried to fix them.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

And while I’m still not sure of the exact cause, my theory is that after I pulled the phone out of my pocket, the cold winter air made the screen protector unusually brittle, causing it to bulge rather than bend when opening the phone. This is an issue that a number of other Z Fold owners have encountered, and once you suffer that initial crack, it’s only a matter of time until bubbles start forming. Over the past few months those bubbles have grown into an air gap that extends across the entire middle of the screen, and no amount of pressure or attempt to smooth things out has much effect. Lately, some dust has gotten between the protector and the screen itself, which is honestly kind of gross. And because I’m trying to stick to Samsung’s insistence that the screen protector should be replaced by certified technicians only, I haven’t tried to fix it myself.

Naturally, the next step was to take the phone to a Samsung retail location for maintenance, at which point I figured I was far from the only one dealing with this. When I arrived, there were three more people in the queue – and they were all waiting to replace the screen protector on the Z Fold. Admittedly, this is only a narrative note, and I’m sure my choice to go to Samsung’s 837 flagship location in New York City had something to do with the unusually high concentration of $1800 foldable phones.

This close-up shot shows how the overall screen can get after dust and dirt find their way under the built-in screen protector on the Z Fold 3.
This close-up shot shows how gross the screen can get, because once bubbles start forming, there’s not much you can do to stop dust and first from getting under the screen protector.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

However, this was not a coincidence either. After speaking to two other clients, I learned that they are also having issues with bubbles around the six to eight month mark. Furthermore, a Samsung Care+ rep that I spoke to basically confirmed that this is a fairly common problem, saying that replacing a screen protector is the most common fix needed to fix Samsung foldable devices. Unfortunately, since it takes about an hour to replace the screen protector and I was fourth in line, I couldn’t wait to get the Z Fold fixed. So here’s a pro tip, if your phone needs servicing, make sure you schedule your appointment online, so you can avoid the line.

Ultimately, as I plan to go back to replace my screen protector, what I take away after owning the Z Fold 2 and Z Fold 3 is that there’s a good chance you’ll bubble up after half a year or so. And without some sort of drastic upgrade to the screen build, the company’s next generation of Z devices will likely suffer the same fate. This is kind of a bummer, because having to sit for hours to fix something that is likely to happen again is annoying. And that doubles or triples for anyone who has to mail in their machines because they don’t live near an authorized repair site.

This is how my Z Fold 3 screen looks after one year.  The bubble now covers the entire height of the screen.  And although its appearance is more tolerable indoors, it is still far from ideal.
This is how my Z Fold 3 screen looks after one year. The bubble now covers the entire height of the screen. And although its appearance is more tolerable indoors, it is still far from ideal.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

As it stands, bubbles are definitely annoying and not very pretty. Fortunately, the side effects are less noticeable indoors or at night, so while they are far from ideal, they are tolerable. I will also admit that had I not been planning to write this story, I would have replaced the screen protector months ago. And if you are having a similar issue with the Z Flip or the Z Fold, I would highly suggest addressing any bubbles as soon as possible, before any other related issues arise.

But if Samsung wants its foldable devices to be as popular as the S or A series phones, then mounting screen protectors are an issue that needs to be fixed sooner rather than later. As for me, while I haven’t decided whether or not I want to upgrade again, I’m just hoping that anyone on the fence now has a more realistic idea of ​​what it’s like to live with a foldable phone.

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