When I recently turned on Google’s new Pixel Fold smartphone and unfolded it like a book, it transformed into a miniature tablet, similar to an iPad Mini or Amazon Fire. Then something unexpected happened.
For the next several hours, I found it difficult to put the device down, as if I were absorbed in a great novel. The phone’s performance was smooth and fast, and the larger screen made reading emails, watching videos, and reading comics more enjoyable than on a regular phone screen.
I was surprised because I was wary of flip phones. The first models released by Samsung, Motorola and Huawei around four years ago had glaring flaws. They were thick and heavy, had durability issues, and lacked software to take advantage of their new hardware. But I immediately knew that the Pixel Fold, Google’s first foldable phone, was different.
When I folded the device back up, a second 5.8-inch outer screen lit up, turning it into a normal one-handed smartphone. Importantly, it wasn’t too thick, it’s about a half-inch thick folded, which is a bit bigger than my iPhone, so it was comfortable to carry around in my pockets.
The Pixel Fold, which was unveiled last month and arrives Wednesday, is proof that when cutting-edge technology emerges, it’s wiser to wait before pouring your hard-earned money into it. In just four years, Google has managed to erase most of the problems with foldable phones, transforming an ingenious concept into a product with compelling reasons for existing.
What Google failed to do was make foldable phone technology cheaper. The Pixel Fold costs $1,800, about $400 more than similar phones released a few years ago. Google said the cost of the device was due in part to the engineering challenge of packing high-quality components, including a camera on par with other Pixel phones, into such a slim device. (When unfolded, the Pixel Fold is thinner than a typical smartphone.)
That’s a bummer. Most people won’t spend that much on a phone when there are plenty of great options out there that are cheaper. But I can recommend it for its target audience: people with a lot of disposable income who are highly dependent on their devices.
Still, the progress with folding technology is good news. A few years ago, phones from companies like Apple and Samsung seemed to have peaked. Its flagship phones were already incredibly snappy, their screens were big and bright, and their cameras took stunning photos. The smartphone industry, as a whole, became a bunch of nearly indistinguishable black rectangles.
What was left to do? In 2019, Samsung was one of the first to launch a foldable phone, but it poisoned the well by bringing the device to market. The screens of the first review samples of its Galaxy Fold failed, forcing the South Korean manufacturer to postpone the product. Since then, Samsung and others have released a few more foldable phones, but none really swayed me.
Google’s entry into the market is significant. Reflecting Apple’s tight control over iPhone design, Google designed both the hardware (including the computer processor) and software that power the Pixel Fold. That means the device’s software was designed to work with it, and it has long battery life and blazing-fast performance.
Beyond the larger screen, Google has come up with clever reasons for how and why you might use a foldable phone.
For one thing, the Pixel Fold is a great take-everywhere video player because of the way it folds at an angle like a laptop.
When I was cooking in the kitchen, I played a YouTube video with a recipe and folded the device at a 90-degree angle. The top half of the screen displayed the video and the bottom half displayed the description listing the ingredients. In some ways, this was even better than a tablet, which you’d have to prop up on a countertop stand to view at the proper angle.
What else could you do with a foldable? With the device unfolded, I ran two apps side by side, which came in handy for reading a web page while writing an email.
Google also demonstrated how its translation app could take advantage of two screens. Consider a situation where you, an English speaker, are trying to communicate with someone who speaks Chinese. By holding the phone unfolded, you can speak English into the microphone and have the phone’s outer screen display the Chinese translated text to the other person. When the Chinese speaker answers, you can read the translated text on the internal display.
This feature won’t be released until the fall, so I wasn’t able to test it. But it’s an intriguing use case.
In the end, the device is expensive because it’s packed with advanced technology without huge trade-offs. In my tests, its camera produced sharp, vibrant images on a par with photos taken with Apple’s latest iPhone and the Pixel 7 Pro, Google’s $900 smartphone, which has an excellent camera.
Although the high price of the Pixel Fold will make it inaccessible to most people, it was an exciting glimpse at the next step for smartphones. Over the past five years, as phone screens have gotten bigger, we’ve voted with our wallets and shown that we prefer bigger screens, as long as they come in devices that are easy to carry around. The Pixel Fold offers that.
I suspect that in a few years, foldable phones will probably drop in price to replace the current phones with the “pro” moniker and become the new high-end on the market. When that happens, I can see myself and many others making the switch to a foldable tablet, and a future where the tablet becomes less relevant.