Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 4 review: almost there

The Samsung Galaxy Flip 4 is a good folding phone that feels one generation shy of hitting its stride. The updates over last year’s Flip 3 are so minimal that this phone mostly could have been a firmware update. That makes the Flip 4, like its predecessor, an impressive technical achievement with a couple of shortcomings that — if Samsung addresses them — would make a big difference to the user experience.

If the Galaxy Fold 4 combines a tablet and a phone experience into one device, then the Flip 4 is what happens when you combine a smartwatch and a phone. The tiny 1.9-inch cover screen includes a couple more useful features than the Flip 3’s, like sending quick canned text replies, but even so, it’s significantly limited in what it allows you to do. Sort of like a smartwatch glued to the back of a phone that folds in half.

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Even though it’s not much different from last year, and there’s still room for improvement, I genuinely like this phone a lot — but not for the reasons I thought I would. I really like taking pictures with it, even though the cameras are just kinda average. It’s also less attention-hungry than most smartphones. It’s much easier to read a notification on the tiny cover screen, dismiss it, and move on with my life than with a traditional slab-style phone. I appreciate that, even if Samsung did this by accident.

The Flip 4 is compact, but I wouldn’t call it a small phone. When you actually need to do something with it, nine times out of 10, you have to open it, and then the jig is up: it’s a certified Big Phone. But it does fit comfortably into the front pocket of my jeans when it’s folded, which is handier than I expected.

The things that made the Flip 3 good are still good here: there’s robust waterproofing, an excellent main screen, and a $999 price tag — high, but not astronomically high like the $1,799 Fold 4. But whether or not you should snap it up depends on what you’re looking for. Most people, I suspect, will want the version of this device that’s (hopefully) coming next: something with a bigger, more useful cover screen and a slimmer profile. Right now, it’s both an incredible little device that I’m very tempted to buy for myself and one that falls short of its full potential.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 4 with cover screen on

The lil’ bee on this animated cover screen flies around. I love it so much.

Samsung made some subtle cosmetic changes that give the Flip 4 a little bit of a different vibe than the 3. The aluminum rails are glossy, in contrast to the softer matte finish on the Flip 3, and the hinge is a little bit flatter. There’s nobody on earth who should trade in their Flip 3 for the 4 just for these tweaks, but they give the phone a higher-end look that suits it.

The hinge is still firm and demands that you use two hands to open it. You can kind of pry it open with one hand and flip it the rest of the way if you flip really hard, but doing that makes me queasy. There’s still a gap between the two halves of the screen when the phone is closed, and the thickness is the same as it was for the Fold 3: 17.1mm at the hinge and 15.9mm where the two ends of the screen meet. Fun fact: Samsung calls that the “sagging” side in its specifications.

Galaxy Z Flip 4 folded closed on a desk

This is the non-sagging side.
Photo by Allison Johnson / The Verge

It’s as thick as a normal phone when it’s open and obviously chunky when the phone is closed, though it occupies half the surface space. This is obviously how folding works, but I didn’t really appreciate it until I was using the phone in my daily life. It sits on my narrow bathroom sink counter and crowded nightstand much more comfortably than the typical slab-style phone.

And I’m still getting over the utter thrill of fitting this whole phone easily into the front pocket of my jeans. I’m usually one to put my phone in my back pocket when I’m up and about and not actively using it. This means I have to take it out of my pocket or put my device in very real danger of being pulverized whenever I sit down. With the Flip 4, I don’t even have to play this dangerous game — whether I’m sitting or standing, it fits in that front pocket. It’s a little snug, like I’m carrying a wallet, but it’s definitely less risky.

Like the Flip 3, the Flip 4 is IPX8-rated, so you can submerge it in freshwater, but it isn’t sealed against dust. That’s because it really can’t be, what with the hinge and all. There are little brushes inside to try and keep dust from getting sucked in and ruining the screen, but Samsung makes no guarantees.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 4 with screen open showing crease

The crease never bothered me.

The main display is another potential weak point — it’s made of ultra-thin glass that’s more vulnerable to scratches and damage than the typical phone screen. Samsung says the display is 45 percent stronger in this iteration, and the non-user-replaceable screen protector on top is glued in place with stronger adhesive to avoid it coming apart and bubbling up — a problem for some of its previous devices.

All that said, the Flip 4 feels very sturdy in its folded form. The weight of it, the reinforced glass, and the aluminum exterior all feel reassuring. Paying $999 for this phone doesn’t feel like a risky bet. Still, its long-term prospects against dust intrusion and daily wear and tear are still unknown, so I wouldn’t throw all caution to the wind.

I have no complaints about the Fold 4’s main screen 6.7-inch screen. It offers a smooth-scrolling top refresh rate of 120Hz, and it gets bright enough to use quite comfortably in direct sunlight. There’s a crease, of course, but I got used to it quickly, and it never really bothered me. There’s a new option when you’re using the screen in Flex Mode — that’s when you use the phone in an L-shape and move the content to the top half of the screen with controls in the lower half.

Z Flip 4 in an L-shape with camera app open

The native camera app supports Flex Mode.

In an app that doesn’t support it natively (which is… most apps), you can enable the Flex Mode panel, which has a new touchpad feature. You can use it to move a cursor around the top half of the screen. It’s helpful if you really need to use the phone hands-free, but the tiny top half of the screen gets cluttered up and hard to use very quickly. It’s helpful for an app like TikTok, where you might want to use the phone in Flex Mode for a little while to start and stop recording, but I wouldn’t want to use it for an extended amount of time.

Then there’s the little guy: the cover screen. It’s a 1.9-inch OLED, and its small size really holds it back. You can use it to take selfies with the rear cameras, read your notifications, check the weather, and a handful of other things most smartwatches can do. If you tap a notification, the phone will prompt you to open the main screen and continue your journey there.

But the cover screen can do a little more than it could last year. The Flip 4 lets you send quick responses to texts, which is nice. You can dictate a text — which was the case with the Flip 3 — but if you’d rather not talk to your phone, you can pick from a list of common phrases like “On my way” and the subtly passive-aggressive “Great.” They’re not context-sensitive, like suggested quick replies in the full Messages app or Gmail, and the list is a little long. You can’t customize them, either — no changing “OMG!” to a more chill “omg.” Like the new software features on the Fold 4, Samsung isn’t committing one way or the other on whether these things will be ported to older foldable models. In theory, there’s nothing fundamentally different about the Flip 3 that would prevent this.

Galaxy Z Flip 4 on a desk

The tiny cover screen is quite limited in what it can do.

You can also preview the actual aspect ratio of your selfie images and video by double tapping the screen when you’re in quick shot mode. The default preview fills the whole screen, so it only shows you what’s in the middle of your shot — not at the top and bottom. I’m glad to have the option so I can see what’s out of frame, but I checked, and the preview is literally the size of a postage stamp. There’s a reason why Samsung didn’t include this the first time around.

You can also take portrait mode selfies now in Quick Shot, and since they come from the phone’s main camera, they don’t suck like most portrait mode selfies. That’s a cool flip phone trick. There’s access to more functions in a quick settings panel, too, including the flashlight — the phone mercifully warns you to turn it away from your face before pressing the volume key to enable it.

The Flip 4 also allows you to set up to three contacts that you can call directly from the cover screen, and there’s a new widget to trigger SmartThings scenes. All of the previous cover screen features are here, too, like the timer, weather widget, and music controls.

A lot of the time I spend looking at my phone feels like it wasn’t by choice. I resent that it steals away chunks of my attention, 10 or 20 minutes at a time, when all I wanted to do was make sure my alarm was set or check the forecast for the next few hours. The Flip 4 lets me do these little chores without actually opening the phone, and I appreciate that. Sure, most of this could be accomplished with a smartwatch, but then I have another thing on my person begging for my attention, and maybe I don’t want that.

In any case, the minimal distractions seem like more of a side product of the cover screen not being that useful rather than an intentional aspect of the design. A bigger cover screen would be a good thing, but if it does add one, I hope Samsung finds a way to maintain this minimally invasive experience it seems to have built by accident.

As far as normal phone stuff goes, the Flip 4 has it all covered. There’s a Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 processor — the Android flagship chipset du jour— and all variations include 8GB of RAM. Alongside the fast-refreshing screen, the Flip 4 feels as fast and responsive as a $999 device should. There’s a bigger 3,700mAh battery (up from 3,300mAh). Battery life on the Flip 3 wasn’t exactly bad, but it wasn’t one of the phone’s strengths. The new bigger capacity (and a more power-efficient chipset) seem to bump battery performance up a little. I can get through a very demanding day with plenty of video streaming, GPS navigation, mobile hotspot tethering, and some video recording without a recharge, which is no small feat for this comparatively small battery.

For a phone at its price point, the Flip 4’s cameras look awfully average. That was true of the Flip 3 (and the Flip models before that), and once again, Samsung has done very little to improve them this time around. The pixels on its 12-megapixel F/1.8 main rear camera are a little bigger and thus may be better at gathering light, but that’s all. It’s the same 12-megapixel ultrawide and 10-megapixel front-facing camera as the Flip 3.

Here’s my confession: despite the lackluster specs, I love taking pictures with this phone. It doesn’t have anything to do with the pixel size or the sensors or any of that. It’s the flexible form factor. I can set it up on a table and record a video hands-free of me and my toddler to send to the grandparents — they are absolute fiends for grandchild content, and I am happy to oblige. Sadly, the built-in microphone position in that configuration means it doesn’t pick up audio well, but grandparents don’t care about that kind of thing, thankfully.

I can also pop the phone open in Flex Mode, move the image preview to the lower half of the screen, and shoot from the hip — that way, I can get more natural candid shots because I’m not making the obvious “I’m taking a picture” move of putting the phone in front of my face. I could engage in Street Photography if I wanted to. Let me tell you, I’d feel like a real flippin’ Henri Cartier-Bresson walking around the streets of Seattle with my Samsung Z Flip 4.

I even set the phone up in Flex Mode and recorded video for my very first TikTok. A TikTok! At my age! These are all the things Samsung wants you to do with the phone, and maybe I’m just a sucker, but I did them, and it was awesome. I don’t want to go back to taking pictures with a slab-style phone. My only regret is that the Flip doesn’t have a telephoto camera. The Fold 4’s portrait mode photos with its 3x telephoto lens look really convincing, and it would be so sweet to have it in this form factor. Alas, wide-angle portrait mode is all the Flip has, and they still have that cardboard cutout look.

As far as image quality goes, it’s all just fine. It’s typical Samsung saturated color. Photos in dim light are okay, with heavy noise reduction smoothing at times. Same goes for video — clips are a little noisy in dim light, and in darker conditions, they’re noticeably smoothed over. All of that easily falls within the boundaries of acceptable image quality from a flagship phone, but I wish Samsung would do a little better. Give me a higher-res sensor with fancy pixel-binning tricks and better low-light image quality! Give me a 3x telephoto lens! This is the “fun” foldable phone, so it’s not first in line for camera upgrades, I guess, but Samsung really can’t afford to sit still again next year on the imaging hardware.

The little flip phone still comes up short.

It feels greedy asking for more from the Flip 4. It folds in half. It’s waterproof. Performance is great. It has fairly good cameras, and you can use them in a way that no slab-style phone can match. It doesn’t cost $1,800. But we can and should ask for more from this phone because it could be much better.

As much as I like the minimally intrusive 1.9-inch cover screen, a bigger screen like the Motorola Razr’s would just be more useful. The cameras could be better — a telephoto lens is all but guaranteed on other $1,000 phones, and imagine how nice it would be on this one! There’s also the question of long-term durability and what years of exposure to dust will do to its innards. Nobody knows because this kind of phone simply hasn’t existed long enough to know.

Personally, I’m sold. I’ve used a lot of phones over the last year; many of them have been good, some have been great. But none of them felt like they would fundamentally change how I use my phone like the Flip 4 has. It hasn’t quite hit its stride, but I sure like where it’s going.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge

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