Flip phones are still pretty awkward, unproven devices. But over the past three generations (with a fourth likely on the way), Samsung has made great strides with its design, paving the way for innovative (if sometimes quite expensive) alternatives to the typical glass brick. And when you combine that with the sales of nearly 10 million devices last yearit looks like Samsung’s foldable devices are finally starting to enter the mainstream.

But despite a number of improvements over the years, there’s one aspect of Samsung’s foldables that still needs a lot of work: durability. Last year after I bought my own Z Fold 2, I documents 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 back on how Samsung’s latest flagship foldable phone is holding up just one year later.

Aside from a scratch on the bottom (for which I take sole blame), the outer cover screen of my Galaxy Z Fold 3 is still pretty much clean.

Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Now at this point some people may be wondering why I upgraded in the first place. The bubbles my Z Fold 2’s screen suffered from were certainly annoying, but not so bad that I considered going back to a standard monoblock. Instead, my main purpose in buying the model (besides professional curiosity) was to get a collapsible that could better survive a newborn.

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

The back of the phone is also holding up very well, except for one hole along the edge of the frame.
The back of the phone is also holding up very well, except for one hole along the edge of the frame.

Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Fortunately, I think my strategy worked because even though it cost about $800 to upgrade after trading in my Z Fold 2, that money has already paid off. My Z Fold 3 has been peed on, puked on and splashed with milk and it’s fine. The phone has also been bitten more than a few times with no effect. So while the addition of water resistance to Samsung’s foldables might not be all that exciting considering regular phones have had it for years, it’s a huge improvement for everyday use.

The rest of the phone’s body also holds up pretty well. There is a fairly large scratch on the frame and a few scratches on the hinge, but these are all cosmetic scratches. I should also mention that I’m not one to put phones in skins or cases, this thing has been living bare since the day I got it. So even though I haven’t traveled much, the sheer number of times this phone has suffered from being knocked out of my hand or dropped on the floor while I’m rushing to grab my kid after a nap is impressive. Even dust and crumbs are handled by the extra brushes Samsung has placed in the hinge.

There are also some minor scratches on the hinge, but that's to be expected considering I've never put the phone in a case.
There are also some minor scratches on the hinge, but that’s to be expected considering I’ve never put the phone in a case.

Sam Rutherford/Engadget

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

The screen on my Z Fold 3 was crystal clear for the first six months I had it. There were no spots or bubbles or anything. But then one winter day, as I was walking down the street, I opened the phone and heard a crack. At first I feared the worst, thinking that its outer roof screen had broken or something important inside had broken. But upon closer inspection, I noticed that there was a fine line running down the middle of the phone near the crease, as if the protector had been pulled or stretched.

This is what the bubbling looked like in June when I first tried to fix it.
This is what the bubbling looked like in June when I first tried to fix it.

Sam Rutherford/Engadget

And while I’m still not sure what the exact cause is, my theory is that after taking the phone out of my pocket, the cold winter air made the screen protector unusually brittle, causing it to snap instead of bend when I opened the phone. This is a problem a number of other Z Fold owners you’ve encountered, and once you get that initial crack, it’s only a matter of time before bubbles start forming. Over the past few months, these bubbles have turned into an air gap that runs all the way around the middle of the screen, and no amount of pressing or trying to smooth things out has much of an effect. Recently, some dust got wedged between the protector and the screen itself, which is frankly gross. And since I try to adhere to Samsung’s insistence that the screen protector should only be replaced by certified technicians, I haven’t tried to fix it myself.

Naturally, the next step was to take the phone to one of Samsung’s retail outlets to have it serviced, at which point I discovered I was far from the only person dealing with this. When I arrived, there were three other people on the waiting list – and they were all waiting to get their Z Fold’s screen protector replaced. Granted, this is just an anecdotal observation, and I’m sure my choice to go to Samsung’s flagship 837 location in New York had something to do with the unusually high concentration of $1,800 foldable phones.

This close-up photo shows just how rough the display can get after dust and dirt gets under the Z Fold 3's built-in screen protector.
This close-up shot shows just how rough the display can get, because once the bubbles start forming, there’s not much you can do to stop the dust from getting under the screen protector in the first place.

Sam Rutherford/Engadget

But this was no accident either. After speaking with two of the other customers, I learned that they were also experiencing ballooning issues around the six to eight month mark. On top of that, one of the Samsung Care+ representatives I spoke with essentially confirmed that this is a somewhat widespread problem, saying that screen protector replacement is the most frequently requested repair for Samsung’s foldable devices. Unfortunately, since it takes about an hour to change the screen protector and I was fourth in line, I couldn’t wait to get my Z Fold fixed. So here’s a pro tip, if you need your phone serviced, be sure to schedule your appointment online to avoid the line.

In the end, although I plan to go back to have the screen protector replaced, my big takeaway after owning both the Z Fold 2 and Z Fold 3 is that there’s a good chance you’ll run into bubbles after half a year or so. And without some radical upgrade to the screen design, the company’s next generation of Z devices will likely suffer the same fate. This is pretty annoying because having to sit for hours to fix something that will probably happen again sucks. And that goes double or triple for anyone who has to mail their device in because they don’t live near a certified repair place.

This is what my Z Fold 3 screen looks like after a year.  The balloon now covers the entire height of the display.  And while its appearance is more tolerable indoors, it's still far from ideal.
This is what my Z Fold 3 screen looks like after a year. The balloon now covers the entire height of the display. And while its appearance is more tolerable indoors, it’s still far from ideal.

Sam Rutherford/Engadget

As it is now, the bubbling is certainly annoying and not very pretty. Fortunately, the side effects are much less noticeable indoors or at night, so while it’s far from ideal, it’s tolerable. I will also admit that if I hadn’t planned to write this story, I would have replaced the screen protector months ago. And if you experience a similar issue with your Z Flip or Z Fold, I would recommend that you address any bubbling as soon as possible before other related issues pop up.

But if Samsung ever wants its foldables to be as popular as the S or A series phones, screen protector bubbling is an issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. As for me, although I haven’t decided if I want to upgrade again or not, I’m just hoping that anyone on the fence will now have a little more realistic idea of ​​what life with a foldable phone is really like.

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