October 3, 2023

When I recently opened Google’s new Pixel Fold smartphone and unfolded it like a book, it turned into a tiny tablet, similar to an iPad Mini or Amazon Fire. Then something unexpected happened.

For the next few hours, I found it hard to put the device down, as if I were immersed in a great novel. The phone’s performance is smooth and fast, and the larger screen makes reading email, watching videos, and reading comics a lot more enjoyable than on a regular phone screen.

I’m surprised because I’ve always been wary of foldable phones. The earliest models released by Samsung, Motorola and Huawei about four years ago had glaring flaws. They’re thick and heavy, have durability issues, and lack the software to take advantage of their novelty hardware. But I immediately realized that the Pixel Fold — Google’s first foldable phone — was different.

When I fold the device away, the second 5.8-inch outer screen lights up, transforming it into a normal smartphone that can be used with one hand. Importantly, it’s not too bulky—it’s about half an inch thick when folded, and slightly larger than my iPhone—so it’s comfortable in your pocket.

The Pixel Fold, which launched last month and went on sale Wednesday, proves that when cutting-edge technology emerges, it’s wiser to wait before plowing your hard-earned cash into it. In just four years, Google has managed to eliminate most of the foldable phone’s problems, turning a gimmicky concept into a product with a compelling raison d’être.

What Google failed to do is make foldable phone technology cheaper. At $1,800, the Pixel Fold is about $400 more than similar phones released a few years ago. Google says the device’s cost stems in part from the engineering challenges of cramming high-quality components into such a thin device, including a camera comparable to other Pixel phones. (When unfolded, the Pixel Fold is thinner than a typical smartphone.)

It’s too bad. Most people won’t spend this much money on a phone when there are so many good, cheaper options out there. But I can recommend it to the target audience: people who have a lot of disposable income and are heavily dependent on their devices.

Still, advancements in foldable technology are good news. A few years ago, phones from companies like Apple and Samsung seemed to have peaked. Their flagship phones are already snappy, with big, bright screens and cameras that take stunning photos. The entire smartphone industry was reduced to a bunch of almost indistinguishable black rectangles.

What is left to do? In 2019, Samsung was one of the first companies to announce a foldable phone, but it negatively impacted the market by rushing to bring the product to market. An early review sample of the Galaxy Fold had a malfunctioning screen, forcing the South Korean manufacturer to delay production of the product. Samsung and others have released a few more foldable phones since then, but none appealed to me.

Google’s entry into this market is significant. Echoing Apple’s tight control over the iPhone’s design, Google designed the Pixel Fold’s hardware (including the computing processor) and software. That means the device’s software is designed to work with it, and it has great battery life and very fast performance.

In addition to the bigger screen, Google has also made a neat case for how and why it could use a foldable phone.

First off, the Pixel Fold is a great video player to take anywhere because it folds at an angle like a laptop.

When I’m cooking in the kitchen, I play a YouTube video with a recipe and fold the unit at a 90-degree angle. The top half of the screen shows the video, and the bottom half shows the instructions listing the ingredients. In some ways, that’s even better than tablets, which you have to prop up on a stand on a countertop to view them at the correct angle.

What else can you do with a foldable? With the device turned on, I ran two apps side-by-side, which was great for reading webpages while typing email.

Google also showed how its Translate app can take advantage of both screens. Consider a situation where you, an English speaker, are trying to communicate with a Chinese speaker. With the phone unfolded, you can speak English into the microphone and have the phone’s outer screen display text translated into Chinese for the other party. When a Chinese speaker responds, you can read the translated text on the internal screen.

This feature won’t be released until the fall, so I didn’t test it. But it’s an interesting use case.

In the end, the device is expensive because it packs advanced technology without major trade-offs. In my tests, its camera produced images that were crisp and vibrant, on par with shots from Apple’s latest iPhone and the Pixel 7 Pro (Google’s $900 smartphone), which have excellent cameras.

Even though the high price of the Pixel Fold puts it out of reach of most people, it’s still an exciting glimpse at what’s next for smartphones. Over the past five years, as phone screens have gotten bigger, we’ve voted with our wallets and indicated that we prefer bigger screens, as long as they come on devices that are easy to carry around. The Pixel Fold does just that.

I suspect that in a few years time, foldable phones may drop in price to displace existing “pro” phones and become the new high end of the market. When that happens, I can see myself and many others moving to foldable devices, and tablets will become less important in the future.

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