For the last four years, Samsung has paved the way for what the next iteration of the smartphone may look like. Now, Google is here to challenge that. During the Google I/O keynote Wednesday, the search giant announced its first foldable phone, called the Pixel Fold, which will launch this summer at a hefty $1,799 (£1,749) price.
The newest addition to Google’s product lineup was unveiled alongside a more affordable version of the company’s flagship, the Pixel 7A, an updated Pixel Tablet and new features in Android 14.
Google’s decision to launch a foldable phone can be seen as another signal that the current version of the smartphone is in need of a refresh. Samsung launched its first foldable phone nearly four years ago, and since then just about every major smartphone maker has followed suit.
Google was one of the major holdouts, but that’s changing. Brian Rakowski, vice president of product management at Google, says now is the right time to launch a foldable because the major problems that plagued early foldables have largely been solved, such as software optimization and getting the design right.
“It’s inherently a more expensive device,” said Rakowski. “So we felt like if people were going to buy a top-of-the-line device, we wanted everything to work well.”
Read more: Apple, Where’s Your iPhone Fold?
I’ve only spent a few minutes with the Pixel Fold, but I can already tell Google has some promising ideas. Google’s vision for foldable phones is all about multitasking and productivity, much like the Galaxy Z Fold 4. Like Samsung’s phone, Google’s device is a book-style foldable that transforms from a phone when closed into a tablet when opened. Google still faces a lot of the same physical challenges we’ve seen in the past across the industry, such as decreasing the device’s overall thickness when closed and eliminating the crease. But the Pixel Fold has a few advantages when it comes to design and software.
More from Google I/O
The question is whether the Pixel Fold will be compelling enough to give the still-nascent foldable phone market a boost. Foldable phones only accounted for 1.2% of the global smartphone market share in 2022, according to International Data Corporation. Even though the market is relatively new, Google faces serious competition from Samsung.
The South Korean tech giant leads the foldable phone space with 62% of the market as of the first half of 2022, according to Counterpoint Research, which also reports that Samsung is the most preferred brand for foldable phones. Google certainly has its work cut out for it.
Watch this: Pixel Fold Hands-on: A First Look at Google’s First Foldable
Pixel Fold’s cover screen is bigger than the Galaxy Z Fold 4’s
With the Pixel Fold, Google hopes to address one of the biggest concerns I’ve had about the Galaxy Z Fold 4. Samsung’s foldable can sometimes feel awkward to use as a regular phone when closed because of its thickness and the shape of its cover screen, which is noticeably narrower than the screen of a regular phone.
Google made a couple of improvements on both fronts. The phone’s 5.8-inch outer display is significantly wider than the Galaxy Z Fold’s, which should make using apps and navigating the phone’s interface feel more natural. It looks more like the Oppo Find N2 than the Galaxy Z Fold 4, just as leaks had indicated.
The Pixel Fold is also thinner than the Galaxy Z Fold 4 when opened, although it still feels chunkier than your average phone when closed. But the Pixel Fold closes completely when shut, with no gap near the hinge, resulting in a sleeker feel compared to the Z Fold when it’s folded.
However, when opening the Pixel Fold, I noticed that the bezels framing the 7.6-inch inner screen are thicker than those found on the Galaxy Z Fold 4. And yes, the crease is noticeable, although it’s more or less the same as the Z Fold 4’s.
When it comes to hardware, the Pixel Fold has just about everything you would expect from a high-end phone. Like the rest of Google’s current Pixel phone lineup, the Pixel Fold runs on the company’s Tensor G2 processor. The phone also has a triple-lens camera system with a 48-megapixel main camera, along with a 10.8-megapixel telephoto lens with a 5x optical zoom and a 20x digital zoom. There’s also a 10.8-megapixel ultrawide camera.
You might be wondering why a phone as expensive as the Pixel Fold doesn’t have a camera that’s as advanced as the Pixel 7 Pro. That phone has a higher resolution 50-megapixel main sensor with larger pixels, a 12-megapixel ultrawide camera and a 48-megapixel telephoto camera that zooms 5x optically and 30x digitally.
Google had to make some compromises to squeeze the camera sensors into the device, according to Rakowski, noting that the device is less than six millimeters thick when opened.
“That’s two-thirds the thickness of the 7 Pro,” he said. “So it was a pretty big engineering challenge to get it all in there.”
Google has some promising software ideas for the Pixel Fold
While the Pixel Fold’s dual display may be the phone’s headlining feature, those screens don’t mean much without the right software to take advantage of them. Based on what I’ve seen so far, Google has a couple of interesting ideas for how to put the Fold’s screens to use.
For example, Google is thinking about how the front and interior screens can work together for tasks like language translation. Google demonstrated how this could work with Google Translate. With the phone opened, hold up the device so that the cover screen is facing the person you’re speaking to, while the inner screen is facing you. When you ask Google Translate to translate a phrase or question, the results are displayed on the cover screen so that the foreign language speaker can see your translated speech. That person’s response, meanwhile, is translated and displayed on the inner screen facing you.
While it may be a niche scenario, it’s a strong example of a use case for foldables that wouldn’t be possible on a regular phone with a single screen. Another way Google puts these two screens to use is in the camera. When using the main rear camera to take a selfie with the phone opened, the cover screen becomes a viewfinder.
Otherwise, the Pixel Fold has many of the multitasking features we’ve seen on other tablets and foldables like the Galaxy Z Fold. That includes split-screen apps, a horizontal task bar, drag-and-drop support when using apps alongside one another, and the ability to divide apps between the top and bottom portions of the screen when the device is folded halfway. Google calls this “tabletop mode,” and it’s essentially the company’s version of Samsung’s “flex mode.”
Google also says that its top 50 apps have been optimized for the Pixel Fold. Keep in mind, that’s in reference to Google’s own apps, not the top 50 apps in the Google Play Store.
Google Pixel Fold: Early thoughts
While the Pixel Fold seems promising, its high price will likely make it a tough sell for most people. Given how competitive Google has been in terms of pricing with its regular Pixel phones, I had hoped it would take a similar approach.
But since foldables are larger and more complex devices with more components, getting the price down is a challenge, says Rakowski. He believes prices could come down in the future as the manufacturing process improves.
“It’s this very similar story to what happened with smartphones,” he said. “As you start to find ways to optimize and mass produce and get better yields, the cost of some of these components comes down over time.”
Still, it’s exciting to see more variety when it comes to foldable phones — and more competition for Samsung. As more people use the Pixel Fold, Google will likely brainstorm new software features for it, as it’s done with its standard Pixel phones. That’s more exciting to me than just new hardware alone.
I’m looking forward to seeing what types of new use cases Google may come up with for the Pixel Fold’s bendable screen, which I hope will arrive through Google’s regularly scheduled feature drops. And it’s not just about the Pixel’s future; Google’s moves could give Samsung more motivation to expand the capabilities of its own foldables, hopefully leading to more innovation (and lower prices) for foldables in general.