Samsung’s Z Fold 3 durability one year in: Tougher than you might think, but with one big caveat

Foldable phones are still kind of awkward, unproven devices. But over the last three generations (with a fourth presumably on the way), Samsung has made major strides with its designs, paving the way for innovative (though sometimes quite pricey) alternatives to the typical glass brick. And when you combine that with sales of nearing 10 million devices last year, it feels like Samsung’s foldables are finally beginning to break into the mainstream.

But despite a number of improvements over the years, there’s one aspect of Samsung’s foldable that still needs a lot of work: durability. Last year, after purchasing my own Z Fold 2, I documented some of the issues I faced 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 is holding up just shy of one year later.

Even after a year, the Z Fold 3's exterior screen is still nearly pristineAside from one scratch at the bottom (which I take sole blame for), my Galaxy Z Fold 3’s exterior Cover Screen is still almost pristine.

Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Now at this point, some people might be wondering why I upgraded at all. The bubbles my Z Fold 2’s screen suffered from were certainly annoying, but they weren’t so bad I considered switching back to a standard candy bar handset. Instead, my main goal for buying the model (aside from professional curiosity) was to get a foldable that might better survive a newborn.

Compared to typical smartphones, the Z Fold 2’s lack of water resistance was all but guaranteed to become a problem after my son was born. It felt like I would have to keep the phone in a separate room, lest I chance some small amount of spit up or drool ruining the device. And that simply 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 can withstand sitting in water for up to 30 minutes at a depth of up to five feet, it could handle anything a baby could throw (or spit) at it too.

The back of the phone has also held up very well, aside from one ding on the edge of the frame. The back of the phone has also held up very well, aside from one ding on the edge of the frame.

Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Thankfully, I think my strategy worked, because even though it cost around $800 to upgrade after trading in my Z Fold 2, that money has already paid for itself. My Z Fold 3 has been peed on, it’s been vomited on and it’s had milk splashed all over it, and it’s been totally fine. The phone has also been gnawed on more than a handful of times to no effect. So while the addition of water resistance to Samsung’s foldables might not be all that exciting, considering regular phones that have had it for years, it’s a huge enhancement to everyday usability.

The rest of the phone’s body has held up pretty well too. There’s a relatively large scratch on its frame and a couple of scuffs on its hinge, but those are all cosmetic dings. I should also mention I’m not someone who puts phones in skins or cases, this thing has lived naked since the day I got it. So while I haven’t been traveling much, the sheer number of times this phone has endured being knocked out of my hand or fallen on the floor while rushing to grab my kid after a nap is kind of impressive. Even dust and crumbs have been handled by the extra bristles Samsung put inside its hinge.

There are also some small scuffs on the hinge, but that's sort of to be expected considering I never put the phone in a case. There are also some small scuffs on the hinge, but that’s sort of to be expected considering I never put the phone in a case.

Sam Rutherford/Engadget

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

For the first six months I had it, my Z Fold 3’s screen was pristine. There were no blemishes, bubbles or anything. But then one winter day while I was walking down the street, I opened the phone and heard a crack. At first, I feared the worst, thinking its exterior cover screen had shattered or something important inside had broken. But upon closer inspection, I noticed 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 attempted to get it repaired. This is what the bubbling looked like in June, when I first attempted to get it repaired.

Sam Rutherford/Engadget

And while I’m still not sure what the exact cause was, my theory is that after pulling 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 an issue a number of other Z Fold owners have run into, and once you suffer that initial crack, it’s only a matter of time until bubbles begin to form. Over the past few months, those bubbles have grown into an air gap that runs down the entire middle of the screen, and no amount of pressing or trying smoothing things out has much of an effect. Recently, some dust has gotten wedged between the protector and the screen itself, which is frankly kind of gross. And because I’m trying to abide by Samsung’s insistence that the screen protector should only be replaced by certified technicians, I haven’t tried to fix it on my own.

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

This more close-up shot shows how gross the display can get after dust and dirt finds its way beneath the Z Fold 3's built-in screen protector. This close-up shot shows how gross the display can get, because once bubbles start forming, there isn’t much you can do to stop dust and first from getting beneath the screen protector.

Sam Rutherford/Engadget

But, this wasn’t a coincidence either. After talking to two of the other customers, I learned that they were also running into issues with bubbles around the six to eight month mark. On top of that, one of the Samsung Care+ reps I talked to essentially confirmed that this was a somewhat widespread issue, saying that screen protector replacements are the most commonly requested repair for Samsung’s foldables. Unfortunately, because it takes about an hour to have the screen protector replaced and I was fourth in line, I couldn’t wait around to get my Z Fold fixed. So here’s a pro tip, if your phone needs to be serviced, make sure to schedule your appointment online, so you can avoid the line.

In the end, while I plan on returning to have my screen protector replaced, my big take away after owning both a Z Fold 2 and a Z Fold 3 is that there’s a good chance you’re going to run into bubbles after half a year or so. And without some sort of radical upgrade to the screen construction, the company’s next generation of Z devices will probably suffer the same fate. That’s kind of a bummer, because having to sit around for hours to fix something that’s probably going to happen again sucks. And that goes double or triple for anyone who has to mail in their device because they don’t live near a certified repair location.

This is how my Z Fold 3's screen looks after one year. The bubble now covers the entire height of the display. And while its appearance is more tolerable indoors, it's still far from ideal. This is how my Z Fold 3’s screen looks after one year. The bubble 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 stands, the bubbling is certainly annoying and not very pretty. Thankfully, 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 had I not been planning on writing this story, I would have gotten the screen protector replaced months ago. And if you’re running into a similar issue with your Z Flip or Z Fold, I’d highly suggest you address any bubbling as soon as possible, before any other related issues pop up.

But if Samsung ever wants its foldables to be as popular as the S or A-series phones, the screen protectors bubbling is an issue that needs to be solved sooner rather than later. As for me, while 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 slightly more realistic idea of what living with a foldable phone is actually like.