A First Look at the Pixel Fold, Google's First Foldable Smartphone



The Pixel Fold is the first foldable phone engineered by Google. I had a chance to preview this feature-packed productivity tool that is actually both a phone, and a tablet in one. In this review, I will discuss the Pixel Fold from a photographer’s perspective, its myriad of camera features, and its use as a productivity tool for creative professionals.

Phone and Tablet In One

When closed, the Pixel Fold feels like any other smart phone, and is the thinnest foldable phone on the market today. The size, shape, and depth of the phone, even with a case attached, makes for an excellent user experience. It fits easily in a pocket, and is roughly the same thickness as my iPhone 11 in a case. The stainless steel hinge, camera enclosure, and overall design look and feel premium, making this device an attractive addition to your gear bag. I found myself using the Pixel Fold closed quite often, because the front screen and haptics technology work well. I will also add that this is the first non-Apple smart device I have ever used, and although I initially thought it would make for a steep learning curve, I quickly was able to use the phone comfortably for everything from checking email to using my favorite apps and taking photos.

But, of course, the appeal of the Pixel Fold will be primarily in its ability to open up into a 7.6” tablet with what Google refers to as an “immersive display.” The phone, when opened, indeed does operate like a tablet, and offers an excellent variety of features for productivity as well as specifically for photographers.

For example, the full display can be set to “Split Screen,” which I found to be an excellent option when checking email. In this mode, the left side of the display shows the inbox as on a standard phone, and the right side displays the email that is currently selected. This makes checking and scrolling through multiple emails a much more streamlined task than on a standard smart phone. The split screen feature can additionally be used to view any two apps or web pages you wish to view at once, making for an excellent productivity tool on the go.

Photography Apps and Editing

Although the 7.6” screen may seem relatively small by today’s tablet standards, the Pixel Fold’s high-resolution and high-refresh-rate OLED screen makes reviewing and even editing photos possible. If you travel and do a lot of location work, it’s easy to see how useful this smartphone can be, especially if you are like me and want to travel as light as possible but still be productive.

One of the first apps I downloaded was Adobe Lightroom. My library was instantly synced, and I was able to view and edit my photos. Although I still prefer to edit at my studio on a large monitor, there are many times where Lightroom on the Pixel Fold can come in handy. If you commute via train or plane, bringing a foldable phone which can double as a tablet has obvious benefits. But, there are also many times where I am out and about, and wind up waiting around, endlessly scrolling on my phone. With this device, I can view, edit, and share galleries with my clients while I’m waiting for my car at the mechanic, for instance.

Next, I downloaded another app I use almost every day, Canva. As a content creator, I use Canva for a variety of purposes, including creating thumbnails for my YouTube videos. The large touch screen and excellent Canva app made it relatively easy to create and edit thumbnails. Since I often export large videos from my Macbook Pro, creating thumbnails on a second device can avoid slowdowns while my computer is processing 4K videos.

Finally, I wanted to see how easy it would be to download, and use, the new Fujifilm X App on the Pixel Fold. The app installed easily, and immediately communicated with my X-T5. At first, I was disappointed because the app was still the size of a standard smartphone screen, even on the larger display. But, to my pleasant surprise, the Pixel Fold prompted me to reopen the app for an enhanced view, and what do you know, after restarting the X App it filled the entire open display. I was impressed. I used the X App to capture photos as well as to review them. Again, the large, tablet style screen made a substantial difference in the entire experience. One criticism I have here is that there was a considerable lag between moving my camera around my studio and the X App keeping up with a live view of my movements, but I am not sure if this is due to the app, my internet speed, the phone, or all three. Regardless of this, the experience was much more like connecting to an iPad than to a phone.

An Advanced Built-In Camera

The Pixel Fold has an advanced built-in camera system. The rear cameras include a 48-megapixel wide angle camera, as well as a 10.8-megapixel 5x optical telephoto lens, and ultra-wide angle lens. It also includes a 20x Super Res Zoom, with “remosaic” technology which Google claims will deliver a full 12-megapixel image. Other features include 10-bit HDR video, Face Unblur and Photo Unblur, which use machine learning networks to reduce blur and noise in images, and Real Tone, which is designed to properly render darker skin tones accurately.

I walked through Central Park and captured a variety of photos and videos with the Pixel Fold, and the results are quite good for a small sensor. As with viewing photos in Lightroom, taking photos with the smartphone’s native camera app becomes a more enjoyable experience when reviewing images on the “big screen.” The screen has adequate brightness for reviewing photos outdoors in all but bright sun. When in open shade, I found it easy to see the color, contrast, and detail. In portrait mode, the camera worked well, and, although the bokeh still leaves much to be desired for a professional photographer, it is more subtle than results I capture with my iPhone, and has less of a halo effect around the subject. 

Another interesting, and useful, camera feature is the Long Exposure mode, which does not require the use of a tripod. I used long exposure mode to blur the water in a brook, while handholding the phone. This feature was most impressive to me as a photographer, and although this particular photo is nothing to write home about, the fact that I created a long exposure without a tripod is notable. 

When walking through a nature preserve with my family, I captured the below image of a flower. It wasn’t until I returned home, however, that I realized that the flower was not sharp. The edges only were in focus, so I decided to try out one of the Pixel Fold’s editing tools. I used the Color Focus editing tool, and to my surprise, I was able to fix the focus by simply tapping on the center of the flower. This adjusted the focus so that the flower was now sharp, as shown in the before and after images below. This is an excellent and practical feature that I can see saving the day for kid photos, vacations, and much more.

The Pixel Fold also has an impressive dynamic range for a smartphone. I captured the image below of the San Remo building, framed by trees, in the standard auto mode. I edited the photo using the phone’s built in software as well, and I was able to enhance the sky and use the shadow slider to bring more detail into the foreground trees, which were obscured in shadow.

To be fair, I still much prefer to take a small camera with me than to use any smartphone for images, for the obvious quality reasons and overly sharpened look of most smartphone captures. But, there are many times when lugging a Fujifilm X-T5 for instance, is not convenient or practical, especially with two small children in tow. In these instances, the Pixel Fold offers a lot of excellent photo features, and quality that is better than my current iPhone, although it is an older model. 

Conclusion

After using the Pixel Fold for a few weeks, I have found a lot to love about this innovative and thoughtfully designed smartphone. And, this first look review only scratches the surface of this feature packed device. As a tool for photographers, it will have definite appeal, and more importantly, its form and function as a phone has not been sacrificed in order to accommodate the folding screen. Regarding the folding screen, there are a some important details that potential buyers should be aware of. First, when the phone is open, the seam between the screens can be seen, although it is less noticeable in situations where there is not a lot of glare. I did not find it distracting while working on the phone, but of course it would be preferred to have no visible seam. Second, the foldable screen is going to be more delicate than a traditional smartphone screen, so we will have to wait to know the long-term durability of the folding screen. On a positive note, the outer screen and closed design feel just as robust as any other phone on the market. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, potential buyers should know that a Pixel Fold starts at $1,799 for a 256 GB model.

What I Like

  • Compact design feels like a regular smartphone when closed
  • A true phone and tablet in one
  • 7.6″ screen makes viewing and editing photos a joy
  • Easy to use with good haptics
  • A useful productivity tool for photographers and creatives
  • Feature packed

What I Don’t Like

  • Price
  • Seam is visible when screen is open



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