Samsung really needs to let the cover screen on the Galaxy Z Flip 5 do its own thing, and not stifle it by imposing nanny-state rules and locking it out from running any app we choose.
If it does give the cover screen its own life, it’ll have a chance of beating the Motorola Razr Plus, which has shown us the joys of having a fully functional tiny screen on our flip phone. If it doesn’t, then Samsung really needs to watch its back this year.
The halfway house problem
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The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 is rumored to have a 3.4-inch cover screen with a very generous 720 by 748 resolution, making it a big update over the Galaxy Z Flip 4’s 1.9-inch cover screen. At this size, it will rival the Razr Plus’s 3.6-inch screen, and if the renders of the phone are accurate, it’ll take up the majority of the phone’s front — making it ideal for running full apps.
But size is no guarantee of full app support. The Oppo Find N2 Flip has a 3.26-inch cover screen, and the Vivo X Flip has a 3-inch AMOLED on the front, yet both are locked down to run only certain apps and features. You could hack these screens to run apps, but you shouldn’t have to go to such lengths. I’ve been trying out the Vivo X Flip recently, and while its halfway-house approach to widgets and apps is interesting, it also highlights why it’s so frustrating.
Vivo opens the cover screen up to a certain extent, with the option to view a selection of apps — including WeChat, a widget-like calendar app, mobile payments, and a voice recorder — but you can’t add your own choice of app. It’s very similar to Oppo’s system, right down to cute animated wallpapers.
The apps (well, widgets, really) are fast and well-designed but aren’t anywhere near as useful as it would be to have Google Maps, WhatsApp, or Outlook (to name just a few). These widgets do little else except give you a tantalizing hint at how useful a functional cover screen could be if only it was more open.
Apps are everything
Running full apps on the cover screen of a compact folding smartphone transforms how you use it. Suddenly, the phone can stay closed for quick tasks, greatly reducing the time involved in interacting with it. You feel like you’re using all the phonenot just a part of it. Early on, cover screens were small and not suitable for running apps, so well-designed widgets made sense. However, technology has moved on, and as we can see from the Razr, Vivo X Flip, and Find N2 Flip, larger cover screens are now technically possible — and provide a lot more space to do things.
I want to show QR codes, check and interact with notifications, reply to WhatsApp messages, see Twitter and Instagram DMs, and even use the browser on the cover screen. Although I don’t want to play games on the cover screen, I want the ability to do so should I suddenly want to test my dexterity, eyesight, and sanity. Shutting us out by only offering a few widgets and virtual pets, then forcing us to open the phone to do anything meaningful, is immensely shortsighted and wastes one of the main things that make compact folding phones special.
Motorola understands this, and the fully functional cover screen and its apps were a highlight of the flawed Razr 2022 — and have become a huge selling point of the brand new and vastly improved Razr Plus’s appeal. It’s the device Samsung needs to watch in 2023.
The Razr Plus can run all the same apps when open or closedin addition to providing a comprehensive collection of widgets if you don’t want to be bothered by them. I know how fantastic the feature is on the Razr 2022, and Digital Trends Mobile Editor Joe Maring perfectly summed up what it’s like to use the Razr Plus in his review, saying:
“I’ve waited years for a folding flip phone with a cover screen this powerful.”
Why Samsung needs to crack the code
There are two distinct camps here, each approaching the cover screen and its functionality in a subtle yet divisively different way. Normally, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to alternative takes on features or interfaces, just differing preferences. But for the cover screen, it’s becoming increasingly clear that one is right and the other is wrong. The curated, app-and-widget approach favored by Vivo and Oppo made sense when these phones were new, but the anything-goes system adopted by Motorola is the best solution going forward.
It’s not clear which one Samsung will follow with the Galaxy Z Flip 5 yet. The rumors aren’t absolutely clear, with some suggesting Google and Samsung have worked together to make certain customized apps run on the cover screen, along with Samsung’s own apps or widgets, while others seem to say it’ll be more generally open to any app. It’s the halfway house of Vivo and Oppo or the open house of Motorola. We may not know for sure which one Samsung has chosen until the phone is announced at the end of July.
However, there is really only one correct course of action here. Samsung must allow almost any app to run on a cover screen, especially if it’s as big as the one being rumored for the Z Flip 5. Anything less, and it’s at risk of being left behind in the race that it has led since the beginning. I love the Galaxy Z Flip 4 and am really looking forward to the Galaxy Z Flip 5, but I want to make full use of the closed phone and not feel compelled to open it all the time. I bet I’m not alone, either.
Samsung doesn’t need to do much to ensure the Galaxy Z Fold 5 is still the best big-screen foldable you can buy this year, but it needs to work much harder for the Galaxy Z Flip 5 to continue leading the pack, as its success will all come down to whether the cover screen runs any app you want or not.