I sat down in my seat, probably looking quite shell-shocked, as Huawei CEO Richard Yu prepared to answer questions from the select group of journalists in front of him. The trouble was, my mind had gone blank. The questions I intended to ask had evaporated. My preparation was worthless.
The only thing I could think of was raising my hand and asking, “Can I have another go, please?”
I’d just tried the Huawei Mate X folding smartphone, and it was so sensational I had forgotten my job.
A new design
I spent a short while with the Mate X in the company of Yu, who spoke enthusiastically about it throughout that time, either using it myself or watching others use it.
“We have been working on this for three years,” Yu said, smiling as he demonstrated the Mate X. “It’s the most difficult smartphone project we’ve had up until now.”
Difficult it must have been, but the work has paid off in spades. Forget any worries about the Mate X being shown only behind glass, or at arm’s length because it was a prototype — this is a seemingly finished product with all the polish you’d expect. Being handed the Huawei Mate X felt like an occasion — like picking up the keys to a supercar. It looks and feels so different from anything else — it’s oddly confusing, but not in a frightening way, but rather a new, dramatic one.
The phone was folded, so the first thing I did was try to unfold it. There’s no obvious grip point, because the screen folds over on itself, and the edge fits flush with the bar running down the side. To open the Mate X you press a button on that bar, and the rear screen section pops out ready for the phone to be completely unfolded. Because it’s such a new experience, it was hard to know how to hold it, and where to grip at this stage. This is something that will change with use, but proves just how different the Mate X (and all foldable smartphones) are to our normal smartphone today.
Closed, the Mate X feels quite thick compared to other modern smartphones, but at 11mm it’s not obtrusive, nor does it feel like you’re picking up a phone book. The thickness makes it feel a little heavy, but it’s mostly an illusion, as unfolded the Mate X is very light, and almost perfectly balanced. That edge bar really does work for grip, and makes the phone simple, natural, and comfortable to hold in one hand.
The open display is perfect for watching movies, looking at photos, reading books, or general media consumption. Like a tablet though, it didn’t feel natural to do anything like typing while holding it with one hand. However, like understanding where to grip the phone, learning new ways to use and interact with a folding smartphone comes with the territory. Examining the screen also put our mind to rest about the quality of the plastic screen itself. It’s smooth with no immediately noticeable ripples, bumps, or imperfections, and the viewing angles are great.
Closing the Mate X requires a degree of force, in that the Falcon Hinge is mechanical and doesn’t flop about. It’s stiff in a high-quality, reassuring way that dissuades you from absentmindedly opening and closing the screen. Richard Yu said the folding screen has been tested to 100,000 folds, and the entire phone has been through substantial drop tests. The fold itself initially required extra testing to cure a problem were lines would show up along the fold itself, but this has since been solved.
The Android software was slick, usable, and functional. Huawei’s rival here, Samsung, has held off letting journalists play with the Galaxy Fold, which has left everyone to assume it’s because it’s not as amazing an experience as the flashy videos suggest. Not so with the Mate X. Huawei CEO Richard Yu said he has been using the phone for about a week, and demonstrated browsing the web and watching videos on the device in front of us. It performed without a hitch then, and mostly in the hands of various journalists too.
Once tests began the company found many apps adapted to the design without needing modification.
Most impressive was the way it seamlessly swaps between screens, despite technically only having a single screen. Video playing on the large unfolded screen quickly shifted to the main screen when Yu closed the phone, and then to the rear screen when he turned the Mate X over. Trying a few apps on our own, the gesture controls operated smoothly enough, the screen felt normal to swipe on, and no nasty bugs suddenly showed up to ruin our experience. This isn’t quite ready for release though, and in other demos I’ve seen the software get confused, but our early impressions are very positive.
What about apps? Yu said that at first app support was a concern, but once tests began the company found many apps adapted to the design without needing modification. Google Maps was mentioned specifically. Naturally, not all apps will do so, and developers will need to get involved to ensure they work correctly.
If you’re thinking the Huawei Mate X sounds like it could realistically be put on sale tomorrow, you’re probably right. It felt that polished. So why isn’t it? The Mate X is a 5G device, and the next-gen network is a key part of the device’s appeal in Huawei’s mind.
“4G doesn’t inspire and encourage people in the same way as 5G and a folding phone does,” Yu said, and confirmed the phone’s launch will come when 5G networks are ready for commercial use. “We cannot sell it because the carriers are still building the network. We need some time until they’re ready.
He expects the Mate X to launch around the world — U.S. excluded — once the carriers are ready.
“We could launch in May, Yu said, underlining the Mate X’s readiness as a piece of hardware. “But maybe they [the carriers] need two or three months to build the network and launch the service, and you’ll be able to buy this innovative phone in maybe June or July.”
Huawei will also be motivated to hold the Mate X until a 5G signal can reach it, as it has heavily invested in 5G from the infrastructure side. Having a highly desirable, futuristic hero product to sell eager tech fans on the benefits of 5G— the inspiration and encouragement Yu spoke about — is arguably more important to Huawei in the long-term than simply pushing the Mate X out on sale now.
New, shiny, exciting things make me go wobbly at the knees. It can’t be helped, and is a sad side-effect of seeing cutting-edge tech up close for the first time. What about when Mr. Sensible butts in and forces some critical thinking? The Mate X’s hardware, and from what I could see the software too, is ready, but are we ready for the Mate X?
It’s figuring out how people use the Mate X and other foldable smartphones on a daily basis that’s the bigger problem. Yes, we understand what they’re capable of, but outside of the person who watches hours of mobile video on a very regular basis, is it really any better than having a big-screen smartphone? This, the almost unthinkable expense, and question marks over whether having 5G connectivity in 2019 will be worth it make me cautious about recommending a foldable phone this year in a way I wouldn’t be with another traditional device.
That said, people asked similar questions about the Apple iPad when it launched. Today, the tablet doesn’t have the draw it once did, despite having more reasons to enjoy a bigger screen. Evolution may have given us the folding smartphone in response.
That price, and the potential
Nothing quells excitement like hearing the object of your desire will cost 2,300 euros, or about $2,600, to own. It’s easy to see how and why the Mate X costs so much, and don’t expect that to change in the near future either. Yu said the price of foldable smartphones won’t come down to the more expected smartphone prices for two or three years, due to the complex screen and mechanical technology inside.
Does this mean they should be treated like a developer product? One for geeks and early adopters, like Google Glass, Microsoft HoloLens, or even the first HTC Vive? In a way, yes — though it operated and felt like a consumer-ready product in our time with it, unlike Glass or HoloLens. Just remember this is a first generation, next-gen product, and you’ll pay a premium for that whether it’s a smartphone, a car, or a trip to space; you’ll need to accept the associated drawbacks too.
Sadly, because I haven’t physically used the Samsung Galaxy Fold yet, it’s unfair to compare the two in any lengthy way. However, I’m not going out on a limb by saying Huawei has nailed the design in a way that Samsung hasn’t, plus it seems to have a more complete and usable product at this time too. You’ll pay a bit less for the Galaxy Fold, but if you’re considering a $2,000-plus smartphone in the first place, a few hundred dollars either side probably won’t make much difference. Forced to put a deposit down right now, our money would be on the Mate X.
Using it Huawei Mate X just a few minutes was exciting in a way that new technology needs to be — enticing enough that I wanted to try again, and so filled with potential that my planned interview questions simply fell out of my head. Many have complained the smartphone industry lacks innovation. Well, stop moaning, because the Mate X is here, and I’d like another go please.