Huawei Mate X hands-on review

The Huawei Mate X is a foldable smartphone you'll want to buy

The Huawei Mate X is the most sensational, and sensationally expensive, piece of new mobile technology we’ve used in years
The Huawei Mate X is the most sensational, and sensationally expensive, piece of new mobile technology we’ve used in years
The Huawei Mate X is the most sensational, and sensationally expensive, piece of new mobile technology we’ve used in years

Highs

  • Software leaves a strong first impression
  • Excellent build quality
  • Masses of appeal for early adopters and tech fans
  • Compelling use as a media machine

Lows

  • Hugely expensive
  • Questionable every day use cases
  • No 5G network to use with it

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.

Huawei Mate X
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

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.

Mostly-polished software

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.

5G

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.

Still cautious

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.

Huawei Mate X
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

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.

Emerging Tech

Twitter is officially a teenager now. Are we raising a monster?

On March 21, 2006, Jack Dorsey sent the first ever tweet. Thirteen years later, Twitter has fundamentally changed the way we communicate. Here are some of the myriad ways it's done that.
Mobile

Here are the best iPad Pro keyboard cases to pick up with your new tablet

The iPad Pro range can double as laptops, but they do need proper keyboards to fill in effectively. Thankfully, there are loads to choose from and we rounded up the best iPad Pro keyboard cases right here.
Gaming

From fatalities to new characters, here's what we know about Mortal Kombat 11

Mortal Kombat 11 releases April 23 for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. Here is everything we know about NetherRealm's latest fighting game, including its characters.
Movies & TV

In the new Hellboy clip, a giant problem leaves our favorite demon unimpressed

Hellboy is returning to the big screen in April 2019, with Stranger Things actor David Harbour taking on the title role. Here's everything we know so far about the reboot of the franchise.
Mobile

The Moto G7 Power, with its massive battery, is now available for purchase

After a number of leaks and rumors, the Motorola Moto G7, Moto G7 Play, and Moto G7 Power are finally here. The devices represent quite a spec bump over the previous-generation Moto G6 phones, yet still come at a reasonable price.
Mobile

Got gadgets galore? Keep them charged up with the 10 best USB-C cables

We're glad to see that USB-C is quickly becoming the norm. That's why we've rounded up some of the better USB-C cables on the market, whether you're looking to charge or sync your smartphone. We've got USB-C to USB-C and USB-C to USB-A.
Wearables

The Tacs Nato-Lens is a watch for those who live life through a camera lens

Not all watches have to be round, or connect to your phone. The Tacs Nato-Lens is a stylish piece of wristwear with a design inspired by classic SLR cameras, making it a geeky timepiece for the camera and watch fan.
Computing

Get ready to say goodbye to some IFTTT support in Gmail by March 31

If This Then That, the popular automation service, will drop some of its support for Gmail by March 31. The decision comes as a response to security concerns and is aimed to protect user data.
Mobile

5G's arrival is transforming tech. Here's everything you need to know to keep up

It has been years in the making, but 5G is finally becoming a reality. While 5G coverage is still extremely limited, expect to see it expand in 2019. Not sure what 5G even is? Here's everything you need to know.
Mobile

This is the easiest way to save your iPhone data to your computer

Living in fear of losing your contacts, photos, messages, and notes on your iPhone? Fear no more -- in this guide, we'll break down exactly how to back up your iPhone to your computer using Apple's iTunes or to the cloud with iCloud.
Mobile

HMD Global admits Nokia 7 Plus handsets sent user data to China

Nokia could be in some hot water. According to recent reports, Nokia 7 models may be secretly sending data to China without the user knowing about it. Nokia says that the issue was a software bug and that it has been fixed.
Mobile

24 must-have apps for rooted Android phones and tablets

Rooting your Android device opens up a world of possibilities, along with a few apps. Here are 24 of our favorites, so you can make the most of your rooted device and unleash the true power of Android.
Mobile

Wring the most out of iOS with the best Siri commands

You may not know all the things you can say to Siri -- after all, Apple never released an official list of commands for its virtual assistant. Thankfully, we've compiled a list of the best Siri commands to help you out.
Product Review

The new iPad Mini isn’t a beauty, but it performs like a beast

Apple’s new iPad Mini has beastly performance, fluid iOS 12 software, and good battery life. It also looks like it came straight out of 2015, because the design hasn’t been changed. Here's our review of Apple’s 7.9-inch tablet.