One of the most talked-about new products at Mobile World Congress this year is Huawei’s foldable smartphone, the Mate X. Quartz spent some time with the $2,600 device, which is kept behind a glass case at the company’s booth on the expo floor, to get a glimpse of the foldable future of phones.
Many companies have joined the race to launch a folding smartphone this year, including Samsung, TCL, Xiaomi, and even Energizer, but few of these companies actually let congress attendees touch the devices.
Quartz was given two rules when holding the phone: We couldn’t fold it ourselves, and we couldn’t take photos with one hand while holding the Mate X in the other. The reason Huawei gave for these restrictions was that this was its only device outside of a box, and it didn’t want someone to try and fold it backwards or some other way that would break the joint. The company didn’t have many spare devices, a representative said.
The device feels like a large flagship smartphone when folded, though it feels considerably heavier than a Samsung S10+ or iPhone XS Max. When folded out to its larger size, the screen was square, reminiscent of a time when video was transmitted in 4:3 aspect ratio. (It’s a stark contrast to the Sony Xperia 1’s widescreen 21:9 ratio.) The Huawei phone’s screen has a 4K resolution that made watching random YouTube videos a treat.
The screen itself has a slight warp towards the edges of the hinge when folded out, but since the screen is flexible, it flattens out quickly and wasn’t noticeable during use. We specifically looked for screen the deforming while playing a racing game, watching a video, or typing in the unfolded mode, but it wasn’t a factor.
Huawei has designed gestural controls for taking selfies, since the phone has only rear-facing cameras when folded. To take a selfie, you flip the phone over so the strip with cameras faces you, and the selfie camera automatically launches. Since the whole phone is a screen when folded (front and back), the side of the phone facing up is the one that’s on when it’s folded. That also means for general usage, the front screen doesn’t have a notch or camera punch-out, since the cameras are mounted along the outer lip on the back.
Unlike other folding phones, Huawei’s best answers why someone might want to buy a device like this. Because the phone folds outwards, you could be reading or watching a video while the device is folded, and realize you could use some more screen real estate to better see what’s in front of you. You fold out the back of the phone to reveal the display panel in its full glory. It’s effectively like having a smartphone and a tablet in a single device.
But for such a steep price, you could easily buy a top-of-the-line smartphone and an iPad Pro, with a few hundreds dollars to spare. Obviously, with the Mate X you’re paying for the convenience of carrying just one device, and some pretty cutting-edge display technology. It isn’t a device for the average consumer, but rather the person who has to have the newest gadget to show off. (Or, perhaps, to make some sort of political statement.)
In a few years, though, when the price of foldable displays and 5G connectivity falls, it’s easy to see how this newfangled device’s form factor is something we’ll soon take for granted.
Behold, the foldable future of the smartphone: