Huawei’s initial briefing for the Mate X was a peculiar affair: watching a hosted demonstration from a safe distance – not the kind of thing that inspires confidence in a new product. Following that briefing, Huawei invited journalists to private briefings with the Mate X to see it up close and finally allow us to lay our hands on it.
Up close with the Huawei Mate X
Seeing the Mate X up close was enough to satisfy any concerns I might have had about its overall build quality (it’s surprisingly good), but it also confirmed my other concern about the screen. A bumpy kind of dimpling is noticeable where the flexible part happens, and I can only imagine that will only become more pronounced over time. Like anything you fold and refold repeatedly, it’s going to degrade.
It’s the exact same issue Samsung will face with the Fold. Unlike Huawei, Samsung wouldn’t let anyone touch the Galaxy Fold at MWC 2019. It’s very clear that neither of these products are fully ready yet, but the impulse to be first is real. Perhaps Samsung knew that by keeping the Fold behind glass it wouldn’t get articles like this written about it, even if it probably is in a similar state to the Mate X.
Unlike Huawei, Samsung wouldn't let anyone touch the Galaxy Fold at MWC 2019.
Huawei assures me that by the time the Mate X goes on sale the display will be in much better shape. While of course Huawei would say that, it’s also hard to lambast “what might be” given Huawei’s generally good attention to detail. The same goes for Samsung. Maybe the various wrinkles are ironed out in the months to come, maybe they’re not, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Barring the dimples, the display I saw looked otherwise great. It was sharp, vibrant and responsive, feeling not-too-dissimilar to a regular smartphone display. This was a reassuring realization.
In the very short amount of time I was allowed to handle the Mate X my main takeaways were twofold. It felt very much like a real product – not some prototype held together by chewing gum and hope – and that I still hadn’t wrapped my head around exactly why it existed.
I’m not yet sold on the idea, but I do like the product.
Is this the solution to a “problem”?
As I said in the Mate X first look, I’m still not convinced products like this are a solution to an actual problem. Rather, they feel like a technological inevitability that was coming sooner or later whether we needed them or not. Combining a phone and tablet in one device sounds like a good idea from five years ago – about the same time Samsung first shared that Youm advertisement.
I'm not yet sold on the idea, but I do like the product.
Huawei said it spent three years figuring out the falcon wing hinge, and I’ll admit both it and Samsung’s hinge are impressive pieces of engineering. The Mate X’s is quite rigid, more-so than I would have expected, but I can imagine that’s an easy enough detail to correct. The question then becomes: will it loosen up over time like most other hinged products? How easy is it to tighten again? Is it supposed to be that stiff?
Which brings me back to that display. I’m perhaps not as concerned by the outward-folding display as some. I keep a phone with a display facing outwards in my pocket all the time. I often have two phones back-to-back (meaning two outward-facing displays) and they come out unscathed. But they’re not flexible P-OLED panels and they don’t constantly flex.
It would be disingenuous to pass judgment on the durability of a flexible P-OLED panel until I’ve had a chance to use one for a while. While I think I prefer the Mate X’s form factor over the Fold’s (one display instead of two, no notch, a full-screen experience etc) it’s obvious the Galaxy Fold’s larger screen will be better protected over time. Again, I can’t confidently vouch for how the inside-display will fare over the outside-display , but at least the inside-display is less prone to damage.
Further complicating the speculation, the displays on the Mate X and Galaxy Fold have different bending radiuses (the Mate X’s is larger). With a larger radius, there’s less internal stress in the flexibile substrate. The less stress, the more durable the whole thing is, at least in theory.
I like the Mate X and Galaxy Fold in theory and I want to like them in the flesh. They feel like the future and they are exciting, no matter how dubious I am about why they’re here and what exactly they’ll do that’s better. But they are crazy expensive and are obviously not targeted at normals like you and me.
Still only a proof of concept
Flexible phones are a proof of concept that serve the dual benefit of driving innovation and enabling a very public pissing contest between two of the biggest smartphone manufacturers in the world. Exactly how that contest is going to benefit end-users isn’t quite clear yet, but we always win when two titans go head to head like this. The end game of phones like this may well lie elsewhere.
Will you have a foldable phone like the Mate X in your pocket in the next year or two? That’s highly unlikely. Will anyone you know? Who knows. They are undeniably cool and lust-worthy, and we already know there’s no ceiling to how much some people will spend to have that thing no one else has.
So yes, you probably will see variations on the foldable theme in a city near you in the next year or two. But just because you will be able to buy one soon, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should, even if you can afford it. Many of the best use cases for flexible devices will only emerge over time. When the first smartphones arrived, who would have thought they’d eventually become pocket cameras and portable gaming devices significantly more-so than actual phones.
Many of the best use cases for flexible devices will only emerge over time and may be very different to what we're currently thinking.
Do you need these features?
Ask yourself if you’ve been contemplating a new tablet in the next little while, or how often you even use the tablet you already have (if you have one). Then ask yourself how likely are you to use that tablet at a cafe? On the bus? In the street? Is a tablet renaissance likely to make you change your habits? Or would you need new use cases to achieve that? Perhaps you’d just be better off sticking with an affordable phone and using a normal tablet (or not) like you do now.
Think about it: if you like watching YouTube videos on your tablet, like I do, then is a nearly-square aspect ratio going to help you? If you’re planning on watching widescreen content, you’d actually be better off watching it with the Mate X folded shut. Open it up and you’ll get letterboxing of epic proportions. Do you really want to pay that much money to get huge black bars above and below your video? Instagram may be nicely formatted for square content, but much of the web is not.
I like the weight of the Mate X, it has a very solid heft to it that I find oddly reassuring. That’s not to say it’s significantly heavier than any other similarly sized phone, so don’t worry too much. One detail I did find infinitely disappointing is the lack of a headphone jack. With excuses for removing it usually ranging between the phone is too thin to a need to save space for other components, the thick hand grip on the Mate X is the most obvious candidate for bringing it back and winning over legions of 3.5mm loyalists. Sadly, that is not the case.
For me, the crux of the matter, when you strip away all the promises and concerns and hype, is how good is the Mate X going to be as a phone? It’s still going to have Huawei software you’ll likely hate if you don’t like EMUI. It’ll probably still suffer from the usual software bugs and irritations of Huawei’s UI.
When you strip away all the promises and hype, it all hinges on how good the Mate X is going to be as a phone.
It’s like smartwatches: if they suck as a watch, the smartwatch angle is largely torpedoed. But just like when smartwatches first appeared, I’m skeptical but I still like what I see. Flexible phones, by the time they become commonplace, will have found new use cases we haven’t even thought of yet. And 5G speeds, new battery tech and connected everything will help drive that.
Phones like the Huawei Mate X and Galaxy Fold are just one part of a larger puzzle that will need to come together to make me a breathless convert. In just a few short years, smartwatches changed from small wrist phones to more fashion-forward fitness trackers. The same will likely be true of flexible phones.