While 2018 brought us brief glimpses of the first commercial foldable phones, 2019 is shaping up to be the year the foldable war truly begins. On the heels of the Galaxy Fold, Huawei has now announced its own attempt at a foldable phone with the Huawei Mate X.
Regardless of which design style you prefer, the significance of the Mate X can’t be understated. Let’s dive into the reason why.
Samsung’s long legacy of foldable research
For years Samsung (and to a lesser extent LG) has been the king of foldable concepts and prototypes. One of the earliest examples of this is the Samsung Youm ad from 2013. That’s just one example, as Samsung has teased the dawn of foldables time and time again.
Samsung obviously sees tremendous potential in foldable technology and have invested significant time into R&D. Last month Hark-sang Kim, a senior vice president at Samsung Mobile, said it took the company seven years to perfect foldable technology and the user experience.
Just four days ago Samsung finally fully unveiled the culmination of this research, the Samsung Galaxy Fold. Now, comparatively out of nowhere, Huawei has arrived on scene with the Mate X and stolen some of Samsung’s thunder.
Huawei has grown significantly from its humble beginnings
Huawei has been in the Android game since 2009 with U8220, but let’s just say it’s beginnings were modest. Huawei really didn’t start to gain any traction until the Ascend and Ascend Mate series (which essentially became the P and Mate series).
Needless to say, they’ve come a long way since the early days. With every successive iteration Huawei has continued to refine its hardware and evolved from merely copying the competition to actually keeping pace.
Huawei has evolved into a tech innovator ready to play with the big boys
In 2017 we declared the Mate 10 the best Android smartphone of the year, and last year’s Mate 20 came in second bested only by Samsung. It’s been clear for a while that Huawei is on the rise. How Huawei got here is certainly a matter of debate, and it’s no secret that it’s had a fair share of scandals and claims of outright theft along the way. Still, here we are now at MWC 2019 and Huawei has shown it’s not only ready with its own foldable, but it has also actually managed to design a product that in some ways is arguably better than Samsung’s solution.
Samsung Fold vs Huawei Mate X: two very different approaches
While we won’t go into a full versus here, let’s just say the strategies used by the two companies are quite the opposite.
The Galaxy Fold has two different displays. When in phone form, there’s a small 4.6-inch display with a somewhat odd 21:9 aspect ratio on the front of the device. When you want more screen real estate you open the phone like a book and there’s a 7.3-inch flexible display (with a fairly sizable notch) awaiting you. The whole design is a tad on the chunky side, though that’s far from a deal breaker.
I assume Samsung used this design at least partially because it felt this would better protect the display. This is understandable because foldable displays are expensive and potentially a bit more fragile than traditional displays. The biggest issue I have with this design is that a 4.6-inch screen is just too damn small by today’s standards. In a world where most smartphones are 5.5-inches or wider, going back to 4.6-inches is going to feel pretty jarring and the reality is that when you’re on the go — that’s the screen you are likely going to use.
In contrast, Huawei’s foldable feels a bit more polished. The Mate X folds in half giving you a display on the front and back. When you need more space, you simply unfold the device into a tablet. This design means you get a much larger 6.6-inch display when using the foldable as a phone, and a slightly bigger 8-inch display when it is unfolded as a tablet. It’s also quite a bit thinner and actually folds flat.
We have to address the elephant in the room: the Mate X is extraordinarily expensive at $2600 — a whopping $600 more expensive than the already very expensive Galaxy Fold. From the demos we’ve seen, Samsung’s software also seems more polished than Hauwei’s, which isn’t too surprising given Huawei’s history.
Things are just getting interesting
Both the Fold and the Mate X have their pros and cons. It’s really hard to say which is better, especially until we get meaningful hands-on time with the two foldables. The Mate X looks pretty enticing, but we all know looks can be deceiving and true day-to-day performance will be the real decider. Still, shots have been fired by Huawei. Samsung isn’t alone in the foldable war and their market lead is now seriously called into question. It’s only going to get more aggressive as more players like LG and even less likely candidates like TCL come out of the woodwork.
Bottom-line, we are in very early days for foldables, and pretty much anyone can end up winning the crown long-term. First-gen foldables are going to be very limited in reach, and clearly very expensive. I also feel none of the foldables we’ve seen have a true game-changing use case just yet and until someone cracks that code, this could still be anyone’s game.