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Huawei Mate X: One day, all folding smartphones will be like this

It’s now right smack in the middle of a chilly Barcelona night and I’m up, sitting at the dining table, thinking about this one smartphone that I got to spend a hot minute with. It’s not the brand new Samsung flagship I was fawning over a couple of days ago. It also isn’t the crazy smartphone camera zoom I was so stoked for earlier this week. And it’s definitely not the highly janky smartphone with way too many cameras that — oddly enough — take way too long to take a single photo.

It’s a device from Huawei, and I’m a little hesitant to even call it a smartphone because it feels like so much more. It’s called the Huawei Mate X, and it’s the first time I’ve never been more OK with being so completely wrong about something.

For those who haven’t been following the news — or for those of you who have simply been living under a rock — the Huawei Mate X is the Chinese company’s first foldable smartphone. But, perhaps the more impressive thing about the Mate X is that it isn’t even the first proper folding smartphone from a major smartphone manufacturer to debut this month. In fact, it was nearly a week later than the Samsung Galaxy Fold, yet I think it’s definitely the more interesting device.

In the past, if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Samsung being the first major smartphone maker to launch a polished yet futuristic smartphone over a company like Huawei. Samsung has a great track record for developing some truly stunning pieces of tech, and in the past, Huawei’s direction always felt a little lost. But I guess that’s OK — relatively speaking — because Huawei is, after all, primarily a telecommunications equipment company.

Samsung, on the other hand, has the luxury of picking from one of the best mobile chipset, display and hardware makers in the world — themselves.

So how have Huawei done it? How has this company outshined the renown South Korean electronics giant despite being an entire week late? Well, if I had to break it down, Huawei had the better idea.

Being first doesn’t automatically mean you’re the best

You see, when we first saw the Samsung Galaxy Fold, we at SoyaCincau were blown away. For the longest time, a lot of us have been of the mindset that we were nowhere close to a folding smartphone — at least not one that was as polished as that. Then, Samsung’s folding handset proceeded to exceed our expectations in terms of polish, software support and just the entire idea of what a folding smartphone could look like.

But, Samsung’s idea wasn’t without its flaws. First off, the Galaxy Fold is a handset that folds inward. That means, in order for the smartphone to be usable without needing the user to constantly unfold their device, Samsung had to install a second screen on the front. However, they couldn’t just slap the gorgeous dual-curved display from their Galaxy S10 in front because that would make the device way too bulky.

Instead, they settled for a tiny 4.6″ panel that made the device look like one of those “detox phones” more than an actual smartphone you’d recognise today. Then, you’ve got the fact that because Samsung’s screen folds in, they couldn’t have it fold flat because that would just snap the OLED in two. So what you end up with is the phone version of a Surface Book 2, and that’s really not the best look.

You don’t need to change the smartphone to revolutionise it

It’s one thing to see the Huawei Mate X on the telly, but it’s another thing entirely to hold it the product in your hands. And the thing is, none of us expected to run into this handset the way we did. We were heading out to what we thought was just a simple networking dinner with Huawei and the other members of the Malaysian media. But, when we arrived, we found out that not only was there a Mate X, but we were going to be able to get some hands on time with the handset.

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Needless to say, we immediately kicked into action and shot a quick video describing our hands-on experience (the one you saw embedded earlier in this post). And it was quite the exciting moment for me because of two big reasons. The first was that before that point, I hadn’t seen a single person that wasn’t a Huawei employee actually get the chance to handle this fascinating device.

The second is that I was genuinely impressed with how well this smartphone, which was essentially a pre-production unit, worked — how well the entire concept of a folding smartphone worked.

You see, when Huawei set out to build the device that would eventually become the Mate X, they told us that one of the things they really wanted to retain was the smartphone as a concept. They didn’t want to force users onto something completely foreign that required a lot of adaptation. Huawei wanted to build something that felt familiar, but also give users the option to completely revolutionise their experience.

And this resolution definitely shows in the Mate X.

One of the most fundamental differences between the Huawei Mate X and the Galaxy Fold is simply in the way the display folds. Unlike the Galaxy Fold, the Mate X’s screen folds out, allowing you to basically tuck a portion of the 8-inch screen behind in the same way you’d fold down a newspaper when you wanted to read it on the go. With this singular difference, everything changed because now, Huawei didn’t need two displays on their smartphone, they just needed the one.

They were also able to retain what is essentially a standard smartphone form-factor. Granted, it’s a little larger than your usual smartphone, with a display that measures 6.6 inches diagonally when folded, but it worked just like a regular off-the-shelf smartphone. In my brief time with the Mate X, it gave me the impression that you could also just spend most of your time using the handset folded and be perfectly happy. It didn’t feel like you were giving up anything, and I think that’s very important aspect of the folding smartphone. It has to work both ways.

What’s more, because the screen folds outwards, Huawei can now fold the entire panel flat so you don’t end up with a little smartphone “thigh gap”.

Oh, and don’t think that screen at the back is now just a cover for the back of the handset. You can still use it when the handset is folded. All you need to do is flip the device around and the gyroscope in the smartphone will detect this movement and automatically switch the active screen to the one on the back. But, this secondary screen also functions to help you take selfies because the Mate X doesn’t have any “front-facing” cameras. So, you take photos like you would on Vivo’s NEX Dual Display where you use the screen that’s now folded to the back of the handset.

But, as neat as this all is, the best part about the Huawei Mate X obviously isn’t the fact that you can use it like a two-screened smartphone. The best part happens when you actually unfold this device, and the most impressive thing about it is how seamlessly all of this works.

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Intuitively impressive

Now, I had a couple of concerns with the folding phone as a concept. I was worried that the hinge wouldn’t hold up, or that the mechanism would feel fragile and would need a lot of babying. I was also worried that the software wouldn’t be able to keep up with a smartphone like this, especially not after seeing Xiaomi’s teaser for their iteration of the folding smartphone.

After spending some time with the Mate X though, these concerns quickly became less concerning. And that has to do with how well everything worked when you fold and unfold this handset.

I’ll start with the physical aspect of this whole mechanism: The falcon wing hinge. If I had to describe it in one word, that word would be robust. I am genuinely still shocked at how sturdy the action of folding and unfolding this device felt. I never felt the need to baby it the entire time I was holding this device, and that’s more than I would have ever thought was possible with a design this intricate. Of course, I don’t think you can really be a mad barbarian about it, but if you show it the same respect you show your laptop’s hinge, I think you’d be good to go. Huawei says that they’re confident with this hinge for about 100,000 folds, so they reckon this will be able to last between two to three years.

Is that long enough for you? For me, I was surprised that they made such a bold claim with what is essentially a first-generation product. Honestly, considering the fact that a lot of people switch phones every two years, I think this is perfectly reasonable. Will it end up lasting that long in real-world usage? That’s not something anyone can really answer right now.

What I can say is that the phone feels as premium and as sturdy in the hand as a proper high-end flagship should feel. It’s got a lot of heft to it too, which makes it kind of nerve-racking to hold, but it also lends the Mate X the same kind of exquisite feel I love so much.

The next concern that was quashed during my hands on was the software. It works wondrously. In my experience, Huawei hasn’t been one of those companies I turn to when I think of good mobile software. I mean, EMUI is OK, but I expected a lot worse when they had to adapt it to a folding handset.

However, the Mate X’s software seems to just work the way you’d expect it to. Let’s say you’re browsing a web page, and you come across a photo that you want to see in more detail, just unfold the Mate X and the screen immediately resizes to an 8-inch panel. Watching a video and want to see it on a larger panel? Just open the panel and boom you’ve got a tablet viewing experience. And it even works when you’re in the camera app so you can be one of those “tablet photographers” but people can’t call you out for it because what you’re using is technically still a phone.

To make matters even sweeter, the reverse is also true. Simply fold the panel down when you’re done with the larger screen and everything shrinks to fit. It’s just way more polished that I ever expected a first-gen product like this to be, and I can’t help but be impressed with it.

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But of course, there are issues

No product is perfect, and the Huawei Mate X is far from the perfect folding smartphone. After the excitement died down, and I had some time to reflect on the handset on my walk back to our Airbnb, I did begin to notice a couple of things I’d love for Huawei to address when they launch the sequel to this smartphone. Especially if a smartphone is what they want to continue calling it.

The Mate X is missing quite a few essential flagship features for a smartphone in 2019. Its single speaker, for example, doesn’t sound nearly as good as a pair of stereo speakers would. Then, there’s the issue of how they’re going to waterproof this smartphone, and how they’re going to introduce wireless charging, and how they’re going to build a case for it, and how accessory makers are going to design a screen protector for it. Oh, did I mention that I dislike side-mounted fingerprint scanners?

And then as a folding concept, I would like to point out that there is a noticeable unevenness to the portion of screen that sits right where the falcon wing hinge is when you unwrap it. It’s not really noticeable by the naked eye, but if you run your finger across it, you’ll definitely be able to feel the bumps.

Huawei assures us that they’ve already found a fix for this so the commercial units won’t have this issue, but who’s to say something else might not pop up somewhere down the road? But you know what, the only reason I was thinking about this on my walk back was because I’ve hardwired my brain to always look at both sides of a device. To always acknowledge the good and the bad, big or small.

Did I really care about a lot of these issues on a device like the Huawei Mate X? No, I really didn’t. And I know I didn’t because the moment I exhausted all the cons I could think of with this smartphone, I immediately went back to daydreaming about a future when I can use this handset as my daily driver. What kind of apps I would use with it folded and unfolded. How much it could improve my productivity, and all that good stuff.

Because the thing about the Mate X is, it’s more than just some smartphone Huawei made.

It’s an idea, and one that I believe every other folding phone should follow

When I say that every folding phone should be like this, I’m not saying that every folding smartphone should be built to the exact hardware specifications as the Huawei Mate X. I’ve said this before but I’ll say it here again: The thing Huawei has succeeded the most with the Mate X is that they had the right idea. The right concept.

Before the Mate X, there wasn’t a single folding smartphone concept that I’ve seen that made me want it as badly as the Mate X. There wasn’t a single idea that made me feel like I needed a folding smartphone because I never really saw the point in having a 6-inch handset unfold into an 8-inch tablet. It didn’t feel like it would be that intuitive or practical or even that fun to use.

But the Mate X changed all of that. Huawei held true to the concept of a smartphone and took into consideration how people used these devices. Then, they expanded on it and thought “how can we make this better without making it worse?” and the resulting device is one that feels so well thought out that I simply can’t wait to switch to.

Photography by Zachary Yoong with the Sony A7 III