Nearly a year after its first unveiling, Huawei’s folding phone the Mate X has finally gone on sale after numerous delays caused by a combination of technical and political issues.
By Ben Sin
Design and hardware
The Mate X dropped jaws and garnered all sorts of gushy headlines when it was first revealed at last year’s Mobile World Congress and, a year later, it is still a bleeding edge handset that is, in my opinion, the most futuristic phone on the market.
Sure, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold has been on sale for months, but Huawei’s design is more aesthetically pleasing, if not mesmerising, for a couple of reasons.
The Huawei Mate X (left) and the Samsung Galaxy Fold when opened. Photo: Ben Sin
The first is the Mate X’s large 8-inch plastic OLED screen. It folds backwards away from the user and wraps around both the front and back of the folded device. Samsung’s design instead folds forwards towards the user (like closing a book).
This means Samsung had to resort to a secondary smaller screen, surrounded by thick bezels, on the outside in folded form, whereas the Mate X still utilises the near bezel-less main screen at all times.The other area that seems better built is the hinge. The one on the Mate X folds entirely flat. The hinge on the Galaxy Fold leaves a visible gap when closed. This, plus the fact that the Mate X is thinner (11mm when folded) makes it feels less clunky than the Galaxy Fold (15mm thick when folded).
Samsung’s device is more practical because the main bendy screen is protected when the phone is closed; the Mate X’s screen is exposed at all times.
The Huawei Mate X, folded. Photo: Ben SinBut what a looker the Mate X is. When it’s folded, the device looks and feels like a Samsung Galaxy Note 10 (a late 2019 flagship) and, when opened up, the entire screen is uninterrupted, unlike the notch that eats into the Galaxy Fold’s screen.The long production delay, however, has left the Mate X with outdated hardware components.
The phone runs on Huawei’s Kirin 980, which was introduced in August 2018 and is a generation behind the Kirin 990 in the Huawei Mate 30. The camera system of the Mate X is very similar to that of the Huawei P30 Pro, which is almost a year old and has been surpassed by the Mate 30 Pro’s optics.
Relatively speaking, the Mate X’s cameras and chipset are still more than powerful enough in 2020, but it is still a highly expensive phone with last-gen components.
The four-camera system in the Huawei Mate X is identical to that used in the year-old Huawei P30. Photo: Ben Sin
Software and features
The Huawei Mate X ships with Android 9 (also outdated) and cannot run Google apps out of the box. There is, however, a workaround, and the unit I tested has Google’s suite of apps running perfectly fine.
Still, the method to install Google services is akin to “jailbreaking” (or hacking) a phone, so I’d advise against it unless you are a tech-savvy Android enthusiast.
Huawei had a year to fine-tune the software and it shows; the Mate X’s software animations when transitioning from the folded small screen to the large screen are smooth, and I can run multiple apps in split screen mode without issues. Even the Google apps, which are running unofficially here, work like a charm. Google Maps and YouTube, in particular, look great on the tablet-sized screen.
For the most part the software behaves just like that of any other recent Huawei phone, so you still get useful features such as system wide “Dark Mode” and “Always-On Display” and the quirky Huawei commands like knocking on the screen with knuckles to grab screenshots.
The Huawei Mate X’s hinge (right) seems better designed than Samsung’s. It doesn’t have openings, and it folds entirely flat, while Samsung’s hinge leaves a small gap. Photo: Ben Sin
Performance and battery lifePerformance is fine as expected. The Kirin 980 is still capable, and this phone is also 5G ready thanks to the Balong 5000 chip. And while the camera system is a year old, it is the same system as the P30 Pro’s, considered a photography powerhouse at the time.
Expect best-in-class lowlight performance thanks to that RYYB sensor. The 4,500 mAh battery is also enough to power the phone an entire day under normal usage.
The hinge mechanism on the Huawei Mate X makes it hard to add a workable phone case. Photo: Ben Sin
It is worth asking who the Mate X is for. As a piece of cutting-edge hardware meant to show off the likely future trend of folding screen devices, the phone succeeds. I don’t think I’ll get tired of unfolding the screen any time soon, and every time I do so in public it generates a similar sense of awe from strangers.
But as a real phone that we’re supposed to put in our pocket and use every day, I’m not convinced.
Plastic foldable OLED screens are much more susceptible to scratches and damage than traditional glass screens, and the Mate X’s design has the display exposed at all times. No matter how you put this phone on a table, a part of the screen is touching a potentially uneven surface. A case doesn’t seem possible for this phone either, since the folding mechanism is complicated. Huawei does include a leather pouch in the packaging, but needing to remove the device from a leather pouch every time I need to use the phone is a hassle.
The 17,000 yuan (US$2,433) price tag is also very high, but I don’t think tech enthusiasts care – every time Huawei puts the phone on sale on its website it sells out within minutes.
The Huawei Mate X, when unfolded, is only 5.4mm thick. Photo: Ben Sin
Dimensions: 161.3mm x 78.3mm x 11mm (folded); 161.3mm x 146.2mm x 5.4mm (unfolded)
Display: 8-inch 2,200 x 2,480 pixel plastic OLED panel
Battery: 4,500 mAh
OS version reviewed: Android 9 (open source version)
Processor: Kirin 980
Cameras: 40-megapixel f/1.8 main sensor; 16-megapixel f/1.8 wide-angle lens; 8-megapixel f/2.4 telephoto lens
Memory: 512GB ROM; 12GB RAM
Price: 17,000 yuan (US$2,433)