I Used The Huawei Mate X And Now I'm A Foldable Phone Believer

Hearing about the $1,980 Samsung Galaxy Fold and 2,300-euro Huawei Mate X foldable phones is one thing. Handling one of the first of its kind is another entirely. I thought I was wild about both of these yesterday. But after spending a good 5 minutes with the Mate X today, I understand the appeal of foldable devices on a much deeper level.

Phones aren't just specs. They're physical things we constantly hold and carry close. They're emotional, too. Phone designs can elicit strong reactions. Losing your phone can feel disorienting at best and devastating at worst. Not every foldable phone will be a revelation, but for me, the Mate X is.

Foldable phones present a chance to shake up a coasting industry while also effectively doubling the amount of screen space you have to use on your phone. Because foldable phones are phone-tablet hybrids, they can command a higher price, which opens up an important revenue stream at the top end for companies looking to make a greater profit in a slowing market. But this new era of bendable screens also represents the Wild West of phone design: A phone could fold inward or outward, down the center or on two sides, or even bend back around your wrist like a watch. At this early stage, companies are working out what a foldable phone means. Right now, anything goes.

Huawei wants its turn in the foldable phone spotlight, and with the Mate X, it makes a convincing -- but expensive -- audition. The main competition: Samsung's Galaxy Fold phone, which has two screens, six cameras total and unfolds in the center to open into a 7.3-inch tablet. Huawei's Mate X -- that's pronounced "ex," not "ten" -- has three ways to use on 8-inch screen, four cameras (three you can see, one that's temporarily hidden) and an interesting design that gives you a grippable base for one-handed use.

When closed, the Mate X bends one big screen backward into two sides, treating each of those sides as a "screen" that lights up as you turn and move the device. Flip it upside down, turn it around, open it up, and the phone knows exactly where you are. It worked well in my brief time with the Mate X, but the hardware design itself is novel.

Where the Galaxy Fold, which I'm also dying to see, looks like two polished phones stacked together, the Mate X nestles into itself in a way that feels clever and fresh. Huawei shoved it cameras and essential components along a vertical sidebar, which it fashioned into a curve. When closed, the smaller part of the screen fits to this "falcon wing" curve. When open, Huawei describes this part as an "ergonomic handle," which helps explain why there's such a thick slab on the size that would otherwise feel out of place.

I probably wouldn't hold it solely by the grip -- it's a little narrow for that -- but it did feel fairly stable in my right hand, with my fingertips extended onto the back of the tablet for balance.

The device itself feels fully formed. It's satisfyingly compact, secured when closed by two tiny magnets at the outer corners. When you want to unfold the Mate X, you press a textured hardware button that pops open a latch, then you apply a little pressure to ease the device open. It's not an especially smooth process, but the three or four times I opened and closed it, the motion didn't feel juddery or stiff. I'd describe it more as being intentional. It felt pretty sturdy, and pretty good.

For Huawei, the hinge is everything. A shorter hinge height and narrow gap at the bending end is the brand's way of lording its design over the Galaxy Fold, which looks like it has a larger loop-shaped gap when closed. The Fold also has a large notch on its right screen, where Huawei boasts about the Mate X's notchless edge-to-edge display (because all the cameras are on that grip).

I Used The Huawei Mate X And Now I'm A Foldable Phone Believer
Unfold it like you mean it. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Although the Mate X I opened and closed is essentially a working prototype, the software worked fairly well. One benefit of lining up the four rear cameras is that they shoot everything, including selfies. Because the large screen wraps around the outside of the device, it means that the screen can light up for both the photographer and the subject. When Huawei's head of global marketing, Clement Wong, took a photo of me, I could see myself through the viewfinder, too. Not bad as a quick way to check if there's anything in my teeth.

I know some of you have asked about the screen itself. I was surprised at how slick the screen felt. Not exactly the same as glass, but my finger glided over it and I didn't feel any slower navigating around. I did ask about repairs and warranty, but Huawei isn't commenting on that yet.

But what about the seam?! A lot of you want to know if there's a visible line running down the center of foldable phones. This was a demo unit, and yeah, though I did see a bit of a ridge where the show unit puckered up, the phone still felt unified in tablet mode. Until screens are also stretchable, I'm not sure how any design that bends this way wouldn't have a little loose skin, like the outside of your elbow when you straighten your arm.

The phone isn't extraordinarily heavy, but the Galaxy S10 Plus I'm reviewing felt much lighter and smaller after I reluctantly handed the Mate X back. Although I didn't get a chance to slip it in my pocket, assuring the collective hyperventilation from Huawei's team, it's surely be a tight squeeze. This is more a device you carry around like a tablet or laptop.

Huawei has also made a case that will cover the Mate X's sides and back in its folded form, leaving an open window for the 6.6-inch display. In some countries, the case might come in the box. The company wasn't showing that off in my one-on-one demo.

Mate X battery, 5G, pricing and release date

The Mate X has the Galaxy Fold outpaced when it comes to battery capacity, with a 4,500mAh capacity split between two batteries, one on either side of the folding screen. Samsung's Galaxy Fold has a total of 4,380mAh capacity available between its two lobes. As we know through testing, raw capacity gives you the upper hand, but we won't know which has better real-life performance until we test them side by side.

I Used The Huawei Mate X And Now I'm A Foldable Phone Believer
It's easy to hold when folded up. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

5G speeds are a big talking point for Huawei, and the Mate X uses the company's in-house Kirin 980 processor and Balong 5000 5G modem chip. Right now Huawei says that the Mate X will download content four times faster than the current 4G connection, so about 1GB in 3 seconds. The Oscar-nominated film Roma on Netflix is under 700MB to download, so that would theoretically download to the Mate X in roughly 2 seconds.

The 2,300 euro Mate X (that converts to $2,600, £2,000 or AU$3,660) is also 5G-ready, while the $1,980 Galaxy Fold will come in either 4G or 5G configurations. Huawei will start selling the Mate X in the middle of 2019, while Samsung's Galaxy Fold will be available for sale starting April 26. Huawei hasn't announced carrier partners just yet.

More Huawei Mate X specs

  • Configuration 1: 6.6-inch front display (2,480x1,148-pixel resolution)
  • Configuration 2: 6.38-inch rear display (2,480x892-pixel resolution)
  • Configuration 3: 8-inch interior OLED display (2,480x2,200-pixel resolution)
  • 512GB storage, 8GB RAM
  • Fingerprint reader integrated into power button
  • 55W Huawei SuperCharge. 30 minutes charge for 85 percent battery life (from zero)
  • Split-screen mode
  • Preview for selfies so you can see how you look before you take the picture
  • Color: Interstellar blue

Huawei has a lot of details to fill in about the phone, and we'll update this piece as we learn more from Huawei on Sunday at the Mate X's official launch event. But right now, Huawei is coming after the Galaxy Fold, with an aim to generate even more buzz than its No. 1 rival.