Huawei’s foldable Mate X was the highlight of this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. At the show it eclipsed Samsung’s Galaxy Fold.
It even outshone the event’s main message: that 5G mobile networks are now ready.
Foldable phones are the most innovative take on mobile hardware since Apple’s iPad.
Until now phones and tablets have been distinct devices. Sure, there is a point when big phones are like small tablets1.
Yet the moment a phone is big enough for serious tablet work, it is too big to fit in a jacket pocket.
Mate X gets around that. While some might see it as a phone that folds open to become a tablet, you might equally see it as a tablet that folds shut to fit in a pocket.2
Phone makers love to talk about innovation. Most of the time they use the word to describe small improvements. In the world of marketing hype, bigger screens, faster processors, more camera lenses are improvements.
It’s all good. Today’s phones are a huge improvement on earlier models. But there has been precious little innovation.
For the last decade or so phones have been monolithic slabs of glass and metal or plastic. The Mate X and its kind break with that model.
Huawei Mate X — first generation
This year’s foldable are the first generation. They are expensive. More about that in a minute. Impressive as the Mate X is, you can see a line on the screen where it folds.
I’m concerned that the screen is on the outside where it might get scratched. It’s a little bulkier than a non-folding phone. It feels heavier in the hand than you might expect.
Yet for all these shortcomings, it is impressive. In your hands it feels almost magical. That’s an acid test for exciting innovation.
By the time the Mate X reaches New Zealand it could cost the thick end of four grand. That’s a lot for a phone, more than twice the price of a non folding Android phone and considerably more than the most expensive flagship phone from any brand.
Phone prices have climbed faster than inflation in the last few years. Much of the extra you get when you spend more on a phone is more of the same old features, more screen, more memory and so on.
Expensive, but could be worth it
Folding phones may be a lot more expensive again, but you are getting something significant and different for the extra money.
It is also more expensive than any tablet. The price seems especially high when, at first sight, it can’t do anything that can’t already be done with other, cheaper devices.
Even so, there are many people who can justify the expense because it opens new ways to work. Looking at documents while sitting on a train no longer means squinting at a tiny screen.
Travelling on business no longer means lugging a laptop. You can carry one less thing. There is less to charge, fewer cables to think about. And so on.
There will be a market for folding phones and not just among the geeks who have to buy every new toy.
The start of something bigger
If the idea takes off, it could be that most premium phones will have a similar folding format within a year or two.
Soon the difference between folding phones and everyday phones could be like the difference between smartphones and so-called featurephones.3
There were other foldable phones at MWC. I spotted a TCL model on the Alcatel stand. If the as-yet unnamed Oppo foldable phone was on show, I missed it as I ricocheted pass the company’s comparatively dull-looking stand. It features, with others, in this long report on foldables that debuted at the show.
Huawei’s Mate X is the first of its kind. If you’re old enough, think back to the first iPhone. That wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t cheap. And yet within a few years it evolved to become the must-have device of our times. This is the next generation.