Huawei Mate X: Up Close and Personal with the Futuristic 5G Foldable Smartphone

Huawei made headlines around the world this week after unveiling an intriguing new device during the Mobile World Congress technology conference in Spain: A 5G-enabled foldable smartphone that smoothly transforms into a tablet.

Initially, the firm's PR representatives stopped journalists from getting too close to the futuristic handset, but as MWC rumbled on, that changed. In a Monday press briefing, Newsweek had the chance to see the Mate X up close and personal. It remains an early build in limited production, but gives us a lucid glimpse of the future.

If you missed it, the Mate X pitch is simple: A two-in-one device that is technically competent, compact and able to handle the next generation of wireless capabilities. It is both a tablet and a smartphone, and if it works as intended, will perform as both with a quick bend.

The reveal of the Samsung Galaxy Fold last week, currently the closest competitor to the Mate X, left many wondering about the build quality of hinge mechanisms (i.e. the bendy section).

There was criticism of the small 4.6 inch front screen on the Fold, the large notch and the overall thickness of the device. Samsung's handset is 17 millimeters folded, Engadget reported. The major concern surrounded the hinge—it was clearly visible down the middle of the device.

The Mate X, in comparison, left a similar first impression but up close did not seem as egregious in this bend area as its rival. The screen—a flexible plastic OLED—was bright, with vivid colors. It responded quickly to prompts during a demo. For first-generation tech, it looked neat.

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But the fact remains that this is a premium and expensive device. The model advertised costs 2,299 euros ($2,614). For comparison, the Galaxy Fold is priced at $1,980. Before discussing specs, it is very important to set expectations—and Huawei knows it too.

"If you look at the previous generations, from 2G to 3G, 3G to 4G, 4G to 5G, every evolution should have a group of core tech early adopter," Huawei marketing director Clement Wong told Newsweek during a group media Q&A when asked why the pricing was so high.

"If you want to try something that is advanced on the market then you need to have a higher-priced product. It's the latest technology, the latest experience and everything is advanced so that is why [the cost is so high]. I think at the beginning, just like the previous generation of technology, we will definitely have early adopters who will buy this phone at the first wave."

Wong said it was partly the 5G internals that were a factor in the bendy device being so expensive, but conceded a cheaper price point was a possibility in the future. "If you want to try the latest technology on this planet you will pay that premium or price to get the product in your hand," the executive said. He showed us the Mate X up close. It was hard not to be impressed.

Huawei Mate X
The Huawei Mate X: Folded, it measures in at 11 mm thick. Unfolded, it is 5.4 mm. The hinge mechanism is know as Falcon Wing. The high-end devices, released this summer, will cost around $2,600. Newsweek

At MWC, the main talking points were very clearly 5G and foldable phones. Every brand was boasting innovations in the area of 5G, despite the fact the infrastructure needed to bolster the leap in wireless capabilities doesn't really exist.

Talking to Newsweek, one rep from South Korean electronics firm LG who was showing off a 5G-enabled device, the V50 ThinQ, admitted "full 5G" was still years away for most. As a result of the reliance on hype and marketing, it was easy to be skeptical of the lofty claims.

What was obvious, however, was the attraction to the foldables. Perhaps intentionally, one Huawei booth in MWC's bustling Hall 3 was a mere stone's throw from Samsung's vast stage area, where the Galaxy S10 was sitting proudly on display. Both sections were buzzing.

Over the two days Newsweek attended, people were continually gawking at the handsets. The Mate X was visible through clear glass. The Galaxy Fold was obstructed by strong lighting.

The Mate X'plained

Aesthetically, the Mate X looks snug compared to its main rival—which appeared slightly chunky during its global reveal on February 20.

When folded (kept in place with a hatch button) the Mate X has a screen size of 6.6 inches. When in tablet form, the bendable OLED screen expands to 8 inches.

On Huawei's device, there was no sign of gaps when viewed up close in a folded position. When folded, the Mate X is 11 millimeters thick. Unfolded, it is 5.4 millimeters thick.

The hinge itself uses a system that Huawei has christened Falcon Wing. The details were kept under wraps but it reportedly took three years to engineer. Transitions looked smooth when demonstrated in front of our eyes. The Mate X snaps into place with a subtle click.

Unlike Samsung's product, the Mate X does not look like two handsets stuck together. Instead of closing like a book, the Huawei screen bends back on itself and clips into place.

On the right hand side of the device, to the rear, a panel that stretches the full length of the handset stores a 5G antenna and the Leica 3-camera setup. The power button doubles as a fingerprint scanner. When folded, a mirror-style picture mode that takes advantage of the dual screen setup lets a subject view themselves as an image is being taken. Although at this point it will only be subjects with significant disposable income who will get to enjoy the luxury.

Huawei Mate X
When folded, the Huawei Mate X (pictures) has a 6.6-inch screen. When in tablet form, the bendable OLED screen is 8-inches. Newsweek

Inside the Mate X sits a 4,500 milliamp Hour battery supporting a supercharge feature. The company says the battery can reach 85 percent charge in 30 minutes. The Chinese tech giant is becoming well-known for making devices with serious power reserves. The P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro can both survive for nearly two days on a full charge. Hopefully the Mate X is no different.

Also hidden in the guts of the device is the "world's first" 5G multi-mode modem chipset, Balong 5000. This quickly gets technical, but in short Huawei said once the telecom infrastructure is rolled out a 1 gigabyte movie could be downloaded in three seconds.

Huawei appeared reluctant to provide hands-on time without restrictions. While it could be seen as a sign for concern by critics, it is likely because the device is still early in production and there are kinks to work through. Furthermore, some consumer tech websites, including The Verge, Stuff and Expert Reviews, appear to have been given a little more wriggle room to briefly fondle the foldable. For the most part, journalists appeared to have left with positive impressions. Huawei's PR representatives assured Newsweek that additional hands-on access would soon be given.

In terms of downsides (aside from the eye-watering price of entry) it remains unclear how the software handles the multitasking options a foldable phone demands. In theory, users should be able to have a web browser, a map and an email client open and working at the same time.

But it remains untested how smooth the experience will be. Huawei said some issues were still being worked out, which is why the release is scheduled for months from now. The Mate X is expected to release in mid 2019, but the date is unconfirmed.

In one media presentation on Monday, a slideshow had an email client on one side and a gallery of images on the other. But it was not clear if a drag-and-drop option was currently available.

Huawei Mate X
Visitors take a picture to new Huawei Mate X at the Huawei booth on day 2 of the GSMA Mobile World Congress 2019 on February 26, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. David Ramos/Getty Images

The biggest obstacle, cost aside, may be market demand. Foldable phones have been teased for years now—but it remains unclear it consumers actually have a desire to pocket them daily.

Until now, tablets and smartphones have typically existed as separate products. Foldable phone makers are betting that users want an option that works as a dual-purpose alternative. It will either pay off, or the market could dictate that the products are a craze without a future.

Last year, analysts confirmed that Huawei overtook Apple to become the second largest phone maker in the world. That is despite a rejection from the U.S., where political and security concerns have left the company shunned from telecoms and government networks.

The spotlight on 5G networks, where the Chinese company appears to be rushing ahead of its competitors, won't help the U.S. to welcome the company into its embrace any time soon.

In the face of strong political opposition, the company is still innovating. Ahead of OnePlus, it was the first to release an on-screen fingerprint sensor on a smartphone. And the P30 Pro, teasing new camera tech, is also on the horizon. (In fact, it was spotted lurking at MWC). The Mate X, if it works, could be another reason to leave that iPhone in the Apple Store without looking back.

While it is far from guaranteed that foldables have a profitable future, they are at the very least intriguing. And these days, that remains more than enough to stand out from the crowd.

Full disclosure: This journalist's trip to Mobile World Congress was funded by Huawei PR. The journalist attended pre-briefings and was given access to some new products prior to their release.

Huawei Mate X: Up Close and Personal with the Futuristic 5G Foldable Smartphone | U.S.