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Phones

Galaxy Fold, Huawei Mate X: Foldable phones are so tantalizingly close

Commentary: Foldables are stunning. Now if only the masses could get their hands on these cutting-edge devices.

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I'm one of the rare reporters who got a chance to play with the Huawei Mate X. Behind the phone: Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's consumer business.

Roger Cheng/CNET

Samsung last week spent nearly 15 minutes on stage showing us slick concept videos and stills of its Galaxy Fold smartphone. The amount of time we actually got to see the real thing: Less than two minutes.

At MWC Barcelona over the weekend, I actually got to handle the Huawei Mate X. At a press briefing ahead of its unveiling, most got about a foot away from it.

TCL's portfolio of concept foldable devices sat behind a glass cover. Xiaomi's impressive demo video remains just a video.

Welcome to the foldable phone revolution. For now, it's mostly look, but no touch.

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These brief glimpses of the various foldable smartphones underscore the desperate race to be the first to the finish line with a device. But in trying to one-up each other, these companies are taking a rushed approach, offering fleeting glimpses of their products and padding their presentations with polished – and heavily controlled – rendered videos and photos.

It's admirable that these companies are so eager to forge a path toward the next big innovation in phones, a category that has, frankly, gotten boring. And from everything we've seen of these phones, they're impressive. Just a few years ago, watching a phone display fold in on itself would've been unthinkable. Now, there are multiple companies looking to churn them out.

The key operative word, for most people, is "seen." The public hasn't had any real time with these devices, and these teases are not doing foldable phones any favors. Almost immediately, the hype over the Galaxy Fold transformed into skepticism. After Samsung wrapped up its stage presentation and opened up its demo area, the Galaxy Fold – the star of the show – was conspicuously absent.

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While they may fascinate gadget enthusiasts – and maybe the 1 percenters? – it's still going to be a hard sell, especially if the phones are going for $2,000 or more.

Keep in mind, just two years ago, we all thought a $1,000 phone was ridiculous.

"There will be initial skepticism over foldable form-factor smartphones in terms of pricing, pocketability and usability," said Neil Shah, an analyst at Counterpoint Research, noting that some of the early entrants from smaller, aggressive Chinese players could end up hurting the category in the short run.

Blink and you'll miss it

Samsung's Unpacked event last week wasn't just a tease for the Galaxy Fold -- it was the lead product. That the company opted not to give anyone too close a view of the device invited speculation that the Galaxy Fold still needs a lot of work.

Admittedly, there's time. There's reportedly another event being planned and the phone launches on April 26.

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The Galaxy Fold made a real impression when it launched.

CNET

It makes me wonder if the device still has the kind of flaws that plagued the Royole Flexpai – promising hardware beset by buggy software that wasn't quite ready to handle the new design.

Samsung didn't comment on the manner of the launch but noted that the press would get a closer look at the devices at its booth at MWC. CNET got a booth tour, but no press got to hold the phone. It also released additional video of the device.

Then there was the Huawei Mate X. The Chinese phone maker, battling increased skepticism about the security of its networking equipment, aimed to wow at MWC with its foldable phone.

But at a pre-briefing on Saturday, journalists lined up on one side of a roped-off area and watched a Huawei employee hand-model the device. After a few minutes, another group filed into position.

While I was repeatedly warned that I wouldn't be able to handle the device, Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's consumer business, handed it to me ahead of an interview with a few journalists.

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This is the closest most people got to the Mate X.

Roger Cheng/CNET

"You can see it for yourself," Yu said when I asked about the limited time that people got with these phones and how that might some to wonder if it's ready for the market. "I've been using it for a while."

Admittedly, the Mate X worked pretty well in my hands, despite a bit of stiffness when I folded and unfolded it. Yu said if it weren't for the need to build out 5G networks, he could ship the Mate X today.

A day later, CNET editor Jessica Dolcourt got to use it and shared her impressions. Other journalists have since used the phone. 

TCL likewise offered something to put our hands on, but they consisted of early prototypes that showed off its DragonHinge mechanism. They were largely pieces of plastic and metal, with the displays just printed paper to mimic an Android home page. The more polished prototypes were protected by glass.

TCL isn't planning to enter into the foldable phone market this year, executives told CNET in January. But the company wanted to show the industry what it could do.

"This is about being patient enough to deliver something meaningful," said TCL spokesman Jason Gerdon. "At the same time, we're conscious of the fact that a lot of other manufacturers are racing to be first, we are cognizant of that hype factor. "

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Time will tell

The limited face time with these devices, wrapped up in a slick presentation, has me skeptical about these devices and the immediate future of foldable smartphones.

I've already listed the reasons why you're probably not going to buy a Galaxy Fold. Indeed, questions about durability, battery life and app support will need to be addressed. But this category is a potential game changer and needs time to develop.

I just hope that in the rush to be first with a foldable phone, these companies actually make a product that works as promised, setting the groundwork for iterative improvements down the line. Yu said that it'll take around two years before prices for foldable phones get down to the level of mainstream phones, and bad first impressions are hard to fix.

On the flip side, you can point to one notable device that made its public debut despite needing a lot of work: the original iPhone. The phone reportedly dropped calls and froze with disturbing frequency in the days before the actual launch event.

But ultimately, the iPhone changed everything, from the way we interact with technology to the intimate role it plays in our lives. More than a decade later, everyone has a smartphone that evolved out of that first fledgling demo phone.

Maybe a decade from now, we'll have phones that flex, bend and stretch every which way. Given the excitement and investment in this area, it's a future I can clearly see.

I just can't touch it yet.

The story originally ran at 5 a.m. PT on Feb. 25.

Update, at Feb. 26: To include additional details and background throughout.
Update, at Feb. 27: To include additional background.