Samsung's Galaxy Fold and Huawei's Mate X are here, offering two different takes on foldable phones. Both were made to inspire, and to transform the way we think about phones. These aren't yet everyday devices, but they could set the course for a move toward foldable phones instead of the large-screen models that are too big for your pocket today.
Hype for foldable phones has mounted for a year, setting up 2019 as the start of a revolution in smartphone design. A screen that bends in half feels wildly futuristic, and can also double your screen real estate while keeping the device half the size as you carry it around. But early flaws with the Galaxy Fold's screen and fears over the sturdiness of the phones' hinge have dampened enthusiasm for these radical devices.
The ability to bend a flexible screen in half is a hallmark of these early foldable phones, but the similarities stop there. Their screens bend in opposite directions. Their cameras are in different places, too. And these differences between the Galaxy Fold and Mate X matter because they change the way you use each foldable device.
Foldable phones are expensive, exclusive and hard to find -- you can buy the $1,980 Fold in the US, UK and South Korea, and the Mate X in China for roughly $2,400, or 16,999 yuan. (The $1,500 Motorola Razr goes on preorder sale beginning Dec 26.) Let's dig in.
Screen style: Galaxy Fold is an innie. Mate X is an outie
The biggest, most visible difference between the Fold and the Mate X comes down to the way they fold. Samsung's 7.3-inch foldable plastic screen lives on the inside. You access it by opening the Fold like a book. Its plastic inner screen is protected by the outer part of the handset, which includes a glass "cover" with a smaller display you can use when the phone closes up.
Then there's the Mate X. Huawei's 8-inch plastic display wraps around the outside of the device, where it's used in three different ways. The Mate X screen shapeshifts depending on how you hold it. Now you have a "front" screen", the next minute you're using it fully open. Flip it and you've got a rear screen, too.
As CNET Senior Editor Andrew Hoyle said about the Mate X, "The way the screen bends back around on itself, without any kind of distortion to the images, is awesome and I love the way the interface -- no matter what you're looking at -- instantly resizes into the correct aspect ratio."
Huawei Mate X: Our best look yet at the foldable phoneSee all photos
Using the Mate X this way instantly gives you more flexibility than the Fold. Samsung's phone has a small outer display, which is really too cramped to effectively use. It feels more like working off a tablet that you can conveniently close, while the Mate X makes you feel like you're on a big-screen phone you can open into a bigger screen. With a twist of the wrist, you get a lot more usable screen any way you hold it.
The one downside -- the Mate X's display is exposed to the world, constantly endangering it to scratches, nicks and damaging pressure. This could be an enormous liability. We just won't know until we have the Mate X long enough to test and observe, certainly longer than just a full day.
Galaxy Fold screens:
- 4.6-inch exterior
- 7.3-inch interior screen
Huawei Mate X 'screens':
- 8-inch OLED display
- In "closed" position, front screen is 6.6 inches
- In "closed" position, rear screen is 6.38 inches
- Lit-up screen switches as you turn the phone
Crease versus crease
When foldable phones first appeared, the uproar was immediate: What's with the crease that runs down the center of the bending screen? Unfortunately for foldable phones, a bump where the screen goes slack when the phone's unfolded just comes with the territory -- at least for now.
The Galaxy Fold's crease is visible to the naked eye and you can feel it with your hand, but it's less noticeable when you're using the phone because you get sucked into what you're doing.
Surprisingly, the Mate X's slack screen looks and feels less creased. It's still there but acts as more of a bump than a valley, and that seems to make a difference.
Screen notch versus 'wing': The winner is clear
The whole point of these foldable phones is giving you one large, uninterrupted screen to use. Unfortunately, Samsung sticks a big, thumb-size notch on its 7.3-inch display that most definitely interrupts what you're doing. This eyesore houses two front-facing camera lenses and some sensors, but it takes up more space than it needs to.
Huawei's much smarter approach puts its cameras and sensors along a strip on the back. It's shaped like a curved "wing" that doubles as a handhold. This grip helps stabilize the Mate X when it's opened up in tablet form, making it easier to hold when you're typing away or watching a video.
Galaxy Fold redesign: Here's how Samsung fixed its foldable phoneSee all photos
All the cameras
Samsung gives its Galaxy Fold a total of six cameras: three on the back, two on the front and one on the cover. Is this confusing or helpful? One on hand, it's helpful because it means there are cameras available any time you want to snap a shot.
On the other hand, half these cameras are redundant. With the Mate X's cameras on its wing-shaped grip, you still have access to all the high-quality cameras you need, and you can use the screen as a view-finder for selfies, even when the phone's folded up.
Your selfies will arguably be even better since you're using the main 40-megapixel camera rather than the Fold's secondary 10-megapixel selfie cam. (Just remember, more megapixels aren't necessarily better.)
When Huawei first revealed the Mate X, the company said it would "turn on" a fourth time-of-flight sensor, but that wasn't apparent in the test unit we took around Paris on our day out with the device.
4G and 5G...what's the story?
If you buy the Galaxy Fold in the US, it's a 4G-only device. In the UK and South Korea, it'll work with 5G right out of the box. The Mate X comes in one configuration: 5G.
Does it matter? Not really. 5G networks in the US are still finding their feet, so a 5G phone offers little advantage. Since the Mate X doesn't sell outside China (where 5G is also slowly rolling out), the debate here is also fairly academic.
What about the apps?
Ah, yes. The apps. Samsung's foldable phone runs Android 9 and lets you use any Android app on both the outer screen and the large inner screen, so you're golden there.
The Mate X was supposed to launch with Android 9 when it sold in Europe. In fact, pricing was initially announced in euros (2,300 of them). But Huawei's plans have changed. The target of a US ban, Huawei is cut off from doing business with any US company, including those its usual software and hardware suppliers.
That means the Mate X can't use mainstream Android or any of its Google Play services or apps. While there are some workarounds that can basically use the open-source version of Google's mobile OS, you wouldn't be able to access your usual complement of apps, and that's a problem for anyone outside of China, where Google's software isn't used anyway.
What comes next
The Galaxy Fold and Mate X will never be big sellers. They were never meant to be. Samsung and Huawei know that the prices are too high and the design and materials too experimental for the masses to switch from traditional smartphones to these newfangled gadgets.
But they are meant to be aspirational and inspirational. Attention-grabbing. Mind-bogglingly cool. Consider them proofs-of-concept you can actually buy if you really wanted to. Samsung and Huawei will learn from the Fold and the Mate X -- and from the rival Motorola Razr -- and experiment with new designs.
Hopefully, Samsung will be able to streamline its camera situation and figure out how to give you more use of the screen when the phone is closed. And Huawei could pick up some tips on protecting that fragile plastic display. Its phones are as good as dead if they can't find a way to put Google services on its phones outside the Chinese market.
Each has lessons to learn from the other, and that can only improve the next wave of these early, awkward and fascinating foldable phones.
Galaxy Fold vs. Mate X
||Samsung Galaxy Fold||Huawei Mate X|
|Display size, resolution||4.6-inch Super AMOLED; 7.3-inch QXGA+ Dynamic AMOLED||6.6-inch (2,480x1,148 pixels); 6.38-inch (2,480x892); 8-inch OLED (2,480x2,200)|
|Mobile software||Android 9.0 with Samsung One UI||No Android on the Chinese model|
|Camera||12-megapixel main, 16-megapixel ultra wide-angle, 12-megapixel telephoto||40-megapixel main, 16-megapixel ultra-wide, 8-megapixel telephoto|
|Front-facing camera||Two 10-megapixel, 8-megapixel 3D depth||Same as above|
|Processor||Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 855||Kirin 980 processor|
|Battery||4,380 mAh||4,500 mAh|
|Fingerprint sensor||Power button||Power button|
|Special features||Foldable display, wireless charging, fast charging, 5G in select countries||Foldable display, fast charging, 5G|
|Price off-contract (USD)||$1,980, £1,900, converts to AU$2,800||16,999 yuan, converts to $2,400, £1,830 or AU$3,546|
Originally published earlier this year. Updated with new impressions.