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.
Roger ChengFormer Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
ExpertiseMobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social MediaCredentials
SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
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.
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.
Welcome to the foldable phone revolution. For now, it's mostly look, but no touch.
Watch this: Huawei Mate X is a foldable phone with 5G
These brief glimpses of the various foldable
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.
Huawei Mate X triple threat: Foldable phone with 5G, lots of cameras
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.
It makes me wonder if the device still has the kind of flaws that plagued the
– 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
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.
"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
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.
"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. "
Watch this: Galaxy Fold: Samsung reveals more about its foldable phone
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.
Close up with the Galaxy Fold's original screen, notch and hinge
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.