Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Thought Leadership, Speed Desk and How-To. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds.
Jessica led CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
ExpertiseContent strategy, team leadership, audience engagement, iPhone, Samsung, Android, iOS, tips and FAQs.
Last week, Samsung and Huawei announced the $1,980 Galaxy Fold and $2,600 Mate X foldable phones, respectively. I gawked along with everyone else, absorbing every detail I could, but it wasn't until I spent a good 5 minutes playing around with the Mate X in a cramped, stuffy meeting room at MWC 2019 that the appeal of foldable devices sunk in on a much deeper level. Not every foldable phone design will be a revelation, but for me, opening and closing the Mate X was.
Phones aren't just specs. They're physical things we constantly hold and carry close. They're emotional, too, provoking a sense of loss and vulnerability if they're stolen or damaged. Phone designs can elicit strong reactions of love and hate as well. While I'm not convinced about anything until I get a chance to really use the Mate X, I now understand how a foldable phone could fit into everyday life (of course, at a much cheaper price).
Foldable phones are shaking up the industry with a daring design that effectively doubles the amount of screen space you have to use on your phone while still making the device small enough to carry around. Because foldable phones are phone-tablet hybrids, they can command a higher price, which opens up an important revenue stream at the top end for companies looking to make a greater profit in a slowing market.
But this new era of bendable screens also represents the Wild West of phone design: A phone could fold inward or outward, down the center or on two sides, or even bend back around your wrist like a watch. At this early stage, companies are working out what a foldable phone means. Right now, anything goes.
wants its turn in the foldable phone spotlight, and with the Mate X, it makes a convincing -- but expensive -- audition. The main competition: Samsung's Galaxy Fold phone, which has two screens, six cameras total and unfolds in the center to open into a 7.3-inch tablet. Huawei's Mate X -- that's pronounced "ex," not "ten" -- has three ways to use on 8-inch screen, four cameras (three you can see, one that's temporarily hidden) and an interesting design that gives you a grippable base for one-handed use.
When closed, the Mate X bends one big screen backward into two sides, treating each of those sides as a "screen" that lights up as you turn and move the device. Flip it upside down, turn it around, open it up, and the phone knows exactly where you are. It worked well in my brief time with the Mate X, but the hardware design itself is novel.
Where the Galaxy Fold, which I'm also dying to see, looks like two polished phones stacked together, the Mate X nestles into itself in a way that feels clever and fresh. Huawei shoved its cameras and essential components along a vertical sidebar, which it fashioned into a curve. When closed, the smaller part of the screen fits to this "falcon wing" curve. When open, Huawei describes this part as an "ergonomic handle," which helps explain why there's such a thick slab on the size that would otherwise feel out of place.
I probably wouldn't hold it solely by the grip -- it's a little narrow for that -- but it did feel fairly stable in my right hand, with my fingertips extended onto the back of the tablet for balance.
Watch this: Huawei Mate X is a foldable phone with 5G
The device itself feels fully formed. It's satisfyingly compact, secured when closed by two tiny magnets at the outer corners. When you want to unfold the Mate X, you press a textured hardware button that pops open a latch, then you apply a little pressure to ease the device open. It's not an especially smooth process, but the three or four times I opened and closed it, the motion didn't feel juddery or stiff. I'd describe it more as being intentional. It felt pretty sturdy, and pretty good.
For Huawei, the hinge is everything. A shorter hinge height and narrow gap at the bending end is the brand's way of lording its design over the Galaxy Fold, which looks like it has a larger loop-shaped gap when closed. The Fold also has a large notch on its right screen, where Huawei boasts about the Mate X's notchless edge-to-edge display (because all the cameras are on that grip).
Huawei Mate X triple threat: Foldable phone with 5G, lots of cameras
Although the Mate X I opened and closed is essentially a working prototype, the software worked fairly well. One benefit of lining up the four rear cameras is that they shoot everything, including selfies. Because the large screen wraps around the outside of the device, it means that the screen can light up for both the photographer and the subject. When Huawei's head of global marketing, Clement Wong, took a photo of me, I could see myself through the viewfinder, too. Not bad as a quick way to check if there's anything in my teeth.
I know some of you have asked about the screen itself. I was surprised at how slick the screen felt. Not exactly the same as glass, but my finger glided over it and I didn't feel any slower navigating around. I did ask about repairs and warranty, but Huawei isn't commenting on that yet.
But what about theseam?! A lot of you want to know if there's a visible line running down the center of foldable phones. This was a demo unit, and yeah, though I did see a bit of a ridge where the show unit puckered up, the phone still felt unified in tablet mode. Until screens are also stretchable, I'm not sure how any design that bends this way wouldn't have a little loose skin, like the outside of your elbow when you straighten your arm.
The phone isn't extraordinarily heavy, but the Galaxy S10 Plus I'm reviewing felt much lighter and smaller after I reluctantly handed the Mate X back. Although I didn't get a chance to slip it in my pocket, assuring the collective hyperventilation from Huawei's team, it'll surely be a tight squeeze. This is more a device you carry around like a tablet or laptop.
Huawei has also made a case that will cover the Mate X's sides and back in its folded form, leaving an open window for the 6.6-inch display. In some countries, the case might come in the box. The company wasn't showing that off in my one-on-one demo.
The Mate X has the Galaxy Fold outpaced when it comes to battery capacity, with a 4,500-mAh capacity split between two batteries, one on either side of the folding screen. Samsung's Galaxy Fold has a total of 4,380-mAh capacity available between its two lobes. As we know through testing, raw capacity gives you the upper hand, but we won't know which has better real-life performance until we test them side by side.
5G speeds are a big talking point for Huawei, and the Mate X uses the company's in-house Kirin 980 processor and Balong 5000 5G modem chip. Right now Huawei says that the Mate X will download content four times faster than the current 4G connection, so about 1GB in 3 seconds. The Oscar-nominated film Roma on Netflix is under 700MB to download, so that would theoretically download to the Mate X in roughly 2 seconds.
The 2,300 euro Mate X (that converts to $2,600, £2,000 or AU$3,660) is also 5G-ready, while the $1,980 Galaxy Fold will come in either 4G or
configurations. Huawei will start selling the Mate X in the middle of 2019, while Samsung's Galaxy Fold will be available for sale starting April 26. Huawei hasn't announced carrier partners just yet.
More Huawei Mate X specs
Screen configuration 1: 6.6-inch front display (2,480x1,148-pixel resolution)
Originally published Feb. 24. Update, Feb. 26: Multiple updates since original publication have clarified specs and added hands-on impressions; Feb. 28: Changed headline. March 3: Added more impressions.