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(Pocket-lint) - Update: Check out the updated version of this handset, the Mate Xs

In the current foldable phone market there are two opposing schools of thought: either the screen folds inwards, protected from the outside case, or it folds outwards and has the screen constantly exposed on the outside. The former is the method used by Samsung's first phone, the Galaxy Fold. The latter is the chosen method of Huawei, among other Chinese manufacturers. 

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and so which of the two you like will almost certainly come down to your own priorities. But then again, neither company is without its controversies. Samsung's Galaxy Fold launch was delayed due to issues with durability, while Huawei hasn't been out of the news for a while thanks to its issues working with US companies following the trade restrictions. 

Either way, we're now looking at an October launch for the Huawei Mate X, and we were able to get more time with it while out in Berlin for IFA 2019. 

Stunning folder

  • Unfolded - 161.3 x 146.2 x 5.4 mm
  • Folded - 161.3 x 78.3 x 11 mm
  • Roughly 295 grams
  • Release button for unfolding
  • Leather case

Folded up, from the front the Mate X has the appearance of a large regular smartphone, and that's arguably the Huawei method's biggest advantage over the Galaxy Fold. It's still very much usable as a smartphone even when it's closed, that full screen on the front doesn't pose the limitations that Samsung's outer screen might. 

Of course, this poses an issue when it comes to durability. Since there's no flexible glass on the market yet, current foldable smartphones rely on a transparent polymer covered by a protective film, similar to a screen protector. And that means that when it's shut, there's potential for that folded edge to be exposed to the elements, and that includes any rough impurities in your pocket, inevitably leading to scuffing; which is why Huawei is supplying the Mate X with a gorgeous leather case. 

In appearance, it doesn't look too dissimilar to the type of soft leather case you might get for your sunglasses. In fact, it's just about the right size for sunglasses too (we were curious, so we tried it). It's soft, and slim, feels great in the hand and has a large magnetic portion inside the flap, to keep it securely fastened when shut, while also making it easy to open and get to your phone than if it had a clasp or fastener of some kind. 

What we liked about the Huawei Mate X is that with the phone unfolded and opened up in its larger form factor, using the full square screen, the hinge feels surprisingly sturdy and solid, like it locks into place and stays relatively rigid, and needs a little force to fold it back up again. That means you don't have to worry about the phone wobbling or feeling fragile when you're using it this way. 

The resistance offered by the hinge also means that it does need a little catch to hold it in place when folded, coupled with a release button which - when pressed - releases the display. Once released, the screen springs out part of the way, and then needs unfolding manually into its open, flat position. In use, it's addictively clicky when pressed. So much so, we found ourselves repeatedly releasing, clicking the screen back in place and releasing it, over and over again (sorry Huawei). Let's just hope it's built to last. 

Pocket-lintHuawei Mate X folding image 8

This release button is placed on the protruding tab that runs all the way down the back of the phone, roughly 10mm wide, and also features the few camera lenses and the LEICA branding and LED flash. But it's not just a protrusion for storing all these pieces of external hardware, it's actually quite a convenient slim handle to hold the phone when it's opened up. It's an easy way to get a grip on what is a relatively large device when unfolded, almost reminding us a little of the Kindle Oasis

Folded, it's large. A little too large to comfortably use one-handed, and a device that you'll definitely notice in your pocket. Having a screen folded double on itself does make for quite a chunky phone, but it's one equipped with the ports and buttons in similar positions to what we've become accustomed to over the past few years. That means a power button, which also doubles as the fingerprint sensor, and a volume rocker on the right edge.  The Type-C port is built into the bottom edge of that protruding "handle", with the speaker grille in the bottom edge of the screen, and the SIM tray at the top edge. 

One screen or two? 

  • 8-inch - OLED based panel
  • Unfolded - 2,200 x 2,480 resolution
  • Folded primary screen - 1148 x 2480 resolution

As we've mentioned previously, one of the big positives of the Huawei Mate X is its approach to that big flexible display. It's one single big, flexible panel which transforms into a single, more traditional smartphone-looking display, and that's pretty clever. It has physical straight bezels along its top, right and bottom edges, but when the phone is folded, it creates a virtual frame along the left edge to automatically match that straight bezel on the right, creating this a long, vertical rectangle screen. 

Pocket-lintHuawei Mate X folding image 6

In this folded state, it's a 19.5:9 ratio AMOLED display with a resolution that you'd expect from a flagship phone. On first impressions, it's actually pretty good, even though it's not coated with your usual solid Gorilla Glass exterior. In fact, to the finger, it just feels like a regular screen with a film protector on it. Colours seem vibrant, details are sharp and the whites are clean. 

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Of course, once open, it's a completely different experience altogether. The screen transforms from a 19.5:9 long rectangle into a more square aspect ratio, essentially turning into a tablet of sorts. In this form, it's an 8-inch panel boasting a resolution of 2,200 x 2,480. 

One of our concerns going into our hands-on time was with the crease or uneven display once opened up. Stretching the screen around the edge closed, then released to form a "flat" square panel is going to leave its mark, especially on a panel with no glass on it. Thankfully, it's a concern that didn't turn into a major worry during our use. 

Using the screen head-on, the bump (or crease) is barely perceptible when you're using apps, the browser, or watching a video directly face on. Look at it from an angle, especially when the screen's not overly bright or ambient light is reflecting off it, and you'll definitely see something of a bump. 

If you're the actual user though, you're more than likely just going to be impressed by all that extra screen real estate you get. It becomes a much bigger camera viewfinder, or a browser window that shows a lot more of the web page you're looking at. It also means being able to see more of the stock apps, so you can see the Settings menu main list, while your deep diving into the sub categories, or viewing your inbox while reading an email. 

We haven't had enough time to bring you a full and complete critique of the screen, but it's actually been rather good in the short amount of time we got with it. 

High performance hardware

  • Kirin 980 processor (plans to upgrade to 990)
  • 8GB RAM - 512GB storage
  • 5G support
  • Quadruple camera system inc. ToF
  • 4,500 mAh battery with 55W fast charging

As you'd suspect from an expensive groundbreaking phone, it's equipped with a lot of powerful components. Its processor at launch will be the Kirin 980, Huawei's current most powerful processor, although the Kirin 990 has been announced and will eventually make its way to the Mate X in a slightly updated model. 

As well as powerful processing, Huawei will equip the phone with plenty of memory and storage. We didn't get to see exactly how much storage or RAM was in the model we were able to try, Huawei has announced that it will come with 8GB RAM and 512GB of storage. It's also going to be a 5G device, so you'll get the fastest cellular data speeds on networks that support it. 

And while the 4,500 mAh battery capacity might seem a little low for a device with a big screen like this, Huawei's software is often incredibly battery efficient. It also charges using a 55W fast charger, which is really quick, and will negate any battery anxiety you might have. 

Pocket-lintHuawei Mate X unfolded image 3

On the back, there's a set of cameras almost exactly the same as what we've seen on Huawei's normal flagships. There are four cameras in total. Three are your usual primary camera, an ultra-wide camera and the telephoto zoom camera. The fourth is the time of flight camera for depth sensing and distance measuring. As you'd suspect, the camera takes advantage of Huawei's AI power, just like its other premium devices. 

We didn't get anywhere near enough time to judge using the camera or its results, but given that it's much the same as Huawei's recent traditional smartphones, we suspect it's a rather good system. 

Software wise, the phone runs on Android, with Huawei's EMUI skin running on top. Of course, it's slightly different to usual in that it's had to be optimised for the unfolded 8-inch square display. In this instance, it's EMUI 9 based on Android Pie, but we suspect with the phone launching relatively soon that it won't be long before it's updated to Android 10 and EMUI 10. 

First Impressions

Huawei was one of the first to show off its foldable smartphone, the Mate X is an exciting start. Yes it's big and chunky, and it'll undoubtedly take time to mature into a product that most consumers will want to use, but it's a very promising device and form factor with tonnes of potential. 

We suspect with this particular model that the price tag is almost impossible to swallow for most average consumers, and maybe even for the tech-enthused early adopter. But if Huawei works on the form, makes it smaller, polishes the software to make it a killer experience, and brings the price down, you may just start to see it in a few more hands. 

Writing by Cam Bunton. Originally published on 8 September 2019.