MWC 2019: After going hands-on with the Huawei Mate X, I'm ready for the foldable future

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

There are so many unknowns surrounding foldable phones, and the Huawei Mate X is no different.

We still don't know how much it'll cost when it makes it to Australia. We don't know whose 5G networks it'll run on. We don't know how robust the software experience will be. We don't know the exact specifications of the triple-lens camera on the Mate X and we don't know how the futuristic design will hold up to the wear of everyday life.

One thing I do know, however, is that after having the opportunity to hold the Mate X and see how its unique form-factor changes the experience, I'm feeling a whole lot more confident about the future of flexible smartphones.

Off the back of Samsung revealing the Galaxy Fold, expectations were high that this year's Mobile World Congress would be dominated by similar such devices. And, to a degree, it was. Huawei unveiled the Mate X, Oppo teased their their take, TCL laid the ground for their own affordable alternatives, LG launched the dual-screen V50 ThinQ and the Royole Flexpai made a return. Even Energizer look set to cash on the excitement around the category. Foldables were everywhere at this year's Mobile World Congress.

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

But it was all for show. Look. Don't touch. And that was really frustrating to see. These are some of the most expensive smartphones I have ever seen in my life. And if you're seriously thinking about purchasing one, you should be seriously concerned about the reluctance of vendors to let media and attendees go hands-on and see what the experience of using one of these actually like.

Honestly, if Huawei hadn't given us the chance to mess with the Mate X, I'd be just as skeptical about it. But, behind closed doors, they did. Though my hands-on session with the Mate X was a little awkward (I was crammed into a room with five or so other journos and told we could only take photographs of the device if it was in the hands of select Huawei representatives) the actual experience of using the Mate X was dazzling and compelling in a way that smartphones usually aren't.

We've already covered the specs of the unit in our coverage of the initial announcement, so I'll skip straight to the good stuff.

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

When used as a you would a normal smartphone, the Mate X feels surprisingly nice. It's a little thicker than my regular Mate 20 Pro, to be sure. But it's pretty comparable in terms of feel and form-factor. The curved edges of the display offered just enough grip that I was never worried about it slipping through my fingers.

The one downside I could see here was that, when used as a normal smartphone, the Mate X is a pretty large smartphone. If you prefer smaller handsets, I could see this being something of a deal-breaker. Hopefully, as foldable smartphones become more mature, this changes.

Then, unfolded, the Mate X makes for an incredibly slick tablet. Pretty much as soon as you fold, the software running the Mate X switches from smartphone mode to tablet. Apps will load in the format that makes the most sense, which is smart. It doesn't "solve" the issues or questions surrounding software compatibility but it does make the most of it. It'll be interesting to see if foldables like the Mate X drive additional software investment into the wider Android tablet ecosystem.

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

One thing that should be noted here is that the Mate X does appear to be slightly limited in its multitasking. Our demo saw the Mate X handle two applications pretty well but Samsung's Galaxy Fold can handle up to three applications at once. I'm not 100% certain that fitting three applications onto the Mate X's 8-inch display would be a particularly thrilling experience but it should be said that Samsung seem to have considered this possibility where Huawei haven't.

The Huawei Mate X feels a little lighter than most tablets but the fully unfurled OLED screen is gorgeous to behold. It falcon hinge design allows for a comfortable grip. on the unit. Colors and images look bright, even if they do have a little bit of a plastic sheen to them, and the audio playback on the unit wasn't too shabby either.

The Mate X's squared aspect ratio does raise questions about video playback but, to my surprise, the haptic feedback on the Mate X's virtual keyboard made typing on it a pretty compelling experience. Obviously, it's not as tactile as a real keyboard. But I could absolutely see myself doing real work on this thing - though I'll have to wait to find out for sure.

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

Finally, the triple-lens camera on the hinge of the Mate X seems like a super powerful point of difference. When I spoke to representatives at Leica during the launch of the Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro last year, they emphasized the impact that even a little bit of extra physical space could have in terms of what their mobile camera setups can offer. Given that Huawei are remaining quiet on the exact specifications of the Mate X's triple-lens camera, I'm curious to see how it compares to the brand's prior industry-leading efforts.

Though there are sure to be plenty of growing pains along the way and the category does desperately need to address its affordability problems, Huawei's Mate X feels like the future. And even if I can't afford it, I can't wait.

Disclosure - PC World Australia's coverage of this year's MWC in Barcelona was sponsored by Oppo who covered the costs of our flights and accommodation.

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