3 obstacles that folding phones like the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X need to overcome

The next big things could have next big problems.

Credit: Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

In just a few months, the first folding phones will be available for sale, and if you have a couple thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket, you can buy one for your very own. But while those first few buyers will be the talk of the town, the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X might not be as top-of-the-line as their price tag would suggest.

While they certainly represent an advancement in overall smartphone technology and an exciting new direction for the future, in some ways, folding phones are a step backward from the premium phone we’re used to using. Here are three areas of concern I have as the folding revolution takes shape:

Display quality

When opened, Samsung’s Fold is 4.2:3 with a 7.3-inch QXGA+ resolution somewhere around 2152x1536, while the Mate X offers an 8-inch 8:7.1 display with a 2480x2200 resolution. On the outside, Huawei’s main screen is a 6-inch 19.5:9 2480 x 1148 display while the Fold has a tiny 4.6-inch 1960x840 12:9 display. That means we’re gong to have to learn all new ways to hold these unconventionally shaped phones, and apps might look a little funky at the start.

huawei mate x open Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Mate X's display is packed with pixels, but its glossy finish feels strange to the touch.

But beyond the ratios, the screens themselves look and feel a little weird. If I didn’t see the Mate X for my own eyes, I’d think the screen was a high-quality printout—it’s that glossy. And touching it was equally weird. While it doesn’t feel cheap per se, I could definitely feel that it wasn’t a completely flat screen like a tablet. Scrolling and tapping worked pretty much as expected, but the tactile sensation was quite a bit different than it is on a phone like the Galaxy S10.

And I don’t know if it’s the thinness, the flexibility, or just my imagination, I swear I could feel the ridges and imperfections as my finger moved across the display. The Mate X display feels more like plastic than glass, so much so that I was afraid I would dent it if I pressed too hard. I’m sure Samsung and Huawei will go through countless revisions of their displays before they find a manufacturing method that’s feels right, but these earliest models will definitely show some growing pains.

samsung galaxy fold seam middle cr resized Samsung

We all saw the seam during the Galaxy Fold demo.

And then there’s the seam. Both companies have gone to considerable lengths to hide the center of their folding display in product shots and display units, but it’s definitely there. We saw it during the Samsung Unpacked demo, and I saw it during my hands-on with the Mate X. And I have to assume it’ll only get worse with repeated folds. Display durability is definitely an area of concern with these early folding phones, and the fact that seams are already visible isn’t a comforting sign.

Battery life

Both of these folding phones have big dual batteries—4,380mAh on the Fold and 4,500mAH on the Mate X—but they aren’t mind-blowingly big. In fact, the 6.6-inch Galaxy S10 5G has a 4,500mAh battery on its own, and that battery only needs to power a 6.7-inch display, significantly smaller than either of the folding phones’ largest formats. And that’s before we factor in the strain of switching screens, sensors, and 5G.

huawei mate x inside Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

There are two batteries in the Mate X, but both are pretty small.

So it’s nearly certain that these folding phones will have less battery life than the flagships we’re used to, and possibly significantly less. To compensate, Huawei has built 55W SuperCharge into the Mate X and Samsung allows for wireless charging on the Galaxy Fold, but anyone looking to get a day of use out of either phone before charging is going to be disappointed. We’ve reached a point where we’re pretty much able to leave out chargers at home, but despite costing thousands of dollars, these new folding phones might very well turn us into “wall-huggers” again.

User experience

My biggest concern with folding phones has less to do with design, fragility or even longevity, and more to do with the real-world benefit of these early phones. We might all want to run and see one as soon as they end up in stores, but my question is: Are they really giving us the best of both worlds?

huawei mate x browser Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Mate X is certainly bigger when opened, but are we really gaining that much over a flaship phablet?

With the Samsung's version, you’re going from a 6.4-inch display in the Galaxy S10 to a 4.6-inch one in the Fold. And on the inside, you get a 7.3-inch display, which is only about a half-inch bigger than the S10 5G. The Mate X is a little better with an 8-inch display, but the outside screen already offers a full six-inch workspace. So you’re really only gaining 2 inches by opening it, which isn’t really worth it in most situations. Huawei even admitted that they expect people will use it closed most of the day.

So while it’ll be cool to try out these phones and learn their new tricks, I wonder just how useful they will be. Samsung’s triple-multitasking is a good start, but there needs to be a real reason to jump from the small screen to a big one. We don't pick up a tablet because we want a little more screen, we use one because it offers a better experience for getting things done. I'm not sure we can say the same for folding phones.

Folding displays need to be more than gimmicks and party tricks. Once we get past the cool factor, there needs to be a real productivity boost when jumping to the larger screen, and I’m not sure the Galaxy Fold and Mate X are there just yet.

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Michael Simon

Michael Simon

PC World (US online)
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