Move over Samsung, Huawei’s foldable smartphone is an absolute stunner

Move over Samsung, Huawei’s foldable smartphone is an absolute stunner
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A single 8-inch wraparound display offers an alternative to the Galaxy Fold.

Hot on the heels of the announcement of Samsung's first foldable smartphone, the Galaxy Fold, Huawei is taking a swing at the form factor with the Huawei Mate X. Huawei is taking a totally different approach compared to Samsung—its putting the display on the outside of the phone instead of on the inside, and this comes with a number of pros and cons.

But first, the specs. The Mate X has a massive 8-inch 2480×2200 OLED display that wraps around the phone body. When open, that's a bigger screen than the Galaxy Fold, which is only7.3-inches. When closed, the Mate X's 8-inch display splits into a 6.6-inch, 2480 x 1148 display section on the front, and a 6.38-inch, 2480 x 892 section on the back. You can take your pick of front or back screen—both dwarf the 4.6-inch, ridiculously-bezel display on the front of the Galaxy Fold.

The lopsidedness of Huawei's folded displays is due to a vertical camera bar that runs along the back of the phone. This houses three cameras—a 40 MP main camera, a 16 MP wide-angle lens, and an 8 MP telephoto—and an LED flash, and a power button. It's also the only section of the phone that is 11mm thick, which gives you both a place to hold the device and provides room for bigger components like the USB-C port on the bottom and a side-mounted fingerprint scanner. There is still no room for a headphone jack, though.

 

For internals, you're getting all sorts of Huawei parts. A Huawei Kirin 980 SoC powers the device, along with 8GB of RAM, and 512GB of storage. 5G support is non-optional and provided by Huawei's new "Balong 5000" modem. Huawei is even pushing its own memory card format for expanding the memory. Instead of the standard MicroSD card, the Mate X support's Huawei's "Nano-Memory" (NM) Cards, a proprietary card format that matches the dimensions of a nano-SIM card. The idea is that Huawei can make a dual SIM tray, and the second card slot can be used for a SIM or memory card. Other phones already have a combo MicroSD and second SIM tray, but Huawei says its Nano cards are 45 percent smaller than an SD card.

There's a battery in each half of the phone, and together they add up to 4500mAh. The Mate X will do an incredible 55W quick charge with the included charger, which blasts out of the realm of smartphones and is a straight-up laptop charging scheme. Huawei says the phone can go from 0 to 85 percent in 30 minutes, and we believe it.

The pros and cons of the outside-screen design

So Samsung's Galaxy Fold puts the display on the inside of the device, and opens like a book, while Huawei puts a wraparound screen on the outside of the device. Which design is better? Of course, we'd have to spend some serious time with both devices to really decide, but we can make a few early assumptions based on the information that has come out so far.

In theory, Huawei's design seems a lot simpler and cheaper, while Samsung has multiple, extra components all over the place. Samsung's inside screen means you can't see it when the phone is closed, so it has a second, exterior screen. Huawei's exterior display means you see it when the phone is open or closed, so you only need the one display.

Huawei's design means it can also get away with its cameras pulling double duty. When closed, you can aim the camera at something in front of you and use the front screen as a viewfinder. For selfies, flip the phone over and use the rear screen, which is right next to the cameras. Huawei has three cameras on the camera bar, but those are just for extra shooting modes. If it wanted to, it could get away with a single camera lens. Samsung, on the other hand, has cameras everywhere. There are cameras on the front, cameras on the back, and cameras on the inside of the device. Since the company can't be sure which screen you would like to use a camera with, it put them on basically every surface of the phone.

I wish I could back up this "simpler and cheaper" theory with an actual lower price for the Huawei Mate X, but the $1980 Galaxy Fold looks like an absolute bargain in comparison. The Mate X comes with a breathtaking $2600 (€2,299) price tag, although the two devices are not quite comparable. The nearly $2000 Galaxy Fold price tag is for the 4G version, while the Mate X comes standard with 5G, not to mention the bigger display. The Fold will have a 5G version too, but we don't know how much it will cost.

Still, if we ignore the individual product differences and just look at these two designs as competing theories for the future of the smartphone, Huawei's outside-screen design seems a lot simpler. The problems come in when you consider the durability issues with the display.

Today all phones have displays on the outside, but they are protected with a scratch resistant glass. Glass isn't flexible, so a flexible display can't be covered in glass. These flexible displays are plastic, and plastic scratches. Huawei's website actually describes Mate X as having a "soft screen," which doesn't sound very scratch resistant to me. On the Galaxy Fold, the interior plastic display is protected when the device is closed. On the wraparound Mate X display, you are always placing the scratchable, plastic display face-down on a table. The display is just everywhere, so this is unavoidable. The display is going to have to slide across a table when you pick it up, and it's going to grind against the bits of sand and (if you're a monster) the car keys in your pocket. It seems like it's going to be very hard to not damage this display.

The other issue is what the screen looks like when it's open. Since these displays are flexible, they are not necessarily flat when you open them. The Royole Flexpai, which has a similar wraparound exterior display, actually has a bit of a wrinkle to it when it is open. A display wrapped tightly around a folded phone will have a bit of slack to it when it is open, and dealing with that is a challenge. Huawei is trying to mitigate this with a display panel that can "bend and stretch," and a patented hinge that expands when you open it. Samsung's design has the advantage of being its tightest when open, and when closed, sure there is slack in the display, but you aren't using it then.

Whether one design wins out over another will be up to the market to decide. Huawei's $2600 foldable will be emptying wallets sometime in the middle of the year.