MWC 2019 was home to a lot of exciting announcements. LG unveiled the G8 and its...unique...air gestures, Sony actually managed to impress us with the radical Xperia 1, and Energizer had that phone that looked more like a battery pack with a screen slapped on it. MWC this year was all sorts of weird and exciting, but the announcement that definitely stuck out the most was the Huawei Mate X.
The Mate X debuted less than a week after Samsung took the wraps off the Galaxy Fold, and thanks to its jaw-dropping folding technology, has quickly moved the conversation from Samsung's foldable phone over to Huawei's. The Galaxy Fold is still an incredibly exciting piece of bleeding-edge technology, but its design is noticeably less flashy than the Mate X's.
I definitely understand the excitement over what Huawei concocted with the Mate X, but looking at the phone through a practical lens, it leaves me with more concerns than I'd prefer.
Those concerns boil down to Huawei's use of the "outie" foldable design.
As outlined in this excellent explainer by Derek, foldable phones right now are defined in two main ways:
- Innie — a foldable phone with a small, non-folding screen on the outside and a larger, foldable display you access by opening the phone up.
- Outie — a foldable phone with one large folding screen that covers the front and back and is used in both phone and tablet modes.
The Galaxy Fold is an innie foldable phone, the Mate X is an outie.
With an outie design, the Mate X has a big aesthetic advantage. The single-display design allows it to have a nearly bezel-less experience in both phone and tablet mode and makes it feel like a single, unified device. The Galaxy Fold, on the other hand, can feel like two phones glued together with a hinge — not to mention the phone display has downright massive bezels.
This all makes the Mate X the more lustrous and attractive of the two phones, and while I certainly can't fault it there, it does have me seriously questioning how the Mate X is going to hold up in day-to-day use.
A phone with a plastic screen that's constantly exposed is just asking for trouble.
In order to have a foldable display, the panel needs to be covered in plastic rather than glass. This is true of both the Mate X and the Galaxy Fold, but since the Galaxy Fold's foldable display is tucked away when it's in phone mode, it's only ever exposed when you open it up to use it as a tablet. Otherwise, you're using it as a regular phone with a glass-covered screen. By design, the Mate X's plastic foldable screen is always exposed.
There's a reason just about every phone these days has a glass screen instead of plastic. While it does feel nicer and more premium to touch, the main purpose for this is that glass is a lot more durable than plastic against scratches. If you think your Pixel or Galaxy's display scratches easily, that's nothing compared to plastic.
What's going to happen to the Mate X's screen after a week of normal use? What about a month? A year? We won't know until we actually get our hands on the phone, but chances are it's going to get scratched up something nasty and look like it's been to hell and back.
If you don't want to take my word for it, maybe you'll listen to Motorola's Vice President of Global Product — Dan Dery.
In a recent interview at MWC 2019 where Dery confirmed that Motorola is working on a foldable phone of its own, he had this to say about phones like the Mate X with the outie design:
We have been testing a plastic OLED device with plastic film on top. The fact that you're touching [that kind of display] with your nails is scratching it. It has a short life right away; it starts dying the day you unpack it. But it's beautiful. That first day, it's beautiful.
That's the problem. Phones like the Huawei Mate X look amazing, incredible, jaw-dropping, etc. when you take them out of the box, but that clean, futuristic design is going to quickly evaporate as the display starts picking up scratches left and right.
Here's the thing. Foldable phones are so brand-new that we really don't know how things are going to shake out. Another company could come out tomorrow with an outie foldable phone with a solution to scratches, or we could be waiting quite a while before that happens. We just don't know.
If you are seriously interested in foldable phones and are getting ready to throw down $2000 - $3000 on one, all I ask is that you take a step back to think about how these phones are going to hold up a year from now. The Mate X is ridiculously cool, but if it was my money, I'd feel much better spending it on a Galaxy Fold and not having it look like a war-torn slab two weeks after I buy it.
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