Huawei is giving foldable smartphones another go after debuting its first one, the Mate X, last year. The Chinese tech giant will sell it in Europe for 2,499 euros ($2,700), making it even more expensive than the original.
The company's latest folding device, aptly named the Mate Xs, feels more like an update to the previous version as it looks almost identical, but it feels like a much sturdier device thanks to a more robust hinge.
The Mate Xs has a new hinge design which comes packed with more materials than its predecessor, and this shows when folding it out into a flat tablet-like screen.
You have to tap a button on the back to fold it outward, and I could hear — and feel — an audible crunching noise when opening the device out in full.
Huawei says this isn't something to be worried about as it's simply the hinge working as it's been designed to. But it's not the easiest folding action and I wasn't confident enough to open it up without using both hands.
Like the first model, Huawei's Mate Xs has a plastic display that folds backward, meaning the screen is always exposed. When closed, you're holding a standard-sized 6.6-inch smartphone with an additional slightly smaller 6.38-inch screen on the back. But open it up and you get a massive 8-inch panel on par with that of a tablet.
There's not a whole lot that separates the Mate Xs from the Mate X. The hardware seems mostly unchanged apart from the inclusion of Huawei's flagship 5G Kirin 990 chipset, itself an update to the Kirin 980 which powered the original Mate X. And its predecessor also came with 5G support anyway. It does run very smoothly though, and that performance is helped in part by a redesigned cooling system.
The Shenzhen, China-based firm had originally planned to unveil the new phone at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, but switched to a pre-recorded broadcast after the event was cancelled due to fears over the new coronavirus.
Huawei only sold its Mate X phone in China, at a steep price of 16,999 yuan ($2,420). At $2,700, the Mate Xs is even pricier than its original, and that may be a hard sell with some consumers.
The Mate Xs comes with some pretty nifty features, like the ability to multitask with several apps on the screen. Drag your finger across the phone from the right and it'll show a sidebar of apps that you can pull out and open. The phone can display up to three apps at a time.
Then there's the camera, which takes advantage of the fact that there's two screens on one phone. When folding the handset shut, the screen on the front will show the main viewfinder. But turn it around and the phone lets you take a selfie.
But again, while it's a good utilization of the phone's folding display, this isn't different to what Huawei's Mate X was already capable of. The Mate Xs camera from Leica also comes with the same quad-lens system as that of the Mate X.
As for the name of the product, it's not something that detracts from its quality in any way. But it does sound awfully similar to Apple's iPhone X and iPhone XS phones — although Apple shelved the "X" branding with its latest flagship, the iPhone 11, last year.
Speaking of Apple, the U.S. hardware giant hasn't dipped its own toes into the foldable arena just yet. But there have been plenty of alternatives from the likes of Samsung, Motorola and Chinese start-up Royole.
I got a hands-on with Samsung's new folding handset, the Galaxy Z Flip, and though I didn't get to compare it directly with Huawei's Mate Xs, it's clear that they're two very different products.
Whereas the Galaxy Z Flip took on a new form factor with its flip phone or "clamshell" design, the Mate Xs sticks with a style more akin to Samsung's first folding device, the Galaxy Fold, the main difference being that the latter opens and closes more like a book.
There have been worries about just how durable these gadgets are — especially after review units of the Galaxy Fold broke for reviewers last year — and whether Huawei's latest venture into folding phones will stand the test of time remains to be seen.
I thought the Z Flip would do a good job in putting those fears at ease, as the hinge on that device was pretty solid. Reports that its so-called "ultra thin glass" screens scratch like plastic displays aren't particularly promising — although Samsung has said this is because the glass is covered with a protective plastic layer.
A key drawback for any new Huawei phone now is the fact that none of them can include Google's Android mobile operating system or associated apps like Maps and YouTube. That's because the company was placed on a U.S. trade blacklist last year.
Washington took things up a notch recently, bringing racketeering charges against the Chinese tech giant. American officials allege Huawei's telecommunications equipment could enable spying from Beijing, a claim the company has repeatedly denied. The U.S. has also urged allies to block Huawei from their 5G networks, though the U.K. recently resisted those calls.
"Our first preference would be to use the full version of Google," Peter Gauden, senior product marketing manager for Huawei's consumer business, told a group of reporters. "In the absence of that, we are having to go in a different direction and do things for ourselves."
The firm has instead been using a "forked" version of Android, copying the basic open source code of Google's operating system and creating its own independent one to get around the trade restrictions. Huawei is also working on its own alternative to Google software, called Harmony, but isn't using it for the new phone.
Another potential headwind facing the company is the coronavirus outbreak, which forced the organizers of MWC, world's the biggest mobile phone industry conference, to cancel the event. Several big tech firms, from Ericsson to Amazon, had pulled out ahead of time due to fears over the risks the virus posed for their staff.
"Right now, we're not seeing any impact logistically" as a result of coronavirus, Gauden said, adding that the firm has taken "precautions" to ensure there's enough stock available to meet demand.