When I first heard that Samsung was making a folding phone, I was excited. The idea that a phone could turn into a tablet intrigued me, and I closely followed the development of Samsung’s display technology leading up to the launch of the Galaxy Fold.
Then I saw the Fold, and, well, my excitement waned. After dreams of giant screens opening to gianter screens, the Galaxy Fold has some clear first-gen compromises. The outside display is only 4.6-inches, which is laughably small for a 2019 smartphone (sorry iPhone SE lovers). It opens to a 7.6-inch screen that has a giant notch on the right side for the cameras. And it looks like it’s thicker than two iPhones stacked on top of each other.
A few days after the Galaxy Fold’s introduction, Huawei took the wraps off its own folding phone concept and it’s quite different. It’s only 11mm thick, has a 6-inch outside screen, and opens to a full 8-inch tablet with no notch. The controls, buttons, and USB-C port are on a stationary bar that doubles as a sort of handle and acts as a locking mechanism for the screen when folded.
I eventually got to handle a Mate X for a few minutes and I walked away impressed. While I would never consider spending upwards of $2,500 on a phone—even a cool new futuristic concept like this—I can see what Huawei was trying to do with the Mate X.
Rather than assemble a prototype that doesn’t consider usability or design like Royole with the FlexPai, it’s easy to see that Huawei has put serious effort into designing a folding phone that’s both unique and familiar. The outside screen is as big as a normal smartphone, all three displays have clear purposes, and pocketability and holdability have carefully been considered. I even like the outside fold better than I thought I would. There are issues—such as the low-tech push button that ejects the case when folded—but for the most part, the Mate X is a really good first-gen device.
But all the while time I thought, “What would Apple do?” While Huawei’s and Samsung’s first efforts are definitely better than, say, the crop of smartphones that were available when Apple launched the original iPhone, the Mate X and Galaxy Fold are definitely starting from a better place. But like the iPhone, Apple Watch, AirPods, and just about everything else coming out of Cupertino, we’re not going to know how great a folding phone can be until Apple makes one.
The screen is not what it seams
The weirdest thing about folding screens is their texture. Since they’re not glass, they feel a little plasticky and cheap compared to the premium Gorilla Glass-encased phones. While I touching the screens, I was afraid that if I pushed too hard I’d dent it, and there was definite rippling at the hinge and a visible seam down the middle.
Quality isn’t an issue that only plagues the Mate X. During the demo, a clear seam could be seen down the center of the Samsung Galaxy Fold, and the Mate X also had a line that you could see at certain angles. It’s a visual flaw that will be tough to unsee, and I have to assume it will only get worse over time.
If there’s one thing I know for sure: Apple would never allow such a flaw in its folding phone. But more importantly, Apple would design a new display type that feels like glass without actually being glass. Since we’re going to be touching these displays a million times a day, the feel of it is important. I already want to hear what adjectives Jony Ive uses to describe it.
Big to small, not small to big
Before I saw the Mate X, I would’ve rolled my eyes at the idea of a folding phone. But Huawei’s solution is so intriguing, it made me think that there may actually be a future folding iPhone that gives me something I’ve always wanted: An iPad that fits in my pocket.
I think Samsung and Huawei are going about it the wrong way. A foldable screen shouldn’t be a phone that can become a tablet; it should be a tablet that can become a phone. There’s a distinct difference in that thinking. Since we’re never going to have a folding phone that’s as thin as an iPhone XS and the smartphone form factor needs to change anyway, I’d like Apple to take the 9.7-inch iPad and work backward.
Neither the Galaxy Fold nor the Mate X are very big tablets. The 8-inch Mate is about the size of the iPad mini, which isn’t exactly a productivity tablet. So you’re basically getting a slightly bigger screen for movies and split-screen apps, but something far from a big-screen tablet for work. The Mate X is an admirable first attempt and the Galaxy Fold looks good too, but only Apple will be able to make a folding phone with a form factor no one has thought of and everybody wants.
Simply put, Apple would never stand for the compromises and flaws that these first folding phones have. If an Apple-branded folding phone ever arrives, it will surely bring a design that no one’s ever though of and an utterly simply interface that shows us exactly what’s wrong with these early models. Two or three years from now, the second generation of the Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate will arrive, with new displays, new designs, and new interfaces. I just hope that there’s an iPhone version to lead the way.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.