Huawei’s clearly been studying Apple’s playbook of late. Last year, it launched the Mate X, and this year, it’s the strikingly similar looking Mate Xs. What, no Mate Xs Max?
You can say what you want about Huawei’s smartphone naming strategy, or its track record when it comes to security, but good luck arguing that the Chinese tech behemoth hasn’t been nailing innovation over the last few years. Its Mate 20 RS Porsche Design was the first phone to launch with an under-display fingerprint scanner. Just over a year later, the P30 Pro introduced periscope camera zoom tech, which can now be found on the new Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra.
Huawei’s unique Mate X also led the charge for foldable phones, stealing the show at last year’s MWC, while the Samsung Galaxy Fold garnered significantly worse press throughout the year. To be fair to Samsung, the Mate X was never subject to the same scrutiny as it didn’t launch outside China, but it always looked more futuristic than the Fold.
Fast forward to 2020, we’ve been using the new Huawei Mate Xs for 24 hours, putting its beefed-up internals, improved new UI and quad-camera to the test around London ahead of its launch – and for the most part, it’s been dreamy. (It should do too at this price: €2499 for the model with 512GB of storage and 8GB of RAM.)
With a global launch outside China on the cards though, enthusiasm needs to make way for realism. As with all new Huawei tech running on Android, there’s one unimpeachable Donald Trump sized caveat here – like the Mate 30 Pro which is now on sale in the UK, the Mate Xs is Google-free. Deal-breaker? That depends on what Huawei is able to achieve with its own app store ambitions in the next six to 12 months.
The Huawei Mate Xs’s design is virtually unchanged from last year’s model. You still get a wraparound display, which, when closed in phone orientation, makes for a Galaxy Fold shaming 6.6-inches with a 1148 x 2480 resolution. Press the clasp release around the back, flatten the Mate Xs out and it turns into a notch-free, almost square 8-inch, 2200 x 2480 AMOLED tablet with slight bezels and a waif-thin 5mm thickness along the majority of the slate.
As with the original, there’s a chunkier, 11mm thick vertical strip alongside the left side, housing the foldable’s brains, cameras and clasp release mechanism, which makes for a comfortable grip when using it as a tab.
The huge, strikingly punchy and, predictably inky AMOLED screen is bright and commands attention. It’s also very reflective and has some give to it; unsurprising, given the fact it’s plastic. As you open and close it, you’ll also see some ripples flow along its display’s surface, and there is a crease when viewed off-angle in tablet mode. Head-on, however, it’s a beauty, and the screen feels taut when fully opened or clasped shut. It’s also perfectly responsive and comfortable to swipe or tap on, even when gaming.
It isn’t all roses, though. While the Mate Xs looks more futuristic than Samsung’s foldable phones, it definitely feels less refined. The folding motion is clunkier than the excellent Galaxy Z Flip’s mechanism. While the Z Flip can fix itself steady throughout its range of motion, the Mate Xs feels spring-loaded and closing it requires more pressure than we’d want to apply to a pricey gadget.
Strangely, the most apparent visual difference between the Mate X and Mate Xs doesn’t seem like an enhancement per se. Take a look at the hinge. The Mate X’s hyper-elegant Falcon Wing system, with its slightly depressed, exposed belt has been swapped out for two protruding nubbins, one on either side; they look removable, but they aren’t. This makes for a less refined finish than last year’s model, though Huawei assured us that the new version is more robust, and, we’re guessing, easier to produce too.
On the subject of hardiness, the Mate Xs has a sequence of protective layers shielding its ever-exposed screen. These include a two-layer polymer structure: polyamide, an optically clear adhesive and a polyamide film. Translated, though, all that means is plastic on top of plastic.
So much plastic might sound terrifying when pitted against the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip’s folding glass screen, but that too has a non-removable plastic screen protector over the top. (Plus it’s not clear yet precisely how much glass is involved there). In turn, you’re prodding plastic on both, so, the plastic bit isn’t what makes the Mate Xs more fragile than other foldables. What really concerns us is the fact the plastic is always on the outside, exposed. One forgotten coin in your pocket, scraping against the display, and it could all be over.
In our day with the foldable, we put it in the most padded jacket pocket we had, and it survived without any scuffs, so if you’re okay mollycoddling your Mate, then you just might be able to keep it relatively scuff-free.
Compared to other foldables, the Mate Xs cleans up when it comes to specs, though. The foldable hybrid is powered by a Kirin 990 chipset with 5G support for more bands than virtually any other device on the market, let alone the 4G Galaxy Z Flip.
While it’s too early to comment on battery performance, the phone spreads 4,500mAh across two cells, one in either folding half. It also charges at a seriously fast 55W, filling up by 85 per cent in 30 minutes, and if you’re running low on juice, you can flip to the smaller, 6.38-inch rear display when closed. That’s compared to 15W charging on Samsung’s clamshell and a 3,300mAh battery.
As for imaging, the Xs’s quad-camera system is a mash up of components from the P30 Pro and the Mate 30 Pro. The foldable’s primary 40MP wide-angle sensor is lifted from both flagships mentioned above, with a red, yellow, yellow, blue sub-pixel formation, combined with an f/1.8 lens.
Next, the 16MP ultra-wide module is the same spec as that of the P30 Pro, while the 3x optical zoom telephoto camera is identical to that found on the Mate 30 Pro. All these are fed depth information from a time of flight camera to make four cameras in total, which, when compared with the Galaxy Z Flip’s dual 12MP rear camera looks mighty, on paper at least.
It’s likely the Mate Xs will be the best camera on a foldable. It’s quick to launch, grabs photos at 10MP resolution by default, but can also snap 40MP stills if you need extra detail. Huawei always loads up its phones with a lot of shooting options, including full manual and portrait mode, and the 4K video capture and image stabilisation all seemed to perform well in our time with the device. Also worth noting, the main camera on the Mate Xs is the selfie camera too. Flip the phone around and the smaller, 6.38-inch display fires up for what will almost definitely be the world’s best selfie camera.
You can’t talk about Huawei without mentioning the trade ban sized elephant in the room. Huawei can use the Android operating system, but it can’t load up Google Mobile Services on its Android tech – so no Gmail, Maps or YouTube. It’s further reaching than Google apps though, WhatsApp backups and even Uber’s geolocation rely on the Google Mobile Services. That’s a problem.
It means the Mate Xs and the MatePad Pro 5G tablet, launched alongside it, will be incredibly handicapped everywhere other than China until Huawei finds a workaround.
With the CEO of Huawei’s consumer business group, Richard Yu expected to make a statement on the subject of its own rival App Gallery alongside the Mate Xs launch, it’s a watch this space game, but anybody thinking about picking up a Mate Xs should fully understand what they’re getting and what might be a work in progress.
Whether this will scupper a global launch entirely remains to be seen. Regardless, the Mate Xs runs Android 10, showcases beautifully innovative ways to multitask across its tablet UI, with split screen working and floating window support. This means three apps can run on-screen simultaneously. All this adds up to a true 2-in-1 smartphone and tablet, with an interface that makes the best of both, adjusting seamlessly as you open and close it. That’s something we haven’t seen before from the folding devices that are available to buy outside China.
While the Huawei Mate Xs almost certainly won’t be as popular as Samsung’s retro-chic clamshell, it’s ultimately a more exciting piece of hardware, and further proof that as long as this trade ban rages on, tech enthusiasts are missing out.