Mate X: The inspiration, challenges and problems behind Huawei’s first foldable phone
From where we are right now, it looks like foldable phones could be the future of smartphones. Early in March, Samsung finally unveiled its long-rumoured foldable phone called Galaxy Fold, and days later at the Mobile World Congress 2019, Huawei debuted the Mate X. And now we are hoping to see Microsoft, Xiaomi, and other brands to show off their version of the technology too.
Meanwhile, this week, I got to hold this example of future tech in my hands, and as excited as I was to see and use it, I also had a lot of questions around it. So I spoke to Senior Product Marketing Director of Huawei Mobile, Wally Yang about the design decisions, engineering challenges, software that Huawei faced while creating its first production foldable smartphone.
Huawei Mate X’s USP is obviously its ability to fold, however, it has a price that is hefty, so how do you convince a user that “hey, this phone is for you”?
When you see the Mate X, you see that it is just like a regular smartphone. So, from a smartphone point of view, I am convinced that Mate X has the best features, and if I may say, it is the best smartphone. However, on top of that, it provides consumers with something that other smartphones cannot, which is, it can be a tablet. So users can enjoy the best features and double their phone as a tablet.
Most users, along with their phone, demand a bigger screen, which has them struggling between a tablet and smartphone. At home, they want to enjoy reading a book, entertainment, but then they have to keep switching between the two devices, and that also causes the problem about data and content.
And that is the big barrier that Mate X breaks. Also, by design, the phone offers a great camera, a bigger battery and world’s first 55 W charging.
Why did Huawei go with an outward fold design with the Mate X?
The first reason our engineers decided on this form is because of the current trend for bigger displays. So from a design and user behaviour standpoint, we believe this is what people wanted. We didn’t want to increase the steps for users to access the device. If it was folded inwards, they would have to first open the phone, then unlock it, and then launch the apps they wanted. People are constantly using apps like Instagram and Facebook, and we wanted to give them a quick way to access them.
For the same reason, we have added a small release button to the phone so that with just one click the phone can be converted into an 8-inch tablet.
Since the display folds outwards, it remains exposed to scratches and scuffs, more so since it’s made out of plastic. Does Huawei have a solution for that?
Unfortunately, on foldable soft screens, which we have patented, does not have a solution for that yet, but we have used a coating technology to protect the screen. Secondly, we have designed a smart cover that can keep the screen scratch-free. I know, with the new screen technology we currently have a disadvantage when it comes to things like these, but we will soon come with a solution to it.
What are the challenges that Huawei faced when working on Mate X’s foldable display? And how many years has this display been in development?
We had been working on this phone for over three years. At that time, we knew the soft screen technology isn’t new, but the difficult thing is how you make a smartphone with it, and the most important part of it is the hinge. So we took a few years, especially, to overcome the challenge and difficulty of how to fold the display 180 degrees, without leaving a gap.
We made over 100 components to fit in that one hinge you see on the device. We call it the falcon design, which lets you fold the soft screen, and let it be absolutely flat at the same time. Of course, we also have a secret to it in the patent.
You can see that before Huawei launched the Mate X, any foldable device that was available in the market had a little gap between the screens.
How is the power from the two batteries distributed to various parts of the device? Is there a connector in the folding mechanism? Or is the power distributed by the flexible display?
Again, from the design point of view, we realised that the phone is basically a tablet when you use it in the 8-inch form, so it also needs a bigger battery. It is also a 5G phone, which also demands more power. That’s we used two batteries that together account for 4,500 mAh, along with SuperCharge technology. It is a very important thing we considered.
We used two batteries because the phone folds, and this way it is easier to accommodate the battery, meanwhile ensuring the device doesn’t become very thick.
However, the two batteries support the whole system together, and we have not dedicated different components to different batteries. At the same time, both batteries also get charged simultaneously, and that’s why you are able to charge the device so fast to get 85 percent power up in 30 minutes.
We know this is too much to ask, but does the device have an IP rating?
Right now, no.
Do you see a market for foldable devices in the future? Or do you believe that foldables will soon be a standard design for smartphones in the years to come?
Yes. I think this is just the beginning. Huawei is the first company to unveil a 5G foldable phone, and we also see our competitors working on similar models. And so we believe that in different form factors, we will soon see many such designs.
Huawei, in particular, will also keep working on giving the end user more options in this category. Now that we have overcome the difficult part of this technology, we can now work on making this a mainstream product.
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