3 obstacles that folding phones like the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X need to overcome

The next big things could have next big problems.

In just a few months, the first folding phones will be available for sale, and if you have a couple thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket, you can buy one for your very own. But while those first few buyers will be the talk of the town, the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X might not be as top-of-the-line as their price tags would suggest.

While they certainly represent an advancement in overall smartphone technology and an exciting new direction for the future, in some ways, folding phones are a step backward from the premium phone we’re used to using. Here are three areas of concern I have as the folding revolution takes shape:

Display quality

The odd shapes of the folding displays are the most obvious challenge. When opened, Samsung’s Fold display has an aspect ratio of 4.2:3, with a 7.3-inch QXGA+ resolution somewhere around 2152x1536 pixels. The Huawei Mate X offers an 8-inch display with a 8:7.1 aspect ratio and 2480x2200 resolution. On the outside, Huawei’s main screen is 6 inches diagonally, with an aspect ratio of 19.5:9 and a resolution of 2480 x 1148. The Fold's outside display is a tiny 4.6-inch, 1960x840 screen with a 12:9 aspect ratio. That means we’re gong to have to learn all-new ways of holding these unconventionally shaped phones, and apps might look a little funky at the start.

huawei mate x open Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Mate X's display is packed with pixels, but its glossy finish feels strange to the touch.

Beyond the ratios, the screens themselves look and feel a little weird. If I hadn't seen the Mate X with my own eyes, I’d have thought the screen was a high-quality printout—it’s that glossy. Touching it was equally weird. While it doesn’t feel cheap per se, I could definitely feel that it wasn’t a completely flat screen like a tablet. I don’t know whether it was the thinness, the flexibility, or just my imagination, but I swear I could feel the ridges and imperfections as my finger moved across the display. Scrolling and tapping worked pretty much as expected, but the tactile sensation was quite a bit different than it is on a phone like the Galaxy S10.

The Mate X display also feels more like plastic than glass, so much so that I was afraid I would dent it if I pressed too hard. I’m sure Samsung and Huawei will go through countless revisions of their displays before they find a manufacturing method that’s feels right, but these earliest models will definitely show some growing pains.

samsung galaxy fold seam middle cr resized Samsung

We all saw the seam during the Galaxy Fold demo.

Then there’s the seam. Both companies have gone to considerable lengths to hide the center of their folding display in product shots and display units, but it’s definitely there. We saw it during the Samsung Unpacked demo, and I saw it during my hands-on with the Mate X. I have to assume it’ll only get worse with repeated folds. Display durability is definitely an area of concern with these early folding phones, and the fact that seams are already visible isn’t a comforting sign.

Battery life

We’ve reached a point with contemporary phones where we’re pretty much able to leave our chargers at home, but folding phones could take a step back. Bigger displays use more power, but the folding phones' batteries haven't scaled to fit.

Granted, the batteries they have are beefy—4,380mAh on the Fold and 4,500mAH on the Mate X. The 6.6-inch Galaxy S10 5G has a 4,500mAh battery, however, and that only needs to power a mere 6.7-inch display. Let's not forget the additional power strains of switching screens, sensors, and 5G on these bleeding-edge folding phones.

huawei mate x inside Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

There are two batteries in the Mate X, but both are pretty small.

Huawei has built 55W SuperCharge into the Mate X, and Samsung allows for wireless charging on the Galaxy Fold. Nevertheless, anyone hoping for a day of use out of either phone before charging is going to be disappointed. Despite costing thousands of dollars, these new folding phones might very well turn us into “wall-huggers” again.

User experience

My biggest concern with folding phones has less to do with design, fragility, or even longevity, and more to do with the real-world benefit. We might all want to run and see one as soon as they end up in stores, but my question is: Are they really giving us the best of both worlds?

huawei mate x browser Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Mate X is certainly bigger when opened, but are we really gaining that much over a flaship phablet?

With the Samsung version, you’re going from a 6.4-inch display in the Galaxy S10 to a 4.6-inch one in the Fold (when closed). And on the inside, you get a 7.3-inch display, which is only about a half-inch bigger than the S10 5G's. The Mate X is a little better with an 8-inch display, but the outside screen already offers a full six-inch workspace. So you’re really only gaining 2 inches by opening it, which isn’t really worth it in most situations. Huawei even admitted that they expect people will use it closed most of the day.

Samsung’s triple-multitasking is a more promising innovation for folding phones, but there needs to be a real reason to jump from the small screen to a big one. We don't pick up a tablet because we want a little more screen—we use one because it offers a better experience for getting things done. I'm not sure we can say the same yet for folding phones.

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