Huawei Mate XS hands-on: Weird flex, but it’s still unique

It’s been just under a year since Huawei unveiled its first foldable phone, the China-exclusive Huawei Mate X. Now we have its successor, the Huawei Mate XS — an iterative update to the phone-to-tablet foldable with a more powerful processor, faster network connectivity, a better camera, and some hidden design tweaks.

Set to launch globally this time around, is the Huawei Mate XS enough of an upgrade to compete with the latest wave of foldable phones? We’ll know for sure after putting the Mate XS through a full review, but for now, here are our early hands-on impressions of Huawei’s foldable flagship.

Same phone, but better

huawei mate xs hinge

At a glance, it’s near impossible to tell the Mate XS apart from the Mate X, though there have been some notable design changes all in the name of making what is an inherently fragile device a little more robust.

One welcome improvement is the addition of an extra polymer layer to protect that flexible plastic OLED panel. The Mate XS’s display has a two-layer polymer structure on top of the display, with the film joined by a transparent adhesive. There’s also a screen protector on top, which Huawei advises against removing, and for good reason.

Related: How much does it cost to replace a foldable phone’s screen?

Huawei says the extra polymer layer further protects the screen. If the thought of having a wildly expensive phone (more on that later) with a display that you can feel compressing under your finger makes you at all squeamish, you’re still going to get freaked out using the Mate XS. There’s also still a visible crease down the middle when in tablet mode, though it’s barely noticeable when the phone is locked at a flat 180-degree angle.

huawei mate xs front
huawei mate xs rear
huawei mate xs phone

As with the Mate X, the Mate XS is both a 6.6-inch phone (19.5:9 aspect ratio, 2,480 x 1,148 resolution) and an 8-inch tablet in one. When folded out, the Mate XS is just 5.4mm thick at its thinnest part, while the sidebar that houses the camera and screen lock mechanism place reaches 11mm.

And I say folded out, because unlike other foldables the Mate XS folds outwards. To use the phone in tablet mode you need to put pressure on the display. This feels all kinds of wrong. When compared to other phone-tablet foldables like the Galaxy Fold, the Mate XS’ form factor offers far more utility.

The Mate XS’ outward-folding screen comes with unique pros and cons.

Rather than having to crowbar in a front camera somewhere, the Mate XS lets you just flip it around and use the rear of the wraparound display and the main rear camera (or the ultra-wide or zoom lenses, if you’re feeling experimental) to take selfies. Likewise, when used as a normal phone you’re not stuck with a boxy secondary screen, but a large part of the phone’s single OLED panel. It’s just cool, though that cool factor never fully distracted me from the sheer terror of thinking that I might puncture that soft plastic display with a rogue fingernail.

While pressing on the display still makes me nervous, the strengthened hinge mechanism is reassuringly sturdy. It’s been worked on by Huawei’s engineers and is now made up of over 100 components for a smoother folding process. There’s a handy click when the phone is fully folded out in tablet mode too. The covers at either end of the hinge have also been improved and Huawei is confident that all these changes make the Mate XS far more durable than the original model.

Flexing those 5G muscles

huawei mate xs

So there’s not a whole lot on the outside that’s new, but real beauty is, of course, on the inside.

The Mate XS is essentially modeled after the revised Mate X build we saw at IFA 2019. Powering the phone is Huawei’s blazing fast Kirin 990 chipset. Not only that, but the Mate XS is 5G ready and supports standalone and non-standalone networks. It doesn’t support mmWave, but that’s less of an issue outside of the US where sub-6GHz frequencies are the standard.

The battery and charging capabilities have also been upgraded over the Mate X. The Mate XS has two batteries to accommodate the folding design that total out at 4,500mAh. These can be recharged back up to 85% in just 30 minutes thanks to Huawei’s 55W SuperCharge charger which comes bundled with the phone (it’s not hard, Samsung). There’s also a new cooling system — bizarrely dubbed the “Flying Fish Fin” internally — which spans both sides of the phone to keep the dual batteries from overheating.

The Mate XS’ RYYB main camera seems to be every bit as good as the Mate 30 Pro’s.

Huawei’s imaging prowess has made it a favorite for mobile photographers, but the first iteration of its foldable phone lacked the “SuperSensing” camera found on the P30 Pro and Mate 30 Pro.

Thankfully, the Mate XS inherits follows its non-foldable siblings with an RYYB, 40MP main sensor (f/1.8) that uses pixel binning and AI to take killer snaps even in low-light conditions. I only got to test the camera very briefly, but the images looked every bit as good as what we’ve seen from the ever-impressive P30 and Mate 30 series devices.

Alongside the main sensor sits an 8MP telephoto lens (f/2.4) that supports 3x optical and 30x digital zoom, a 16MP ultra-wide camera (f/2.2), and a 3D depth sensor.

Building a foldable UX for the future

huawei mate xs fold

You can’t talk about a new Huawei phone without addressing the humongous elephant in the room. No, the Mate XS won’t have access to Google Mobile Services. Like the Mate 30 series, the Mate XS is running an AOSP build of Android with EMUI 10 on top. There’s no Google Play Store or any of those Google apps so many rely on every day.

The Mate XS I tested was running non-final software. We’ll render our verdict on Huawei’s App Gallery and the wider Huawei Mobile Services ecosystem for a full review, but there are encouraging signs that the Chinese giant is making progress on the software front despite all its recent troubles — particularly when it comes to how to build a comprehensive UX for foldables.

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Much like Huawei’s MatePad Pro 5G tablet, the Mate XS supports multitasking for up to three apps with two either side of the screen when in tablet mode and a third in a floating window. Using multi-window apps is as easy as dragging and dropping them from a customizable side menu that peeks out with a swipe from the side of the display.

The foldable’s UX also benefits from a new feature called App Multiplier, which effectively lets you use portrait apps in a landscape view by splitting an app in half. Huawei’s example was a booking app that showed a feed of accommodation options on one side and a single listing expanded in the other half. So far Huawei has over 1,000 apps that support App Multiplier and is working with developers to increase that number.

Huawei Mate XS: Price, release date, and availability

The Huawei Mate XS is priced at a whopping €2,499 (~$2,704). That puts it well above the Galaxy Fold’s price, let alone the recent Galaxy Z Flip or the Motorola Razr. Huawei has yet to reveal a release date for the Mate XS at time of writing. We’ll be updating this article as soon as we have the details.

The Mate XS will receive a global launch (not the US, obviously), which includes select regions throughout Europe. We also know that it doesn’t come with the fancy leather case bundled with the original Mate X. We will be able to buy one separately, however, and something tells me you’ll want to as there’s no way I’d put this thing in my pocket unprotected!

The foldable market has changed dramatically in the time it’s taken for the Mate X to earn that extra “S.” We’ve seen our share of drama and delays, as well as the arrival of clamshell-style foldables with the Galaxy Z Flip and the Motorola Razr.

Huawei’s outward-flexing foldable is still unique, but time will tell if the Mate XS has done enough to wow consumers all over again.

What do you think of the Huawei Mate XS? Be sure to check out our hands-on video at the top of this article and leave a comment below!

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