Huawei Mate X2 review: Foldable phone beats Samsung's with a superb zoom camera and other hardware, even if there are no Google services

With the Google embargo and its heavy price tag, the Huawei Mate X2 relies on its superb hardware to attract buyers.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Huawei’s smartphones have a reputation for exceptional hardware, and the Chinese tech giant’s latest foldable phone, the Mate X2, is no exception.

But, as with every Huawei smartphone launched in the past year and a half, software shortcomings forced by the US government – as well as an eye-watering price tag – will ultimately limit the handset’s appeal. 

Design and hardware

Ever since foldables made their debut two years ago, phone brands have had to choose a side: fold inwards (towards the user) like a book, or fold out (away from the user). Huawei chose the latter with its first two foldable phones, the Mate X and Mate XS. 

But with the Mate X2, Huawei has jumped to the fold-in crowd, which in my opinion is the right choice. Unfortunately, Samsung chose this method first, so now the Mate X2 looks like a copy of the Galaxy Z Fold series.

The Huawei Mate X2’s folding display does not have a visible crease down the middle, unlike Samsung’s folding phones. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Still, the Mate X2 is superior to the Z Fold 2 in four key areas.

Firstly, the Mate X2 folds completely flat, while the Z Fold 2 leaves a slight gap; secondly, despite the tighter fold, the Mate X2 screen does not show a crease, unlike Samsung’s phone, which has a noticeable crease down the middle of the screen.

Third, Huawei managed to cram a top-tier flagship camera system into the Mate X2, including a 10x optical zoom Periscope camera. (Samsung’s folding phones all had compromised camera systems that were not at the level of its non-folding flagship phones. The Z Fold 2, for example, does not use a Periscope zoom lens.) 

The fourth superior feature is the outside display. Huawei’s Mate X2 packs a 6.5-inch OLED screen on the outside with an aspect ratio of 21:9.

This is much closer in size and scale to a traditional smartphone screen; Samsung’s Fold 2 uses an unconventional tall and narrow 25:9 aspect ratio, which can make typing difficult for those with thicker fingers. 

Huawei nailed the rest of the hardware too. The phone is powered by a 5nm Kirin 9000 chip, which is on par with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 processor as the most cutting-edge silicon in Android phones right now.

The inside folding screen has a new coating that makes it feel less plasticky than past folding phones, and its 8-inch screen with 2,200 x 2,480 resolution is a joy to look at. Both screens refresh at only 90Hz, however. 

The Huawei Mate X2 in folded form. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Software and features

The Mate X2 runs Huawei’s EMUI over an open-source version of Android, but the phone will be among the first to be eligible to upgrade to Huawei’s proprietary operating system HarmonyOS (or HongmengOS). 

EMUI offers some intuitive multitasking tricks to take advantage of the larger screen – users can open two apps side-by-side in split-screen, or have one app operating in full while a second app opens in a smaller floating window. 

The Huawei Mate X2 folds completely flat, unlike the Fold 2 which leaves a slight gap at the hinge.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

There is an elephant in the room: the Mate X2 cannot run Google’s core mobile services suite of apps, which includes Gmail, YouTube, Drive and Docs. Readers considering Huawei devices will have to consider just how integral Google services are to their digital lives.

Performance and battery life

Huawei smartphones have always offered better battery performance than their peers, and the Mate X2 is no exception. Despite the 4,500 mAh battery needing to support two screens, the phone can easily last a full 14-hour day for me with over 25 per cent battery left to spare. 

The Huawei Mate X2’s camera system, featuring an 8MP Periscope zoom lens (top), 50MP main camera (middle), 16MP ultra-wide lens (bottom), and a 12MP 3x telephoto zoom lens (middle right). 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Overall performance is smooth; gaming and movie watching on the phone is a superior experience because of the larger display and full stereo speakers.

The cameras are also top notch. Huawei’s main camera has the largest image sensor size in the industry, so it can pull in light even in scenes that appear pitch black to human eyes. Colours sometimes can look off due to Huawei’s odd RYYB filtering array. 

The Periscope camera is neck-and-neck with the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s for the best zoom in mobile telephony. It’s a legitimate 10x optical zoom, producing incredibly detailed shots. 

Conclusion

The Mate X2 is the best foldable handset at the moment – although to be fair, Samsung’s next Fold device is only a few months away, so the South Korean may catch up or retake the lead. 

The lack of Google services will limit its appeal outside China, and its 17,999 yuan (S$3,719) price tag is going to shock many. Still, the phone sold out in China, and in Hong Kong it’s only available at a marked up price of HK$28,000 (S$4.844). 

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.