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Huawei takes on Samsung with 'thinnest' foldable smartphone

'Mate X' unfolds to 8-inch tablet and sports in-house 5G modem

Huawei's Mate X foldable phone can be opened into an 8-inch tablet that is thinner than the new iPad Pro. (Photo by Cheng Ting-Fang)

BARCELONA, Spain -- China's Huawei Technologies on Sunday entered the race to dominate the next generation of mobile technology with the launch of its eagerly awaited new foldable smartphone, claiming to have the world's thinnest flexible mobile while packing in next-generation 5G capability.

The launch on the eve of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the industry's biggest annual event, comes just days after Samsung Electronics unveiled its Galaxy Fold flexible smartphone in San Francisco on Wednesday.

It sets the two companies in a head to head battle over the biggest development in smartphone design since Apple introduced its iPhone in 2007. The industry is hoping the flexible phones, which unfold into small tablets, will help to revive consumer enthusiasm amid declining sales.

The Chinese company's phone is designed to showcase its technology prowess. The Huawei Mate X folds backwards, with the screen on the outside. When closed the handset splits into two screens -- a 6.6 inch one as a fully functional main smartphone display and a 6.38 inch one on the other side. When unfolded it becomes an 8-inch tablet which is thinner than the new iPad Pro.

Unlike Samsung's Galaxy Fold, the closed Mate X is completely flat, thanks to a special hinge system, and is only 11 mm thick. Huawei says this is 35% thinner than Samsung's design, which folds inwards like a book and has an extra screen on the outside.

Huawei said its Mate X is priced at 2,299 euros ($2,603) and will be available from June this year. The Chinese company's foldable smartphone is more expensive than its South Korean rival's which sells for $1,980.

The Chinese company said the foldable handset will also be equipped with its in-house designed 5G modem chip Balong 5000. It claims this achieves data transfer twice as fast as the current industry leading standard, Qualcomm's X50, which Oppo and Xiaomi used to build 5G smartphones this year.

"A 1 gigabit movie can be downloaded in 3 seconds [with our 5G chipset]," said Peter Gauden, Huawei's global senior manager of product marketing. "We build the 5G chipset, we build the 5G handset, we also build the 5G networks... We have the ability to test a 5G handset in a live 5G network in-house. This gives us an advantage."

Next generation 5G capability is expected to enable faster data transmission and lower latency, features that will be vital for advanced technologies such as autonomous driving, AI computing, and remote surgery.

Samsung and Huawei are fighting for leadership in a global smartphone market that suffered its biggest ever decline in 2018, with the slump likely to continue this year. Samsung has lost market share to a rapidly growing Huawei which is ranked at number three in the industry, only just behind Apple.

Samsung and Apple -- the world's two top smartphone brands -- saw shipments fall by 8% and 3.2% respectively last year, market company IDC data showed.

Huawei, on the other hand, saw its market share advance more than 33% despite the high-profile dispute with the U.S. over its telecom equipment business. Washington has accused the Chinese company of intellectual property theft and espionage, allegations Huawei denies.

Meanwhile, Huawei's Mate X uses a flexible OLED screen by partner BOE Technology Group, China's top display producer, while Samsung used its in-house manufactured OLED display.

Samsung adopted Qualcomm's latest chipset Snapdragon 855 -- which Xiaomi's latest flagship Mi9 phone also used -- as core processors for Galaxy Fold, while Huawei used in-house design Kirin 980 chipset. Both Samsung and Huawei foldable phones feature a dual battery system and support multitasking on Android operating systems.

"I think Huawei's design is exceeding my expectations... it looks nicer than the Samsung offering," said Sam Pullen, a technology and gadget reviewer told the Nikkei Asian Review. "But my worry is [technically] how Huawei's Mate X bends to be so flat."

Boyce Fan, an analyst at WitsView said a screen that can fold inwards -- like Samsung's design -- is technically more difficult to manufacture than those folding outward.

"Meanwhile, if the screen is folded outward like the Huawei phone, how to protect it from being damaged is another issue," said Fan. The analyst added that the durability of the display is also very crucial for such foldable handsets when it comes to real user experiences. Samsung was more experienced at mass producing such advanced screens, he said.

However, most market watchers agreed that the revolutionary foldable design was still at an early stage, and shipments would be limited in 2019. "In Samsung's case it would be definitely less than 1 million units, and for Huawei, its availability will be even fewer given its access to quality OLED displays... The foldable phone is still an experimental product seeking to first grab international attention," said Roger Sheng, an analyst at Gartner.

Other manufacturers are expected to unveil flexible phones at this week's MWC. Chinese startup Royole already beat Samsung and Huawei with a foldable, launching its FlexPai last October. Xiaomi also confirmed it was working on a foldable smartphone, releasing a video clip in January of an engineering sample that can be folded in three, transforming it from a tablet-sized device to a compact phone.

Nikkei staff writer Lauly Li in Taipei contributed to the report

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