Folding phones aren't ready and 5G isn't here yet

Mobile World Congress is full of prototype phones that promise a future of folding handsets and blazing-fast 5G speeds. Just don't believe the hype.

Michael Simon Feb 26th 2019
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Mobile World Congress feels a lot like a CES vaporware show this year. Sure, there are piles of new phones, lots of talk about speedy processors, and plenty of iPhone put-downs. But the most exciting stuff in Barcelona is either years away or just too new to be taken seriously. That’s especially galling when the industry wants you to buy into all this new tech right now.

At basically every phone briefing I’ve attended, the prevailing words have been “very soon,” “second quarter,” or “mid-2019.” And that’s if there was a ship date announced at all. MWC always has its share of vapory tech, but in 2019, finding something that isn’t a concept or prototype is a rarity.

Over the past few days I’ve heard all about 5G and how it will power the innovations of tomorrow, and how folding phones combine the convenience of a handset with the power of a tablet with none of the compromises. I want to believe all of it, but it’s just not realistic yet, and it probably won’t be for a very long while.

5G is here! Except it’s not

Companies like Alcatel and ZTE are promising 5G devices that make our LTE slabs look like boring old dinosaurs. The problem isn’t that these phones won’t ship—it’s that they won’t be worth buying when they do.

oppo 5gMichael Simon/IDG

Oppo talked about a 5G phone, but didn’t even have a working prototype to show.

5G isn’t just a murmured buzzword at MWC this year. No, it’s literally plastered everywhere. You can’t walk 10 steps without being reminded that 5G has arrived, with Qualcomm leading the charge all over Barcelona with banners, shirts, and posters.

But has 5G really arrived? The Galaxy S10 5G, LG V50, Mi Mix 3, and every other phone that uses the Snapdragon 855 chip won’t be getting the fastest possible 5G speeds. Qualcomm’s X50 modem only reaches 2.5Gbps, while the newer x55 modem, which isn’t shipping yet, can theoretically hit 7Gbps in a thinner and more versatile package. So this first round of 5G phones will be faster than LTE, but not as fast as what 5G is supposed to be.

If that’s too technical for you, don’t worry about it. None of the 5G phones announced this week matter because there aren’t any 5G networks to connect to anyway. So if you buy one of these first 5G phones, you’ll basically be paying for a fancy logo. Maybe we’ll see some 5G infrastructure deployment for smartphones by the end of this year, but it will be several years before 5G is anywhere near as ubiquitous as LTE. 

Bottom line: Don’t let the 5G promise motivate your phone purchase in 2019. It will be smarter to wait until 2020 when phones will be even better.

lg v50LG

The LG V50 ThinQ has 5G and, uh, that’s about it.

Even MWC demos fail to tell a compelling story. Xiaomi’s Director of Product Management Donovan Sun made a 5G video call live on stage to carrier partner Orange Spain using the x50 modem, and it didn’t look any clearer or smoother than an LTE call. Then there’s the promise of downloading a movie in 3 seconds—a common refrain at MWC, as if people even download movies anymore. In reality, the only thing that’s going to get faster is battery drain because today’s 5G is so power hungry.

Folding phones: Look but don’t touch

After Huawei showed off its Mate X folding phone Sunday, there was a mob of people waiting to get a glimpse at it. And that’s all they could do—look—because Huawei had the few devices on hand protected by glass pillars and security guards.

huawei mate x openingMichael Simon/IDG

The Mate X is neat, but would anyone spend $2,600 on it?

I’ll admit that folding phones look cool—to think that in 2019 we have displays that can fold like a sheet of paper (albeit very, very thick paper). And the concept of shrinking a tablet down to something that can fit into your pocket is fantastic. So, sure, the technology is amazing, but like 5G, folding phones are a long way off from being practical, the laughably insane prices notwithstanding.

The only folding phone tech journalists have been able to touch is the Royole FlexPai. I’ve played with it myself. It feels weird and looks weird, and it’s not comfortable to use in either its phone or tablet format.

Granted, the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X look a heck of a lot better than the FlexPai, and I’m willing to bet their versions of Android are light-years ahead of Royole’s OS (especially because Royole is a display manufacturer, not a smartphone maker). But even Samsung and Huawei are pushing first-generation products that consumers would be wise to avoid.

galaxy fold mapsSamsung

I want a folding phone, just not any of these folding phones.

While I haven’t held the Samsung or Huawei foldables—remember, no one has—from close up their displays look like plastic, and they both have visible seams in the right (or wrong) lighting. Neither company has an elegant solution for camera placement, and putting either one of these phones in your pocket will inevitably add an uncomfortable degree of bulk. And battery life and fragility are serious concerns. 

So while MWC T-shirts and banners may celebrate the future is here, it actually feels like the future remains beyond our grasp. 5G. Folding phones. Touchless gestures. If you squint, it’s all very Westworld and Minority Report, but in focus, none of it is actually ready to transform our lives.