In the 1980s there was a popular TV game show in the UK where contestants played darts for prizes. They had opportunities to gamble their winnings for bigger prizes. If they chose not to gamble, the host would say, ‘Come and look at what you could have won’, before revealing the star prize.
I had something of that feeling when reviewing a range of Huawei consumer electronics products. In this case though, it would have been something like, ‘Look at what you could have bought [if the US hadn’t taken action against Huawei.]’
In fairness though, none of the products reviewed have been outright banned from sale, but the restrictions imposed by US trade sanctions are such that, for many potential buyers, the core product here – the Huawei Mate 40 Pro – is difficult to feel comfortable buying, as it doesn’t include Google’s GMS, meaning no Play Store and the non-operation or unconventional operation of some apps, even if they can be located, using for example, Huawei’s Petal Search application.
The point of the this test though, is to review some highlights of Huawei’s 1+8+n strategy. This strategy places the smartphone at the heart of two concentric circles of devices. The 1 represents the smartphone. The 8 are Huawei’s own partner devices. The n represents the extended array of devices that can be woven into partnership with the other devices. Several other smartphone vendors are also using a similar strategy.
For this test we were provided with the Huawei Mate 40 Pro as the ‘1’. Representatives of the ‘8’ included a computing device in the shape of the Huawei MateBook X – a compact and very light notebook PC, a wearable – the Watch GT2 Porsche Design, and two hearable devices – the Huawei FreeBuds Studio and the intriguing Huawei Gentle Monster glasses.
So, do these devices work as a cohesive set that introduces levels of seamlessness rarely seen in consumer electronics? Let’s find out.
Huawei Mate 40 Pro: Great Hardware, But Still Some App Gaps
We’re not going to exhaustively review the phone. But it’s worth touching on some of the highlights and lowlights about the central device in Huawei’s strategy.
The Mate 40 Pro is based on the latest (and last..?) HiSilicon chipset, the HiSilicon Kirin 9000, which is based on the same 5nm EUV process as the Apple A14 Bionic and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. However, unlike the Apple A14, the HiSilicon Kirin 9000 integrates the modem into the single chip. Unfortunately for Huawei, it was prevented from continuing production beyond mid-September 2020 owing to US sanctions, so the company was only able to make a limited number of Kirin 9000s that it is gradually burning through, and will, at some point, run out of completely, unless the US does an unlikely U-turn on its approach to Huawei.
The Mate 40 Pro is equipped with a 6.76-inch OLED display in an 18.5:9 aspect ratio. The display has radically radiused edges. While the design looks sophisticated, when apps have a white background the colour at the edges is distorted, which doesn’t look so great. And some apps run text so close to the edge of the screen that letters at the beginnings and ends of lines are almost obscured by the edges of the display. Ultimately this makes the display feel like style over function. A less radically radiused display may look a little less appealing, but would probably work better in practice. In addition, the colours the display renders seem almost muted. Even with the display settings option set to ‘Vivid’ the display somehow lacks the normal punch seen on high-end OLED displays. This is especially noticeable on greens that can look a little dark, for example Spotify’s logo doesn’t look quite right.
The Kirin 9000 is an SoC with an integrated 5G modem. We were eager to try the performance back to back with our previous best on test OPPO Reno 4 Pro. The OPPO ‘only’ has the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G chipset with an integrated Snapdragon X52 modem. We would have liked to test the Kirin 9000 against the Snapdragon 888, but did not have a device available with which to carry out the comparison. The tests were performed within line of sight of a Vodafone 5G base station. We used two apps for the tests: 5G Mark, which performs a series of tests that replicate real-world type applications, it then provides a numerical score, and Open Signal, which is a more traditional speed-test application. The tests were performed sequentially on each device rather than in parallel, so variations in the network congestion may have played a part in the scores, but we repeated the tests several times to try to average-out any individual test anomalies.
On 5G Mark, the best overall score achieved by the Mate 40 Pro was 176,403 with a peak download speed of 259Mbps and upload of 71.4Mbps. The OPPO achieved a best overall score of 87,897 with a peak download speed of 139.3Mbps and peak upload of 51.8Mbps.
On Open Signal, the Mate 40 Pro achieved a peak download speed of 416Mbps and a peak upload speed of 84.5Mbps. The OPPO achieved a peak download speed of 266Mbps and a peak upload speed of 62.7Mbps. So, across both testing applications, the Mate 40 Pro was noticeably faster than the OPPO.
Cameras are the technology that Huawei has led the smartphone market in for many years. The Mate 40 Pro is near the pinnacle of Huawei’s camera development. And while it is truly excellent, others are now catching up, and in some cases, arguably, are slightly better. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for the best camera phone, then the Mate 40 Pro will not disappoint. The following are a sample of some of the images we captured. Some can be compared with those taken in an earlier test, albeit with smartphones from lower price tiers.
This still life arrangement looks good, with life-like colour reproduction.
The colours and resolution are pleasing.
The detail of Evie’s coat is well-captured, there’s good separation of the subject and background, and the colours of the wall in the background are faithfully reproduced.
This was difficult lighting as the sun was behind cloud except in the background, so light levels were low on the subject but the background is bright. In addition, several steps of zoom were engaged. It’s not a beautiful photograph, but the camera has done well to resolve as much as it has.
Astronomic shots are one of Huawei’s ‘party tricks’, but other smartphone makers are catching up.
Huawei AppGallery: Ghosts from Windows Phone’s Past
Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS was good, but app developers looked at the numbers of Windows Phone users and decided not to bother supporting the platform. This ultimately doomed Windows Phone to failure. Huawei is, justifiably, proud of the progress it has made in developing an alternative app store, the AppGallery, and in persuading a huge number of developers to bring their apps to Huawei’s devices. But the reality is that despite Huawei’s best efforts, there will always be apps that don’t work, or don’t work as they should. The set of apps that people use is as unique as each individual. So, many people may be able to find almost all the apps that they use on a daily basis. For me, however, there are several that I use and that simply don’t work without GMS. And that’s non-negotiable; I could not live with this phone. Some apps, however, say they won’t work without GMS – for example Microsoft Teams, but actually work fine. Potential buyers therefore need to be sure that the apps they use regularly are straightforwardly available without having to resort to what can feel like questionable work arounds.
One aspect that is almost comically bad is Huawei’s own ‘intelligent’ assistant. It goes by the name Celia and, in my limited testing, is almost completely useless. For example, if I ask Celia what the time is, she refers me to internet search results. If I ask a maths question, I am referred to internet search results. It should be stated that no search results were actually offered. The only thing that Celia seemed capable of doing was setting an alarm.
So, despite the power and sophistication of the Mate 40 Pro, I can’t help feeling that it is hobbled by the lack of GMS. It is technically feasible to side-load GMS, but would you really want to do this on a $1500 phone if there’s a chance of screwing it up and finding yourself out of warranty?
Huawei MateBook X: Great Hardware Again, But An App Gap…Again
This is perhaps the neatest and best-made laptop I’ve used. It weighs a whisker over a kilo (2.2 pounds), packs a 13-inch screen into a chassis with footprint smaller than an A4 piece of paper. The hinge has just the right amount of friction so it moves with ease but stays where it’s put. The chassis is made from an aluminium magnesium alloy that’s both very light, but robust – so despite its diminutive size and weight, it actually feels tough. The touch screen is decently bright and the touch works well. The keypad is pleasant to use but the trackpad lacks feedback on ‘mouse’ clicks. This is because it relies on a haptic motor for user feel. It can be adjusted however.
The particular model we’re reviewing is running a 10th generation Intel Core i5 processor with 16GB RAM and a 512GB SSD. We have not run a full suite of tests on the performance, but we have compared it to an Apple MacBook Air running the new M1 chip, and the performance of the Huawei is dramatically poorer. We ran a test in Excel written by a Counterpoint Research analyst. When this test was done on a several mostly Core i7-based laptops, we were getting an average of 38.9 seconds with the fastest at 18 seconds. The Huawei MateBook X managed the test in a snail-like 92 seconds. By comparison the Apple MacBook Air M1 scorched the test in just 1.88 seconds! So for heavyweight Excel tasks we would steer clear of the MateBook X. But for light tasks, the i5-powered MateBook is okay.
And whereas battery life on the MacBook Air is excellent, the MateBook X, while not bad, doesn’t really compare with the latest Apple M1-powered device. You can expect a battery life of around seven hours in normal use – checking email, writing documents and surfing the web etc. Anything more intense will reduce the battery autonomy. All in all, it’s around half the time the Apple M1 is achieving in similar types of use.
What I had been looking forward to, however, was the ease of interacting with the Mate 40 Pro smartphone. I have attended many demonstrations where a Huawei smartphone is seamlessly paired with a Huawei notebook PC. This allows for a complete replication of the smartphone on the PC and makes shifting photos, for example, as easy as drag and drop. However, when I came to try to pair the PC and phone, I could not get it to work. I tried multiple times, rebooting the phone and PC, but to no avail. I tried troubleshooting with the PC Manager application, and online, but nothing helped. In the end, I resorted to using the USB-C cable to connect the devices, but this is not the promised functionality.
As with most notebook PCs the webcam is terrible. Why this is the case, especially in the light of COVID-driven home working where webcams have suddenly taken-on added significance, is beyond the scope of this review. However, the position of the MateBook X webcam is strange. It is embedded at the top of the keyboard and pops-up when required. This positioning was presumably done to allow for the largest screen real-estate and super-thin bezels. And one clear benefit is that it can be closed, so the user can be confident that no-one is spying on them via some sort of back-door malware. The downside however, is that it is very difficult to position the laptop in any way to take a flattering image of the user. This lack of webcam quality is especially egregious coming from Huawei, that produces some of the very best smartphone camera systems.
Equally mystifying is why there is no cellular connectivity option (and never has been on prior Huawei laptop PCs). When asked, Huawei typically says that it is complexity and cost few users want or need when Wi-Fi is so plentiful. However, most Wi-Fi hotspots are super spreaders for malware, while others, such as those typically found in hotels, are often ponderously slow. We can’t help feeling this was a missed opportunity.
So, while the MateBook X is a lovely device, it is priced around the same as a MacBook Air M1 with a similar memory configuration, but there is no comparison in terms of performance. And the much touted interaction with the Huawei smartphone almost completely failed to live up to expectation. So, all-in-all, a disappointment.
Wearables & Hearables
Watch GT2 Porsche Design: Slick with Long Battery Life
We are no stranger to the Watch GT2. We had one to test in 2019 and used it during a swim run competition. Huawei updated the GT2 in 2020, adding the GT2 Pro. What we have here is the special edition Porsche Design version of the GT2 Pro, but it’s fundamentally the same watch, but just with marginally fancier cosmetics, and costing a lot more money.
And as a smartwatch, it is handsome. The titanium chassis is paired with a titanium linked bracelet, which can be shortened by removing links. However, a resin strap is also provided and, as this was more practical for the types of activities I do, I switched to the resin strap for the test. The face of the watch is clad in sapphire crystal and the back is ceramic. The display is a 1.39 inch AMOLED of 454×454 pixels. The watch uses Huawei’s own OS, so it is not compatible with Wear OS apps, for example. The battery life is excellent. In the two weeks I used the watch I only needed to charge it once.
Set-up and sync is via Huawei’s Health app, which tells you something of where its focus is relative to wearable devices. The primary functions are health and fitness related. It supports a wide array of sports, and sensors provide for things like, sleep monitoring, 24-hour heart rate monitoring and even SpO2 (blood oxygenation), which has come to the fore in the current COVID pandemic.
The Health app is a closed loop though, with no apparent ability to share workout data with other platforms such as Strava. For me this renders the device useless as a sports watch. I have been telling Huawei this for several years, but there’s been no change. There are a small number of apps that can be downloaded to the watch. I tried Fitify, but everything in the app was chargeable, so I was not able to try it out. Fitify does not report to Strava and its programmes seemed to be based mostly on bodyweight or gym-based workouts.
One really irritating aspect of the watch is its habit of providing regular, loud, updates on progress during a workout. For example, if running, every kilometer, the watch will shout out your progress and heart rate. I thought I had found a way to silence it, but no, it’s still shouting at me every time I do something. I can see that some might find this useful, but it should be possible to silence it if, like me, you find it maddening.
Huawei X Gentle Monster Eyewear II: Slightly Strange
One of the most intriguing devices in the package we’re reviewing, is a set of eye-glasses by Gentle Monster. The ones here have clear lenses and, presumably, can be specified with corrective lenses. Versions as sunglasses are also available. The arms of the glasses have embedded loudspeakers and connect via Bluetooth to the phone. There are no buttons on the arms of the glasses but gestures can be used to control the audio output. The case acts as a recharging port, but the case doesn’t have any independent means of charging the glasses; it needs to be plugged into a USB-C charging cable.
I normally wear glasses, so these were slightly difficult to review because they do not have corrective lenses. However, I tried them while wandering around my house. The audio quality is reasonably good considering the speakers are firing into the air around the ear, rather than into it, as is the case with conventional earphones. Call quality is also relatively clear, though the person I was speaking to said the sound on their end was a bit harsh.
The biggest issue though, is one of sound leakage. Because the speakers are just broadcasting sound, it is easy for anyone nearby to also hear what is being broadcast. This means the glasses would not be appropriate for use while commuting on public transport. They could however, be used while running or cycling, although wind noise may become an issue at speed. We can see some use cases though, for example, providing audio guidance while navigating.
I use a variety of hearable devices. My go-to hearable for activities such as walking and running is the Aftershokz Aeropex. For public transport, flights (when they’re possible), and general music listening, I like over-the-ear headphones such as Bose QC35 or Sony WH-1000XM3. Overall, I found the Gentle Monsters more of a novelty than a device that I could see myself using regularly. But some might find utility in them.
Huawei FreeBuds Studio: Good, but…
And talking of the Bose QC35 and Sony WH-1000XM3, the final product in this review is Huawei’s contribution to the active noise cancelling (ANC) over-the-ear headphone landscape, the FreeBuds Studio. These are available for less than $200; which is a fair bit cheaper than comparable Bose and Sony models.
The FreeBuds Studio include a solid design and dual-connectivity, so you can maintain a phone connection while listening to music on a PC, for example. The ANC has a number of modes, from off, to full ANC, to a hear-through mode that passes through external ambient sound. The hear-through mode is useful for being aware of public address announcements, for example, but it sounded a little unnatural, and I wasn’t keen on the voice that announced the change of states. The headphones contain an array of microphones that help isolate the wearer’s voice from background noise. Overall this worked well in my limited tests.
The headphones have buttons to manage the change of ANC state, power and Bluetooth pairing. Other controls, volume, stop/start, skip etc. are managed by gestures on a touch area on the right earpiece. These work well, once the fairly intuitive gestures are learned. They are also aware of when you remove them and will pause music and restart when they are put back on.
Battery life is just about okay at around eight hours in ANC mode, but less than my Bose which will easily handle a full flight from London to Hong Kong or San Francisco – i.e. more than 12 hours. But recharging via USB-C is fast and easy.
However, I don’t find the FreeBuds particularly comfortable to wear. This is, of course, subjective so someone else may find them just fine. The music quality was, to my ears, inferior to both my now three-year old Bose and two-year old Sony models. It could be that with longer use the FreeBuds would develop greater warmth, but they just don’t deliver the music quality of either of the other two headphones.
This was an interesting test. Many smartphone makers are adopting a similar strategy of surrounding their smartphones with a set of related products. Apple is the archetype here with not only partner devices, but also an array of services.
Based on this test, however, I didn’t find many of the Huawei partner devices particularly compelling – either on their own, or in concert with the smartphone device. And even the central smartphone device is now hobbled by the lack of GMS services.
So rather than a case of ‘Come and look at what you could have won’, it’s more like, ‘Imagine what could have been’.
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