It’s understandable people worry about Huawei phones. Recent news reports suggest the company either is, or could one day, use its network equipment to help China spy on or disrupt other nations.

If that’s true, then the company’s phones may also be weaponised.

Huawei phone owners can relax. Well, actually you can’t, read on to find out why. But, unless you work in an important strategic role, Huawei’s brand on your handset is not your biggest phone problem.

While it is possible China’s spies are interested in hearing you call home to say “I’m on my way” or knowing how often you watch cat videos, it’s unlikely.

Easier routes to your data

And anyway it would take a lot of resources and energy to get that information from your phone when there are easier tools at a spy’s disposal.

As another recent online snooping scandal shows, spies can and probably do buy the information they need from Facebook or Google.

We’ve heard that Russian trolls know enough about individuals to target them with vote-changing propaganda.

The level of data available from Facebook or Google is so intimate that motivated snoops can know things about you that none of your close acquaintances do.

They know…

They know if you are closeted. They can know you’re pregnant before your family does. They definitely know if you’re unhappy. They know your prejudices and you musical taste.

The most chilling revelation about Cambridge Analytica is that even seemingly disconnected data helps build a picture of your mood. It reveals what you are thinking.

A Huawei phone’s inherent insecurity has less to do with its country of origin, more to do with the Android operating system.

That means much of your personal information automatically goes back to Google and is for sale. It knows where you’ve been, what you bought, who you talk to and so on. We’re told the data is anonymous, but that doesn’t stop companies from being able to identify and target you.

You agreed to be spied on

You agreed to this when you bought an Android phone. You confirmed your agreement when you clicked on the permission button when setting up the phone software. You agreed all over again when you first used Google Maps. And so on.

If you’d like to double down on enabling malevolent snoops, install a Facebook or Instagram app. Once one of these is on your phone, little you do remains a mystery to anyone with curiosity and a budget. Facebook takes this snooping to another level.

Some people reading this will think it’s quaint and old fashioned to be concerned about personal privacy and security. Perhaps it is.

In most cases the nature of information gathered by Facebook and Google is more valuable to spooks than having a back door into your phone. And a lot less trouble.

Insecurities

One other thing to consider. Given that Facebook has, and continues, to act in bad faith, you can’t trust the company’s promise it keeps your data safe. Spies may be able to buy your Facebook data. State sponsored attackers probably know how to steal it.

All the above applies to any other Android phone whether it is made in China or South Korea.

If you worry about owning a Huawei phone, you should worry about it being an Android phone.

Things are more serious if you work in the military, in a strategic sector or deal with trade secrets. Spies are as likely to be interested in blueprints for cutting-edge engineering as they are in troop placements.

Risk management

Another set of rules applies if you work in those roles. Foreign governments would like phone level access to your data. Even if there’s any truth in the allegations Huawei phones are only marginally more risky than, say, a Samsung phone. That said, extra prudence won’t hurt.

It may also pay to invest in extra security features. Samsung has a nice line of enterprise-grade phone security.

An iPhone looks safer, although Apple isn’t entirely squeaky clean in this department. While Apple gathers data, the company makes a virtue out of protecting its customers in a way the Android phone makers do not.

Apple’s business model is selling hardware and services. Google’s Android business model relies on collecting personal data. It’s that simple.

By all means be cynical about Apple’s claims. Skepticism is healthy. The world would be a safer place if more consumers thought these things through before buying devices. And also be aware that you can blow much of Apple’s protection the moment you install Facebook or any other pernicious data gathering app.

You have no business worrying about Huawei handing over your phone data to Chinese spies if you’re happy to hand over the same information to the likes of Facebook and Google. It’ll probably end up in the same hands either way.

Disclosure: Bill Bennett has travelled to China and elsewhere as Huawei’s guest on three occasions. He owns an iPhone and keeps tame Androids for testing purposes. 

Huawei is no longer welcome as a phone network build in some western democracies.

There’s an unproven suspicion the company is already spying for China. Even if it is not spying, western governments are wary of depending on a Chinese firm for critical infrastructure.

Sooner or later those fears about Huawei network equipment will spill over into phone handsets.

Negative headlines and ministerial statements here and overseas have already damaged Huawei’s brand. It could get worse.

Implications

What could fear of Huawei mean for the phone market?

It may lead to reduced choice, higher prices and less innovation. Mind you, the second two are already happening, with or with a Huawei effect.

Last year Huawei was the fourth most popular phone brand in New Zealand. It sits behind Samsung, Apple and Vodafone. Huawei had roughly ten percent of the market by unit numbers. The top two brands dominate by a long way.

Because Vodafone-branded handsets are at the low-end of the market, Huawei was number three in terms of revenue. Huawei’s share of revenue was also about ten percent. This number matters more than unit sales.

Huawei fast growing

Also important, Huawei was by far the fastest-growing phone brand in New Zealand both in terms of unit sales and revenue growth. It took market share from both Apple and Samsung.

Huawei plays an important role in New Zealand’s market. It puts pressure on the top two brands and ensures Android phone buyers have a plausible alternative to Samsung.

New Zealand is one of Huawei’s better markets. The phones are invisible in the US. In Australia Huawei is number five in the market, but with a much smaller share. Apple sells roughly 18 phones for every phone sold by Huawei. Samsung sells about 12.

Both Australia and the US have been wary of Huawei network hardware for some time.

Fear spill over

Of course other factors are at play, but it’s reasonable to assume those network security fears have something of a knock-on effect in the handset market.

It’s likely something similar will happen here.

Phone buyers might reason that if ministers and intelligence agencies are concerned about snooping at the network level, the same might apply to Huawei mobile phones, tablets and personal computers.

At the same time, people might look askance when a phone owner reveals they own a Huawei handset. Phone snobbery is real enough already, this is another level.

Employers might decide they don’t want employees doing business on a Huawei handset. There doesn’t need to be an outright ban, a lot of frowning will have a chilling effect.

Retail

It may even become harder to buy a Huawei phone. If things get worse, it’s possible the telcos will want to distance themselves from the brand. That means you either won’t see the handsets in Spark, Vodafone or 2degrees stores or they will be relegated to almost under-the-counter status.

Huawei may decide it needs to ramp up its marketing to calm customer fears. It’s possible, the company is good at talking to the industry, but consumer communication has not been a Huawei strength.

Who wins?

If consumers and retailers turn their back on Huawei, it will take price pressure off rival phone makers. Samsung will benefit most. Huawei has been snapping at Samsung’s heels for some time. Huawei Android phones tend to be as good as Samsung models, but cost a little less.

Apple stands to benefit too. We’ll come back to that point in another post.

There’s every possibility that unease about Huawei phones will spread to other Chinese brands.

Oppo has made a splash here, but the brand needs to work hard to explain why it should not be tarred with the same brush.

After all, if the Chinese government can bully its most prestigious technology company into handing over data, stomping on a smaller player will be simple.

All of this is speculation. It’s possible the scare goes away. It could be that New Zealanders don’t follow Americans and Australians in treating the Huawei brand with caution or suspicion. But on overseas evidence, we should prepare for a phone market shake up.

In my next post about Huawei, I’m going to look at why spying-related suspicion about the company’s phone handsets is misplaced.

Disclosure: Bill Bennett has travelled to China and elsewhere as Huawei’s guest on three occasions.

Nokia 7.1 phone You can spend the thick end of NZ$2000 and get a premium Android phone. Or you can spend NZ$600 and get the Nokia 7.1.

Either way you’ll get a good phone. One option will save you a small fortune.

As far as hardware is concerned, the Nokia 7.1 is not far behind more expensive Androids. Nothing vital is missing.

While the Nokia 7.1 hardware comes close to matching Android phones costing three times as much, its Android One software is arguably better.

 

Design nods at iPhone X

Like many other 2018 phones, there’s a whiff of the Apple iPhone X about the Nokia 7.1 design. It has the same almost all screen front. When the display lights up there is a notch. The rear is made of glass.

Despite this, you wouldn’t mistake the Nokia 7.1 for an iPhone when it’s in your hand. Although there is more than a passing external resemblance, if there is one area where the 7.1 falls short of any 2018 premium phone it is in the feel. Mind you, it doesn’t fall far short.

According to HMD Global, the company that makes Nokia-branded phones, the 7.1 has a gloss steel finish. In other words metallic sliver with copper highlights. It is also shiny looking.

The colour of the case visible under the Apple-like glass back is almost identical to the colour of my iPhone XS Max.

There’s a pleasing solidity to the phone in your hand. But it is rougher around the edges. The machining and build is great, but not quite as smooth as more expensive phones. The edges don’t taper, they are squared off.

Mid-range power plant

One area where Nokia saved money is the processor. A Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 chipset powers the phone.

It’s a year old mid-range phone processor. It won’t win races against more expensive phones. Yet you could say a lot of today’s high-end handsets are overpowered.

Unless you are a serious phone gamer or use a demanding app that shouldn’t be on a mid-range phone anyway, you are unlikely to bump up against any speed limits.

The 3,060mAh battery is a little less than you’ll find on a top end phone. While this is the weakest link in the 7.1 chain, it isn’t that weak. I found the phone could go all day with plenty left in the tank so long as I didn’t hammer it. Few phones do better in this department.

Like many other late 2018 phones, the Nokia 7.1 will charge fast through its USB-C port. There’s no wireless charging here, what do you expect at the price?

Camera

It has a dual camera and can take bokeh portraits. This last feature now seems to be standard everywhere.

The 12 megapixel main back camera is not up to the standard of more expensive phones, but the gap is so small that causal phone photographers may never notice. Cameras seem to be more important to phone makers than most customers

My only gripe is that contrast can be poor in low light conditions.

My favourite aspect of the Nokia 7.1 is that it uses Android One. This means regular software updates and security patches, something most Android phones still can’t manage.

It also means an absence of clutter. Most Android phone makers load up their devices with apps that no-one really wants or needs. Their software overlays do not add value. Some detract from the phone experience.

You might not choose to put the Nokia 7.1 at the top of your list if you are a keen mobile gamer. The processor may not have the necessary grunt.

Nokia 7.1 verdict

Despite the handful of minor niggles mentioned here, the Nokia 7.1 is great value for money. Those niggles are when comparing the 7.1 with phones costing more than twice the price.

If you don’t want to pay for cutting edge features that you may never need, this would be a good choice.

The Nokia 7.1 is only available from Spark in New Zealand. It’s an ideal choice for someone looking to get more phone for less money. If you buy phones for employees or for younger family members this will stretch your money further, with few compromises.

Mid-October is as late as a phone launch can be for the new model to feature in the all important Christmas sales quarter. Today Huawei showed New Zealanders the Mate 20 Pro. It clearly aims to challenge Samsung for space under the Christmas tree. Huawei needs to get a move on. While customers can order the phone from Friday, it doesn’t official go on sale until the first week in November.

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro is the first mainstream phone to sport a fingerprint reader embedded in its display.

Like most other premium phones this season, the Mate 20 Pro has a huge screen. Unlike most rival models, it has three cameras on the back.

Huawei has gone for a 6.4 inch QHD Oled display on the Mate 20 Pro. It’s big, so is the battery Huawei rates it it at 4,200 mAh. The non-Pro Huawei Mate 20 is a fraction larger again.

The battery charges fast, to 70 percent in 30 minutes. There’s also a slower wireless charging option. One nice twist is that you can wireless charge suitably equipped accessories such as ear buds from the phone.

 

7 nanometre processor

In contrast the technology in the Kirin 980 processor that powers both phones is tiny. It’s Huawei’s first 7 nanometre phone processor.

This puts Huawei in line with Apple which also uses 7 nm technology in the A12 chips found in the company’s 2018 iPhones.

That’s not the only on-paper similarity to the iPhone XS. The Mate 20 Pro has 3D face recognition software.

While you may not need both face recognition and a fingerprint scanner in the same device, having the two is an impressive show of techno prowess.

Glass slab

Doing away with a separate fingerprint reader makes the phone an even more featureless slab of glass.

There are obvious physical comparisons with the Apple iphone XS series, yet in the hand the Mate 20 Pro looks and feels more like a Samsung Galaxy S model than an iPhone. Indeed, from the front it’s hard to tell the Mate 20 Pro from the Galaxy S or the iPhone XS Max. Either phone designers all think alike, or they’re playing follow-the-leaders. 

As always with modern premium phones, marketing emphasises the camera or in this case cameras. There are three on the back include a 40 megapixel camera, a second 8 megapixel camera with a telephoto lens and 20 megapixel wide-angle camera.

This last camera replaces the monochrome camera that is in Huawei’s P20 Pro. I’ll let you know how this works in practice when I get some hands-on time with the phone.

Android 9

Huawei has upgraded EMUI, its Android overlay software. For me this has always been one of the weakest links in Huawei phones. It still looks a lot like iOS to the casual observer. I swear some of the app icons are direct copies of Apple’s icons. Huawei’s other weak link has been tardiness when it comes to upgrading phone software. There’s a promise this will improve. At the launch Huawei told journalists there is already an upgrade for the software in the review phones.

As the name suggests, EMUI 9 is a variation on Android 9. Huawei says it optimised the software to speed up regular tasks.

Given the processor has also had a speed bump, the phone should be a lot faster and smoother than earlier models. Having said that, speed and smoothness never felt like problems with recent Huawei phones.

First thoughts

Like Apple Huawei has ditched the headphone jack in favour of wireless connections. This is something that upsets some people. It’s time to accept that a physical jack is now an anachronism.

The Mate 20 Pro goes on sale at NZ$1599. That puts the Mate 20 Pro on a par with the Oppo Find X and makes it $200 cheaper than the $1700 Samsung Galaxy Note 9. My impression is that Huawei wants to stay competitive on price in New Zealand. On paper Huawei has the price edge,

It needs too. Samsung dominates the Android phone market. For many users it is a tried and tested brand with, one exploding model aside, a clear track record. Huawei is not well established yet. It sales are tiny compared Samsung’s phone numbers in New Zealand hence the aggressive price. I’ll write about whether it is worth the money when I give it a proper test.

A mechanical pop-up camera means the front of the Oppo Find X is almost entirely given over to the display. It has the thinnest bezels of any phone on the market today.

According to Oppo, the Android phone has a screen to body ratio of ‘93.8 percent’.

That number is way more precise than we needs. It says a lot about how Oppo can have interesting ideas, such as a pop-up camera, yet still miss the point about what makes a phone great.

If anyone cares about the screen to body ratio to the nearest 0.1 percent, no amount of technology is going to fix their problems.

While the notchless all-screen front is an achievement, Oppo should would do better to focus more on the user experience, less on meaningless mathematical precision.

There’s something else about that number. The 93.8 percent only applies when the camera is retracted. When it’s in the shooting position there’s a huge bezel across the top of the phone. Because the camera pops up when you use the phone, it’s there a lot of the time. In other words, you only get that small-bezel effect some of the time.

Value proposition?

Another thing Oppo needs to think more about is a product’s perceived value. The Find X sells in New Zealand for $1500. That’s a lot of money by any standard. It puts the phone is the ultra-premium category.

Aiming for this space is fair enough, after all, that’s where phone makers make profits. Yet for the last 18 months Oppo has pitched itself to New Zealand buyers as a low-cost alternative to Samsung or Apple. This scraps that strategy.

Find X’s price matches best-selling phones from the market leaders. That’s a brave move by Oppo.

Let’s put this price in context. The Oppo Find X costs NZ$100 more than the Apple iPhone XR or Samsung Galaxy S9. If you spend NZ$300 more than Oppo wants for the Find X and you can have an iPhone XS. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 costs NZ$200 more than the Find X.

Top tier?

So is the Find X in the same ultra-premium class as this year’s iPhone and Galaxy models?

The simple answer is no. While it is close, it doesn’t match the world’s best.

This is clear the moment you pick the phone up. The review model is in a purple-red colour Oppo calls Bordeaux Red. It looks good, but so does every other phone costing more than around $700. Oppo has achieved the minimalist goal of a smooth case fronted by a sheet of glass and with three buttons on the side.

The phone does not feel as well-engineered as the latest Apple or Samsung models. There’s a distinct ridge where the screen meets the case and another between the back of the phone and the case. OK, that’s not a huge deal, but Oppo’s rivals are better machined.

Likewise the phone doesn’t feel as good in the hand. Admittedly not everyone will agree.

What else is different?

Away from the pop-up camera, there are two other important features: fast charging and three-dimensional face scanning.

The face scanning is similar to the technology used on Apple’s iPhone X. Although it doesn’t work as seamlessly as Apple’s face scanning, the difference in performance is minimal. Let’s not quibble about this. Chalk one up for Oppo. When you unlock the phone the camera pops-up.

Oppo uses something called Super VOOC charging. It is fast, but not linear. Oppo says it is the fastest charging technology on the market at the moment. Super VOOC will charge a phone in 35 minutes. This is good as it means you don’t need to carefully plan charging before you leave your home or workplace for any length of time.

You will want to get it all the way to 100 percent. This gives about 18 hours use. More if you don’t spend all your time on the phone, less if you’re an intensive user.

Pop-up camera

The pop-up camera is clever. It’s not clear if it will capture people’s imaginations or if most consumer will be happy living with screen notches.

Anything mechanical that can wear and tear is less reliable and more trouble than solid state electronics. That’s not an opinion, it’s an immutable law of the universe.

Oppo says the camera can handle 300,000 pop-ups. If you look at your phone 40 times a day it should last 20 years. We’ll see.

Away from the pop-up camera and fast charging the Oppo Find X is good, but not outstanding compared with rival NZ$1500 phones.

It is fast. So is every other expensive phone. The screen is nice. That’s also standard fare. While Oppo’s cameras and photography software belongs in a lower division than Apple, Samsung or Huawei, it is still outstanding.

Earlier Oppo phones featured the company’s ColorOS, a software overlay that makes Android look and feel a lot more like Apple’s iOS. That’s not the case here.

Oppo Find X verdict

Android fans may feel otherwise, but the Find X has nothing like Apple’s ease of use. If I’m going to use Android I prefer the purer version you find in Android One phones like the Nokia range. These are less than half the price of the Find X.

Should you choose the Oppo Find X? It’s not a bad choice. You won’t be disappointed. None of the expensive phones on the market are sub-par.

I can’t help think that the pop-up camera is a novelty more than a helpful feature. It’s fun the first few times, but that wears off fast. Of course it might strike a chord with buyers, but I have doubts about that.

A fast processor, nice screen and outstanding photography are table stakes in ultra-premium phones. If the pop-up camera appeals and you like a notch-less all-screen phone front, then this is for you. Otherwise you’d do better looking elsewhere. That doesn’t have to mean another brand: Oppo’s NZ$800 R15 Pro offers far better value for money.

Story changed because the Find X uses a newer changing technology.