To an untrained eye Huawei’s HarmonyOS looks like the Android phone operating system. Officially the company says it is not a copy of Android. But that’s not what your eyes will tell you if you give it try.
HarmonyOS is the company’s response to changed market conditions. Huawei aims to establish it as a third phone OS alongside iOS and Android. It hopes HarmonyOS will reach beyond phones to tablets, watches and smart speakers.
Soon owners of recent Huawei phones including the Mate 40, P40 and Mate 30 models will be able to upgrade to HarmonyOS. The word upgrade needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Few users will see much of an improvement.
Why is this happening?
It took 18 months for Huawei to go from the top rank of phone makers to become a distant runner up.
Two years ago the US government put sanctions on Huawei. It is no longer allowed to licence or otherwise use US technology. Most of all, it can’t use Google Mobile Services.
This is the glue that makes an Android phone useful. Among other things it gives users access to Google’s cloud, to the Play Store and to Gmail. Google Maps and YouTube are off limits. Users can’t buy things with Google Pay.
Huawei pitches its 2020 Matebook 13 as an Apple MacBook Air alternative. That’s not my words, this is a quote from Huawei executive who said this at a recent industry function.
Comparisons with Apple are a big deal at Huawei. The company wants to be China’s Apple.
While there are similarities, it’s not a direct comparison. Few people who choose one of the other.
Apart from anything else, Huawei runs Windows 10 and the MacBook Air runs MacOS. Switching between operating systems is not something you’d want to do every upgrade.
Matebook 13 versus MacBook Air
How does the comparison work in practice?
The review Matebook 13 sells for NZ$2200 and uses an Intel i7 processor. It has an Nvidia MX250 graphics processor, 16GB of Ram and 512GB of storage.
The nearest MacBook Air costs NZ$2350, had the same 512GB of storage. You get 8GB of Ram and an i5 processor.
Given the specifications, it is no surprise the Matebook does processor intensive work better than the MacBook Air. To be fair, Apple doesn’t sell the Air for this work, the company points power hungry users at the MacBook Pro models.
In testing the Matebook beat the Apple for video editing. Otherwise there was less difference that you might expect give the different processors.
Simple versus complex
If you use a laptop for simple tasks like, writing or answering emails, then any performance gap between the two is academic. The Matebook 13 does a better job with, say, manipulating large Excel spreadsheets or complex calculations.
The MacBook hard drive is much faster than the Matebook 13’s drive. The MacBook Air could send large files to a server in about half the time it takes on the Matebook 13.
When it comes to graphics, the MacBook Air beats the Matebook 13. The 13.3 inch screen has 2560 by 1600 pixel resolution. The Matebook screen is a fraction smaller at 13 inches and has a 2160 by 1440 resolution. If you compare the two side by side, Apple’s display is far more impressive.
Apple wins by a long margin on battery life. You can work on a MacBook Air for ten hours between charges. In my testing the Matebook 13 ran out of juice a few minutes before the six hour mark.
One strange point of comparison is with weight. Huawei’s specification sheet says 1.3kg. That’s as near as it can be to the MacBook Air which Apple’s tech sheet says weights 1.29kg.
When I picked the two computers up, the Matebook 13 felt heavier than the MacBook Air despite these specifications. I weighted them on our, not accurate but still indicative kitchen scales. The MacBook Air was 1.3kg and the Matebook 13 was 1.4kg.
That goes part way to explaining the practical difference, but not the whole way. The Matebook 13 is smaller than the MacBook Air. It measures 286 by 211 by 14.9 mm. The Air is 304 by 212 by 16 mm. Which means the Huawei computer feels heavier because it is denser.
This could be nitpicking, until you put the two computers in bags and carry them around all day. Both are light and easy to carry. Yet you’ll notice the Matebook 13 a fraction more than you’ll notice the MacBook Air.
Small and neatly formed
Both Apple and Huawei take a pride in build quality. The Matebook 13 almost hits the MacBook Air standard.
There are two places where it fails. First, the power button which doubles as a fingerprint reader. Apple’s square Touch ID sensor sits at the top right of the keyboard. It feels like any other key. Huawei’s round button sits north of the top right of the keyboard and doesn’t feel as solid as Apple’s key. There’s a small amount of wobble here. You can live with it, but it shows Huawei doesn’t have the same attention to detail.
A more obvious annoyance is the Huawei Share sticker on the keyboard’s bottom right. This is next to the as disfiguring and tacky Intel advertising sticker.
It’s amazing, computer makers go to extreme lengths to design sleek, beautiful hardware and then spoil the effect with stickers. Many are needless aesthetic wreckers, the Huawei Share sticker is not. It has a function.
Huawei Share lets you connect your Matebook 13 to a Huawei phone. The idea is loosely similar to the features that let Mac owners swap files and photos with iPhones or iPads. When you’re working with a Matebook, these Apple-Huawei comparisons are never far away.
Unlike Apple’s phone-computer integration, Huawei Share mirrors your phone’s screen on the laptop screen. I can’t think of why this might be useful, but you might.
It has to be a Huawei phone. That’s an oddity right there. Huawei may be New Zealand’s third favourite phone brand, but it enjoys, at best, a ten percent market share. If you draw a Venn diagram of the New Zealanders who have both a Huawei laptop and phone, it’s unlikely the overlap would be more than a couple of hundred.
A few last comparisons that don’t fit elsewhere. On paper both the Matebook 13 and the MacBook Air have the same Wi-fi specifications. In practice, the MacBook’s Wi-fi works better over longer distances. I connected both to remote servers via home Wi-fi and saw better speeds on the MacBook Air. I can speculate on why this is, but a proper answer is beyond the scope of this review.
Like Apple, maybe because of Apple, Huawei has gone for port minimalism. There are two USB-C ports and a 3.5mm headphone jack. You can only charge the computer using the left-hand USB-C port.
Matebook 13 versus MacBook Air verdict
You get more computer for less money with the Huawei MateBook 13. You’ll be hard pressed to tell the performance apart despite the specifications. That is unless you run demanding apps. If that’s you, then you’ll appreciate the more powerful Matebook.
Apple’s MacBook looks and feels nicer, it has a better screen and way more battery life. Which means if you don’t need more processing grunt, it could be a smarter buy.
And yet few would choose between a Matebook 13 and a MacBook Air on these criteria. If you prefer Windows 10 or have to use it for work, the Matebook 13 gives you the most-MacBook Air-like Windows laptop experience.
This makes it harder for people who purchase new Huawei phones to find the big name apps. Among the ones that are hard to get are WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Google Maps.
Popular apps missing
Not having the most popular apps is a barrier to selling phones. Ten years ago Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system floundered because the world’s largest software company didn’t include the most popular apps.
It’s technically possible to run a lot of popular Android apps on a Huawei phone.1 To get them users are required to do a lot of the leg work.
Some popular Android apps can work through a browser, in many cases with less functionality.
In practice the workarounds can be tedious and laborious, the kind of dreary repetitive tasks that technology was meant to eliminate.
That may not be a barrier to people reading this blog post, it will be a huge problem for less tech-savvy phone buyers. There’s another problem to consider that we’ll get to in moment.
Easier, not easy
Huawei aims to make the task easier. Its main, long term, strategy is a Huawei-branded App Store. Many apps have made it to the Huawei App Store. But there are millions, Huawei says around three million, more apps out there.
The company is racing to fill the Huawei App Store, but that will take time. It needs to convince developers to offer tweaked versions of their software. Huawei’s base software is Android, which means Android apps don’t need much work to make the cut. Yet, building Huawei specific versions is not going to be a priority for every developer.
Petal Search is Huawei’s interim alternative. It lets users search for non-Google Play versions of Android apps. In many cases these can be downloaded from developer sites or from third party app libraries.
While it works fine on one level, it is far from perfect. For a start, apps stores have conditioned users to expect timely, automatic updates when software is refreshed. Petal Search doesn’t fix that. You could find yourself running insecure versions of apps – as if the Android world wasn’t insecure enough.
And this brings us to the other big problem. App store owners are supposed to vet apps for quality and security flaws. This doesn’t always work as it should, but there is safety going through the big official app stores.
Petal Search risks
Petal Search can leave you wandering through the seedy backstreets. It can be risky.
Huawei doesn’t need to worry about Chinese customers, they don’t use Google Play Services. There are other countries where Google is less important. But for the western world, the company has millions of phones in circulation that will, in the coming years, be up for renewal. If the Huawei app experience disappoints, they won’t be upgrading to a Huawei phone.
And that’s the huge barrier facing Huawei. It doesn’t matter how great the hardware is, nor does it matter if Huawei sharpens its pencil and drops prices to bargain basement levels. Without access to the apps phone buyers want to run, those fancy phones are lifeless slabs of glass, plastic and metal. They will be almost impossible to sell.
Although paid apps and apps requiring subscriptions can be extra tricky. ↩︎
A word of warning: there will be popular paid for or subscription Android apps that won’t run on this phone. That said, if you use that kind of software, it’s unlikely you’d be looking for a bargain basement phone.
The phone hardware is promising enough. Huawei says that 5000nAh battery is good for 32 hours of video playback. It will handle 20 hours of web surfing using mobile data. In normal use you should go two or more days between charges.
Charging other phones
Huawei has included hardware that allows you to charge other phones from the Y6P. You’ll need to buy a separate reverse charging adapter to do this.
The adaptor is not available on Huawei’s New Zealand website at the time of writing. Finding one online shouldn’t be a struggle, but it highlights a lack of attention to detail. It’s something you wouldn’t expect Apple to miss.
Almost the entire front of the phone is a 6-inch 720×1600 display. Huawei’s specification sheet says 6.3-inches, but the image doesn’t go to the edge of the display.
Huawei calls its display Dewdrop. That’s a fancy way of saying the camera notch is tiny compared with other phones. It is, but in practice it is no less irritating.
Phone makers spend a lot of time talking about cameras. This is the main area where the Y6P departs from premium phones. Keep in mind, the Y6P is at least a grand cheaper than today’s top handsets.
There’s a 13 megapixel camera on the back. It comes with a 5MP wide angle camera and a 2MP depth camera for bokeh shots. The front camera is 8MP.
No-one is going to get excited about the phone’s photography. It’s more than adequate, roughly in line with what you might find on a premium phone three or four years ago. This is more than enough for casual photography, but don’t plan to shoot you next movie on the Y6P.
It’s not a fabulous phone. Yet the Y6P is great value. The big problem is that while it looks like and feels like an Android, it isn’t.
Although you can work around the restrictions, you may not want to. There will be readers who enjoy that challenge. You may have better things to do with your time.
If you’re quick you can buy the Huawei Y6P phone for $200. After August 10 the price will be $300. ↩︎
China’s Huawei Technologies snatched the title of biggest smartphone seller from Samsung Electronics in the second quarter, underscoring the resilience of the China market even as global demand for phones plunged amid the pandemic.
Huawei shipped 55.8 million devices in the April-June period, trumping Samsung’s 53.7 million, according to data from research firm Canalys.
There’s not much in it and phone companies can, sometimes do, manipulate ‘shipping’ data. Numbers for China are notoriously rubbery.
Yu also said Huawei plans to challenge Apple. Samsung may have been the best selling phone brand, but Apple is the one that makes all the money and is recognised by its rivals as the leader. That’s another story.
What’s remarkable about Huawei passing Samsung this year is the company can’t sell a thing in the US, one of the largest markets. It is also hamstrung by US sanctions that mean it can’t use new American-made technology from companies like Google or Microsoft. Most important of all, this means Android.
The pandemic could have been another barrier between Huawei and its phone sales ambition. Covid-19 hit China hard early on and disrupted the country’s supply chains.
Huawei made it to the top rank on the back of dominating sales in China, the world’s biggest phone market.
It’s not all good news for Huawei. The company’s phone sales were down five percent when compared with the same period a year ago. Meanwhile Samsung sales fell 30 percent. Huawei’s non-China sales fell by almost as much: 27 percent.
It’s likely normal service will be resumed when markets recover from the pandemic. Samsung can press home its Android advantage. The company has moved closer to Google since the US pushed its main rival away from the search giant.
There’s a possibility the lack of Android and Google services has yet to sink in with Huawei’s non-China customers.
Yet for now, we can let Huawei enjoy reaching its long-held goal.