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More a pocket camera with phone features than a mobile with a camera, the Huawei P30 Pro pushes the Android handset envelope further than any rival.

Huawei’s P30 Pro is the first phone with 5x optical zoom. It’s also the first to feature four cameras on the back. That’s five cameras all up when you also count the front facing selfie-camera. You get a lot of camera.

This should not come as a surprise. Cameras have been the key battleground for premium phone makers in recent years.

That’s because it is an area that has, until now, remained ripe for further improvement. Most other aspects of phone design are starting to look like dead-ends. One notable exception to this is Huawei’s Mate X folding phone.

All phone makers emphasise their camera prowess. Huawei pushes its skill a little harder than its rivals. The company has two main premium phone ranges; the business-oriented Mate series phones and the P series which is all about photography.

Huawei P30 Pro – everything up-to-date

When it comes to photography, the P30 Pro is, in effect, a physical compendium of all the latest digital camera trends in a phone-size box.

This year’s standout feature is the 5x optical zoom. It is more than any rival can offer. The most I’ve seen to date on a phone is 2x optical zoom.

Huawei P30 Pro periscope
A periscope makes better use of space inside the phone.

Adding 5x zoom to a phone relies on a complex periscope arrangement. To get that kind of zoom you need some depth, that’s hard to find in a phone that’s only a few millimetres thick, so Huawei used a prism to build a periscope through the inside of the phone.

The optical technology took me unawares. Periscopes are hardly new, but they are often big. Who even knew it was possible to fit a useful one inside a handheld phone and still leave enough room for everything else?

Leica

Less surprising is the Huawei P30 Pro’s array of four Leica cameras. Anyone who saw what happened to the razor blade market will know that was always on the cards from the day phone makers all had three camera models. It’s a more-is-more philosophy.

Lens number four is smaller than the others. It’s a depth-sensing time-of-flight camera. It should give better results with portrait images. The depth maps do a better job of separating the subject of a photo from the background. You get a better, more natural looking bokeh effect.

Huawei says it also plans to use this camera later with augmented reality applications. At this point I should offer a few words of caution. Phone makers are often not good at delivering on “we’re going to add this feature later” promises.

The main camera has 40-megapixel and there’s also a 20-megapixel ultra wide angle camera.

Super spectrum

Huawei adds what it calls a SuperSpectrum sensor. Most sensors divide light into red, green and blue. The SuperSpectrum sensor adds yellow to the mix. This lets in a lot more light, Huawei says up to 40 percent more. More light means better performance in low-light conditions.

The 5x optical zoom does what the name tells you. But it enables more zoom options. You can work the cameras together to get a 10x hybrid zoom mode. Push things further and there’s a an option to go all the way to 50x digital zoom.

Software

What amounts to a considerable amount of advanced camera hardware is neatly topped off with a serving of clever photography software. All phone makers talk about their devices using artificial intelligence. That’s not strictly true, not in the sense that the phones are smart enough to learn how to take better picture.

Huawei P30 Pro screenWhat the clever software can do is determine what the camera is pointing at. This could be a face, or a scenic shot with mountains in the background.

Armed with a rough idea of what is in the frame, the software can then adjust the exposure and other parameters. The whole adds up to a new level of phone camera sophistication.

It means in practice that you can often get stunning photos with the P30 Pro. Of course you can still get some naff ones too. But that’s generally down to the talent pushing the shutter button. Mediocre photographers have fewer excuses.

Screen, notch

Away from the cameras, the P30 Pro is a decent premium phone. There’s a 6.5 inch OLED screen. I can’t think of the last time I saw a premium phone screen that wasn’t ‘beautiful’, but this one also qualifies. Huawei has opted for a much smaller notch to house the front camera.

Huawei P30 Pro face recognition and fingerprint reader
Huawei face recognition and fingerprint reader

Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro has 3D face recognition. It’s fast but not a patch on the version Apple uses with the iPhone XS Max. Instead of going down that path with the P30 Pro, Huawei has opted for an in screen fingerprint reader. Maybe I could warm to this over time, but in testing, I found it hard to use and spoiled the overall user experience.

There’s an interesting approach to sound. Instead of an earpiece the front of the front of the phone turns into a speaker. To me this feels like showing off more that genuine innovation. But there you go.

Battery

At the launch function Huawei talked of getting two days battery life from the phone. Well yes, that’s possible if you don’t actually use it.

Realistically you’ll get a long, long working day from it with enough juice to order a cab home late at night. It may still turn on the next day.

In reality you’ll be charging it every night just like every other phone. The good news is that it charges fast. Half an hour gets you to about 70 percent.

Should you forget to turn the power on overnight, you can give it a solid charge while you eat breakfast. Make an extra pot of coffee and go in late if you need 100 percent power.

Huawei P30 Pro verdict

At NZ$1500, the P30 Pro is a big investment for most people. It could be worth the money if you want to spend time mastering the cameras and plan to take a lot of pictures.

If that’s not you, then you’ll find better value elsewhere, including elsewhere in Huawei’s range. You might consider the cheaper and smaller NZ$1100 non-Pro P30. It has a 6.1 inch screen, the same fingerprint scanner and less storage. There are also fewer cameras, only three on the back. It can only do 3x optical zoom.

Expect talk about devices like the P30 Pro putting the final nail in the coffin for standalone digital cameras. When it comes to consumer cameras, that happened a while ago.

The P30 moves the bar a little higher for other cameras. While I’ve found it’s still easier to get better pictures on my digital SLR, I can’t stick that in my pocket. In practice it means I pack the SLR less and less often. We’re quite not at the point of rarely using it yet.

Postscript

When I reviewed the P30 Pro, I charged the phone with a USB-C cable that I already had set up for other devices. In part that was because the phone was supplied with a Chinese power supply.

While packing the phone up to return to Huawei, I tested the supplied USB-2 to USB-C cable. It doesn’t work. This is an example of sloppiness that you wouldn’t expect to find with rival brands and goes some way to explain why Huawei’s core mobile network business faces problems.

Ken Hu Huawei cyber security

At Reseller News Rob O’Neill covers a speech by Huawei rotating chair Ken Hu. Hu says the world lacks a global, common understanding of cyber security.

… In Brussels yesterday, Hu said what the industry needed was a mutual understanding of security to build a trustworthy environment. Huawei was now operating on an “ABC” model for cyber security, he said.

The A stands for “assume nothing”, the B for “believe nobody” and the C for “check everything”.

“Both trust and distrust should be based on facts,” he said. “Facts must be verifiable and verification must be based on standards.”

Government and standards bodies needed to work with all stakeholders on developing such standards, he added. The implications was that a standards-based environment, would help defuse current tensions by creating a vendor-neutral environment.

Hu’s ABC is a beautiful, simple way of getting to the heart of a sensible security strategy at any level. 1

The speech was at the opening of Huawei’s “cyber security transparency centre” in Brussels. With the company under pressure to show that it is not a threat and not a puppet of the Chinese government, Huawei has gone on the front foot.

As the company’s top communications executive Joe Kelly told New Zealand journalists a week earlier at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it’s hard to prove you’re not doing something.

Cyber security as part of a bigger picture

Which explains why Huawei is stepping up its rhetoric to argue against accusations while at the same time maintaining a charm offensive and investing in projects like the Brussels centre.

It was clear at Barcelona that there’s enough high quality business selling communications network to the rest of the world outside of the US and allies like New Zealand who express fears about security issues.

Yet Huawei knows, in the long-term, respectability and trust will get it further. Pushing a cyber security agenda is a good way to get attention. Building centres like the one in Brussels will help build trust.


  1. It is also a great summary of the basic tenants of good journalism. Reporting also needs to be fact based. ↩︎

Huawei Mate X

Huawei’s foldable Mate X was the highlight of this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. At the show it eclipsed Samsung’s Galaxy Fold.

It even outshone the event’s main message: that 5G mobile networks are now ready.

Foldable phones are the most innovative take on mobile hardware since Apple’s iPad.

Until now phones and tablets have been distinct devices. Sure, there is a point when big phones are like small tablets1.

Yet the moment a phone is big enough for serious tablet work, it is too big to fit in a jacket pocket.

Pocket-sized

Mate X gets around that. While some might see it as a phone that folds open to become a tablet, you might equally see it as a tablet that folds shut to fit in a pocket.2

Phone makers love to talk about innovation. Most of the time they use the word to describe small improvements. In the world of marketing hype, bigger screens, faster processors, more camera lenses are improvements.

It’s all good. Today’s phones are a huge improvement on earlier models. But there has been precious little innovation.

For the last decade or so phones have been monolithic slabs of glass and metal or plastic. The Mate X and its kind break with that model.

Huawei Mate X — first generation

This year’s foldable are the first generation. They are expensive. More about that in a minute. Impressive as the Mate X is, you can see a line on the screen where it folds.

I’m concerned that the screen is on the outside where it might get scratched. It’s a little bulkier than a non-folding phone. It feels heavier in the hand than you might expect.

Yet for all these shortcomings, it is impressive. In your hands it feels almost magical. That’s an acid test for exciting innovation.

By the time the Mate X reaches New Zealand it could cost the thick end of four grand. That’s a lot for a phone, more than twice the price of a non folding Android phone and considerably more than the most expensive flagship phone from any brand.

Phone prices have climbed faster than inflation in the last few years. Much of the extra you get when you spend more on a phone is more of the same old features, more screen, more memory and so on.

Expensive, but could be worth it

Folding phones may be a lot more expensive again, but you are getting something significant and different for the extra money.

It is also more expensive than any tablet. The price seems especially high when, at first sight, it can’t do anything that can’t already be done with other, cheaper devices.

Even so, there are many people who can justify the expense because it opens new ways to work. Looking at documents while sitting on a train no longer means squinting at a tiny screen.

Travelling on business no longer means lugging a laptop. You can carry one less thing. There is less to charge, fewer cables to think about. And so on.

There will be a market for folding phones and not just among the geeks who have to buy every new toy.

The start of something bigger

If the idea takes off, it could be that most premium phones will have a similar folding format within a year or two.

Soon the difference between folding phones and everyday phones could be like the difference between smartphones and so-called featurephones.3

There were other foldable phones at MWC. I spotted a TCL model on the Alcatel stand. If the as-yet unnamed Oppo foldable phone was on show, I missed it as I ricocheted pass the company’s comparatively dull-looking stand. It features, with others, in this long report on foldables that debuted at the show.

Huawei’s Mate X is the first of its kind. If you’re old enough, think back to the first iPhone. That wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t cheap. And yet within a few years it evolved to become the must-have device of our times. This is the next generation.


  1. We don’t welcome words like phablets around these parts ↩︎
  2. I say pocket here because I’m a bloke. It also fits into a handbag. ↩︎
  3. It’s daft that phones with no discernible features are given that name, but there you go… marketing. ↩︎

Certain western governments might be uneasy about buying Huawei kit, but phone buyers flock to the brand.

The latest phone sales data from Gartner shows Huawei has won market share from Samsung and Apple. In the fourth quarter of 2018 Huawei sold a shade over 60 million phones. This compares with Apple’s 64 million and Samsung’s 71 million units.

The fourth quarter is usually the most important period for phone sales.

Huawei growing fast

Huawei sales grew nearly 40 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Huawei’s success is that it is, in effect, locked out of the USA.

Gartner senior research director Anshul Gupta says; “Beyond its strongholds of China and Europe, Huawei continued to increase its investment in Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East, to drive further growth”.

Much of the company’s success came from lower price phones. Gupta says: “Huawei also exploited growth opportunities through continued expansion of the Honor series in the second half of 2018, especially in emerging markets, which helped Huawei grow its market share to 13.0 percent in 2018.”

Both Samsung and Apple sold fewer phones in the period than the same time a year earlier. Both companies had falling market share.

Samsung, Apple stumble

Apple suffered a year-on-year fall in sales of almost 12 percent. The company previously said this was largely due to falling sales in China, although numbers fell everywhere except North America and the wealthier parts of Asia-Pacific.

Samsung’s high-end phones failed to turn buyer’s heads. The company strengthened its mid-range models during the period.

Chinese brand Oppo, also enjoyed growth. It is now the world’s number four phone brand by unit sales. It has a market share of 7.7 percent.

The phone market has stopped growing. In the fourth quarter sales were 0.1 percent higher than a year earlier, essentially flat.

Gartner says the mature Asia-Pacific markets (which includes Australia and New Zealand) declined 3.4 percent.

While raw unit numbers excite many phone industry observers, the more important question is which brands are making money.

Huawei at Mobile World Congress 2019All over Barcelona banners advertise the city’s 2019 Mobile World Congress event. The slogan is “intelligent connectivity”. The phrase is about generic as things can be in this business. What is it supposed to mean?

There are answers in the eight giant exhibition halls and the numerous conference theatres that dot the event’s site. Everywhere you look, you’ll see the term 5G. Then the penny drops, fifth generation mobile phone technology is meant to be intelligent connectivity.

Judging by Mobile World Congress, 5G must be at the peak of Gartner’s Hype Cycle. It’s been front and centre for the last three years. Now carriers are building 5G networks and tentatively switching them on. 5G phone hardware is here. It’s all ready to fly except for one thing, practical business applications for 5G are still few and far between.

Huawei everywhere at Mobile World Congress

If it’s hard to avoid 5G hype at MWC. It’s also hard to avoid Huawei. The company’s logo is everywhere. Huawei has the biggest stand in the largest exhibition hall, although the word stand is not the best way to describe a hectare or so of space showing 5G network hardware, end-user kit and even the occasional practical business application.

One user case is a Norwegian salmon farm that uses 5G. Almost all part of its operation would work just as well with 4G or even 3G. However, the fish farmers use 4K television to monitor fish health. They can’t see the lice that attach themselves to salmon on a lower resolution screen and 5G is the only practical way to transmit that much data from the fish pens to the land-based monitoring stations.

Travel for about kilometre on the showground travelator and you’ll get from Huawei’s carrier exhibit to the company’s consumer device stand. There you can see the Mate X, a folding phone handset. It looks like any other 2019 Android handset until you open it out. Then it turns into an iPad-like tablet.

Tablet or phone?

It’s not entirely clear if the Huawei Mate X is a phone that can double as a tablet, or if it is a tablet you can fold up and put in your pocket. Either way, it feels a little like magic when you first get your hands on one. Also magic is that no-one seems to want to use the awful term phablet to describe the device.

The likely NZ price will be the thick end of $4,000 which seems a lot, but for a lot of people this is going to be a valuable hardworking device. Like every other phone is has cameras and all the smartphone trimmings, unlike every other phone it does 5G straight out of the box.

Other phone makers also showed folding devices. Huawei appears to have the edge over Samsung and Alcatel who both displayed folding tablet-phones.

Politics

Huawei’s Mate X was the most talked about phone at Mobile World Congress. The company was also seen in a less flattering limelight. Huawei has been locked out of some markets and is on the receiving end of negative attention from the US government.

The fear is that Huawei is either already using its network hardware to pass secrets to the Chinese government or that it will soon start doing so.

Huawei fought this on two fronts at Barcelona. On the positive front it showcased its products and services aiming to woo telecoms executives with its superior, in some cases outstanding products.

Billion dollar charm offensive

The charm offensive was huge. Off the record I was told Huawei spent getting on for a billion dollars on MWC. Thousands of employees attend. Plane loads of journalists, including myself, were flown in from around the world to see the company in its best light.

Huawei appears to have fed a large proportion of the 100,000 or so people who turned up to MWC. The catering budget must run into many millions.

There was a day zero event. In effect, a mini-conference held the day before MWC was officially open. Huawei used MWC to show the world it is the leader in the technology needed to make 5G happen.

Huawei’s second front was more aggressive. On the second formal day at MWC, Huawei chairman Guo Ping hit back at US claims in a measured, but angry keynote speech. In effect he said what Huawei officials have been telling journalists for months; that the company doesn’t do bad things and that there are no backdoors in network kit.

Nothing yet

Well, he would say that even if Huawei was up to its eyeballs in espionage. But no-one has any evidence of anything untoward to date. While that doesn’t mean nothing is going on, given the scrutiny the company is under, you might expect a whiff of evidence by now.

Those of us who aren’t in Huawei’s inner circle or who work at a high level in intelligence can never know for certain. MWC 2019 debated the questions, it didn’t resolve them.

In hindsight we should probably have guessed that a telecommunications industry event would find itself on the geopolitical front line. From a journalist’s point of view, it’s definitely more interesting that writing about a phone maker putting an extra camera on their back of their hardware.

Disclosure: While Huawei flew me to Barcelona and was a gracious host, the company was MWC’s biggest story by a long shot. I’d have written the same as above if I had paid my own way.