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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

This giveaway is over. Natasha Quick from Auckland and Paul Cumming from Geraldine each won a Nokia 7.1 mobile phone. Congratulations. I found a slightly older Nokia 7 Plus in my review cupboard and held a bonus draw. Julia Norton won that phone. Congratulations to the winners and thanks to everyone who took part.  I used an online random number generator to pick the winners and first announced the results this morning on Twitter. The process could do with a little refinement, I plan to offer more giveaways between now and Christmas, so stay tuned. 

Original Post:

Spark has given me two Nokia 7.1 phones worth $600 to giveaway to readers. To find out more about this phone, check out my recent Nokia 7.1 phone review. The phone is remarkable value for money and has a non-nonsense version of Android. I like it a lot.

To win one of the phones you must use the panel on the right of the screen to subscribe to my site via email. You’ll need to have a valid email address and be a New Zealand resident to win the prize.

I have no intention of spamming anyone who signs up, although at some point in the future you might get an invitation to get an email newsletter. Nor will I sell or otherwise give your email to anyone else.

The other thing you have to do is leave a comment below this post saying you wants to be included in the draw. Only one entry per person. I trust you not to abuse this.

That’s it.

Entries close at midnight on Sunday November 25. I’ll announce the winners in the comments at the bottom of this post On Monday November 26.

This is my first giveaway, so it’s a test run of the procedure. If this works well, there’ll be a number of other giveaways between now and Christmas.

A couple of words about the phones. The first one is in an unopened box. The second one is the model I used to review the phone. That means I used it for a few days, it’s not scratched or damagaged. I’ll remember to reset it before I send it to you by NZ Post when the competitor closes.

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.

Many recent phone launch presentations have been all about the camera. Most of the rest spend more time talking about their phone cameras than anything else. I can’t think of a single phone presentation I’ve seen in the last three years where the camera was relegated to a footnote.

Apple, Samsung and Huawei all want you to know their phone cameras are better than before. It is always true.

They’d also like you to think their cameras are better than their rivals. That’s a losing game. They are all excellent. But each excels in different ways.

You wouldn’t be disappointed with the camera in any premium phone. You might find one phone misses a camera feature you’d like, or is a touch weaker in some department. You might find one suits your style, works the same way you do or has a user interface that’s easier to understand. Either way, they are all good.

Apple iPhone XS camera

Phone cameras good, getting better

Indeed, phone cameras are now exceptionally good. So good that the stand alone camera market looks doomed for everyone except professionals and serious amateurs willing to part with lots of money.

Forget whinging about a NZ$2800 phone, the starting price for a full frame mirrorless camera from Sony, Nikon or Canon is about twice that. And then you buy extra lenses.

The low-end camera market is already dead. The mid-range is struggling. There is almost no casual stand-alone camera market these days.

It’s still worth buying a standalone camera if you want consistent great pictures

There are good reasons to buy a high-quality standalone camera if you want to take great pictures.

The physics of camera optics means that, in general, you get better images with a bigger and better lens along with a big sensor array. You also need some distance between the lens and the focal plane where light hits photosensors.

None of this is possible in a phone which is often less than 10mm thick. Phone cameras have small lenses. There is almost no distance between the lens and the sensor array. Sensor arrays are also small, usually smaller than a fingernail while a more traditional digital camera might have an array the size of a matchbox.

Phones have plastic lenses, which, on the whole, are not as good as the glass lenses in cameras. Plastic can distort images. Phone makers spend millions developing better materials and techniques to reduce this, but glass still beats plastic.

Phone cameras get around physical shortcoming with heavy duty computer processing. Upmarket phones have two or even three lenses. They combine their images to create better pictures. Most of the time this gets around the distortion.

Software does the heavy lifting

They do a hell of a lot of this in software. Which brings up an interesting philosophical point: Are they capturing reality or are they making it up?

You may wonder why phone makers keep putting faster and faster processors in their phones. After all, none of the last three or four generations of flagship phones have been slouches when it comes to handling most computing tasks.

The main reason for the extra grunt is to handle image processing. It’s a data-intensive task and phones have to do it in microseconds.

Phone makers love to tell you their models use artificial intelligence. Most of the time phones use the results of earlier AI work to inform their brute-force image processing. They don’t do on-the-fly artificial intelligence to process your pictures.

The results are impressive. When Apple gave me a demonstration of the iPhone XS Max, I was struck by how much like a digital SLR the results can be, in the right hands.

As much as I try, my iPhone or Huawei shots are never as good. I still get far better results from my ageing but trusty digital SLR. The pictures are often good enough to use in print.

Mirrorless

If I was to buy a new camera, I’d go for a modern mirrorless design. Until recently this would have meant a Sony Alpha, but Nikon and Canon now have tempting alternatives. I can’t put my finger on it, but to my eyes Canon images look better, so the Canon EOS R would be my probable choice.

Mirrorless means the camera doesn’t have a traditional optical viewfinder like an SLR or digital SLR. Instead you see the same image that the sensors see. This makes the cameras simpler, smaller and lighter.

For consumers stand alone cameras are on a path to becoming a retro-tech thing like vinyl records or analogue music synthesisers. Professionals will go on using standalone cameras. But the market is slowing.

I still take a camera along when I travel overseas or cover a conference as a journalist. The more traditional controls easier to use, even if I spend most of the time on automatic setttings. When I need to fiddle, it’s easy to tweak dials and press buttons than hunt for controls on a phone screen.

Having said that, often I find myself on a reporting job where the only camera to hand is my phone. If I take a little time, I can get good pictures with that too. I’ve already noticed I’m less likely to pack the standalone camera when heading out to cover a story. I no longer keep it handy, charged and ready to go. That’s not the case with my phone.