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24 hours with Huawei’s Mate 30 Pro: Incredible cameras, gloomy future

Can a Google-free smartphone really work for Huawei?
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Huawei is at the center of a storm, barracked by sanctions that block it from working with its key partners. Its latest handset, the Mate 30 Pro, runs Android, Google's operating system, but can't access Google's services, so no Google Play, Google Maps, or YouTube. But Huawei is putting a brave face on all this, saying that the prowess of its cameras will make you forget all about Google.

The Mate 30 Pro has some of the best cameras ever found on a smartphone, as well as one of the most powerful mobile chips out there. It has a gorgeous wrap-around display and speakers that will fill a room with sound. But is any of that technical brute force enough to make you forget about all the things you'll be giving up?

Gallery: Huawei Mate 30 Pro hands-on | 10 Photos

The hardware

Huawei Mate 30 Pro

To start with, I've been using a Mate 30 Pro designed for the Chinese market, an LTE-only model that's full of apps specific to the region. The hardware itself may be a nightmare to photograph, but it's a delight to just put on a table and gawp at, no matter the angle. It has a gorgeous, 6.53-inch, 2,340 x 1,080, Samsung-made, curved OLED "Horizon Display," wrapping around the body like the Galaxy S10 series.

Around the back, four cameras are housed in a chamfered circle known as the Halo Ring. It's intended to make the phone look more like a camera, and it works: It reminds me of Panasonic's Lumix CM1 Camera/Phone hybrid from 2014. There should be no ambiguity about what this device is for: it's a camera first, and a smartphone second.

The wrap-around screen means all of the physical buttons on the sides have been eliminated, bar sleep/wake, halfway down on the right-hand side. The volume keys are now all software, and you double-tap on the edge of the phone to reveal the volume slider. Similarly, a selfie button pops up where the volume down button would sit, to offer you a second shutter trigger.

I could grouse about how slippery this all-metal back is, but in an age where all phones live in cases, what would be the point? I suspect that the vegan/fake/leatherette backing that'll be offered on these devices will be much easier to handle.

The cameras

A large part of Huawei's pitch for the Mate 30 Pro was the new four-camera array. Imaging has been the final frontier for plenty of phone companies, and CEO Richard Yu suggested that the Mate 30 Pro could be used to shoot real (as in theatrical) movies. It wouldn't be the first, with iPhones being used to shoot Unsane and Tangerine, amongst others.

Gallery: Huawei Mate 30 Pro Sample Gallery | 36 Photos

The Mate 30 Pro has two 40-megapixel sensors, an 8-megapixel, f/2.4 telephoto lens and a 3D depth-sensing camera. The f/1.8 "Cine Camera" packs a 1/1.54-inch sensor with a maximum ISO of 51200 -- the same as Sony's Xperia XZ2 Premium from last year -- for low, low-light shooting. It is capable of shooting in 4K at 60fps, as well as a super slow-motion mode at frame-rates topping out at 7680 fps.

During the keynote, Huawei showed the Mate 30 Pro's camera capturing the beating of a hummingbird's wings, a real feat. I was cynical, but after chasing a bee around Munich, the results were staggering. Sadly, the automatic motion-detection and focusing could be a little better: the video catching a bee in flight took several attempts to capture.

We already know how good Huawei's phone cameras are, developed in partnership with Leica, and liberally using its branding. The P30 Pro is rightly considered one of the best Android camera phones on the market, with the DXOMark scores to back it up. It looks as if the Mate 30 is more of the same, and arguably even better at video capture.

The 40-megapixel, f/1.6 "SuperSensing" lens has a 1/1.7-inch sensor, and promises to be able to shoot in low light, with an ISO setting of 409600 if you need it. Huawei has taken the opposite approach to Google, liberally throwing in hardware and hoping that bigger sensors can best AI smarts -- though it has a bit of that too.

In comparison with the Pixel 3XL, the Mate 30 Pro's pictures look clearer. Details are good, but I especially saw the distinction between them and, say, an iPhone's warmer, more color-orientated reproduction. In daylight shooting, the Mate 30 Pro is able to pull out a lot of detail even from the shadows thrown by strong light.

The Pixel 3XL (Left) and the Mate 30 Pro (Right)

You might be familiar with Huawei's prowess in low-light photography, so in order to test just how powerful Huawei's latest phone camera is, I went out into my back garden in the dead of night. There's no artificial light at all, and you need a torch to see where to put your feet, it's that dark. The Mate 30 Pro, with the ISO set to 409600, didn't disappoint. It was able to highlight the hopscotch markings my daughter had drawn on the stones.

I've repeated this test a couple of times in other pitch-dark areas, and every time, the Mate 30 Pro has highlighted detail. Once again, the night vision capabilities of this thing are genuinely staggering.

When it comes to shooting flexibility, the 8-megapixel telephoto lens offers 3x optical zoom, 5x hybrid or up to 30x digital-only zoom, matching that of the P30 Pro. Details at extreme zoom have been cleaned up a little, and you can certainly get good images at 20x zoom. I wouldn't recommend pushing things further than that, however, unless you're trying to do some zapruder-level image forensics.

I won't say much about the 32-megapixel front-facing camera, since it's quite similar to the P30's. There's all manner of Leica-branded effects, all of which look and feel a lot more natural on this device than its immediate predecessor. But otherwise, if you're looking to take lots of pictures of your mug, then you'll find plenty to like about the Mate 30 Pro.

Performance

The Mate 30 phones are the first chance anyone's been able to test Huawei's new 7-nanometer Kirin 990 chipset (not to be confused with the more powerful Kirin 990 5G). The 990 packs eight cores: Two big (Cortex-A76 at 2.86GHz), two middle (A76 clocked at 2.09GHz) and four little (A55 clocked at 1.86GHz). Alongside that is a Mali G76 graphics chip and two Ascend D110 Lite neural processing units for facial recognition (the Kirin 990 5G packs an extra Ascend D100 Lite).

The phone is staggeringly quick in normal use, with no discernable delay waiting for Face Unlock to work. The under-display fingerprint sensor is similarly fast, and everything is snappy and responsive in a way you would expect at this sort of price.

Playing Fortnite and PlayerUnknown's BattleGrounds is, naturally, a doddle, even with the settings dialed up to 11. (Well, almost: the Epic graphics option on the former is unavailable, I suspect because the phone is pre-release, it's not yet properly calibrated). Pretty much everything I was able to throw at this phone, it handled -- except for, weirdly, YouTube in the browser. Again, this is pre-release hardware, so I assume that'll be smoothed out by launch.

While I'm not the sort of idiot who would ever play music on my phone without headphones, I do often listen to podcasts at home, with my phone on the countertop beside me. The Mate 30 Pro has acoustic display tech, so that the sound comes out from behind the screen as well as the speaker on the bottom edge. Both in terms of quality and volume, I was surprised at how clear speech was on this thing, and how much it filled my echoey kitchen.

Huawei says that the Mate 30 Pro's 4,500mAh battery is sturdy enough to last for 9.2 hours of "heavy" use. Certainly, I've struggled to really wipe out this phone in normal use, even while doing some intense camera and video work, and playing some games. In about six hours of shooting, I managed to knock just 22 percent off the battery, and I would expect it to run for at least a day and a half before needing a recharge in normal use. One issue I did have with performance was the unwanted bloatware. I hope that the retail version is scraped clean of some of this, but I doubt it will. And we're still in the dark as to where the Mate 30 is going to be sold, anyway.

Why is Huawei under sanction?

Huawei's troubles stem from the allegedly close relationship between its leadership and China's government. Founder Ren Zhengfei served in the Chinese military and, though denied, it has been implied that the company could be used in the service of espionage.

Between 2017 and 2019, the US began revealing details about investigations surrounding Huawei's business practices. At the start of this year, the company was charged with the theft of trade secrets and using a shell company to evade US sanctions against Iran. It also stands accused of building a communications and surveillance network for North Korea, of all places.

Since then, the US has added Huawei to an entity list, sanctioned it, and pressured other governments to do the same. A number have pledged to closely monitor, or actively strip out Huawei technology used to support its cellular infrastructure. These sanctions also block US companies, like Google and Qualcomm, from selling its products or working with Huawei.

These rules have been tightened and relaxed multiple times, with numerous delays handed down by the US. But it's clear that, without a major shift in Sino-American relations, Huawei will remain persona non grata in the US.

If you're looking to upgrade from your existing Android phone, then you need to know that this isn't the sort of device you can load from a backup and carry on as usual. The Mate 30 runs Android 10, draped in Huawei's EMUI 10 skin, but it's not really an Android phone as you might know it. Huawei is, presumably, unable to reference Google's trademarks for advertising under the sanctions, and it's not likely to draw attention to the issue. Instead of the Google services you'd expect, you'll find Huawei's alternative: the Huawei App Gallery.

In China, where Google Play is often blocked by the Great Firewall, the App Gallery is a reasonable replacement. And there's an understanding that Android and Google aren't one and the same, which is a very different situation to here in the west.

As of right now, plenty of apps you may expect to see are not available for download inside Huawei's store, including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, which are now reportedly blocked from running on new Huawei devices, as well as Spotify, Twitter, and Netflix. And, naturally, if you use Gmail, YouTube or Google Maps on a regular basis, you're going to have to use them inside your browser, or find a replacement.

There are two versions of Android that Google develops on a regular basis: Android, and Android Open Source Project. AOSP, as it's better known, is the Android operating system, but with the hooks for Google's Mobile Services (GMS) stripped out. AOSP is open-source and is designed to be used by anyone, for any purpose, including commercially.

In countries where Google is banned, like China, the majority of devices use Android AOSP with their own app stores. AOSP helps Google maintain dominance in the world's devices, even if it isn't directly working with those manufacturers. A cynic would think that AOSP was designed as a way for Google to avoid antitrust lawsuits, since it doesn't have a monopoly over Android. But the recent fine exacted upon Google by the EU, specifically concerning its mobile services, has changed that.

Some apps will be available from Huawei's App Gallery, and others from third-party stores that can access the phone. It's also possible to sideload apps from other Android devices, but any that use Google's APIs are likely to be broken.

During the event, CEO Richard Yu said that he Mate 30 would have an unlocked bootloader -- enabling people to install Googleified versions of Android onto the device. Shortly afterward, Huawei walked back this claim, saying that it had no plans to do so, a confusing bit of messaging. That said, it's not clear how many people would buy this device full price in the hope of installing an Android ROM on it to acquire basic functionality.

Huawei is launching a two-pronged attack to get over these issues, firstly by promising $1 billion in cash to help developers port their apps "over" from Android. The company has also made informal noises that, should the sanctions be lifted, it could add Google back to the Mate 30 in under a day. That's little comfort to buyers who may be thinking about spending a thousand Euros on this phone on the promise of something in the future.

Huawei Mate 30 Pro

Huawei's Mate 30 Pro reminds me of Nokia's 808 PureView, a device with extraordinary imaging prowess, held back by its software. Nokia's hulking phone was the first to offer 41-megapixel images, crunched down to a manageable size by pixel oversampling. The images it produced were brilliant, but it was a difficult device to sell, because of its OS. It ran Nokia's moribund Symbian OS (for quasi-dumb phones) as the world was making the transition to Android.

It's just hard it is to bootstrap a mobile ecosystem in the shadow of the twin giants of Android and iOS. webOS, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Tizen and even MeeGo all tried to offer an alternative, all to varying degrees of failure. No amount of money thrown at developers can overcome the risk that comes with building software for a niche platform. On the other hand, the fact that these devices still run Android may mean it has a better chance than some.

The Mate 30 Pro, meanwhile, is a device with staggering imaging and video capabilities that is hamstrung by its poor, or nonexistent, app selection. Many things can change between now and the as-yet-unknown release date, but right now it has a lot of holes. Imagine walking into a store and being told that this device wouldn't play videos from YouTube. Or being unable to download WhatsApp -- unless Facebook decides to throw its weight behind the platform.

The Mate 30 Pro is another Huawei phone with pitch-perfect hardware, but if you rely on Google's services (and if you use Android -- you do) you should not buy this. At least, not until Huawei's geopolitical fortunes improve.

Update 9/23/19 4:46AM ET: This article has been updated with the correct CPU specs.


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