In September last year, Huawei's Mate 30 series launched under "a trade war cloud", lacking Google apps and services thanks to the Chinese tech company's presence on the US Department of Commerce's Entity List. Huawei's access to US technology remains restricted, and the effects of the near-18-month ban are now evident in sales and market share figures.
On the face of it, Huawei is doing fine in the smartphone market, considering the global economic shock caused by the coronavirus pandemic: in Q2 2020 it was the leading smartphone vendor worldwide, according to Canalys, shipping 55.8 million devices (down just 5% year on year), ahead of erstwhile leader Samsung, which shipped 53.7m units (down 30% year on year).
However, Huawei's current success is heavily dependent on sales in its home territory: in Q2 2020, the company shipped 40.2m phones in mainland China -- 72% of the total -- while overseas shipments declined by 27% year on year. It will be hard for Huawei to maintain its lead in the long term, said Canalys analyst Mo Jia: "Its major channel partners in key regions, such as Europe, are increasingly wary of ranging Huawei devices, taking on fewer models, and bringing in new brands to reduce risk. Strength in China alone will not be enough to sustain Huawei at the top once the global economy starts to recover."
In place of the Google ecosystem (including Google Mobile Services and the Play Store), Huawei uses open-source Android with its EMUI overlay, plus Huawei Mobile Services and AppGallery on new phones. Although this arrangement clearly goes down well in China, where Google services have long been unavailable, ZDNet's reviews of Huawei's flagship Mate 30 Pro and P40 Pro+ earlier this year could be summarised as 'great hardware, shame about the lack of Google services'.
We tuned into Huawei's Mate 40 launch event expecting to come away with much the same impression, and perhaps more information on the company's plans for its 'plan B' HarmonyOS.
The Mate 40 series comprises four handsets: the Mate 40, Mate 40 Pro, Mate 40 Pro+, and the premium Porsche-designed Mate 40 RS. Prices range from €899 for the Mate 40 (8GB RAM/128GB of internal storage) to an extremely premium €2295 for the Mate 40 RS (12GB RAM/512GB storage).
The Mate 40 has a curved (68-degree) 6.5-inch Flex OLED Horizon Display with a 90Hz refresh rate -- Huawei passed on 120Hz in the interest of conserving battery life. It has 2376 by 1080 (402ppi) resolution, supports DCI-P3 HDR and incorporates a fingerprint reader. The Pro, Pro+ and RS models have larger 6.76-inch screens with a steeper 88-degree curve and higher 2772 by 1344 (456ppi) resolution, but retain the 90Hz refresh rate.
Other design features include a curved back and a circular Space Ring arrangement -- which recalls Apple's old iPods -- housing the Leica-branded cameras (the RS model departs from this look with an octagonal camera housing). Huawei claims that "mis-operation" of the curved screen has been addressed in software, and has also reinstated a physical volume button as an alternative to the virtual control on the edge of the screen.
The Pro+ model has a 'nano-tech' ceramic back, available in black and white, while the standard and Pro models come in black, white, 'mystic silver' and two vegan leather finishes -- yellow and green. All Mate 40 models have an IP68 rating for dust and water resistance.
There's a big advance on the platform front, with Huawei moving to a 5nm 5G chipset -- the Kirin 9000, which has 15.3 billion transistors (30% more than Apple's A14, Huawei helpfully points out). The Kirin 9000 has an 8-core CPU, a 24-core Mali-G78 CPU and an upgraded NPU (Neural Processing Unit) with two big cores and one tiny core. Power efficiency is improved, to the tune of 25% for the CPU, 50% for the GPU and 150% for the NPU, Huawei says. Meanwhile, Huawei claims that the Kirin 9000's Balong 5G modem delivers 5x the upload speed and 2x the download speed compared to the X55+ modem in Qualcomm's Snapdragon 865+ chipset.
There's a Kirin 9000E variant, used in the Mate 40, which drops an NPU big core and two GPU cores.
Batteries range from 4200mAh on the Mate 40, to 4400mAh on the Pro, Pro+ and RS models. The latter support the fastest implementation of Huawei SuperCharge at 66W, with wireless charging (50W) and reverse wireless charging (5W) also on offer. The Mate 40 makes do with 40W fast charging and no wireless charging.
Cameras are always a Huawei specialty, and the Mate 40 series is no exception. The main rear camera on all four phones is a 50MP f/1.9 Super Sensing wide-angle unit, with OIS available on the Pro+ and RS models. There are ultra-wide angle cameras across the board: 16MP f/2.2 on the Mate 40, and 20MP on the Mate 40 Pro, Pro+ and RS (f/1.8, f/2.4 and f/1.8 respectively). The Pro+ model's ultra-wide camera benefits from an anti-distortion 'free-form' lens. Telephoto cameras are as follows: 8MP f/2.4 with OIS on the Mate 40; 12MP f/3.4 periscope (5x) with OIS on the Mate 40 Pro; and 12MP f/2.4 plus 8MP f/4.4 periscope (10x), both with OIS, on the Pro+ and RS. All but the Mate 40 also have a depth-sensing ToF camera.
Noteworthy videography features include a 'cinematic' 3:2 aspect ratio, Super Steady Shot for smooth video capture, real-time XD Fusion HDR processing for balanced exposure, and AI Tracking Mode. You can also shoot unlimited slow-motion video at 240fps.
At the front, all four models have a 13MP f/2.4 wide-angle selfie camera, with all but the Mate 40 adding a ToF camera for depth sensing and biometrics (face unlock and gesture control).
The only Mate 40 model currently on sale in the UK is the Mate 40 Pro, with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. Available in black or mystic silver, it costs £1,099.99 (inc. VAT).
Huawei's launch event also saw the debut of several other products: Porsche Design Huawei Watch GT 2 (€695), Huawei FreeBuds Studio (€299), Gentle Monster - Huawei Eyewear II (from €299), Huawei Sound (€199), Ring Light Case (€69) and Huawei M-Pen 2 (€99).
So how is Huawei's latest flagship smartphone series likely to fare? Closing the launch event, consumer group chief Richard Yu acknowledged that "For Huawei, nowadays, we are in a very difficult time. We are suffering from the US government's third round ban. It is an unfair ban, making the situation very difficult for us."
Commenting on the launch, Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight was less than optimistic: "Outside of China there is a real risk that the Huawei Mate 40 family of devices could be the company's 'last hurrah' in smartphones. The ever-more punitive sanctions by the US administration are making it increasingly difficult for Huawei to sustain its mobile phone business, particularly outside China."
"It is a tragedy to see Huawei's difficulties in its smartphone division," Wood continued. "The collateral damage from US sanctions, which were primarily aimed at reigning in its infrastructure business, is resulting in market share decline for Huawei outside China. Having once been close to challenging Samsung as the market leader for mobile phones, the division now has a battle for survival as it finds it increasingly difficult to get components and its brand is eroded."