4 things I think about the Huawei Mate 40.

Huawei’s had a very rough 12 months and I’m impressed that they still managed to pull a new device out of the hat despite President Trump’s best efforts to derail its business. But Mate 40 would’ve been at the pointy end of development when the trade ban deepened and thus couldn’t pivot to the still forthcoming HarmonyOS because it probably isn’t ready for prime time.

A quality software offering is only one of the many question marks surrounding any new Huawei flagship. Here are a couple others:

The world is flat again

Firstly, being able to distil your entire launch event down to two minutes after you launched no fewer than five devices doesn’t seem like a good thing. Especially because the first 20 seconds is filler. In 2019 Huawei inexplicably removed the hardware volume rocker from the Mate 30 Pro because of the dramatic “waterfall” display curves.

This was a massive fail in product design and something that they have kind of corrected in this year’s Mate. I say “kind of” because the waterfall display is still here and all the drama that comes with it is still active. Mate 40 will be one of the least durable devices because Huawei hasn’t evolved its thinking beyond the idea of¬†eliminating¬†bezels so that there’s one more thing to dunk on the competitors with.

Flat displays allow third party screen protector manufacturers more freedom to produce products that will ultimately improve the customer experience. Even Samsung is moving away from curved displays in a bid to up the durability of its devices and limit its environmental impact. You see, the manufacturing yield on curved displays is lower that flat, which means energy waste for the units that can’t be fitted to devices.

This is not my preferred brand of innovation

Here’s a brief overview of the Huawei new product playbook: look at what Apple is doing with the iPhone and try and copy it completely. It’s no surprise that the Huawei ecosystem video that was playing before the Mate 40 announcement livestream actually set off Siri on my iPhone when the narrator summoned “Celia.”

Look, every high-end ARM foundry worth its salt is changing to a 5nm process so it comes as no surprise that the two most vertically integrated smartphone brands – Huawei and Apple – would come to market with similar processors. This has been happening since Huawei got its Kirin shit together on the Mate 10 Pro.

The engineering fight is a big part of the reason I love tuning in to a Mate announcement.

But the rest of the card tells a sad story of a government-backed institution that cannot stick the landing on any of its applications of its tech. Remember force touch on the Mate S? Nothing came of it because Huawei only wanted to say they had it on the spec sheet. The neural processing unit (NPU) stood idle for all applications outside of camera scene recognition until Apple began unpacking its purpose for hardware acceleration.

Name a feature besides for the simulated variable aperture (portrait mode with adjustable blur) and night mode that Huawei brought to market and the other manufacturers copied?

Full screen gestures, yes, but that was Google baking it into Android and not other phonemakers directly integrating it into the feature set.

My criticisms of Huawei’s product strategy is similar to why I don’t enjoy TikTok: most of the perceived value is just a copy of an original idea. If you like a video on TikTok you end up scrolling through an endless playlist of other people doing the exact same thing to varying degrees of success. And most of everything else is teasers and promos designed for you to stay on the platform.

The trade ban is unfortunate, but Huawei won’t really be missed in the smartphone market because it never really brought anything new.

That camera is intriguing

The bulk of my P40 Pro review was spent unpacking the illusion of Huawei’s camera tech. Mostly ranting about the fact that you’re never truly in control when shooting in auto mode, even if you’ve turned off all of the AI optimisation settings.

Huawei uses the multiple cameras on its flagship devices as one big lens with different focal lengths. This is evidenced by the zoom slider instead of a clear settings toggle or button to select which lens you want to use – which should almost always be the main shooter. The phone will then decide which lens to use even after you’ve dialled in your settings. That system would skip the ultrawide for all instances except macro photography, until now.

This FreeForm lens is a legitimate gamechanger for the way Huawei utilises its camera system and I am very interested to check out how it will improve a known weakness on its flagships.

Mate 20 Pro ditched the monochrome sensor that I loved so much and replaced it with a half-baked ultrawide lens. The Mate-series camera has never truly recovered from that hardware shift, no matter how big it makes its image sensor.

This could be a swansong

Hopefully Biden prevails and undoes Trumps trade shenanigans. If not then this will be the end of Huawei as we know it. Huawei allegedly only has around 10-million of the Kirin 9000 chips because it can’t source from TSMC or Samsung. There aren’t really other 5nm foundries around that can skirt around the trade restrictions, so what we see is what we’ll get.

Without a flagship leading the marketing armada, the halo of technological superiority will slip. This is a turning point for Huawei as it struggles to remain relevant until it can let HarmonyOS out into the wild and protect itself against external forces like a rogue US president.

HarmonyOS will allow the company to better integrate hardware and software, which could then optimise for older processor tech to achieve the same performance as the new designs. Mate 40 Pro looks like it could be a stellar device, but maybe not for a Google-dependent world.

Follow me, it will be alright