Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau
Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018 | 2 a.m.
There’s a smartphone that the United States does not want you to buy. It’s called the Mate 10 Pro, and it’s made by Huawei, a Chinese manufacturer that the U.S. government has long suspected of committing espionage for China.
The device, priced at $800, was supposed to make a big splash this year as the first high-end smartphone from Huawei in the United States. But AT&T, which intended to promote the Mate 10 Pro as a rival to premium devices from Apple and Samsung, abruptly pulled out of the deal this month, appearing to bend to pressure from Washington over security concerns. Verizon Wireless, the country’s biggest carrier, may have also canceled a similar deal because of political pressure, according to some reports. (Verizon declined to comment.)
The snub by AT&T, the country’s No. 2 carrier, aroused a candid diatribe from Richard Yu, Huawei’s chief executive, this month at CES, the giant tech convention in Las Vegas.
“It’s a big loss for us, and also for carriers,” he said. “But the more big loss is for consumers, because consumers don’t have the best choice.”
Security issues aside, Yu may have a point. Based on a week of testing, the Mate 10 Pro is a solid all-around Android smartphone. It has an excellent camera that takes advantage of artificial intelligence to shoot clear, rich photos of pets, plants, food and, of course, people. The device has longer battery life than phones from Apple and Samsung, and, with durability in mind, it comes with a protective case and a screen protector.
Yet without the backing of a big U.S. carrier, the risks of buying the smartphone are high. While the Mate 10 Pro will still be available online next month and on sale at Best Buy stores by the end of the quarter, the lack of carrier buy-in means it will be tougher to get device support if your screen shatters or if something goes wrong.
Here’s what you need to know about the device.
The signature feature of the Mate 10 Pro is the processor, which has a dedicated part of its silicon specifically designed for artificial intelligence.
This allows the phone to crunch algorithms and do things like automatically recognize an object so that the camera can be adjusted to focus quickly and let in the right amount of light. Huawei also says AI allows the phone to maximize its performance: Periodically, it will automatically do maintenance, like clearing out old system files that might otherwise slow down the phone.
The camera is notable as well. Huawei teamed up with Leica, a popular camera maker, to develop the phone’s dual-lens setup. Like phones from Apple and Samsung, the Mate 10 Pro’s camera can create a so-called bokeh effect, where the two cameras work together to show the picture’s main subject in sharp focus while gently blurring the background.
Like other modern smartphones, the Mate 10 Pro is water and dust resistant. But it also has an extra-large battery that Huawei says will last longer than that in many other phones. That’s partly because of its AI processor, which examines how the battery is being used and changes resource allocation to prolong its life.
The Mate 10 Pro also ships with a screen protector applied to its display, and inside the box there is a plastic protective case. These are thoughtful additions. The case absorbs the impact of drops, and the screen protector helps prevent scratches, which weaken the structural integrity of a display.
Pros and Cons
In my tests, the two best features of the Mate 10 Pro were the camera and battery. The least impressive was the display.
But let’s start with the good stuff. In side-by-side comparisons with an iPhone X and Samsung’s Galaxy S8+, the Mate 10 Pro came in second to Apple’s offering in photo quality. All took nice photos, but the colors in the Galaxy S8+'s pictures looked oversaturated, and while the Mate 10 Pro’s photos appeared rich and clear, the shadow details looked better on the iPhone X.
As for the bokeh effect, also known as portrait mode, the Mate 10 Pro excelled at separating the subject from the background compared with the Galaxy S8+, but I still preferred the iPhone X because it did a better job at lighting up a person’s face.
There was one area where the Mate 10 Pro was the clear winner: the battery. In my tests browsing the web over a cellular connection, Huawei’s phone had roughly two hours more juice than Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 and the iPhone X.
The display — the biggest downside of the Mate 10 Pro — had a lower resolution than the Note 8, the Galaxy S8+ and the iPhone X, meaning some graphics and text looked more pixelated. Overall, text appeared crisper and websites more vibrant on the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy screens than they did on the Mate 10 Pro’s display.
The Mate 10 Pro is an impressive smartphone, but you probably aren’t going to buy it even if you get your hands on it. The lower-resolution display is a major negative, as is the lack of carrier support.
Huawei said that to get technical support for the Mate 10 Pro, you can call its hotline, and for repairs, you can ship your device to a center in Texas. That’s still not ideal compared with the ease of strolling into an Apple store or your carrier’s nearest location.
Privacy and trust are also important. In 2012, the House Intelligence Committee concluded that Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese telecommunications company, were a national security threat because of their attempts to extract sensitive data from U.S. companies. And in 2016, security researchers discovered preinstalled software on some Huawei and ZTE phones that included a back door that sent all of a device’s text messages to China every 72 hours. That feature was not intended for U.S. phones, according to the company that made the software. But U.S. lawmakers have been wary of Huawei.
At CES, Huawei’s Yu described how the company had previously overcome trust hurdles — including at home in China, where Huawei’s smartphones were initially distrusted by Chinese carriers because the company was a newcomer.
“It was very hard,” he said. “But we won the trust of the Chinese carriers, we won the trust of the developing market and we also won the global carriers, all the European and Japanese carriers. Over the last 30 years, we’ve proven our quality.”