Teardown: Huawei Mate 10 Pro
Image credit: Huawei
Huawei’s latest smartphone aims high as US policy-makers aim low to protect phone manufacturing.
The Huawei Mate 10 Pro – and its sister, the thicker Mate 10 – are the phones Donald Trump does not want you to buy. The Chinese company’s new flagship made headlines last year when its US carrier deal with AT&T was suddenly torn up, with Verizon rumoured to have done the same.
The cancellations are thought to have been the result of pressure from the Trump administration, which seems hell-bent on shutting Huawei out of the US telecoms industry: a recently leaked White House report also outlined a strategy that would exclude Huawei’s better-known infrastructure division from the national 5G roll-out.
This, then, is a teardown where the geopolitics rank alongside the actual hardware. Huawei has long been dogged by accusations that its products contain Chinese government spyware. The latest Congressional bill seeking to ban the use of its hardware across the US government was introduced in February 2018.
Whatever the merits of that charge – aggressively denied by Huawei – there is a second reason why many in Washington are concerned. As the White House report reveals, a further issue is that the company is out-pricing and out-innovating western rivals. The Mate 10 Pro is a case in point. Indeed, it is a wake-up call for anyone who still believes the Chinese market is dominated by copycats.
Huawei has not only assembled a powerful phone, but also developed its engine room – and much else – internally.
The Pro’s Kirin 970 apps processor, designed at Huawei’s Hisilicon subsidiary, is an octo-core ARM-based system-on-chip (4 x 2.36GHz Cortex A73 and 4 x 1.8GHz cores). It has an integrated Mali G72 graphics processor and the latest i7 generation of the company’s sensor/coprocessor. But its biggest innovation is a neural processing unit (NPU) that executes machine-learning-based functions.
Out-of-the-box, the NPU is chiefly used in conjunction with the Pro’s main dual-camera array (1 x 20MP B&W sensor, 1 x 12MP RGB, with a top-of-the-market f/1.6 aperture for high performance in low light and better fidelity for fast-moving subjects). This extends the company’s R&D alliance with legendary photographic group Leica, but also now uses the NPU for object recognition, automatic mode setting and post processing. Reviews of the resulting images have been extremely good.
Further, the NPU is leveraged to power a pre-installed version of Microsoft Translator for near-instantaneous text recognition and translation across 40 languages, and to manage on-phone storage of older unused files that may slow down performance. Huawei’s hope is that other app developers will now help the Pro reach even higher.
After all that, it seems almost commonplace to note that Huawei’s designers have followed the trend for shrinking the bezel (they fit a 6in, 2:1 aspect ratio, AMOLED display into a space that would previously have accommodated only a 5.5in one), bumped battery capacity to a market-leading 4,000mAh, and incorporated 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage (with a 128GB model available).
Oh, and the Pro pulls on Hisilicon for normally outsourced components such as the RF transceiver, power management IC, audio codec and battery manager.
Following claims that Apple’s flagship iPhone X suffered from disappointing sales over Christmas, you can see why Washington is getting twitchy over high-end competition from China (and the Mate 10 Pro has a US post-rebate price of $650 unlocked, against $999 for the iPhone X).
In that context, it is important to note that Huawei is not alone among Middle Kingdom players in pushing the envelope.
Xiaomi, which styles itself as the country’s ‘cool’ smartphone maker, invested an estimated $150m of NRE in developing its own chipset, the octo-core Surge S1, to dictate more of its products’ functionality and reduce its dependence on third-party suppliers such as Qualcomm and MediaTek.
Meanwhile, ARM, the dominant supplier of CPU cores for these products, last year identified a trend it called ‘China speed’. It observed that, whether they developed silicon in-house or not, Chinese handset companies increasingly define key specifications for an incoming generation before having details of the apps processors they expect to use. Thus, they are now driving ‘partners’ to meet certain cost and performance criteria, and also reduce time-to-market, rather than waiting to be fed.
For several years, propaganda banners around the Middle Kingdom’s high-tech districts have declared the goal, “From made in China to created in China”. Smartphones are becoming its poster child.
But a few final notes on getting into the Mate 10 Pro. The iFixit teardown team gave it just four-out-of-10 for repairability. As with many other high-end handsets, there is a ‘Keep Out’ aspect to its physical design.
The biggest problems surround the display. It may make the best use of the space ergonomically, but if the front ‘selfie’ camera fails, the AMOLED needs to be levered off with considerable risk of damage. Similarly, replacing the display itself – “the most common repair” – requires the removal of virtually every other component.
So, perhaps a kind of Apple mimicry does still exist, but it would be foolish to ignore the Mate 10 Pro’s declaration of innovative intent.
Huawei Mate 10 Pro
1 Rear panel
3 Shield/dual LED flash
5 Front camera
6 Front camera support
7 Rear camera
8 IR emitter
9 Earpiece speaker
11 USB-C port and cable
12 SIM tray
13 Power/volume control
14 Vibration motor
18 Display assembly
19 RF module, Skyworks
20 NFC controller, NXP Semiconductors
21 Battery charger, Hisilicon
22 Flash memory, Toshiba
23 RAM on apps processor, Samsung on Hisilicon