Huawei's new P50 smartphone can only run on 4G, not 5G. Image: Facebook

Huawei’s latest premium smartphones will be slower-moving than potential buyers may anticipate despite being loaded with sleek and futuristic features.

Huawei debuted its latest flagship models P50 and P50 Pro last week during an online event amid much fanfare. The new phones’ specs are much higher than previous generations, with their canvas-like, high refresh rate, 6.6-inch OLED display and 200x zoom periscope cameras. These all make Apple’s iPhone 12 look like a thing of the past. 

Yet Huawei’s latest offering comes with a network caveat that may deter prospective buyers: it only operates on 4G, not 5G – despite the parent company’s leading global role in rolling out the high-speed technology’s infrastructure.

Blame it on United States sanctions and supply chain disruptions that have denied the P50 the device components and sub-assemblies needed for ultrafast 5G surfing. The product’s 4G launch shows Huawei has so far failed to find viable alternative parts and workarounds from its domestic suppliers.

The P50 and P50 pro are loaded with all the drawcards of modern technology, minus the 5G support. Photo: Handout

Huawei’s consumer business CEO Yu Chengdong sought to downplay the drawback at the product’s launch event, stressing instead the phone’s unique innovation leveraging 4G networks, Wi-Fi hotspots, real-time location tracking and artificial intelligence.

Yu said the P50 and P50 Pro were engineered to detect and predict weak signal zones and, before a user enters a signal blackspot, both models could download content and data in advance for all apps operating in the background to build a cache to ensure continuous browsing and streaming.

The phones’ Wi-Fi unit is also redesigned for more stable connection to piggyback on to available hotspots as some Chinese telecoms carriers and mall operators have agreed to grant access to Huawei users, according to the company.

Yu said such unique functionality was made possible by Huawei’s indigenous 5-nanometer Kirin 9000 chipsets as well as Snapdragon 888 4G chips supplied by Qualcomm. They also feature a novel 3D graphene liquid cooling system for fast and stable heat dissipation.

“Our products still maintain the ultimate performance,” Yu said at a launch event reported in global media. “Only a very small drop in speed will be experienced, almost negligible.”

“Huawei is a global leader in 5G technology and in communication technology,” he added. “Because of the four rounds of US restrictions over the past two years or so, 5G phones are beyond our reach and we have to go with 4G.”

5G is beyond the reach of Huawei consumer product CEO Yu Chengdong. Photo: Handout

The Kirin units are likely the final batches from Taiwanese chipmaker TSMC, which ratcheted up deliveries before the US chip ban kicked in last year.

Washington introduced restrictions which meant foreign manufacturers using US technology would need to get a license to sell semiconductors to Huawei.

Qualcomm has secured authorization from the US Commerce Department to continue to ship to Huawei, although all Snapdragon chips must be “downgraded and partially disabled” to comply with the US sanctions.

Both chips guarantee generally fluid performance but Huawei may have to rely more on Qualcomm now that it apparently cannot find competent semiconductor contract foundries to produce Kirin chips. 

Some of Huawei’s fans and suppliers in China have vowed loyalty to the brand as they promote slogans such as “5G is useless” over social media.

“5G is just slick advertising and is expensive, gimmicky and it drains the battery. It’s not needed for average users when 4G and Wi-Fi are everywhere. 5G coverage is still fragmented even in big Chinese cities, let alone abroad,” read one post on China’s most popular tech website, Zhongguancun Online. 

But some buyers find the P50’s price, up to 6,488 yuan (US$1,003) for the Pro model, exorbitant for a 4G phone, according to social media posts. They say the P50 and P50 Pro will be a tough sell and Huawei phones’ “5G gap” will be exploited by domestic and foreign rivals to grab market share.

The P50 and P50 pro are shipped with Kirin 9000 and Qualcomm‘s ‘downgraded’ 4G chips. Photo: Handout

The latest data from the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, an affiliate of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, show that more than 73% of the 174 million smartphones shipped in China in the first half of this year were 5G capable.

Huawei’s global smartphone sales have sagged this year, with shipments plunging 66.9% year-on-year to 24.5 million in the first half, trailing Samsung, Xiaomi, Apple, Oppo and Vivo, according to the London-based market consultancy Omdia.   

Hong Kong’s Ming Pao daily reported that the P50’s Kirin 9000 chip “had been designed and programmed with 5G in mind” and would have fully supported related network protocols had it not been for Huawei’s inability to secure adequate peripheral 5G parts such as radio frequency filters.

The paper noted that Huawei could no longer source bulk acoustic wave filters from Broadcom and thus had to sell the P50 as 4G phones. Such filters convert electrical energy into acoustic or mechanical energy and are widely used for many new 4G and 5G bands.

The paper, citing a reputed Huawei source, said the company had stockpiled such filters but its limited supplies must be prioritized for more lucrative corporate businesses like selling 5G base stations to Chinese carriers.  

Both P50 models come equipped with Huawei’s new operating system, HarmonyOS, which the company introduced after Google’s decision to stop licensing its Android software to the firm due to US trade restrictions.

Huawei consumer business CEO Yu said at the launch event that more than 40 million Huawei users had already upgraded their phones to HarmonyOS 2, a new version of its software. Starting from next year, Huawei customers would be able to upgrade any model to HarmonyOS, he said.

Huawei did not respond to Asia Times’ e-mail inquiries about the P50’s launch and company’s plans to eventually roll out new 5G phones. But the launch of a top-of-the-line 4G phone has again called attention to the company’s supply chain woes and uncertain future in the smartphone space. 

Read more: