It’s no secret that Huawei phones have had very good hardware for a while now. Whatever nitpicks reviewers have had, it was almost always on the software side. I recently had the chance to interview Huawei’s chief designer of its flagship phone lines (the P and the Mate series) to understand a bit more about how he was able to achieve the industry-leading hardware.
Evenflow — thoughts arrive like butterflies
My favorite part of the P40 Pro is the “overflow display,” so called because it curves on not just the left and right, but top and bottom. This makes for a very comfortable in-hand feel, especially since modern smartphones require constant swipes from the sides and bottom of the screen.
Huawei’s chief mobile designer Quentin Ting says the overflow idea came from a personal habit.
“When I’m thinking deeply, I tend to run my finger over something over and over,” he said over a video call. “It’s a sub-conscious action, my fingers just do it. And I realized that running my finger over something rounded and smooth is a very comfortable feeling.”
That’s exactly why I called the P40 Pro “my favorite in-hand feel ever” in my review — when I swipe up from the bottom of the screen to “go home” on the P40 Pro — an action smartphone user do hundreds of times a day — my thumb runs over curved corners on the P40 Pro, whereas the same action on an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra sees my thumb swipe over sharp corners.
However, early leaked renders of the P40 Pro showed more drastic curves — so much that the top and bottom bezels are invisible. The final product doesn’t quite look like that, as the top and bottom curvature are less drastic than the sides. I asked Quentin why Huawei didn’t go for full symmetrical curves, and to my surprise, he actually conceded he would have loved to do that, but it would have increased production cost and delayed the manufacturing process significantly.
Perhaps next year’s P50 Pro then, since it’s unlikely we’ll see the screen design on this fall’s Mate 40 Pro.
Different strokes I say that because Huawei has traditionally kept two separate design languages for its P and Mate lines. This is a departure from how other phone brands do things, which tend to have similar cues across its various lines. Ting, who is responsible for both P and Mate lines, says the differing aesthetics of both lines is a conscious effort from his end.
Many reviewers, including myself, loved the Mate 30 Pro’s circular, centrally-placed camera module, which stood out from the sea of smartphones with a rectangular, side-placed module. When the P40 Pro series went back to the more traditional rectangular module, I thought it had to do with the Periscope zoom lens, but Huawei’s designer said that wasn’t the case. He merely changed the look because he wanted each phone to have its own identity.
Don’t expect a Huawei SE
I asked Ting if Huawei is planning on releasing a small screen phone, like Apple has done recently with the iPhone, which has been quite popular in North America. Personally, I knew the phone wasn’t for me, or for most users in Asia who tend to prefer large screens. The designer seems to share my thoughts. “I don’t think people want a smaller screen; they want a smaller form factor with a larger screen,” he said. “Instead of going back to old times, as designers we need to ensure users can get large screens in a smaller body [via slimming of bezels].”
He added that “there are more and more applications that require a large display and the experience of using a large display is much better.”
Like many designers, Ting is also obsessed with colors. Throughout our call, a simple question about the glass finish of a Huawei phone would result his spending 20 minutes explaining the history of art and what that specific colors and finish mean to him.
Perhaps that kind of eccentricity is needed: the gradient colored glass backs that Huawei introduced in the P20 series did, in fact, spawn followers and imitators for an entire year from every brand except Apple. Even Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10’s had a colorway similar to the P20’s.
Considering that the smartphone development cycle takes close to a year, it’s likely that the next Huawei flagship (Mate 40) is already well into production, and the design of next year’s P50 may already be in final stages. But of course, Huawei’s designer declined to comment on that.
As I said, Huawei has just about mastered hardware. It’s software, more precisely, its app and services eco-system, that needs to grow and improve. That effort will fall on Ting’s colleagues.