Soapbox features enable our individual writers to voice their own opinions on hot topics, opinions that may not necessarily be the voice of the site. In this piece, editor Damien picks apart Huawei's recent bold claims that its new Mate 20 X smartphone trumps the Nintendo Switch as a gaming platform...
This week, Chinese tech firm Huawei announced a new smartphone with a massive 7.2-inch edge-to-edge AMOLED display, gigantic 5000mAh battery, in-screen fingerprint scanner and one of the fastest (if not the fastest) chipsets to grace any portable device. The Mate 20 X is the company's flagship handset for 2018 and, short of a major announcement from one of its many rivals operating in the same space, could end up being the most impressive phone of the year – in purely technical terms, at least.
However, during the lengthy presentation which took place in London on Tuesday – during which the company also lifted the lid on the Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro – it was one relatively small segment which seemed to capture the attention of the masses. Huawei bravely (or foolishly, depending on your opinion) compared its shiny new fondleslab to the Nintendo Switch, even going as far as to display an image of the console next to the phone during the comparison segment. CEO Richard Yu was bold enough to proclaim that the Mate 20 X is the "best portable mobile gaming machine" money can buy, and in terms of pure power, he has a point. Huawei's phone outclasses the Switch in practically every respect; it has a bigger and better screen, superior stamina and a faster processor. The thing is, specs mean little in the portable arena, as Nintendo has proven time and time again.
Remember the Game Boy? It had a black and white display and looked terrible when compared to the likes of the Sega Game Gear, Atari Lynx and PC Engine GT, yet it utterly smoked all of them and was still selling millions of units years after all those rivals had bitten the dust. The Nintendo DS was a similar story; facing off against the glossy and highly-desirable PlayStation Portable, the dual-screen handheld managed to shift over 150 million units, making it one of the most successful gaming systems in history. While its successor, the 3DS, isn't going to get anywhere close to that figure, it has nonetheless comfortably outsold its closest rival, the PlayStation Vita.
Nintendo knows that power means little in the portable sector; it's the content that is king, and the Switch has the likes of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, DOOM, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Dark Souls: Remastered, ARMS, Splatoon 2 and Super Mario Odyssey in its library, as well as a seemingly endless selection of amazing indie and third-party releases. Granted, Huawei made a point of highlighting its phone's ability to host the likes of Arena of Valor (a recent Switch release) and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, but even with the weight of the Google Play store behind it, the Huawei Mate 20 X can't hope to seriously compete with the Switch when it comes to pure quality. The gulf between smartphone and console gaming remains pretty huge, despite the presence of some excellent mobile titles (a lot of which end up on Switch in the fullness of time anyway).
What makes Huawei's approach interesting is the fact that it has taken inspiration from the Switch Joy-Con to create an optional game controller which bolts onto the side of the Mate 20 X and, in part, backs up the company's claims that this is a 'serious' platform for gaming. The visual similarity between this controller and Nintendo's Joy-Con is plain for all to see, but hands-on reports from the event in London suggest that it's a million miles away from providing the same user experience. For starters, there's no right-hand portion to this controller, so the player still has to use clumsy on-screen buttons for many actions. The device also makes the already huge phone feel even more unwieldy, which is hardly what you want when you're gaming for prolonged periods of time.
Putting aside the massive disparity in price – the device is expected to sell for over £1000, but mobile contracts obviously mitigate that expense to a degree – it's impossible to think of this as anything but an attempt to grab the attention of potential customers; does Huawei genuinely think its phone can challenge the Switch in the console space? I'd suspect not, and I'd like to hope that the firm has looked at previous attempts to usurp Nintendo with products that fall outside of the games arena and decided against putting too much stock in such claims, beyond headline-grabbing. Lest we forget the legendary failure that was the Nokia N-Gage, or even the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play – a handset that, even with the backing of the PlayStation brand, couldn't challenge its mobile rivals, let along the might of Nintendo itself.
Nokia – which was arguably at the top of its game in 2003 – assumed that it could challenge Nintendo's Game Boy Advance with a device that offered a similar degree of power but twinned that with the ability to make calls and send text messages. It managed to marshall a reasonable degree of software support from the likes of Sega and Electronic Arts, but fumbled some key points; the phone's portrait screen was terrible for gaming, and on the original model, you had to physically remove the battery to swap cartridges. And how could we ever forget the 'meme-before-memes-were-a-thing' wonder of side-talking? The N-Gage QD solved some of these issues, but it was too little, too late.
The Xperia Play wasn't quite as disastrous and actually garnered plenty of praise at launch; it used Google's powerful and popular Android OS and was capable of playing classic 32-bit PlayStation titles as well as standard Android games – retrofitted with physical controls, of course. Even so, sales were reportedly poor because smartphone owners didn't want to be seen with what could be misconstrued as a gaming device; surprisingly, no one has seriously attempted to completely fuse a gaming interface with a phone since, with the accepted trend being wireless controllers which bolt onto your phone (as is the case with the Mate 20 X).
When you see a company like Huawei – which, let's not forget, has been stunningly successful in the mobile space and is now the second largest manufacturer of smartphones, after Samsung – claim that it has created the best portable gaming system available, it's vital to recognise the importance of marketing at a time when many handset makers are competing with very similar products. Pretty much every smartphone you see these days is aesthetically identical to the next, and many are even running the same processors and basic OS, or use the same screen technology. Differentiating your phone from countless others has become something of an art form, and Huawei's boast should be taken for what it really is: a promotional tool that is expected to shift a few more units.
Taken at face value, it has worked; would we have reported on the handset had the comparison not been made? Of course not, but we did, just like many other sites who would have ordinarily ignored it, and now a much larger potential customer base is aware of the Mate 20 X's existence. Perhaps a small percentage of those people will think twice when they're next shopping for a new phone (hollow boasts aside, the Mate 20 X does look pretty special, as long as you're comfortable with a phone that won't fit on your pocket), and Huawei's cunning plan will have worked.
If anything, Nintendo should be flattered by the comparison; when you're trying to make your product stand out, it only makes sense to contrast it with the best example already available – and if you're a handheld gamer, then that's Switch.