Huawei’s HarmonyOS arrives on tablets with the new MatePad Pro

Huawei has announced a trio of new MatePad tablets; a new 12.6-inch MatePad Pro, a smaller 10.8-inch MatePad Pro, and a new MatePad 11. Not only are they the company’s first tablets running its own HarmonyOS operating system, but the smaller MatePad Pro and MatePad 11 use Snapdragon chips produced by Qualcomm rather than the Huawei-designed Kirin processors found in its previous devices.

Between these hardware and software changes, the tablets highlight the challenges that the Chinese technology giant is going through. It’s simultaneously trying to break free from Android, which outside of China is dominated by the Google apps and services that Huawei is unable to pre-install on its phones. But they also speak to the problems US sanctions are causing for Huawei’s Kirin processor production, forcing it to source chips from competitor Qualcomm.

The 10.8-inch MatePad Pro is equipped with a Snapdragon 870, while the 10.95-inch MatePad 11 is powered by a Snapdragon 865. The flagship 12.6-inch MatePad Pro, meanwhile, is still running Huawei’s own Kirin 9000E processor, and it’s the device Huawei has shared the most information about.

But more interesting than the chips inside is the software these new tablets are running.

From an end user point of view, the “switch” to HarmonyOS fundamentally doesn’t bring back the missing Google apps and services that have made Huawei’s recent devices so difficult to recommend outside of China. Huawei’s AppGallery store offers an increasing array of native apps, and workarounds for some others, but it’s still a far cry from having Google’s suite of apps and services pre-installed on a device.

There have been big questions surrounding HarmonyOS ever since an Ars Technica investigation alleged that it’s a glorified open-source Android fork. I can’t speak to its underlying code, but I was able to download WhatsApp’s official Android APK and install it on the new MatePad Pro as though I was using an Android device, which suggests Ars is correct.

Huawei disputes this, and sent over the following statement after publication:

HarmonyOS 2 is a commercial version developed by Huawei based on the open source project OpenHarmony 2.0 for smart devices used in different scenarios. Android is developed based on AOSP open source project. HarmonyOS supports multiple kernels. It allows devices to select the kernel it needs. For example, hardware with only kilobytes or megabytes of RAM can go with the LiteOS kernel, while the devices with larger RAM can implement the Linux kernel.

With its keyboard cover and M-Pencil stylus, last year’s MatePad Pro invited obvious comparisons to Apple’s iPad Pro, and this year’s HarmonyOS model packs in a few more features that are eerily reminiscent of Apple’s tablets. There’s a new FreeNote feature that lets you use the M-Pencil to write into dialog boxes and see your handwriting automatically turned into typed text (a feature which Apple introduced last year) and the tablet’s homescreen now includes a dock with your most used apps (ahem).

But with the 12.6-inch MatePad Pro, Huawei deserves some credit for not imitating some of Apple’s less popular design decisions. Its webcam, for example, is built into the bezel on the long edge of the screen, so it’s in the right place for conference calls made in landscape mode, unlike the iPad Pro’s. It’s also got a vibrant 1600 x 2560 OLED screen with excellent black levels, while Apple’s lineup is still using variations of LCD panels.

Huawei’s screen-mirroring technology also returns with the new MatePad Pro. While this previously let you mirror a smartphone’s screen onto the tablet, now you can mirror and interact with the tablet’s screen on compatible Huawei laptops, or use it as an external display.

The 12.6-inch MatePad Pro has a 10,050mAh battery which Huawei claims can playback video for 14 hours on a single charge. It can be fast-charged at up to 40W with a cable, 27W wirelessly, and also offers reverse wireless charging at 10W. Rounding out the specs, there are three rear cameras on the tablet, four mics, eight speakers, Wi-Fi 6 compatibility, and optional 5G support.

Alongside the new tablets, Huawei is also announcing a second generation of its M-Pencil stylus. The company says the new stylus is more precise, has lower 9ms latency, and also has a platinum-coated transparent nib.

Huawei has yet to confirm pricing or release details for its new tablets in Europe, but said the 12.6-inch MatePad Pro would release in China on June 10th starting at 4,999 yuan (around $783) for the 128GB Wi-Fi model. Meanwhile, the 10.8-inch MatePad Pro will start at 3,799 yuan (around $595) for the 128GB model and will release on June 10th in China. Huawei didn’t provide exact pricing or release info for the MatePad 11. The second-generation M-Pencil will go on sale in China for 599 yuan (around $94) on June 10th.