This is the year Huawei smartphones break through

Huawei's age of obscurity could end if its three CES smartphones emerge with top-tier U.S. carriers.

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Huawei could not have asked for a better CES.

With best-selling heavyweights like Samsung, HTC, Morotola, and Nokia all but invisible from the show, the usually second-tier Huawei became a top dog when it announced two high-end Android phones -- the Ascend Mate and Ascend D2 -- and its first Windows Phone 8 device .

A relative unknown in the U.S, Huawei vowed two years ago to become a top-five vendor in three years . With one year left for it to achieve its own prophecy, things are finally looking good.

Better phones at last


Back in August, I opined that the first thing Huawei needed most to make it in the U.S. was a dose of better phones .

Huawei's best smartphones never make it here. Instead, the handset-maker supplies low-end price points with inexpensive devices like U.S. Cellular's Huawei Ascend Y , an attractive but ultimately outdated Android 2.3 handset.

It isn't that Huawei is incapable of producing compelling models. One of my favorite Huawei smartphones last year, the Ascend P1 , was a step in the right direction. First released globally last May, the P1 featured a slick design, Android 4.0, an 8-megapixel camera, and a dual-core processor.

An even higher-powered quad-core phone, the Ascend D Quad , launched late last February at Mobile World Congress.

Ten months later at CES, Huawei showed off the massive Ascend Mate, whose 6.1-inch HD screen, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean OS, and quad-core processor make it one of the company's most ambitious smartphones yet. It also breaks records with the largest battery capacity for a smartphone: a whopping 4,050mAh.

Unveiled alongside the Mate, the Ascend D2 has a 5-inch display and an even larger 13-megapixel camera, the latter of which I haven't seen from Huawei before. The W1 Windows Phone is up-to-date on the specs front, with a striking (if not copycat ) design. Of course, the stats only matter if all components can deliver, and that's something we'll test in full when we get our review units in.

As I noted last week at CES, these Ascends are exactly the higher-end handsets Huawei needs to gain the right kind of attention from prospective buyers.

Getting in good with carriers


Better smartphones are only part of the equation. Huawei now has the difficult task of launching its phones with influential carriers.

During an interview last summer, Huawei Vice President of External Affairs Bill Plummer said to be patient, explaining that Huawei needs time to establish relationships with the larger carriers. "Every new vendor has to earn their spot," Plummer told me then. "It doesn't happen overnight."

Huawei Ascend Mate (L), Huawei Ascend D2 (R)
Huawei will need to place the Ascend Mate (L) and Ascend D2 (R) with top carriers. Lori Grunin/CNET

Huawei plans to launch its high-end smartphones in the U.S., but hasn't announced carrier support yet. This is going to be a challenge. I'd be surprised if they have the negotiating power with contract carriers to sell phones at a low rate, and shopping for carriers now means that we we'll see these devices hit the market later, rather than sooner.

Still, if Huawei gets the chance to sell any of these phones with a top-four carrier, that's a major win.

Spreading its name


Assuming that Huawei gets exposure with a larger carrier and handsets worth their snuff, the relative unknown will still have to become known.

HTC was lucky enough to ride the early Android wave to become a household name, but Huawei may not be so lucky. At CTIA last year, Huawei told CNET's Roger Cheng that it hired a consulting firm to orchestrate a get-to-know-us campaign in the U.S.

Several expensive sponsorships and ads since then -- including a commercial during London's summer Olympics -- show the company is willing to put money where its mouth is.

Huawei has already made strides coaching people how to correctly pronounce the company name. Huawei clearly understands that to win an English-speaking audience, it must become friendlier and more familiar.

That little security issue


I'd venture a guess that most average smartphone-buyers considering their next handset don't know that Huawei also makes telecommunications and networking gear, and don't particularly care. However, Huawei -- and colleague ZTE -- are persona non grata with the U.S. government, which is suspicious of Huawei's connection to China's Communist government.
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Huawei's public image on this front has scuttled major deals, despite the company's claims that governments and companies shouldn't fear working with them .

CNET reporter Jay Greene wrote a fascinating profile of Huawei after visiting them in their Shenzen, China headquarters.

Although Huawei hasn't been able to untangle itself from controversy, the company is now deeply aware that it must establish trust on the devices side of the house.

Huawei in 2013


Huawei still has a long way to go before reaching its coveted U.S. milestone, but with the Ascend Mate, Ascend D2, and Ascend W1 in the hopper, with deepening carriers relationships, and with a consumer campaign that'll push its products into the spotlight, Huawei has all the parts it needs to break through from obscurity into a recognized brand.
 

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