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With P30 Pro, Huawei shows US controversy and trade war aren't stumbling blocks

Huawei can't sell its phones in the US, but that won't topple the world's second biggest phone maker.

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Huawei's P30 Pro: its exciting new flagship phone.

Angela Lang/CNET

Whether you know the telecom giant because of its popular Android phones or because it's made an enemy of the US government, you've probably heard the name Huawei.

This fact alone marks a big shift from just a couple years back, when people struggled to even pronounce the name of the Chinese company -- now the number two phone maker in the world behind Samsung and the world's largest telecom equipment maker.

Huawei's phone business has grown since then, but a dark cloud has also formed over the company. The US fears Huawei is using its phones and network equipment for spying, given its coziness with the Chinese government. The company's CFO has been detained in Canada, awaiting extradition to the US to face charges of violating sanctions on trade with Iran, and she increasingly looks like a pawn in a broader trade war between the US and China.

Now playing: Watch this: Huawei's P30 Pro boasts cameras galore
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Not that you'd know any of this from attending Huawei's P30 Pro phone launch in Paris on Tuesday. It was almost as if Huawei's geopolitical strife didn't exist -- and given the popularity of the company's phones, it might as well not.

Following years spent establishing its P series and Mate series as standout phones in a market crowded with impressive rivals, Huawei now has a firm track record of exciting us with its flagships.

"If you were to ask me what I thought of Huawei just five years ago, I would just say that it's a Chinese OEM catching Apple," said IHS Markits analyst Wayne Lam. "But ever since the P20 Pro, introduced last year, I can confidently say that Huawei has surpassed Apple in terms of quality and performance of mobile photography."

Foldable fame

This year has seen the company step up its game even further with the launch of the Mate X at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February. Huawei's entry into the foldable phones market stole the show, eclipsing even the long-awaited first slew of 5G handsets to hit the market. It's enjoying similar success in the PC market. The Huawei X Pro, the latest top-end laptop from the company (and a dead ringer for an Apple MacBook), is winning early plaudits from reviewers.

After bringing the wow factor with the Mate X and X Pro, Huawei's latest hope is that it will blow you away with the photographic capabilities of the Huawei P30 Pro.

In the keynote at the phone's launch event, Huawei CEO Richard Yu walked the audience through the varied capabilities of its four cameras. He boasted of its skills in low light, its ability to capture details from a distance and the layered depth-of-field (or bokeh) effects, comparing results side-by-side against photos taken with the latest Apple and Samsung phones.

Early results in CNET's own tests suggest that Huawei's right to be proud and that the P30 can compete with the Galaxy S10 and that the zoom function is, according to Senior Editor Andrew Hoyle, "unprecedented in a phone."

Elephant in the room

Huawei is a hit machine, and at the top of its game when it comes to turning out rockstar products. But then there's the small matter of its geopolitical troubles that mean it can't sell its phones in the US right now -- "the elephant in the room," as CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood describes it.

"The single biggest impact on its devices business remains its exclusion from the US market. However it is interesting that many vocal US analysts and bloggers are starting to bemoan the fact they can't easily get Huawei's latest devices in the US," said Wood. "This has to be a positive development for Huawei, which is keen to do anything to improve sentiment in this key market."

Perhaps it's even possible that the controversy, mixed with buzz around its products, is actually giving Huawei greater visibility.

"Globally, more people know the Huawei brand, actually," Yu said in an interview at the P30 launch event in Paris on Tuesday. "It's a good advertisement for Huawei."

Maybe it's a case of all publicity being good publicity. It doesn't hurt that Huawei is making some of the best phones (and especially the best phone cameras) money can buy right now. IHS predicts it will once again ship more phones than Apple in 2019 -- even though it doesn't look like it will be able to make any headway in the US at any point in the near future.

"The phenomenal thing about Huawei is they are successful in spite of the US policies or the US market," said Lam. They've taken a leadership in AI, chip/modem tech and mobile photography -- not to mention foldable smartphones and 5G. They have all the elements that Samsung had when it matured into a global powerhouse."

There's no doubt about it: When it comes to making devices, Huawei is a force to be reckoned with, and not even its involvement in an international trade war is about to knock it off its pedestal anytime soon.

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Huawei P30 (128GB, black)
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