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Don't know Huawei or ZTE? You will soon

The Chinese vendors made a big splash at Mobile World Congress and can stand shoulder to shoulder with the other big-name vendors.

A Pegasus constructed entirely out of Huawei Ascend smartphones sat on the grounds of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Roger Cheng/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain--Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE were hoping to make an impression at Mobile World Congress about their presence in the smartphone world.

Well, mission accomplished.

The two companies didn't disappoint on the news front. Huawei kicked off the wireless conference on Sunday by introducing the world's fastest smartphone and the first 10-inch quad-core tablet. ZTE followed on Monday with a downpour of 15 phone announcements.

The announcements are proof that the Chinese vendors, which don't have the name recognition of a Samsung Electronics or LG, can now stand at the same level, competing with similar high-end specs and product breadth as the major global players. Their rise underscores a shifting dynamic in the wireless industry--one that favors these newer vendors over more entrenched names.

"This is a new year for the ZTE brand," He Shiyou, executive vice president of ZTE, said following its phone announcements earlier this week.

Huawei and ZTE have been steadily cranking out phones for years, but initially saw much of their business from their home market of China. ZTE, for instance, is the fourth-largest handset vendor in the world.

While the two have expanded to new geographic areas, both have struggled to make a dent in the U.S. market, dominated by the likes of Samsung or Motorola Mobility.

But that's changing. Both companies had a large presence at the CTIA wireless conferences in Orlando and San Diego last year, where they expressed a desire to further expand their ties with the U.S. carriers. Prepaid providers such as MetroPCS and Leap Wireless had already signed on to their low-cost phones, but larger carriers began to take notice too. T-Mobile, for instance, began selling a Huawei tablet last year--although its branded with the carrier's logo rather than Huawei.

It's clear that Huawei and ZTE both poured a lot of money into Mobile World Congress. The companies did a good job of blanketing Barcelona with their posters and ads. Convention goers couldn't help but to wear ZTE's brand--it was emblazoned on every lanyard holding a show badge.

Garnering a lot of gawkers and photo opportunities was a life-size Pegasus built entirely out of Huawei Ascend phones, which sat on the grounds of the Fira convention center throughout the show. To its left was a giant meeting hall emblazoned with the Huawei brand.

ZTE CEO Shi Lirong was among the keynote speakers at the event, although he focused more on the network equipment business.

ZTE CEO Shi Lirong during his keynote address at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Roger Cheng/CNET

The two companies' various mobile device announcements did demonstrate that they're are serious about becoming major global players. Huawei's Ascend D Quad, for instance, actually has some bragging rights over other quad-core phones, including LG's Optimus 4X HD and HTC's One X, thanks in part to a custom chip tuned to run faster than Nvidia's Tegra 3 chip.

Even as the industry debates the importance of specifications in mobile devices, Huawei showed it can be competitive either way.

"They can stand shoulder to shoulder with any of them," said Avi Greengart, a consumer-devices analyst with market researcher Current Analysis.

While support for Microsoft's Windows Phone platform was quiet outside of Nokia, ZTE actually announced a Windows Phone device using Microsoft's lowered specification standards. While not sexy to high-end customers, the more affordable device could do more to bring Windows Phone to the masses.

Their rise, meanwhile, coincides with the faltering of more recognizable players in the industry. While Motorola Mobility has had a few blockbuster phones in the U.S., its global presence has retreated, particularly as it looks ahead to its acquisition by Google. While Motorola had a decent-sized booth and meeting area at the show, it was relatively quiet.

Sony, meanwhile, having broken from its partnership with Ericsson, announced two smartphones that failed to make any real impression with the attendees of its press conference.

Even Samsung, which has been the only consistently successful Android vendor, made relatively minor announcements. An executive noted that the company was looking to avoid the flood of news that typically goes on at these shows.

As Huawei and ZTE have taken larger roles on the global stage, they have yet to truly crack the U.S. market--particularly with the top-tier players. But given their momentum and determination, it's only a matter of time.