We review Huawei HarmonyOS… in a car
We had a chance to test out HarmonyOS in the most unusual of places – Huawei’s first co-developed car AITO M5, which was reviewed by our sister site ArenaEV.com. It’s great to see automakers take advantage of smartphone companies and their expertise in creating fluid, smooth operating systems.
Huawei went beyond that though and made sure its own HarmonyOS is presented for the first time in a car they co-developed. In the center console lies the giant 15.6 inch infotainment system running on HarmonyOS. Huawei calls the screen 2k, the actual resolution is 1,920×1,080px and the panel is HDR with a 90% screen-to-body ratio.
Huawei HiSilicon Kirin 990A
- CPU:4 Taishan V20 Lite (large core), 4 Cortex-A55
- GPU:8 Mali-G76
- AI/NPU:2 Ascend Da Vinci D110 Tiny, 1 Ascend Da Vinci D100 Lite
- Misc: Support for 5G network connection; Computing power: 3.5TOPs
The 990A is different from the Kirin 990 chip on the consumer electronics side, the Kirin 990A has essential changes in the CPU performance core, the number of GPU cores is halved, and the NPU also has had some changes in the number of cores. However since the two chips are not used for the same platforms (one for cars, one for portable electronics) there isn’t a way to directly compare their performance.
Reports indicate that Huawei is considering making the chip a pluggable small board, similar in size to a laptop RAM stick, allowing you to upgrade your own hardware. That’s good news, considering the cars have far longer lifespan than the chips powering their infotainment systems.
We’ll start by listing the major differences between Android Auto, Apple Carplay, and HarmonyOS:
1. Through screen projection, a rich app ecosystem is immediately available. Most of the apps installed on the mobile phone can be used in the car, and it is not a problem to play large mobile games.
2. Phone video calls can be seamlessly transferred to the car when getting in, and the in-car call can use the in-car camera, microphone, and speaker. Two cars running HarmonyOS can even make video calls.
3. The voice assistant has the ability to recognize the voice separation area and can control almost all the hardware in the car, including the windows and air conditioners. In addition, it also has advanced functions such as continuous dialogue and visible-to-speak.
The use of HarmonyOS in a car is a node in which Huawei can show off one of the best and most practical applications of IoT (Internet of Things). Huawei has an extensive catalog of smart home products, ranging from smart cameras, smart locks/doorbells, TVs, etc and so after logging into your Huawei account, the same account products can also be controlled via the car, voice-controlled or otherwise. “Turn on the living room camera”, “Turn off the TV”, “Video call the living room TV” (yes, that’s right! Huawei has a TV with a camera on the top allowing for video calling directly to it!), all this can be realized through the infotainment system.
After using HarmonyOS for a while, we can say that the system runs amazingly well, the whole system is very customizable and Huawei has definitely made it smart. The camera on the driver’s side can recognize faces and automatically change themes/homescreens to the driver when he enters the car.
If paired with Huawei phones, smartwatches, or pretty much anything else in the Huawei ecosphere then everything is linked together really smoothly – want to go somewhere and have the location on your phone? Just send it to the car and it’ll open the maps app for you.
Most of the stuff is intuitive, for example, the driver’s most used controls will be on the left-hand side making it easier to access and nearly everyone who uses a phone will be able to use this infotainment without much difficulty. However, being too similar to a phone/tablet experience made us swipe up from the bottom to go back to the homepage a few times, instead of clicking the Home button in the lower-left corner as required.
The home screen has what Huawei calls “Smart Dock”, similar to the app dock on your phone. You can change and edit which apps to go along the bottom row. There is also widget-styled apps like weather, music, and news, which will show you the latest weather updates, news updates, and what music is playing in real-time. This home screen is also what makes the system so easy to pick up as it is just like your phone.
The app store is Huawei’s AppGallery, but apps must first be given the green light to be “car-friendly”. So the plethora of apps you can normally download on your Huawei phone has been reduced significantly, but there’s still a huge number remaining by car infotainment standards. User experience is key here, if you prefer a certain music app or navigation app then download it and make it the default one. Even decent infotainment systems like Tesla’s system can’t match HarmonyOS in terms of customization.
An important thing to note is that the Maps app is also in this “Smart Dock”. It is on the left-hand side for the driver to quickly access but that’s still less prominent than in most other cars where the “maps/navigation” is normally a standalone selection or IS the homepage itself.
Does this affect the driver’s ability to use the infotainment? No. When you use the Maps app for navigation, and you want to open another app, a split-screen will open where the navigation will still be on the left and the opened app will be on the right. This split-screen ratio can also be altered to different proportions and apps can be swapped to either side.
What happens if you accidentally press the home button from the navigation then? In the top left-hand corner, a medium-sized directions widget will pop up indicating the next turn, length of journey, etc.
In the settings apps, under system we can see that the car is running HarmonyOS build 18.104.22.168, and like on your phone, storage management and a lot more system information can be accessed. A lot of things can also be edited – Huawei Assistant lets you customize the wakeup command to anything you like and this is miles better than other systems which require you to use a generic “hey ___” phrase.
Then there are the usual settings you will see in other cars. Driving lets you edit the driving profile, drive mode, auto-hold and ESC. The power shows you the remaining mileage, scheduled charging times, and so on. Although we have used these settings in other cars a million times, when used in the AITO M5 it feels refreshingly different – no lag, intuitive, and the UI is pleasant to look at too.
There was an interesting setting that stuck out to us though, that was the Nap mode – with three settings – nap, meditate and breathe. Sometimes when you’ve had a stressful morning at work you just want to relax. So pop into your HarmonyOS-powered AITO M5 and press the Nap mode – the car plays gentle sounds of birds and water, and the driver’s seat reclines back into a near horizontal position. This function allows you to relax and be immersed, we felt more rested after using just the 3-minute “Breathe” mode.
Now let’s talk about the voice assistant – as mentioned before, the wakeup command can be changed and the assistant is capable of “smart listen”, what this does is when you first wake up the assistant, you can have a continuous conversation with it and it will listen to all commands in a set time. This is something other car voice assistants can do as well.
What sets this one apart is the rate of recognition, speed, and what you can do with the voice assistant. The voice assistant can control everything on the screen, “scroll down” on the settings, say “display”, “HUD brightness set to 0”, and “set to 100%”. The voice commands are instant and you do not need to wake up the assistant.
The way it handles context is amazing too, after setting the HUD brightness to 0 and then saying “set to 100%” it will turn the HUD brightness to 100, knowing that’s what you meant. Having a random conversation with your friends will not trip up the AI either, it almost magically knows you’re not talking to it and will ignore you – the “smart listen” function is timed at 1 minute after waking up the assistant, it will listen for 1 minute after the last voice control then go to sleep or you can cancel it at any time.
All in all, this version of HarmonyOS shows that Huawei has optimized it for car use and it’s great to see so much effort dedicated to its user-friendliness and not being a hassle to use whilst driving. Although there are differences and some limitations to what can be done, the underlying settings, and UI design are the same as on a Huawei phone.
HarmonyOS has been tuned to be able to use the Kirin 990A chipset to its fullest limits with apps and other functions being completely smooth to use with no hiccups at all in our time with it. Already some carmakers like BYD and Geely have expressed interest in adopting the operating system, so it might see a lot more of it in the future.