Is an Android phone without Google Services a contradiction in terms?
We’ve been big fans of Huawei’s P30 Pro which, to our minds is still the best Android phone on the market. However, since it appeared in 2019, its successors have all appeared without the availability of Google’s Play Store and subsequently many key apps were missing. This led to numerous reviews which shouted about great hardware that was hobbled by unusable software. However, Huawei has gone to extraordinary lengths to make its latest flagship phone, the Huawei Mate 40 Pro 5G, usable enough to fulfill the potential of the cutting-edge hardware. Has it succeeded?
Key Specs of the Huawei Mate 40 Pro
6.8-inch, 1344x2772, 456ppi, OLED, HDR10, 90Hz screen. Rear cameras: 50MP OIS (wide), 12MP OIS (telephoto), 8MP OIS (periscope telephoto), 20MP (ultrawide), Time-of-flight (depth), 13-megapixel front camera. Selfie: 13MP (ultrawide), Time-of-flight (depth/biometrics). Kirin 9000 5G chipset, 2.05-3.13GHz octa-core processor, Mali-G78 MP24 GPU, 256/12GB RAM, dual nanoSIM (microSD hybrid optional), USB-C, Fingerprint reader. Fixed 4,400mAh battery with fast wireless charging and reverse charging, Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.2, IP68, Android 10 without Google services, EMUI 11 OS, 163x76x9mm, 230g. Full specs here.
Hardware and features
Above is a huge list of headline specs for the Mate 40 Pro. Every bell and whistle has been included to ensure that this is instantly identifiable as a flagship phone. Perhaps most notable is the Kirin 9000 chipset (that utilises the 5nm manufacturing process) which is first to offer an integrated 5G modem. As we’ve seen in the past, when 3G and 4G phones first appeared, the modem was effectively bolted on to the main chipset which meant that power management was significantly impacted and this lead to poor battery life. That should not be the case here in conjunction with the whopping 4,400mAh battery.
The battery itself comes with a powerful 66W charger which can charge the huge battery to 85 per cent in just 30 minutes.
Also notable is the main ring camera. While Huawei still says that it’s P-series is the photography specialist product, the Mate 40 Pro comes in a not-very-distant second place for the entire phone industry. Once again partnering with photography-royalty - Leica - a variety of camera types are included including high-resolution (50MP) 'normal' lens, two telephoto lenses (all with optical image stabilisation) plus an ultrawide lens and a time-of-flight depth sensor for faster, more-accurate focusing. This all allows for 5x optical zoom, 10x optical-digital hybrid zoom and 50x digital zoom.
Party pieces include A.I. Moon mode which automatically optimises for 50x photos of the moon. Meanwhile the upgraded A.I.-optimised photography processor can recognise 2,000 images per second (60x better than the previous version) which means its even better at identifying and optimising its subjects (it was amazing already) e.g. it can identify if you’re photographing a cat.
The rapid processing means that every time you take a picture what you get is an amalgamation of thousands of images. This helps reduce blur and improve sharpness – even in near-darkness. It can also shoot in super-slow-motion at 3,840fps.
Another feature is A.I. Golden Snap which is a manual post-process that can remove reflections and shadows. Fixating on reflections in windows, when shooting through glass, constantly foxed the P30 Pro so we’re glad to see this being addressed.
Meanwhile, HDR video can now be captured (it was only photos in previous generations) while the selfie camera’s TOF camera improves biometric unlocking and focusing. Dual-view video means you can record from front and rear cameras at the same time, which should thrill Instagramers and citizen reporters. Audio focus aims to enhance captured audio on the subject, rather than ambient noise. Also, 240fps selfies can be captured.
Other features include linear X-axis vibration to further enhance games and multiscreen collaboration – which lets you put it into PC Mode by plugging it into a monitor (or tapping it on a Huawei Matebook to instantly use multiscreen on a compatible laptops). The screen has a higher-than-usual 90Hz refresh rate to help keep motion looking as smooth as possible.
Handling and ergonomics
That’s one heck of a pre-amble but the technology is the highlight of this phone. When it comes to handling, the general operation is as you’d expect from a powerful glass box: the large, 6.8-inch OLED display is bright and colourful, everything opens very quickly and it takes even the most processing-intensive games in its stride.
But there’s a but and it’s one Sir Mix-A-Lot would approve of.
We lived with the Mate 40 Pro for two weeks, determined to get used to it and validate Huawei’s claim that having an Android phone without Google services was now not-a-big-deal.
But it is.
Nonetheless, we'll start with the positives. The EMUI11 operating system which sits on top of the platform is very much a premium offering and its replacement of Google Services with Huawei Mobile Services and its Play Store equivalent, Petal Search are surprisingly usable. We quickly got used to downloading the APK files for apps and installing them manually and we’re impressed at the Quick Apps functionality which can place shortcuts to mobile web sites on the home screens so that you can access them as though they were apps. This worked well for the likes of Facebook and YouTube. However, when we tried the web version of Google Maps, while searching and finding directions work well, when we tried to Navigate we kept being prompted to open the app, which gave us a link to the Play Store which offered to let us install it on other Android devices but not this.
The Petal Maps app is usable though. While it doesn't offer all the Google Maps bells and whistles a recent update added route planning for public transport, walks and bike rides in addition to its existing driving features.
Huawei says that its app store is now the third largest in the world, but it’s a distant third compared to the leaders. Also, the official Facebook App file it directed us to crashed whenever we tried to open it. Instagram did work, though.
The default email app handled all our email accounts well and text messaging presented no issues.
We were annoyed to find that, while games transferred across, some of our favourites looked for saved data in the Google Play store which it naturally couldn’t access. We were annoyed at Google for that one but it’s still a barrier that will need to be traversed.
Withings My Health was compatible. The Athletic news service and MasterClass were not. Not all of these have web equivalents.
Searching for Apps generally involves using Petal Search app which very quickly provides a list of APK files from either Huawei’s trusted and verified proprietary store or third-party providers like APKPure (a service which downloads apps from the Play Store and provides them independently). Once downloaded it runs a scan to detect any threats but APKPure is not a globally-renowned source of trust in the first place. The fact that searching for an app like Facebook also brings up a list of cracked Facebook apps (to download embedded videos and the likes) gives off something of a Apple JailBreak vibe. It’s something that geeky types can navigate, but you wouldn’t want your gran to access this potential minefield.
Nonetheless, Huawei deserves credit for the advances it made with its mobile services and integration of Petal Search and Quick Apps. However, only time will tell how trustworthy it will all be. If you’re already considering a Huawei phone, you’re likely aware of the political issues that surround the company from Western Countries. We can't help feel that putting all your most private details into a phone that so readily offers cracked software represents something of a leap of faith.
Given time, it could well build an ecosystem to rival Google’s Android. It’s certainly accelerating towards parity with Google's Play Store at an incredible rate. It's feels more mature than early Google App Store versions were when they were compared to Apple's App Store.
We’ve been raving about Huawei’s cameras for years. They’re other-worldly stunning. The low-light performance is better than what you’d expect with SAS night-vision Goggles to offer and its very hard to take a poorly exposed picture. The stability and sharpness offered at extreme digital zoom in low-light is, again, stunning.
Meanwhile the selfie camera offers the best performance on the market.
The big 4,400mAh lived up to its promise of easily lasting a full day without flinching. If you’re doing an entire day of SatNav and gaming, then you will certainly have issues before the evening. However, it’s good to see a 5G phone matching the performance of a top-end 4G phone.
Conclusion and Value
We had some grave reservations of the Huawei Mate 40 Pro, but the phone goes a long way towards answering them. It feels a bit like the Android equivalent of a Jailbreaked iPhone, but with additional support from Huawei. We were tempted to dismiss it as a second rate experience in a similar way that Bing might be to Google Search, but that’s not fair considering that the hardware on offer is arguably the best available of any phone anywhere.
However, we can’t quite recommend giving up Google Play-related apps just yet. Some apps have already ported, which is great. Some apps utilise the mobile sites which is adequate. However, there are still many core apps that don’t function and don’t have mobile site equivalents. The amount of frustration this causes will vary from person to person: some will barely notice it, some won’t countenance it. It's getting there, but isn't quite yet.
But then we crash into the value proposition. At $1,999 this new technology and not-so-smooth operation is extraordinarily expensive. Huawei’s Mate phones used to be about undercutting the opposition with top-end tech at a lower-than-usual price and it would have seriously helped Huawei's cause if that was the case here. But expecting customers pay such an exorbitant premium, when you should be attracting them back to your battered brand with great value hardware is a misstep in our view. The amazing hardware was a great opportunity to tempt people back to the brand to try the new OS but the price tag has put paid to that.
You can still buy a Huawei P30 Pro for just-South-of $900 which is $1,100 less and yet it offers similar performance across the board, plus Google services (albeit without 5G). If the Mate 40 Pro was $1,000 less it’d be a serious contender for your money. But, it’s really only attractive to cashed-up Huawei fanboys and the niche audience that NEEDS the cutting-edge hardware features.