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Hands on review: Huawei P40 Pro

Huawei faced many challenges in 2019 following its blacklisting by the US government, preventing China’s biggest smartphone manufacturer from working with US companies.

One of those companies was Android developer Google. This meant that while Huawei was still able to use an open source version of the operating system, it could no longer include the backend systems that gave users access to Google’s Play Store, Maps, and Gmail among many other services.

This means that the Huawei P40 Pro is really quite unlike other smartphones in the West which almost exclusively run on a Google-infused Android OS or iOS.

Whether users will be willing to sacrifice the services and apps they have come accustomed to in favour of Huawei’s homegrown app store is a question everyone should ask themselves before buying this phone.

The last few years has seen Huawei go from a little-known Chinese manufacturer to one of the most significant players in the Western smartphone market.

But its meteoric rise has come crashing down ever since its blacklisting, with analysts now predicting that the firm will suffer a 20 per cent drop in sales in the West this year with more hurt to come if Huawei can’t reach a deal with the US.

While initially selling mid-range devices with appealing features for a middling price, the last few years have seen Huawei getting more and more ambitious, and it now boasts some of the best camera performance and build quality on the market. The P40 Pro is no exception.

The phone’s relatively slender frame is interrupted on the back by a large four camera panel that pokes out an extra few millimetres. The protrusion is the least elegant aspect of what is otherwise a very sleek and solid feeling phone.

Its AMOLED display takes up the vast majority of the front panel minus a lengthy two camera cut out in the corner for its selfie capabilities. It wraps slightly around the edges of the phone like Samsung’s Galaxy S series, albeit with less extreme angles than those devices.

The screen itself displays rich, vibrant colours with a superb brightness level for sunny days. Coupled with its minimal bezel, the P40 Pro puts devices like the iPhone to shame in terms of sheer looks, with only Samsung’s latest and greatest able to compete. It really can’t be understated how great the P40 both feels and looks in the hand, with satisfying weight distribution and extremely premium-feeling materials.

The metal frame around the edge of the device also tapers wider on the corners to provide more protection against screen drops and other bumps and scrapes and the back is coated in surprisingly grippy frosted glass.

With a 3,800 mAh battery crammed into its relatively small frame, the P40 Pro can last a full two days for most users without needing a recharge. It also comes with a fast charger than can take the battery from 0 to 60 per cent in just 30 minutes and up to 90 per cent in an hour, using its bundled charger.

The metal buttons on the side have a satisfyingly click that complements the rest of the device well.

Unfortunately, despite its amazing build quality, the same praise cannot be applied to its software. Huawei’s customised version of Android, EMUI, is present on the P40 featuring much the same interface as previous generations, sans any apps made by Google.

In place of the Play Store, Huawei has its own App Gallery, but the sheer dearth of commonly used apps available is a real make or break for the device. Like or loathe it, pretty much everyone in the UK needs to have WhatsApp installed on their devices in 2020; it’s the messaging app that the nation has settled upon and is now almost as ubiquitous as SMS.

But it’s nowhere to be found in the store. A search brings up dubious WhatsApp clones that undermine the legitimacy of the App Gallery and other common apps like Twitter, Gmail, and Spotify are totally absent.

Facebook does appear to have a presence in the App Gallery, even if the app itself can only be downloaded via a link to the website, while Snapchat is one of the few major social platforms that is fully supported. TikTok is also available of course, like Huawei, the video sharing platform has strong links to the Chinese Government.

It’s worth noting that with a bit of know-how, users can get the Play Store and associated apps working on the device, albeit unofficially.

Immediately after the launch of Huawei’s Mate 30 Pro last year, a mysterious website called LZplay was created which enabled users of that device to get the full-fat Google experience with one click. This website was later shut down, alternatives soon cropped up but they in turn were also closed prior to the launch of the P40 Pro. Exactly who set up these sites is unclear, but their current unavailability means that users have no choice but to go through an extensive process that is too long to detail here to get that Google magic on the P40 Pro.

Users can also download an app’s APK and sideload it on a per app basis. But many developed by Google do not work without the underlying framework provided by the Google Mobile Services app. While this too can be installed, it involves a complex multi-step process that effectively bypasses much of the security on the device to get it working. In addition, even with these steps it will never be possible to use Google Pay, which requires an additional security layer that cannot be brought over to the P40.

Huawei has maintained its focus on camera technology for its latest flagship, Dxomark actually places its camera capabilities at the very top of the pile beating anything made by Samsung or Apple.

Daytime shots produce rich photos with great dynamic range between light and dark areas without feeling like too much software trickery is happening to enhance the colour palette.

The camera is an absolute beast on night mode too, with clear detail and minimal grain even in low light conditions. One may find that night pictures almost look too bright, making quite dark settings appear brighter than they actually were. Nevertheless, its night performance is incredible for a dinky smartphone camera and in 2020 cannot be bettered by many other devices if any.

It can also use its 5x tele-camera for great zoom shots and Huawei have pulled off some clever tricks that combine images from this camera and its primary 50MP snapper for up to 50x digital zoom. This feature seems relatively niche, something that most people may only get the opportunity to use once in a while, but it’s there if you need it. Shots at the 50x level are inevitably grainy and lacking detail, but that’s pretty much what you’d expect considering the limitations of the hardware.

On paper, the P40 Pro is a great smartphone with an incredible screen and camera as well as solid build quality. While some other top tier smartphones have comparable capabilities, it is only the cream of the crop that can compete.

But it is the missing software that makes it very difficult to recommend – specifically the lack of anything from Google but also many other apps that most people won’t be able to do without.

The £899 price tag just feels too steep for something that users cannot even use WhatsApp on without some technological knowhow and potentially dangerous tampering with underlying security features. The software gap when compared to all other non-Huawei Android phones is so great it makes the P40 Pro a very difficult device to get along with.

While its spec sheet may look impressive, if it cannot fulfil its basic role as a communications device with as much ease as a generic £150 smartphone, it’s a really hard sell considering the premium price tag.

UPDATE: A Huawei rep got in touch to note that users can get WhatsApp through the App Gallery, albeit as a link to a download page on the WhatsApp site. EMUI’s Phone Clone feature can also bring apps like WhatsApp and others to a new device if a user’s previous device was also a Huawei device.

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