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Hands-on review: Huawei Mate 40 Pro 5G smartphone

Image credit: Jonathan Wilson

Huawei's latest flagship phone is an excellent handset with a terrific camera, providing you're happy to live beyond Google's borders.

It's not Huawei's fault – or is it? We may never know. The extent or otherwise of Huawei's enmeshing with the Chinese government is a riddle that may never be publicly solved, but as we all know it proved sufficiently perplexing to Donald Trump that he signed executive orders banning US companies from working with Huawei.

That, in turn, effectively locked Huawei out of the US, one of the world's biggest consumer technology markets, both in terms of sales today and the product development future tomorrow. It also put the kibosh on Huawei being able to use Google apps on any new smartphones and tablets (for the time being, at least – US political administration changes pending).

For its part, Huawei has kept on trucking since Trump's bomb dropped in mid-2019, turning out a succession of well-regarded phones with fantastic-quality cameras developed as part of its ongoing collaboration with German lens legends Leica.

The Huawei Mate 40 Pro 5G handset is the latest offering and is arguably Huawei's best yet. It looks great; it feels 'premium' in the hand; it has a truly exceptional camera system and the software – EMUI 11 laid over Android open source 10 (Huawei is allowed to use Android) – is maturing well. 

However, no Google apps are available for this phone, with a number of other popular social media, streaming, games and productivity apps also missing.

That, for some, is the Achilles heel with anything Huawei today. In fact, online reviews of this handset published to date could mostly be summarised in six words: "Nice phone, shame about the apps." And yet, is the state of Huawei's App Gallery necessarily the dealbreaker it's commonly claimed to be?

Obviously, Huawei is aware of the issue and has been beavering away in the background to get more apps ported to the Huawei App Gallery. It's actually not the barren wasteland some reviews may have led you to believe: examples of native apps available are Amazon, Booking.com, The Financial Times, Tinder, Telegram, All4, Sky, Tidal, Deezer and Fortnite. There are plenty more native apps, including a new Huawei Maps app to 'replace' Google Maps (it works for navigation, but it's not as multifaceted). You may not have heard of many of the third-party apps available for this phone, but that doesn't mean you won't enjoy them.

True, you won't find the likes of Spotify, Netflix, BT Sport, Amazon Prime Video, Adobe apps or the Facebook suite available natively yet (although dumping WhatsApp from your life might actually be a blessing, with Facebook's latest privacy strong-arm tactics in mind). YouTube can be watched via the Huawei web browser, including sign-in to your account.

Services such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and TikTok are accessible – and our phone came with them all preloaded, to prove the point – although some might require sideloading. Huawei's search app 'Petal' can be despatched to find the APK files for compatible apps, which you can then install onto your device. It's hardly the seamless Google Play Store experience that Android users will be familiar with, but Petal at least finds, downloads and installs content from any trusted sites it finds (you'll have to update them yourself in future, mind). Huawei's Phone Clone will also make a good fist of copying over everything it can from your old phone to get you up and running sooner.

It is a little bit like stepping back in time – remember, there was a perfectly fine, open and democratic internet and mobile phone ecosystem before Google and Facebook set out to devour it all – but you can still make most things work when you need to.

In a nutshell, if you're the kind of person that happily sold your digital soul to Google and Facebook years ago and now spends all day every day immersed in that ecosystem, you will probably find the apps side of the Mate 40 Pro frustrating.

On the other hand, if you have avoided such an over-reliance on one provider, or you perhaps wouldn't mind moving towards such Elysian digital fields now, you might not even notice their absence from your Mate 40 Pro. No Facebook, no Google, no worries.

Right. With all that app brou-ha-ha out of the way, what's the phone actually like? For the princely sum of £1,099 – directly competing with flagship phones from rivals such as Apple and Samsung – you get a gorgeous-looking glass front, ceramic back, ceramic frame handset, with a powerful 5nm Kirin 9000 5G SoC Chipset; a superb 'Ultra Vision Cine Camera and Selfie Camera'; 8GB RAM and 256GB ROM; a Dual Huawei SuperCharge 4400 mAh battery; splash, water and dust resistance to IP68 standard; a USB Type-C port for charging and data transfer and a nano-SIM card slot. It is, from top to tail, a thoroughly modern, well-appointed 5G handset.

True dimensions are 162.9 x 75.5 x 9.1mm, weighing in at 212g, and yet there's something about the lush curved-edge display that helps the handset nestle snugly into your palm.

The Huawei Mate 40 Pro feels great in the average hand: not too big, not too heavy, not too slippery or disproportionately weighted at one end. Those with small, girlish hands – e.g. Donald Trump – might find it a bit big. Average size mitts and above, no worries.

Huawei Mate 40 Pro 5G in the hand.

Huawei Mate 40 Pro 5G in the hand.

Image credit: ,

Two variations are available outside China: Mystic Silver or Black. We had the Silver on test and we liked its pearlescent effect on the back, reflecting a changing rainbow of subtle colours. Two other handset finishes are technically available – 'Olive Green' and 'Sunflower Yellow', in vegan leather – but only to the good citizens of Huawei's home country.

Physical buttons have returned to the right-hand side of the Mate 40 Pro, after going all-virtual for the Mate 30 Pro, so there's a volume rocker as well as a red power button, perhaps a nod to the classic red dot of Leica cameras. It's a subtly stylish splash of colour on the side of the handset, whatever the reason behind it. Incidentally, the gesture of tapping twice on the side of the phone to show a volume slider on screen, introduced with the Mate 30, has been retained with the 40 for those who prefer it.

The 6.9in OLED display is almost full-screen, with the sides featuring that waterfall effect and only the top and bottom having a minimal bezel. There is also a cutout for the front camera, which really seems to bother some people, but was barely any distraction during our use.

Resolution is a crisp 1,344 x 2,772 presented in an 18.5:9 aspect ratio, with a 90Hz refresh rate. It is a superb screen, with rich and vibrant colours that do beautiful justice to the content of any application – photos, videos, games, websites. Other phones do offer a higher refresh rate (Samsung has a 120Hz handset), but this negatively impacts battery life and doesn't hugely deliver any significant visual gain.

You can bump the Mate 40 Pro's refresh rate down to 60Hz if you want to save battery life during long journeys, plus there is a dynamic mode, which automatically switches between the two states depending on the active task in hand.

Talking of battery life, we've had no problems to date. On standby, powered up, the battery drained very slowly – after two or three days of sitting around, doing nothing, only around 20 per cent of battery life had been depleted. In active use it's a different story – understandably, given that huge, power-sucking screen and powerful chipset – but we still didn't have any anxious 1 per cent moments.

The battery is a 4400 mAh9 large-capacity model, which will work with Huawei's optional 66W SuperCharge and 50W Wireless SuperCharge devices. We slapped this handset down on a generic £10 10W Qii charger and it charged up just fine. You can also use the handset as a wireless charging mat for other Qii devices, which is cool.

Powering everything is that 5nm Kirin 9000 5G SoC, with (we are told) 15 billion transistors, meaning that the Kirin 9000 "is capable of multi-tasking, processing massive amounts of data and powering instantly responsive AI computing with ease", Huawei says. The octa-core CPU clocks in at 3.13GHz, with a three-level architecture tailored for performance and power efficiency. There's also the 240-core Mali-G78 GPU for some of the best-in-class image processing available today. It's no slouch.

Naturally, Huawei talks the Kirin 9000 up a great deal, boldly claiming that it knocks Apple's A14 Bionic chip (as in the iPhone 12) into a cocked hat, but it's hard to verify this when standard benchmark testing apps won't run on the Mate 40 Pro. All we can tell you is that speed was never an issue for us: navigating the phone, running apps, searching the web, jumping from site to site, editing photos and videos, gaming, browsing files and playing high-resolution audio – all your typical day-to-day phone tasks.

Beautiful body, great mind. Now for the topper. Undoubtedly, the number one feature and star attraction for this handset is the camera system. This is where the Mate 40 Pro really steps up and slaps the competition around a bit. It is an indisputably excellent camera phone.

Hopefully, the test shots featured here will give some indication of the image quality on tap. The camera app was used in automatic mode (apart from one to emphasis aperture) and the photographs are untouched straight out of the phone, with no further processing or editing applied (other than being resized for use in this review).

Late afternoon, December 2020. Colours are true to life.

Late afternoon, December 2020. Colours are true to life.

Image credit: ,

Sunset, December 2020.

Sunset, December 2020.

Image credit: ,

Late afternoon swim, December 2020.

Late afternoon swim, December 2020.

Image credit: ,

Graffiti painting, December 2020.

Graffiti painting, December 2020.

Image credit: ,

Low light conditions, indoors, no flash.

Low light conditions, indoors, no flash.

Image credit: ,

The main 'Ultra Vision Cine Camera' is housed on the back of the camera within what Huawei calls the 'Space Ring', a design apparently inspired by the first photo of a black hole. It looks good and makes a refreshing change from the typical square-with-four-lenses arrangement featured on other flagship phones. The circular shape also lends the Mate 40 Pro more of a traditional camera look – an impression enhanced by the subtle Leica branding inside the Ring and the module's position in the centre of the body.

The rear 'Ultra Vision' camera is a 50 megapixel affair, with f/1.9 aperture, 1/1.28in Sony IMX700 sensor, RYYB colour filter array, 5x optical zoom, 10x hybrid zoom and up to 50x digital zoom, plus wide angle views. There's also a 3D laser depth sensor that helps the camera take its best shots, as well as for use with AR apps, and an 'XD Fusion HDR Video' mode, with 'Steady Shot' and 'Tracking Shot' features, although using these does mean you have to drop quality from 4K at 60fps to 1080p at 30fps. Still, they're great to have onboard when you want to shoot amazing-looking, non-shaky videos and you don't have a gimbal. A lot of fun can also be had with the super slow-mo video mode, which captures the action at a strikingly glacial pace of 3,840fps.

The front 'Ultra Vision Selfie' camera has 13 megapixels and a wide-angle view. It can also shoot 4K video, has ultra-wide-view recording, 240FPS 1080P slow-motion video, and both front and back cameras can be used simultaneously to shoot split-screen videos from two different points of view. In-camera filters can also be applied either during or after a photograph is taken with either camera.

The range of automatic or fully manual 'Pro' control over all aspects of the rear camera is getting on for DSLR levels of granular detail. Perhaps you would expect this from a phone bearing Leica's name, but it's clear that a great deal of photographic care and attention has been lavished on making the camera app a rewarding experience both for happy snappers and experienced pros. That's not an easy trick to pull off, but Huawei and Leica seem to have managed it.

In Automatic mode, you can actually watch the image processing as it happens. After you press the shutter button, the image will load as a preview and then 'pop' into its polished final form a second or two later. You can control how much of something like the smoothing 'Beauty' effect you want for faces. Obviously it gets a bit artificial as you crank it up.

Just as cameras can have their own signature tones, so too can camera phones. The colours we captured with this camera were almost always true to life, perhaps with a heightened 'hyper-real' depiction in processed jpeg form. These photos have a very 'now' aesthetic, with subtly amped colours designed to impress and flatter subjects. RAW files can also be recorded, if you prefer to preserve things exactly as the sensor saw them.

Sometimes, comparing shots to those taken with an iPhone SE 2 (2020) – not a direct competitor to the Mate 40 Pro, but it has a decent camera – we might prefer the iPhone's colours in automatic mode. That's not to say the Huawei had taken a bad photo, it was just a slightly different take on things. More time spent fiddling with the manual controls would probably result in capturing precisely what you want.

The camera's large sensor is also the ace up this Mate's sleeve as the sun sets and the lights go down: this phone takes photos so well in the dark that it doesn't even need a Night mode (but it does have a Moon mode). Whether in the black of night outdoors or for indoor shots where there's only minimal lighting, you will be consistently impressed with the results. All you need to do is point and shoot: the camera will take care of the rest. It's almost as if someone has turned a light on, just for you, around your chosen subject. It's probably the best smartphone on the market today for low-light photography.

There's a slew of other neat stuff in this handset, such as the AI gesture control (and a lot of other behind-the-scenes AI wizardry), in-screen fingerprint and 3D face inlock – which can also hide incoming notifications and lock apps if it detects someone else looking at your screen, Huawei MeeTime for video calling and screen sharing, improved multi-screen collaboration and multi-window multi‑tasking, screen-sharing with Huawei MateBooks, Huawei M-Pen 2 support (some "features" do come across as a not-so-subtle nudge to buy more Huawei gear), floating windows for apps, Huawei Share – so you can strip sensitive personal information from images before you share them publicly, Safe App Switch – which blurs information and restricts cross-app data sharing, dual SIM support – so you can have both 5G and 4G cards installed for the best coverage wherever you go, and an improved version of Celia, Huawei's digital assistant.

Huawei Mate 40 Pro 5G box and phone.

Huawei Mate 40 Pro 5G box and phone.

Image credit: ,

All told, this is a really, really nice, premium-level phone with a phenomenal camera array. Everything about it has a touch of elegance and sophistication, from opening the (very Apple-esque) box and first impressions, to holding and using it all day. The dual speakers sound good enough to make listening to music and watching videos a loud and crisp delight (if a little exaggerated on the treble). For private listening, there's no headphone jack, as with most phones now, so you'll be using Bluetooth for wireless or USB-C for wired (a pair of wired earbuds is supplied in the box).

What we didn't like – apart from the whole AWOL apps situation – is that we couldn't get the phone to reliably recognise and connect via Bluetooth to any of our existing devices when we wanted to transfer our test photos over the air. Three different Mac computers, two different iPhones and an iPad: nada. 'Wi-Fi Direct' also failed and we couldn't test 'Huawei Beam' because we didn't have any other Huawei devices. Connecting the phone via a USB cable worked immediately, but Bluetooth is hardly nascent technology. It shouldn't have been this difficult.

The price is also high. Not that the Mate 40 Pro is overpriced: you would hold in your hand a technological marvel, a beautiful and intelligent device, thoughtfully created, which sits at the cutting-edge of portable power. It's a smartphone that should easily last you for several years before any need to upgrade became pressing – and maybe not even then.

Still, these are austere times, worldwide. How many people have got a grand to thrown down on a phone? Even an amazing one. That's maybe more Huawei's problem, in terms of sales figures, but it's likely to be a consideration for the consumer, too.

If you are in the fortunate position of shopping for a high-end smartphone, and you love taking photos, and you're not wedded to the Google apps ecosystem, the Huawei Mate 40 Pro should definitely be on your shortlist of phones to consider – with probably only one or two rivals for your affections.

Huawei Mate 40 Pro 5G

£1,099 (8GB RAM, 256GB storage)

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