Huawei P40 Pro review: Flying the flag, despite holes in the ship
The Huawei P40 might be the most interesting, if not important, smartphone series to launch in South Africa this year. This is a phone that sells in South Africa by the boxes, going up against Samsung and Apple and making a strong play for your wallet with both hardware and user versatility.
But with the company’s flagship product, the P40 Pro, now available in South Africa and retailing for R20,999, there is a caveat. The absence of Google Mobile Services is said to shift the dynamic by how one would consider purchasing a Huawei product. Is the phone still worth the shortcoming, and are the Huawei software alternatives adequate enough?
Holding it for the first time, the Pro certainly has the feel and weight of a premium device. This is not a gigantic phone, measuring 72.6mm in width and 158.2mm in length, but 209 grams equals a solid object that it is very nice to handle. Though donning it in its transparent case would be the sensible thing to do, I found myself preferring to handle its glass back exposed. This, despite the fact the rear camera hump is gigantic and is definitively so when the phone is laid face-up on a surface.
Back on the front, the Pro sports a 6.58-inch OLED display with a 2640x1200 pixel resolution. With a high level of tempered brightness, this display can sometimes resemble a phone case with wallpapers of your cat or a beautifully-printed picture. Though wrapping over the phone lengthwise, it is not a bezel-less display with the four corners preventing it from being a perfect-angled rectangle. Though this is not necessarily a negative element, especially given that I preferred to use the phone without a case, it does make the top left corner look a bit squished with the front camera setup located there as well. This is in addition to that setup being less of a hole punch and more a stapler punch (the contents of which we will discuss shortly). The display is great for any kind of video playback, and make sure you take the lack of a headphone jack into account. Huawei is banking on you splurging on an accompanying pair of Fredbud wireless earphones. It’s also a plus for the device’s level of water and dust resistance.
Something else featured with this display is a 90Hz refresh rate. This feature is only really beneficial in gaming. During the daily scrolls, the feature is only noticeable when you’re actively looking for it. This is a case where bigger numbers matter, such as with Samsung’s S20 series where the 60Hz refresh rate was literally doubled and it instantly shows (though you do have to crank the resolution down to 1080p to activate it).
What IS instant is the Pro’s methods of access. Huawei’s facial recognition software via an infrared sensor on the front camera is seamless (though you will need to take your mask off for it to work, of course), and it’s the same for reacting to your fingerprint via its built-in display sensor. The sensor could be a little lower on the phone, but rarely did I have to even resort to using it thanks to the facial recognition.
Let’s talk about the headline about this phone and the headline that’ll come with every Huawei device for a while: The absence of Google Mobile Services (GMS). Right off the top, Huawei Mobile Services (HMS) is not the biggest hassle of a workaround as it was initially received. Cloning over from my previous Huawei, a P30 Lite, the lack of GMS was felt in not being able to immediately access everything. Gmail and other email accounts were present via logging in through the phone’s own app, and Google Maps survived the Phone Clone process, though you can’t log in to track your own usage. The only app I do miss is YouTube, which is relegated to either the browser or a third-party app. Otherwise, the usual additions like Spotify, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Dropbox and Shazam were all there and operational. WhatsApp was there too, though you have to take care to back your messages up on the device and not on Google Drive before you make the move. Huawei is clearly making all attempts to make up for the lost access and even though AppGallery, the Google Play store equivalent is not the most fluid or user-friendly experience, the current result is not unsatisfactory. Whatever is said about the rest of the P40 Pro, faith in the HMS experience will be the ultimate decider in regards to whether people will want it.
The Pro makes use of a Kirin 990 Octo-Core processor backed by 8GB of RAM, with the added benefit of this being one of the only 5G-enabled devices available in South Africa. It’s not much to speak of, given SA’s current 5G coverage, but it does future-proof the device for the inevitable expansion. The performance levels of the phone are more than enough for daily and focused usage, whether it be for games or professional multitasking. Huawei’s user interface continues to be the most easy-to-use even though the common Home and Return buttons at the bottom of the screen have been done away with. It’s a very fluid experience and muscle memory will very quickly take over in terms of daily tasks. The 256GB storage space can be increased via an SD card. An Octo-core processor needs to come with the power to support it, and the 4,200mAh battery in the Pro is an energy saver. I easily got two days worth of charge out of it and it comes equipped with 40W wired supercharging and 27W wireless charging.
About that rear camera hump. It. Is. Quite big. Camera brand Leica has helped Huawei deck the P40 Pro out with a substantial setup. A 50MP Supervision camera, 40MP Ultra-Wide, 12MP telephoto, and a 3D depth sensor. The setup is equipped for 4K video recording at 60 frames a second and is capable of an image resolution of up to 8192x6144 pixels. The depth sensor is the standout here in terms of balancing out the distance in shots. On wide-angle and night pictures (possibly the best night pictures you could take with a camera phone), the quality can be quite sharp, but the benefit of that is the ability to zoom in on any one of them and still have a very good composition. The same goes for shots taken at 10x optical zoom. Even when stretched to a tenth of what it’s capable of shooting, this setup competently delivers. Meanwhile on the front, the 32MP selfie camera can be described as competent as well, but the captured images and videos benefit a great deal from the additional depth sensor. There is a definite distinction of quality when it comes to having those Zoom meetings and Instagram selfies.
Retailing for R20,999 and going up against the like of the LG V60 and Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus, the Huawei P40 Pro cannot be considered on a whim. This is the company’s best hardware available with excellent build quality, solid internals, and one of the best camera setups available today. The only caveat is the restrictions surrounding software. There are workarounds to ensuring that HMS is adequate for every user, but the headlines were there for a reason and the lack of Google services is a frustration that is most prevalent on a flagship device like this. It does have an impact on overall user experience, despite everything else being very good.