A new normal — it’s a term that’s being thrown around a lot these days. And while I’m trying to work through all of the recent changes that have happened in recent months, it’s rather fitting that I’m using a phone that is a product of some radical changes for HUAWEI. One of the results is a high end smartphone that has been isolated from one of the main tools users across the world might wish they could access. So, what is it like adapting to this new normal?
Obviously the P40 Pro isn’t made available in the US, which is kind of a shame because plenty of manufacturers could glean a thing or two from HUAWEI’s design language here. I’ll just start with the hefty feel of the phone, there’s a good amount of weight that makes gripping the phone feel very secure. The weight is also balanced, which is interesting because the P40 Pro is actually a bit smaller than other phones I’ve used recently with even larger screens. We’ll get more into the various curvatures in a second, but the fact that the back has a curve too further smooths out the feel. And the shiny white backing is quite the looker, again taking on the design aspects of a point and shoot camera. Of course that big camera square in the corner is an eye-catcher, but for now I’m going to commend the camera bump for not protruding too much.
So let’s get to that screen, which really doesn’t cut corners. I mean that quite literally — you can see that the left and right sides as well as the top and bottom have curves, taking this edge display to another level. The corners are still there, making it look like the chassis is literally gripping or clamping the screen in place. There is a little bit of bezel all around and while we’re always aiming for a full screen display, having this little bit of black around the panel helps give the viewing experience a bit of contrast and likely helps the palm rejection.
Viewing experiences on the display are top notch, even though there’s no notch here. The cutout does literally cut into some content from time to time, which is a tiny nuisance alongside how some elements fall beneath the display corners. The pill cutout is pretty big due to three items: the camera lens, a depth sensor, and infrared. Aside from selfies, this all helps with face unlock, which is nice and fast here, especially with raise to wake switched on. There is also an in-display fingerprint reader that works fine, even if the sensor graphic seems a bit small.
Scrolling through everything is at a nice 90hz refresh rate and at QuadHD resolution. Some displays are going above and beyond, but the P40 Pro OLED panel still sits right among the best. Even if my usual viewing experiences are somewhat limited — for obvious reasons — the ways I can still enjoy content come through very well. The same goes for games, though we’ll get to the app experience in a moment.
Overall, this might be one of the nicest looking and feeling high-end smartphones I’ve used in a while. It doesn’t try too hard in any one design aspect, especially the size, which leads to a pleasantly balanced start.
What’s inside that counts
There’s no denying that this phone is high on performance, thanks to the Kirin 990 which is the in-house 7nm processor complete with tried and true enhancements like GPU Turbo for gaming. Call of Duty: Mobile was sharp yet smooth as butter with all settings turned on. The 90hz refresh rate shined through, and it continues to even when just jumping around EMUI. Throw on top of that 8GB of RAM and 256GB of onboard storage. A 4200mAh battery isn’t super high on capacity but with all of the power modes that you can access in the battery settings, there are plenty of ways to get more time. Topping up is super fast, anyway — not only is there fast 40W wired charging, wireless charging can get up to 27W. Charging other items via reverse wireless is available, too. (Using this with the Pixel Bugs felt ironic, maybe even a little naughty…)
So let’s get into the cameras — I keep mentioning the ‘new normal,’ which is evident by the fact that I can’t show you everything this camera is capable of in the best ways. Imagine having this phone in some beautiful parts of the world, using the 50MP main sensor for the main shots, the 40MP wide angle camera for the tight spots, and the 12MP periscope zoom lens to compress that background and make subjects really pop. Even if 10x is possible with extra digital help, a lossless 5x is plenty of range to get some good close up shots. The good result of HUAWEI and Leica’s partnership seems to continue in the P40 Pro, as I’ve been able to get some really great photos around my house and neighborhood. I can only so many take pictures and video of myself making coffee, though. The pixel binned 12MP results definitely show how much more light and data can get in compared to just the full resolution 50MP shots via the Pro mode. This is a large sensor too, meaning the plane of focus is quite fine — notice how my fingers are very close together but aren’t all in focus.
Night mode is expectedly good too, but I have to admit — the inherent pixel binning and multi-frame HDR capture of the auto mode does a pretty damn good job already in these scenarios. Best way I can describe it is that the Night mode does a better job of portraying that it’s actually night and not just a low contrast version of a real evening scene. Night mode definitely makes a difference once you get zooming.
The front facing camera is a 32MP shooter that gets sharp and detailed regular selfies, with the portrait mode putting in more work to blur the background and remove my freckles if the beauty mode is on. 4K selfie video is possible here, making this a viable camera for social media like TikTok. Beauty mode even works on front facing video, though it shoots the resolution back down to 1080p. And speaking of video, the main sensor does a great job of hitting all the right marks with great detail, smooth stabilization, and good autofocus. The wide angle sensor brings similar results even if its a fixed focus lens. Colors can get a little washed out, but the same filters that are available in the photo mode can be used in video, too — I kept everything at the Leica Standard setting, though. Plenty of fun can be had with this camera, including that super super slow motion video that is crazy impressive to see in action even if it’s 720p.
HUAWEI gets a lot right with the raw specs of this phone, and by and large they all translate to an experience that fits the premium. From the performance down to the capture quality, these are the parts of the P40 Pro that count and that some of us miss out on. That’s because the software is a totally different and impactful story.
The missing link
EMUI might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I remember when this UI was a pretty rough way to use Android on the daily. Over time, HUAWEI got better at streamlining the look while maintaining many of the different features that gave it extra functionality. But now we’re in a situation where all that EMUI has achieved gets pulled back by a trade war that deprives this version of Android of a major foundational piece — Google. Jaime had to contend with this new normal with the Mate 30 Pro, and — spoiler alert — I basically agree with his assessment.
So, the way that I approached this phone started out simple: I would just rely on everything the phone has pre-installed because those are the obvious essentials. There might not be Google Photos, but HUAWEI Cloud provides a sizeable amount of free data storage. I wouldn’t have GMail, but there’s a mail app — and it uses the browser to do a Google login, so at least I don’t have to mess with any IMAP settings. The EMUI browser, by the way, is pretty smooth at accessing other web-based applications like YouTube, but of course you miss out on certain features such as background play or picture in picture. But that’s what happens when you’re a power user of such apps, which I understand is a bit more niche. For most people, this communication device will still have most of the tools required to get work and some play done.
That’s due to the App Gallery, HUAWEI’s long running app store that, to my delight, did have some of my other essentials. Some Chinese market mainstays are front and center, like TikTok and WeChat. I got Telegram for messaging peers and colleagues, HERE maps is now HUAWEI’s answer to not having Google Maps, and even games like Asphalt 9 and the Epic Games launcher were prominently represented. I do think that for most people there will be a bit of a curve toward achieving a proper workflow — especially if you’re used to a Google-based work-life balance. But the beauty of Android is that there are always alternatives — there’s even the Microsoft Office mobile suite in the AppGallery, for instance. Just like how a number of people say they would get a simple laptop for browsing and casual media consumption, pretty much any casual app user can get plenty done with the P40 Pro.
If you need to get creative, there are places to acquire down the list of extra apps. The Amazon App Store got me Facebook and Instagram and surprisingly enough DDPYoga, and then I had to find APKs for other things like my password manager Dashlane and my calorie app LoseIt. A mix of both methods helped me get Call of Duty Mobile and War of the Visions — but one thing I realized is that apps or games that are otherwise behind a paywall in the Google Play Store will either need to be bought again if available in the Amazon App Store or simply no longer there.
So I have to think that the necessary move to HUAWEI Mobile Services basically means that we have a somewhat new third category of smartphone. There’s iOS, there’s Google-powered Android, and then there’s not-Google-powered Android. That means if you’re coming from a Google backed phone, the P40 Pro will take a genuine adjustment and a bit of creativity to replicate previous experiences. Users who aren’t so reliant on Google for their work-life balance can still find the barrier of entry pretty low because there are plenty of apps, including those in the AppGallery, that get the same jobs done. We don’t know what the future holds for HUAWEI’s issues in the US and with Google, but for the time being, it’s worth hoping that the company can continue building their own ecosystem so that the best parts of this phone — design, performance, and cameras with Leica — can stick around.