Huawei Mate 40 Pro, hands on: An excellent 5G flagship, but Google is still overboard

huawei-mate-40-pro-header.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    Not yet rated

The Mate 40 Pro is Huawei's latest flagship handset, and one of a select band whose pricing starts in four figures -- £1,099.99 (inc. VAT) with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage. If you're flush of wallet, you can also buy Samsung's Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (12GB/512GB) for £1,029 or Apple's iPhone 12 Pro Max (6GB/128GB) for £1,099. 

To justify that sort of price, a flagship smartphone not only needs superb features, industrial design and build quality, but also a top-notch software experience. And that's where Huawei's recent top-end phones have had a problem. 

huawei-mate-40-pro-main.jpg

The Mate 40 Pro has a curved 6.76-inch OLED display, measures 75.5mm by 162.9mm by 9.1mm and weighs 212g. It's powered by the 5nm Kirin 9000 SoC with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage, expandable via proprietary Nano Memory card (at the expense of a SIM slot).

Images: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

It's been over a year since Huawei was banned from using Google apps and services on its phones by the US administration. The last Huawei handset I reviewed that ran Google Mobile ServicesPlay Store and the rest was the superb P30 Pro, which received an 'outstanding' (9.2/10) recommendation. Since then, the Mate 30 ProP40 Pro and P40 Pro+ reviews have all come and gone, highly praised for their hardware but without a formal rating thanks to the absence of Google apps and services. 

Since the Google ban, Huawei has spent a lot of money and energy developing its own software ecosystem, including Huawei Mobile Services and AppGallery, but it remains the case that committed Google users will generally find this unsatisfactory. 

Workarounds are available, though -- you can access some Google apps via Huawei's web browser, for example. But if you've tried using Gmail or Sheets in this way rather than using the app, even on a screen as excellent as the Mate 40 Pro's 6.76-inch OLED, you'll know what a pain that is. 

The absence of the Google app store means that third-party apps you use daily may be unavailable. If you currently rely on specific apps for banking, for controlling aspects of your smart home, for ebook reading, or for other activities or tasks you consider part of normal everyday life, this handset may well disappoint. 

Top ZDNET Reviews

Huawei does have its own on-device app store, the AppGallery, which can be searched online. It also has a service called Petal Search which you can use to find apps similar to those you'll be giving up. There's also Phone Clone, which is a one-time direct copy of apps from your existing handset to a Huawei phone. Be aware, though, that app transfers achieved via Phone Clone don't update on an ongoing basis as they would on a standard Android/Google handset.  

So despite Huawei's efforts on the software front, the Mate 40 Pro starts with a considerable -- and, for many, insurmountable -- disadvantage when set against handsets from other manufacturers. 

What you do start out with is Huawei's EMUI 11 running on Android 10 (minus Google services). This lends things a familiar look and feel, with screens full of app icons in a familiar layout and an easily navigable settings area. EMUI 11 allows for very granular control, and there's a lot to like about it, including gesture controls that don't require you to touch the screen to complete actions. You can take a screenshot by making a grabbing gesture about 20-40cm from the screen, hold your hand 30-40cm from the screen then move it towards the screen to pause/resume music or answer a call in speaker mode, and hold your hand 30-40cm from the screen and make a downward motion to 'air scroll' through screens of info. I found the latter two gestures quite useful.  

There are plenty of pre-loaded apps: Huawei has its own book store, music and video players, health app, gallery, file manager, web browser, notepad, apps for producing documents, presentations, spreadsheets and memos, sound recorder, contacts manager, calculator, remote control (using the built in IR blaster), weather app, and more.  

huawei-mate-40-pro-app-folders.jpg

There's a lot of pre-installed software on the Android 10/EMUI 11 Mate 40 Pro, along with themed folders containing links to recommended apps. Nothing from Google, though.

Images: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

There are also folders containing links to download apps you might find useful, grouped under business, entertainment and lifestyle. With no information about users' interests, the suggested apps are eclectic. Beneath the folder items there's an equally wide-ranging selection of other apps you might like. Maybe this is just showing off what's available in the AppGallery, but if so the selections on offer had minimal appeal for me and the whole thing backfired, feeling more like bloatware. 

Software aside, Huawei does a simply fantastic job with the Mate 40 Pro. There is plenty of storage on board to handle all the pre-installed apps with 256GB out of the box and 18GB consumed by the various pre-installed software, leaving 238GB free. The handset accepts two SIMs, one of which can be replaced with further storage -- although this has to be a proprietary Nano Memory card rather than standard MicroSD. 

SEE: 5G smartphones: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

This is a 5G phone, powered by the 5nm Huawei/HiSilicon Kirin 9000 chipset. I was unable to run my usual Geekbench 5 benchmarks, but in use I found nothing to complain about, performance-wise. The Mate 40 was fast and responsive, aided by 8GB of RAM. Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.2, NFC, infrared wireless charging and a 3D sensor for face login are all present and correct. The handset is also IP68 rated for water and dust resistance. 

The build is exemplary. The rear cameras are ranged around a raised circle that's centrally located. This means that when the handset is on a desk it remains stable when the screen is prodded and fingers glide across it. This is a real plus compared to phones with side-located camera lozenges, which bobble about annoyingly on a desk when you interact with the screen. 

huawei-mate-40-pro-side.jpg

The (red) power button and volume rocker sit in an indent on the right-hand side.

Image: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

My review unit had a Mystic Silver backplate, but the Mate 40 Pro is also available in black. The back is quite slippery in the hands, and the phone also failed the 'stay on my sofa' test, sliding off at regular intervals. There's a sheen to the back that reflects surrounding colours in a restrained pearlescent manner. It curves nicely into the edges, and has an indent to make space for the red home and silver volume buttons -- that's needed because the screen curves significantly into the handset's long edges. The SIM slot is located on the bottom edge, where there's also a speaker grille and the USB-C port for charging, PC connection and headphones (there's no 3.5mm audio jack). There's a second speaker grille on the top edge.  

The 6.76-inch OLED screen is superb. Huawei has not gone for broke on the refresh rate, sticking to 90Hz rather than pushing for 120Hz. This seems like a sensible compromise in terms of conserving battery life, and I found the screen very responsive. The resolution of 1,344 by 2,772 pixels (456ppi) is also not over-specified, but it still presents clear, crisp content.  

It's a pity the speakers aren't of higher quality. Sound rises to a high volume, but in general it lacks bass tones and seems a little harsh. Given that the superb OLED screen lends itself to gaming and video viewing, this is something of a disappointment. 

There are three Leica-branded cameras and a laser depth sensor at the back. The main camera, with a 50MP RYYB sensor and an f/1.9 wide-angle lens, is accompanied by 20MP f/1.8 ultra-wide-angle and 12MP f/3.4 telephoto cameras, the latter supporting OIS and 5x optical, 10x hybrid and 50x digital zoom. I had limited photo-testing opportunities, but found everyday shots to be sharp, clear and of very good quality (incidentally, the Mate 40 Pro currently tops the DXOMARK smartphone camera rankings). The 50x digital zoom is best avoided: it produces pretty grainy results, and you need a steady hand to keep your subject in view, although it does benefit from a small on-screen viewfinder window. 

A big screen means a big phone, in this case 162.9mm tall, 75.5mm wide and 9.1mm thick. It's a bit of a beast to pocket and hold, and it won't be surprising to learn that two-handed use is required for full-screen access. Aware of this issue, Huawei provides a vertical floating shortcuts window that can give access to apps you use regularly. 

I was unable to run my usual PCMark rundown test on the Mate 40's 4400mAh battery, but playing non-stop, full-screen YouTube video through the web browser depleted the battery by just 14% in three hours. More anecdotally, I got a day's use from the phone easily -- but then, I resorted to my regular handset a lot more often than usual during testing, for a range of everyday tasks. Suffice to say, battery life hasn't been a problem with this handset. 

The Mate 40 has excellent fast charging support, with a 66W fast charger in the box and support for fast 50W wireless charging and 5W wireless reverse charging; there's also a 66W in-car wired charger and 50W wireless car charging. So a quick power boost should never be far away, should you need one. 

huawei-mate-40-pro-black.jpg

Image: Huawei

Conclusions

If we take the four-figure price and the lack of Google's apps and services out of the equation, Huawei has come up with a stunning flagship phone in the Mate 40 Pro. It's well designed and built, has a great OLED screen and excellent cameras, delivers good battery life, and there are some nice features in EMUI 11.

But, of course, we can't ignore the high price and absence of Google, and when these factors are added to the equation, the Huawei Mate 40 Pro becomes a handset that's very difficult to recommend.

RECENT AND RELATED CONTENT

Huawei Mate 40 series: Flagship phones with limited appeal outside China

Huawei P40 Pro+, hands on: A top-class flagship phone with super-zoom camera system, but no Google services

Huawei P40 Pro, hands on: Another superb Huawei phone, but still missing Google services

Huawei Mate 30 Pro, hands on: Superb hardware, but Google services are sorely missed

Trade war restrictions force Huawei to sell off Honor business

Samsung Display gains licence from US to sell OLED to Huawei

The 10 best smartphones of 2020: Z Fold 2 tough to beat for productivity  

Read more reviews

Top ZDNET Reviews