Huawei’s Mate 40 Pro is another powerful flagship that you won’t buy

The Mate 40 Pro seemed to pick out differences in light and shadow better than its predecessors and much of this is down to the system being able to do real-time processing to improve backlit stills and video. Shoot with the light behind you, and the camera will pick out the under-lit detail in the foreground and blow it up, with pretty decent results. It’s also capable of picking out differences in clouds on an otherwise overcast day — if you wanted that.

Shooting in my back garden is one of the best tests of a phone’s night shooting ability. Turn off my lights and you’re left wandering around in darkness with no ambient light bleeding through the thick tree coverage. Testing out the new night mode, I was more or less shooting blind since it’s impossible to see without a torch, but the results were interesting, at least. Wait eight seconds and the image that is produced is unreal-looking, but amplifies every drop of light available in the scene. Compare that to, say, the iPhone 12, and Huawei’s approach sacrifices accuracy in favor of just latching onto any detail it can and amplifying it as much as possible.

The forward-facing camera is certainly capable but I’m not quite as sold on it. The effects, like adding bokeh to a portrait selfie, take far too long to process and I felt like I had to take a couple each time for safety’s sake.

When it comes to video, the company claims you could shoot a real (theatrical) film with its cameras. On an overcast October day in the UK, my footage wasn’t very romantic, but what it lacks in romance it makes up for with detail and clarity. You can attach live filters to the footage to give it a different tone (including sepia and monochrome filters) even as you record. I’m not sure that you’d want to publish this as a movie without a lot of post-processing, but there is something here to work with.

I was able to push the zoom to 50x and still clearly read a car’s number plate around 150 feet away. It’s still not going to be the best quality image, but Huawei continues to lead the pack, or at least share it, when it comes to smartphone camera zoom features.

The apps

Bleurgh.

It’s been 18 months since the US effectively banned any US or US-affiliated technology company from doing business with Huawei. Consequently, Huawei can’t access the layer of Google services that usually sits on top of Android in the west, including the Google Play store. In its place, Huawei runs a skinned version of the open-source version of Android, EMUI 11, and its own app store, the Huawei App Gallery.

There are some pretty substantial gaps in the list of apps most people in the west consider to be essential. In the US, the most popular mobile apps on iOS and Android include YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Zoom, Disney+, Tinder, Facebook, Snapchat and Netflix. The top charts for Huawei’s App Gallery include PicsArt photo editor, Dingtone (offering free calls) and Podcast Addict, a podcast client. In terms of the “big” apps, Huawei can boast Snapchat and TikTok, but that’s about it.

Partly this is because lots of these big companies can’t work with Huawei without consequences, like Facebook, which has blocked Instagram and WhatsApp from the platform. Others may not see the point of porting their Android apps over to an ecosystem with a small user base. Huawei’s looking to remedy that with a “Wishlist,” where when users find a missing app, they can add it to a list. Periodically, the most popular selections will apparently be contacted by Huawei and asked if they can help bring it over to the App Gallery.

But the point still stands that for users in the west, this situation makes a Huawei phone a very hard sell. It doesn’t help that there’s no easy, simple and reliable way for users to circumvent the ban and install Google’s services on there themselves. (It’s possible, but be advised that doing so is fiddly and involved, and such loopholes have been found and shut down before). Of course, this situation is different in China, where Google is blocked.

Design

But hey, it’s still a very pretty phone.

The Mate 40 Pro that I’m using has a “Mystic Silver” paint job (others are available) which has a nice creamy silver tone when sat on the desk. Hold it in your hand and wave it around, however, and the light catches reflective grains in the paint job, producing a mermaid hair-esque shimmer of color. It’s thankfully a little less slippery than the Mate 30 Pro, and Huawei ships it with a transparent plastic case. That’s a vital necessity since that backplate really doesn’t look good with fingerprint smears.

The Mate 40 Pro adopts the same visual language as most of Huawei’s other phones, including the P40 Pro and Mate 30 Pro. There are top-and-bottom-firing stereo speakers, and the top of the phone plays host to a couple of microphones and little else. On the bottom, you’ll find the SIM slot and USB-C port nestled between a pair of antenna lines. It’s certainly comfortable to hold in the hand, albeit a bit too big for entirely one-handed use.

One of the most annoying “innovations” of the Mate 30 series was when Huawei ditched the physical volume rocker. Instead, users double-tapped the right side of the display where the rocker should be, for one to appear on-screen. Sadly, you could never guarantee that the controls would appear at the first time of asking. Thankfully, Huawei has reversed course with the Mate 40, and the physical rocker is back, with the option of the on-screen control should you feel so compelled.

The Mate 40 Pro has a 90Hz 6.76-inch flexible OLED “Horizon Display” with a resolution of 2,772 x 1,344 and an 88-degree curve over the sides, at a time when some phone makers are reining in the curved screens. That’s a little bigger than the 6.53-inch display found on the Mate 30, but in practice, the difference is negligible. The central cut-out for the forward-facing cameras has been ditched in favor of the same lozenge-shaped hole punch found on the P40 Pro which contains the two forward-facing cameras. On the left is a 3D depth-sensing camera, while on the right is the selfie lens, which pulls double-duty as the gesture sensor. Unsurprisingly, trying to use air gestures on this handset is as frustrating as it is on every other device, so don’t bother.

Performance

Hands-on images of Huawei’s latest flagship smartphone the Mate 40 Pro running EMUI 11 and packing incredible cameras.

Daniel Cooper

Inside, the Mate 40 Pro is the first smartphone to ship with Huawei’s newest and most powerful system-on-chip (SoC), the Kirin 9000. It’s an octa-core system with 8GB RAM, paired with a 24-core Mali G78 GPU and an integrated 5G modem. There are no prizes for guessing that this thing is very, very fast with there being no delay when using face unlock or the in-display fingerprint sensor. Everything just glides along.

In terms of demanding mobile games to test this handset, the only readily available option was Fortnite. The app wouldn’t let me run the game on ‘Epic’ settings because the handset wasn’t recognized (much like last year). But maxing out what I could, the game was smooth and stutter-free, and when more challenging apps are available, it’ll be worth coming back to push the chip at least a little further. Given the raw power available here, I don’t expect any hiccups.

Unsurprisingly, the Mate 40 Pro’s 4,400mAh battery is a warhorse, and I can get almost two days of use out of this thing before going back to the charger. That was under “tech review” conditions, shooting photos, playing music and watching videos while constantly prodding at the apps and menus.

But back to the chip. The Mate 40 will be the first smartphone to ship with Huawei’s Kirin 9000, but it’s also probably the last. When the US tightened its sanctions against the company, Huawei lost the ability to work with chipmaker TSMC and its much-coveted 5-nanometer production line. (That’s the same line Apple uses to make the new A14 Bionic chip.) Before the sanctions hit, Huawei essentially bought out all of TSMC’s production capacity to crank out as many Kirin 9000s as possible before September 15th.

But after that point, Huawei was cut off from all of its major chip suppliers that have the capacity and know-how to build this sort of silicon. Back in August, CEO Richard Yu conceded that the Mate 40 would only be available in limited quantities thanks to chip shortages. Hell, this phone will already be a gadget collectors’ item the moment it hits store shelves, although I’m not sure this or Beanie Babies will hold their value better.

Conclusion

Hands-on images of Huawei’s latest flagship smartphone the Mate 40 Pro running EMUI 11 and packing incredible cameras.

Daniel Cooper

I’m tempted to just copy and paste the closing paragraphs from my Mate 30 Pro piece from this time last year. It’s pretty much the same story for this device as it was a year ago: A powerful phone with great, world-class cameras that’s still let down by a nonexistent app selection. Even as Huawei says it’s working to close the gap between itself and Google, it’s still not even close to good enough. And in the US, it’s not as if you can even buy this handset given what’s going on right now.

What’s left to say is that in another time, this would be a phone spoken about in the same hushed tones as the Galaxy Note and iPhone Max. Right now, however, it’s a phone for the most diehard gadget enthusiast and very few others.

The Huawei Mate 40 and Mate 40 Pro are available with a “nano-tech” ceramic back in Mystic Silver, White or Black, or with either a Yellow or Green vegan leather cover. There’s also a Mate 40 Pro+, which is just available with a White or Black ceramic case.