Huawei P40 Review: Let’s talk honestly so you can decide if this phone is for you
- Solid performance from Kirin 990 SoC
- Class leading primary camera sensor
- Nice new AI features
- Now easier to find apps with Petal Search
- Lack of Google services makes this a phone for a limited audience
- Camera lacks the versatility of higher P40 series models
- Looks fairly mid-range
This review has been a long time coming, not least because I got the phone late in the day, but also because it has been a very challenging review to write.
From the outset, I knew the omission of Google Mobile Services was going to present a problem. The usual practice of unboxing and setting a new phone up within minutes was never going to happen now such an important part of Android (in the western world at least) has been left out.
But, perhaps by having joined the P40 party late, I’ve been able to see a situation where things have improved from when the P40 series first went on sale, and the Mate 30 Pro on sale shortly before it.
Huawei has worked incredibly hard on ways to mitigate against the effects of the harm caused by the Google ban. In particular, a new app called Petal Search is making the most difference. I’ll talk about that a little later on.
First of all, let’s talk about the phone itself. The P40 is the second model up in the new P40 family, with the Lite models (4G and 5G) sitting just below.
Unlike the Pro model, the standard P40 does without a periscope zoom lens (it has a 3x zoom camera instead), and it also comes with a flat 6.1-inch AMOLED display.
This does make it more manageable in the hand for sure, although to me it felt a bit too small, as I’ve become more accustomed to larger screened devices over the years.
The colour variant here is silver frost, which comes with a matte glass finish to keep fingermarks at bay. I didn’t receive a case in the box (it appears these are now sold/bundled separately), but whether you get one free or not, I would always recommend a case to eliminate the rather substantial camera bump.
Within the camera array you’ll find three image sensors (50-megapixel primary, 8-megapixel 3x telephoto, and 16-megapixel ultra-wide, while on the front in a pill-shaped cut-out you get a 32-megapixel selfie camera and Time-of-Flight (ToF) camera.
The screen resolution is a Full HD+ (1030×2340 pixels) affair, but with only a 60Hz refresh rate. This seems rather surprising now more devices are coming with at least 90Hz, but while a smoother refresh rate can look amazing in certain applications and (supported) games, let’s not allow the industry to make us believe 60Hz is somehow now terrible and unwatchable.
If you’re currently using a phone with a 60Hz display, I am sure you haven’t found it unusable.
There’s the usual power and volume keys on the right, along with USB-C and a single down-firing speaker at the base. There’s no IR sender on this phone, nor stereo sound playback. And, no, there’s no headphone jack either.
Inside you have Huawei’s top-spec Kirin 990 chipset with integrated 5G modem, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage (expandable with Huawei’s proprietary NM cards).
There’s dual SIM too, but only one connection can be active on 5G at a time, and only one SIM if you use a NM card. The 5G performance seemed pretty decent, but I wasn’t really able to venture far to try it out in places I’d have liked to.
One unique feature of the phone is Wi-Fi 6+ support, a proprietary enhancement on Wi-Fi 6, which bumps up the wireless connectivity with supported wireless devices to over 2400Mbps.
It’s quite something to see the P40 connected to a router at 2401Mbps, and if you think this is overkill then consider the benefit for moving files to and from a PC wirelessly, or a NAS, or even from one Wi-Fi 6 device to another.
It’s still early days for the new Wi-Fi standard but you have to start somewhere and it’s great that more flagship phones are ready for when you upgrade your router (hopefully soon ISPs will begin shipping Wi-Fi 6 equipment as standard).
The P40 is a flagship phone in almost every way, although if you’re after a bit more performance in the camera department, and a sexier curved display, you’ll need to look towards the P40 Pro, or the even newer P40 Pro+.
At £1300 for the latter, it doesn’t come cheap. So far, I’ve not seen or used either the P40 Pro or P40 Pro+.
With the P40 comes a number of new features that are part of the 10.1 version of Emotion UI (EMUI). Dark mode has really been perfected now, and you are still able to skin the phone to look exactly how you want with different wallpapers, icons and fonts.
It’s amazing there are still many other manufacturers unable to offer anywhere near the same level of customisation, and it’s one reason for favouring Huawei and Honor phones for so long.
Huawei has perfected everything from the excellent power management settings and optimisation tools, to a simple and quick launcher to manage all your apps (third party launchers can be installed, but not quite as easily as before – but I’ll talk more about this later too).
Things like making a grabbing gesture to take a screen shot, or scrolling the screen with a flick of the wrist. These worked surprisingly well, but will almost certainly never be used day-to-day. It’s really an answer to a question that nobody asked in my opinion.
The need to have the phone detect your open palm before you perform the gesture makes it far less appealing than simply using normal movements to scroll the screen, or holding two keys to do a screen capture.
If you have a Huawei or Honor laptop with embedded NFC badge (such as the MagicBook 14 I recently reviewed), the P40 really comes into its own. With one single tap, you can get an on-screen mirror of your phone, allowing you to fully control it from your desktop.
In addition, you can easily move files from your phone with another quick tap of the phone on the laptop.
The phone also supports the enhanced desktop mode if you connect it to a monitor. Pair up a keyboard and/or mouse, and you can take full advantage of that processing power on-tap in ways that you might not be so able to do as a standard phone.
Information on-hand 24/7
The always-on-display feature that has been available for AMOLED equipped Huawei phones for some time has also been given a major facelift, with the introduction of downloadable (and purchasable) AoD skins that gives you an incredible choice of ways to keep up-to-date with notifications, or just the time and date, when the phone isn’t in use.
You can schedule the display to be active only at certain times of the day, or turn it off completely. It’s a very useful feature and one that is now increasingly becoming the norm throughout the Android world.
On every phone I’ve reviewed since the Huawei P30 Pro, nothing has come remotely close in near dark conditions. The P30 Pro’s party trick was being able to see in virtual darkness, and nobody else has matched that yet. Well, except the P40.
Continuing with the RYYB image sensor made by Sony, but this time with 50-megapixels, the P40 still does the near impossible by capturing high levels of detail with the tiniest of light.
Other phones have tried, and many do quite a commendable job, but none can match Huawei – yet.
Taking photos in low-light conditions has the Huawei taking everything in its stride, and the only real limitation on the P40 comes from the camera configuration that is more limited than the other models. There’s no 40-megapixel f/1.8 ultra-wide camera on the P40, replaced instead with a far more conservative 16-megapxiel f2/2 sensor.
In total you have a 0.6x (ultra-wide) view, 1x, 3x (native) and 5x (hybrid) zoom options – and that’s it. You can push the digital zoom up to 30x, but this phone is going to be more about taking photos of people or environments that don’t require large levels of zoom.
There’s no ToF camera on the rear as per the higher models, but the one on the front is used for gesture recognition and face unlocking. This sensor has never really had its power fully realised, and while you can use it for making measurements or even for night-vision, its omission probably won’t be missed by many.
Video recording tops out at 4K 60fps, and the phone also supports slow-motion video capture at between 120 and 960 fps. Only the Pro models get the crazy 7,680 fps mode that first appeared on the Mate 30 Pro last year.
Other modes include panorama, monochrome, AR lens (where you can animate yourself as different characters), light painting, HDR, time-lapse, stickers, underwater (with a separate protective case), super macro, dual-view (records video front and back simultaneously) and a high-res mode that captures a full 50-megapixel photo.
While the lack of a higher zoom level is disappointing, you still get a very fully-featured camera experience and my only problem has been being able to actually test the camera in different situations due to the lockdown.
Given my experience with the P30 Pro for over a year, I feel I can safely say how good the P40 camera is even without the usual detailed test.
After taking some photos, there are a few enhanced editing tools that are worth mentioning too.
The Golden Snap features can remove reflections from photos taken through glass, or of reflective surfaces, while the remove passerby function can remove people that step into frame.
The reflection removal (see images above) was impressive and even though AI features are maybe less talked about now AI has become the ‘norm’, Huawei is clearly continuing to push the boundaries and develop new features for rivals to copy.
The P40 comes with a 3,800mAh battery and 22.5W fast charging, and there’s no wireless charging. I’d certainly have preferred at least 4,000mAh, and I am also a little disappointed that 40W SuperCharge was left off too.
That said, I still got a respectable amount of screen time between charges (around 5.5 hours), so it didn’t prove to be a big issue. I suppose Huawei had to find other ways to try and upsell people to one of the Pro models.
The phone was tested on a 5G network (EE), so it did at least allow me to see how it fared using a slightly higher power drain. This should make my experience representative of what you will get if using 5G too.
And now, here’s the part of the review I wish I didn’t have to write….
I can’t finish this review without addressing the elephant in the room, and it is perhaps more important than just relating to the P40 itself – as it equally applies to the other P40 series models, the Mate series since last year’s Mate 30 family, and the new phones from Honor like the 9X Pro and 9A.
To pretend the lack of Google Mobile Services isn’t an issue would be doing a huge disservice to my readers, but perhaps things aren’t as bad as they once were.
Before I start, I have to think back to 2013 when Windows Phone was bumbling along and failing to get its app store off the ground.
During this time, Nokia launched the Lumia 1020, with a 41-megapixel PureView camera that utilised pixel-binning in the same way as is now commonplace today.
It was slow to process images because the chipset wasn’t where things are today, but the phone gained quite the cult following because of its tremendous image quality.
In many cases, the Lumia 1020 – or even the Symbian-based PureView 808 before it – was bought by those who wanted it only for a connected camera experience, and not as a phone. It was a secondary device.
Older readers will likely remember carrying a company-issued BlackBerry alongside their own personal phone. For a while, carrying more than one phone was commonplace beyond phone geeks like us.
When Huawei launched the P40 series, I felt it would likely become a secondary device, due to the problems it faced with the loss of the Play Store.
I believed only the most loyal hardcore fans would buy, and that was probably a pretty accurate summation.
Sideloading isn’t the perfect solution
Since the Mate 30 Pro launched, there has been talk about sideloading Google Mobile Services.
I made a decision from the outset to review this phone as it comes. Some ‘influencers’ and YouTubers paid to promote the P40 series have subsequently spoken of putting Google on the phone, despite Huawei paying them to extol the virtues of Huawei’s own solution.
I resisted the temptation to sideload because for most people it isn’t a practical solution, with various complicated methods potentially thwarted as soon as you get the next firmware update.
It starts a continuous cat and mouse game that most people won’t wish to play, at least not if it is their primary device.
Fanboys will relish the challenge and good luck to them, but my review is about the practicality of the phone for ‘Joe Public’ buying SIM-free or on contract.
AppGallery is where it’s at (except when it isn’t)
Out of the box, the phone comes with Huawei’s AppGallery installed instead of Google’s Play Store. This store is still rather devoid of apps and looks much like app stores in the early days, with the decent apps mixed up with tackier offerings. It might help boost the numbers, but I would prefer quality over quantity any day of the week.
There are new apps added each day, but the ratio of good versus bad seems heavily swung towards the bad. This isn’t the fault of Huawei, as it is an open store.
One feature of the AppGallery is allowing you to make a request to a developer to add their app to the store if it isn’t there.
If you do a search for a specific app or game that doesn’t yield a result, the Google store is searched and the details pulled over automatically.
Your request will be made along with those from other users doing the same, hopefully persuading the developer to get involved because they can see a clear demand.
That’s all very good, but it doesn’t get you the app you want now.
Copying apps from another device (such as using Phone Clone to transfer apps from an older phone, as recommended by Huawei) isn’t foolproof either. There’s the issue of how you get those apps updated from then on, and depending on the app you port over, you may lose notifications or other functionality because it is expecting to run within Google’s framework.
Another alternative is to use another app store, and there are a number of them out there, each with varying levels of apps that you might actually want.
This brings with it a level of risk, with the possibility of downloading rogue APKs (Android packages that contain the app code) that might have malware or other quirks. So this isn’t always ideal either.
So this is where Huawei’s latest change is arguably what I’d consider to be the game changer…
Petal Search to the rescue!
The new Petal Search app addresses a lot of the concerns you may have, as well as making it far easier to find apps, and keep them updated.
Rather than searching multiple stores, or hoping a developer will take the time to bring their app to the AppGallery, Petal Search allows you to make a single search and likely find it hosted somewhere.
You can then download the APK, scan for potential threats, and install without having to navigate confusing, frequently ad-filled, sites.
For updates, the app keeps track of your installed applications and shows when there’s an update – which you can also carry out with just a few clicks.
It’s not quite as fluid as doing it from within a single app store, and I did find some apps claimed to have updates that weren’t actually new, but these are relatively minor niggles for something that ‘changes everything’ and will hopefully evolve and improve over time.
Netflix was found via an app store called Uptodown, and WhatsApp was available directly from the developer. Netflix doesn’t support HD or HDR when installed this way, but it’s better than nothing.
For YouTube, you can use a web shortcut, or download a ‘hacked’ version called YouTube Vanced.
Google Maps even installs and, after skipping a couple of warnings, functions as normal but without the ability to access your saved bookmarks.
For navigation, while Huawei is backing TomTom, I found Waze to work just fine. Spotify and many more apps also installed without difficulty.
For Microsoft apps, like Teams or Outlook, they were found from Aptoide and APKPure.
Huawei has its own browser and email client, so you will get all the basics from day one.
One big issue that can’t be fixed is if you’ve already purchased apps via Google’s store, or have a recurring subscription that unlocks additional features. Games also can’t access your achievements and game positions.
One app I use a lot, nPerf, was found on a third-party app store and while my subscription is managed via Google, my login is with a separate email/password.
This means I was able to get the ad-free version, as well as synchronised access to my data of tests carried out on all phones, but the facility to record signal strength when travelling was non-functional due to the need to call upon specific Google APIs for mapping.
As a Nova Launcher user, I can download the launcher via a third-party but I lose my licence, which is frustrating.
For new users, buying apps via AppGallery will be the way forward and even if Google services one day return, AppGallery is a standalone app store that will give access to your apps even if you change to a different manufacturer in the future.
I won’t pretend that Petal Search solves every issue, but it makes the P40 far more usable than I feared it would be.
Without Google, you also lose access to Drive for document and file backup, and no Google Photos means no automatic photo and video backups to the cloud.
Huawei has its own cloud-based service, at some pretty reasonable prices, to try and overcome the photo and video backup issue.
At the time of writing, it is offering 50GB of cloud storage for the first year free, then £9.48 per year thereafter. 200GB will set you back £22.41 for a year, while 2TB can be had for £58.72.
If you’re an Amazon customer, another alternative is to install the Amazon App Store, then download Amazon Photos.
You can download other apps like Prime Video, the Amazon store and other Amazon apps here too. If you’ve purchased apps via Amazon, you’ll be covered here too.
With Amazon Photos you can backup photos, in full-resolution, for free if you’re a Prime customer. Video is limited in storage space, so requires storage to be purchased, but for backing up photos in an almost identical fashion to Google Photos, it’s a very straight forward process.
Does this mean you can live without Google?
Some reviewers have said that the P40 (albeit the Pro) is a fantastic phone you shouldn’t buy, but that’s not actually a fair conclusion in my opinion.
Some people can probably get by just fine with the phone as it comes, using Huawei’s own email client, browser, and Huawei’s own cloud based backup solutions. For some, connecting and backing up to a PC will be just fine too.
There is even an element of users who may see the omission of Google services as a real benefit.
Not everyone is into social media, or making contactless payments, for example.
However, if you can’t get your online banking app to work, or another must-have app, you’re probably still going to have give this phone a miss for the time being.
I wouldn’t recommend sideloading Google Mobile Services as a workaround unless you are prepared for it to stop working at any time, and the resulting effort to ‘keep the phone going’ to retain working access.
The future is uncertain
Going forward, Huawei needs to continue to get developers to support the AppGallery directly. More apps need to use Huawei’s APIs for notifications. Contactless payments need to come to Huawei Wallet, and banking apps need to be made official.
I am sure Huawei is working hard on this in order to improve the situation, and even now I am far more confident that the P40, and future Huawei and Honor phones, won’t be expensive paperweights for a lot of people.
As the relationship with China, the US Government, and even now the UK Government continue to deteriorate, I am losing hope of a magical solution that will see Google returning anytime soon. Even a change of President in 2021 might not fix the situation.
But now there’s certainly more hope that Huawei can get through this obstacle, and hopefully this post will help inform you of the positives and negatives to better help you make a decision.
The ratings below are based purely on the capabilities of the phone.
Pricing & Availability
The Huawei P40 is available in black or silver frost from the Huawei online store, with a single configuration of 8GB RAM and 128GB storage.
At the time of publication, the phone also comes with a Huawei FreeBuds 3i earbuds (with a retail value of £89.99) and a plastic case worth £24.99.
Huawei is still selling the P30 Pro – including an all-new ‘New Edition’ version released in 2020 for £699; the same price as the P40.
Why? Because it was ratified before the Google ban, and so is still able to get full Google app support, Google Play store access and updates.
It comes with the same Emotion UI version as the P40, along with a 5x periscope zoom, and a curved AMOLED display.
The P30 Pro doesn’t offer 5G, nor Wi-Fi 6+ connectivity, but in most areas it stands the test of time extremely well. It even has a larger 4,200mAh battery and 40W SuperCharge support.
Failing that, the original P30 Pro can be found even cheaper if you shop around – and these versions are in the process of receiving Emotion UI 10.1 right now.
The future for Huawei?
Petal Search will have a huge impact on the viability of the latest smartphones to sell to the mainstream, but there’s much more work to be done. Getting more apps on its own store is key.
Huawei also needs to push more of its other products and services. It can do this through its wearables, hearables and other accessories – like 5G and Wi-Fi 6 routers.
Having recently imported a AX3 Pro router from China, at a cost of around £55, featuring Wi-Fi 6+ and one-button mesh networking with other HiLink badged routers, such devices could compete well with incumbent players in the networking arena.
For some reason, Huawei is holding back and now is the time to change that.
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