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Huawei Mate 40 Pro review: Great cameras and improving ecosystem within a flagship device

By Liu Hongzuo - 2 Jan 2021
Launch SRP: S$1598

Design & Handling, Display & Audio, User Interface

Note: This review was first published on 22 Dec 2020.

Does Huawei's Mate 40 Pro have what it takes to play with the big boys?

As we watch 2020 come to a close, the last major smartphone brand with a flagship offering finally entered our hands - the Huawei Mate 40 Pro.

If you’re wondering why Huawei seemed quiet after announcing the Mate 40 series in October, that’s because the phones were slated for a December 2020 launch. To recap, the Mate 40 series models available globally are:

  • Huawei Mate 40 (8GB RAM + 128GB storage): €899
  • Huawei Mate 40 Pro (8GB RAM + 256GB storage): €1,199
  • Huawei Mate 40 Pro+ (12GB RAM + 256GB storage): €1,399

There’s also a special edition, Porsche-inspired Huawei Mate 40 RS (12GB RAM + 512GB storage) going at €2,295.

For Singapore, the Huawei Mate 40 Pro is available since 12 December at S$1,598 in two colour variants - Mystic Black and Silver. More details, like pre-order bonuses and official retail channels, can be found here. It’s still not known if other Mate 40 models will hit our shores.

So what’s going on with the Mate 40 Pro? In a nutshell, the middle-child of the Mate 40 series features its latest flagship-tier chipset, the Kirin 9000 system-on-chip. Across the board, the Kirin 9000 is said to offer on-board 5G connectivity so fast that it runs circles around Qualcomm’s independent X55 5G modem for phones, has 30% more transistors than Apple’s already stunning A14 Bionic transistor count, and a 24-core GPU for ‘pro-level graphics’ for unrivalled gameplay. 

However, hardware only makes up one part of the entire smartphone experience. Using all that power would require compatible apps and software. The Mate 40 series came at a time where political quarrels spilt over to technological advancements. As a result, the phones come without Google Mobile Services (GMS) out of the box, just like the Mate 30 series, the P40 series, and Nova 7 series handsets. Instead, Huawei has Huawei Mobile Services (HMS) running under its Android-based operating system, supported with apps made for Huawei phones via AppGallery. As with the recent Huawei phone reviews, we’ll definitely check in on AppGallery’s progress.

In the imaging department, Mate 40 Pro packs a triple-rear camera configuration led by a 50MP Ultra Vision Came with f/1.9 aperture and RYYB colour filter overlaid on its image sensor. The RYYB filter sees its two green channels swapped out with yellow (hence the ‘YY’ in the name), theoretically allowing more light in than regular RGGB filters that populate just about every other colour-shooting phone camera out there. The Huawei P40 Pro touts a very similar main camera - same megapixel count, same aperture size, same 1/1.28-inch sensor, same RYYB filter - but the Mate 40 Pro’s main camera doesn’t have optical image stabilisation like how P40 Pro does. That’s not to say the camera tech was stagnant on the Mate 40 Pro - Huawei is counting on the Kirin 9000 to bring great imaging quality with its “50% higher image processing throughput and 48% better video noise reduction” than the previous Kirin 990 5G chipset, which the P40 Pro had.

Other flagship features are also available on the device, such as 66W wired fast-charging, 50W wireless fast-charging, IP68 water resistance, NFC, both face recognition and fingerprint sensor, and a second SIM slot that doubles as an expandable storage slot using Huawei’s proprietary NM card. 

By all accounts, it seems like the Huawei Mate 40 Pro is your regular, high-end flagship smartphone, but can it hold up in such a competitive market? Let’s find out.

 

Design & Handling

Huawei decidedly kept key design elements of the Mate series on the Mate 40 range while giving it a small spin to spruce up the device for 2020 and forward. Dubbed as the Space Ring Design, Huawei houses the rear cameras in a circular cut-out with the Leica branding in its centre. The central portion is no longer black like the rest of the camera housing, and Huawei did away with the differently polished border for a modern, cleaner appearance.

The top and bottom rungs showcase its polished metal prominently, while the sides accommodate the curved display. The antenna bands share a similar colour scheme as its rear (in our case, the review phone came in an iridescent Silver). The overall aesthetic feels familiar to the Mate phones that came before it.

It's a lovely design that stands out from other premium alternatives, even if it feels a little dated by now. While it looks unique, it has one of the biggest camera housings for a phone - most handsets have a bump that takes up a corner, while the Mate 40 Pro's camera housing is nearly a third of the rear. You'll need to be extra mindful when removing it from the pockets or placing it face-up on a table.

A major difference between the Mate 40 Pro and its predecessor is the return of physical volume buttons. Previously, audio controls on the Mate 30 Pro were virtually manipulated with a sliding gesture on the side of the phone, with the power/lock button being the only physical key on the handset. Mate 40 Pro now has a set of physical keys for volume just above its red-tinted power/lock button, while it still retains the fancy sliding gesture input for volume control on the opposite side of the smartphone. Simply double-tap and slide a finger up or down along the rim, and you have volume controls on both sides. 

As a whole, the smartphone's handling is expectedly comfortable if you can deal with the protruding camera housing. 

 

Display & Audio

The Huawei Mate 40 Pro has a 6.76-inch OLED display rated at FHD+ (2,772 x 1,344 pixels resolution) and 90Hz refresh rate. Where it excels is the panel’s 240Hz touch sampling rate, making it feel really responsive to your touch inputs. An OLED display makes the Mate 40 Pro's panel vibrant and bright, with great colourisation, detail, and accuracy. If we had any gripes, it's only because it's not quite 1440p. However, its high pixel density of ~456 PPI makes the Mate 40 Pro sufficiently sharp at a glance.

The device packs dual-firing speakers - a loudspeaker at the bottom, and the thin call speaker above  Going by the spec sheet and promotional materials, Huawei doesn’t seem to have any special tuning or support for audio - it’s pretty clear that sound on the Mate 40 Pro was made to be serviceable and nothing more. 

 

UI & Features

The Huawei Mate 40 Pro comes with Android 10 reskinned beneath its proprietary EMUI 11. This is odd, considering how Android 11 has already started popping up on competing devices, either via software updates or in newly-launched models. Fortunately, your browsing experience isn’t going to see a huge hindrance, unless you’re banking on Android 11 features making EMUI better. 

As described in our overview above, certain political circumstances have led to the decoupling of GMS from Huawei’s recent slate of newly launched phones. Huawei has since plugged that gap with two important features - the AppGallery, where it hosts all Android apps made with the HMS core in mind, and Petal Search, a search engine app that scours both official app sources (like WhatsApp official website, which hosts APKs of the messaging app), and unofficial, third-party app stores for copies of installable Google Play apps. 

The latter, however, doesn’t guarantee full app functionality on the phone - it just looks for the most updated APK file hosted outside of Google Play Store, and the process is subject to these third-party app stores keeping their inventory up-to-date and free of mobile cyber threats. 

Even with the lack of GMS, certain Google products like Google Maps worked fine when installed via Petal Search. A deeper look (in the Settings app) revealed that it’s using the HMS core for location services, and not GMS. Chances are, map data is on par with regular Google Maps, but HMS handles the location and navigation heavy-lifting.

Before we celebrate, other commonly used Google services and products are not as readily available. YouTube still requires access via the built-in Internet browser, and so does Gmail. The Google app, Google Drive, and Google Chrome apps either don’t work, and they don’t function properly if you manage to install them. Even with unofficial sources of Google apps made easily accessible with Petal Search, Huawei really doesn’t want you to go back to Google-backed services, since the apps sometimes shut down even if you manage to get it onto the phone.

Additionally, we requested for a list of new apps available on AppGallery since our Nova 7 SE review, but Huawei regurgitated its full list of relevant apps, most of which we’ve already covered previously in individual news articles and in older phone reviews.

As far as we can tell, TraceTogether is a new app in AppGallery, making Huawei phones more relevant for hyperlocal use given our ongoing social distancing requirements. DBS and POSB join the list of previously supported local bank apps. Deliveroo, HungryGoWhere, and Chope have decidedly joined FoodPanda as well. For government e-services, Singpass Mobile will come after this year (estimated January 2021). 

Other apps, like Lazada, Shopee, ComfortDelGro, TADA, RYDE, and a host of banking apps were available on AppGallery since H1 2020. Noticeably, the Grab superapp (which has its ride-hailing, e-payments wallet, and food delivery services) isn’t available via AppGallery.

According to Huawei, more than 18,000 new games to AppGallery over the past 12 months. However, a quick scan at mobile gaming options tells us we’re better off side-loading top game apps of higher quality (Genshin Impact and Dragalia Lost, anybody?) like we always have with previous Huawei devices.

As a whole, not getting to use the YouTube app (along with all its handy casting alternatives) and Google Chrome app (which offers cross-platform records of your bookmarks and web history) can affect your general browsing experience. We tried side-loading Grab, and it actually works fine since the driver or food reaches you, but location data isn’t available (so you can’t see where your driver/delivery person is).

If you’re not savvy with side-loading apps, you’d still be locked out of top mobile games, as well as crucial messaging and social media apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. On the plus side, popular game titles like Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, Honkai Impact 3, Lords Mobile, Summoners War, are natively available via AppGallery.

We’d say our experience isn’t that much different from our initial experience with AppGallery. It’s actually fairly sufficient for getting around - you have nearly all your local bank apps to manage your personal finances, you can order food from more delivery platforms, you can pay or troubleshoot your telco bills, you can get around with HERE WeGo maps, and now it’s far easier to cooperate with SafeEntry and TraceTogether measures.

If you want to go beyond these functionalities, be prepared to dive into the world of side-loading and Petal Search (and please be wary of malicious software when doing so). While it’s feature-filled, the app incompatibility at times leaves user-friendliness much to be desired, even with Petal Search being able to pull out unofficial copies of APKs.

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7.5
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • User-Friendliness 6.5
  • Performance 7
  • Value 7
The Good
Excellent camera system
Functional-yet-alluring design
66W wired charging and 50W wireless charging
The Bad
Mobile gaming app selection still limited
Requires side-loading and workarounds for better general use
Mediocre battery life
Overpromising and underdelivering in benchmark performance
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