When Huawei launched the P30 Pro this time last year, we knew it could be the last for some time to ship with a full-fat version of Android. Huawei had been added to the US Entity List as a result of the intensifying trade war with China, and the company’s ability to do any kind of business with Google and other US firms had been severely limited. Even so, David called the P30 Pro the “world’s best camera phone” in his review and Huawei’s photography credentials have only been strengthened since then — the more recent Mate 30 Pro competed directly with the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 for the honor of best smartphone camera. The problem with that phone and the freshly released P40 Pro is that neither was allowed to ship with Google Mobile Services (GMS), which means no Play Store, no Google apps, and none of the APIs required to make certain popular apps work properly. Instead, you get Huawei Mobile Services, which isn’t yet able to offer the same backend functionality that many third-party apps currently rely on. EMUI 10.1 may be based on Android 10 — and it’s certainly less objectionable than it once was — but this isn’t Android as most western users know it.
This is a huge shame because the hardware on the P40 Pro is second to none. In my opinion, it tops even Samsung’s S20 series in terms of design and build-quality, and from the few photos I’ve been able to take while in lockdown, the cameras are clearly among the best, if not the best, around. Huawei’s Kirin 990 5G chip is as good as or better than Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865, battery life is excellent, and while there’s a sizeable double punch-hole cutout in the screen, it at least houses secure 3D face unlock sensors. The display, by the way, is a 6.58-inch OLED panel (1200p) with an under-display fingerprint scanner, but it tops out at a refresh rate of 90Hz. It’s also got an IP68 rating, 27W fast wireless charging, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, and pretty much everything else a flagship Android phone should have in 2020.
5x, 10x, and 50x zoom — Up to 10x, the P40 Pro does an excellent job.
The few photos I was able to take during my government-sanctioned exercise.
Premium hardware means a premium price tag. The P40 Pro that I’ve been testing costs €999, while the P40 Pro+ that’s set to launch later in the year will set you back a whopping €1,399 — that’s more expensive than the Galaxy S20 Ultra, for comparison. If you’re paying that much for a phone, you’d expect an overall experience that’s on a par with other competitors in the price bracket, but that’s sadly not the case, and I’m not sure enough has been made of this in much of the discourse around this phone. The software issues have been passed off as an unfortunate side note in many reviews I’ve seen, but I feel like this is actually a dealbreaker for most western consumers.
Transferring data from your old phone is problematic, to put it mildly.
The setup process on the P40 Pro is mostly the same as with any other Android device, but it differs substantially when it comes to moving all of your apps and data from your old phone, in my case a Pixel 4 XL. Without access to Google services, there’s no way of using my Google Drive backup to seamlessly migrate all of my phone’s contents from my Pixel. Unless you’re coming from a Huawei phone and have used the company’s own cloud backup service, you’re going to have to install a new app on your old handset called Phone Clone. Once I’d used a QR code to connect the two devices I could then select what I wanted to export — except Contacts, which unfortunately was greyed out. Of my 154 apps, 120 of them were set to be transferred over. The list of apps not possible to move unsurprisingly consisted mostly of Google apps such as Assistant, Calendar, Chrome, Drive, Gmail, Keep, Messages, Photos, and Youtube, as well as all the Google Play apps, naturally. The only non-Google app one the unsupported list was eBay, presumably because it needs GMS to function correctly (more on that later).
No, App Gallery (right), I don’t want any of those apps. Except maybe TikTok.
Once the transfer was complete, I was pleased to see that the vast majority of promised apps do make their way onto the P40 Pro. There are seven exceptions, however, including Uber, Netflix, and Citymapper, some of my most-used apps, so I head to Huawei’s alternative Play Store in search of them. The App Gallery’s first screen is a list of ‘recommended apps’ with nine unwanted entries pre-checked — this is not the best way to endear your new app store to users. It’s well documented that apps like Uber and Citymapper require Google’s location API to function properly, so even sideloading them won’t work. With Google Maps not officially available, that leaves the P40 Pro without a serviceable European map app right now, and that’s a major drawback for any smartphone. It is possible to sideload Google Maps, but you can’t sign in to access your saved places or history, making it much less useful. Huawei has penned a deal with Dutch satnav maker TomTom for use of its map data, but there’s no indication that a fully-fledged navigation app will be ready any time soon.
You can sideload the eBay app, but it won’t work without Google Play services.
The eBay app that couldn’t be transferred by Phone Clone does show up in a search on the App Gallery, but tapping ‘Get’ only sends you to the eBay site where there’s a banner asking you to install the app. This would usually redirect you to the Play Store, but here it just takes you back the App Gallery which now says the app isn’t available. This type of runaround isn’t exclusive to the eBay app, and it’s really not helpful when users are trying to track down the apps they need to make their phone complete. I was able to download the eBay app bundle from APK Mirror, but it’s a waste of time because it doesn’t actually work. It gives me a message when I try to search that reads “eBay won’t run without Google Play services, which are not supported by your device.” It took a fair amount of time to go through that only for the app to not be compatible, which begs the question: why didn’t the Huawei App Gallery just tell me that the eBay app is not yet available for this phone? This is a terribly convoluted process and would be particularly confusing for less tech-savvy users.
According to App Gallery, Citymapper is a web app. If only it were.
Searching for Citymapper in the App Gallery leads me down a different but equally useless path — the ‘Open’ button implies that it’s present on your phone, but tapping that takes you to the app’s website. Here your eyes are directed to the prominent ‘Get the app’ button with the little bugdroid on it, and that takes you to the web version of the Play Store where you can supposedly install Citymapper or ‘Open in the Play Store app,’ and obviously neither these options is possible on the P40 Pro. It’s as though nobody at Huawei has tested these highly likely user journeys, and the outcome is an incredibly confusing and user-hostile experience. Other App Gallery listings can be found with disingenuous ‘Open’ buttons, too, including one for the Instagram web app. Sideloading Citymapper leads to the same error as eBay — it needs Google Play Services to run.
App Search is supposed to fill in the App Gallery’s many gaps.
To get my apps on the P40 Pro without Phone Clone, I’d end up having to use at least four or five different sources
It’s plainly obvious why Huawei strongly recommends the use of Phone Clone to get apps onto its phone, but should you decide to start from scratch and install things yourself, as some people are likely to do, it’ll be a daunting task. A Huawei service called AppSearch is supposed to help with that. It’s a separate app already in some regions, but just a website linked to from the new tab page of the Huawei browser in the UK at the moment. This directs users to alternative but safe sources of Android app downloads, such as the official websites of Facebook and WhatsApp, third-party app stores like Amazon’s, or APK hosting platforms like our own sister site, APK Mirror. To get my apps on the P40 Pro without Phone Clone, I’d end up having to use at least four or five different sources — that’s a far cry from the ease of simply using the Play Store for everything.
The other key issue is that even once these apps are on your phone, it’s hit and miss whether they’ll function correctly or not. My main banking app, from UK challenger bank Monzo, seems to run okay, but a lot of the more traditional finance apps won’t work as well as they do on Google-equipped phones, if at all. It’s possible to sideload plenty of apps, but many are less functional without Play Services. And any app you do sideload won’t receive updates as they usually would because there’s no Play Store to serve them. If you’re really dedicated to making it work, you can try to do everything through a web browser, but you’ll lose a lot of native app functionality, especially for Google services, so it’s very difficult to argue that as a viable solution. Oh, and if G Suite is something you need to use for work, good luck with that. If you have experience tinkering with Android devices, it’s possible you’ll be able to get Google apps running on the P40 Pro in some form or another, but this shouldn’t be a problem you have to solve when paying €1,000 for a smartphone. And even if you do go through the insanely long and convoluted process to get GMS on it, as Android Central’s Alex Dobie discovered, plenty of essential services still won’t work — including Google Pay —and any app that relies on Firebase won’t be able to send notifications.
The P40 Pro ends up being useless to me in so many of the situations I usually take for granted. I can’t use contactless payments to jump on a bus or buy groceries. I can’t navigate to my saved addresses in Google Maps or check out my ‘Want to go’ list to see which restaurant I want to check out next (not that it matters while we’re in lockdown). I can’t order takeout via Uber Eats (and that does matter while in we’re in lockdown). I can’t receive notifications on Twitter when somebody sends me a direct message. I can’t cast Netflix to the Chromecast plugged into the back of my TV. I can’t automatically back up my camera roll to Google Photos so I can view them from anywhere and free up internal storage. This list of things I can’t do would be unacceptable on a budget Android phone from five years ago, so it certainly doesn’t cut it on a premium flagship launching in 2020.
What you’re left with is one of the best Android camera phones on the market but with a software experience that’s far below what it should be — it’s a supercar with the engine of a compact hatchback. Huawei has no choice but to make the best of a bad situation if it wants to sell phones in Europe, but this current offering is not one I can recommend to anyone. For many prospective buyers with little technical knowledge, setting up and using this phone will be an exercise in frustration, no matter how hard Huawei tries to convince us otherwise. The company is throwing a lot of money at developers to get their software on the App Gallery and is also investing huge amounts to turn HMS into something that can eventually rival GMS. But it’s simply not there yet, so the P40 Pro — just like the Mate 30 Pro before it and every recent Honor flagship — gets added to the list of amazing Android cameras that aren’t much use as phones.