There is a saying in sport that “ifs and buts” don’t count. Well, if we were living in an alternate reality, the Huawei’s P40 Pro would’ve been the best Android smartphone in the world had it not been hamstrung by the lack of the Google Play store due to the US-China trade war. The P40 Pro which was launched globally in an online stream earlier this week is a monster of a smartphone that especially elevates Huawei’s recent ascendency in mobile camera technology. Unsurprisingly, this phone has also received a score of 128 by camera benchmarking website DXOMark, eclipsing not only its predecessor but every new Android smartphone that’s come out recently and even the mighty iPhone. Let’s take a look at what’s so impressive about the P40 Pro and why it would’ve been the best Android smartphone in the world had it not been for the logjam Huawei has found itself in for the last couple of years.
Everything starts with the cameras
Since the launch of the P9, Huawei’s partnership with Leica has resulted in some of the best camera smartphones the industry has seen. Huawei, along with Google and Apple can be credited for elevating smartphone cameras the most in the last four years. In terms of still photography, one can claim, perhaps, Huawei has made the most gains.
Last year, the Huawei P30 Pro pushed the boundaries of smartphone photography with the world’s first quad-camera system along with the first periscope lens. While its competitors have caught up in terms of the hardware, in use, the P30 Pro still remains the best all-around camera phone outside of the iPhone 11. The P40 Pro and P40 Pro Plus are the next big step in pushing mobile imaging forward.
The primary sensor on the Huawei P40 Pro is a unique 50-megapixel RYYB sensor with an f/1.9 aperture. The sensor itself is the largest that’s ever been put on a smartphone at 1/1.72-inches. This is coupled with a massive 40-megapixel ultra-wide sensor which is basically the biggest ultra-wide I have seen on a smartphone. Then there is a new 12-megapixel periscope camera that does up 5x optical zoom and 10x hybrid zoom, with the ability of 50x digital zoom.
On the Pro Plus model, Huawei achieves parity with 100x space zoom that Samsung claims with the S20 Ultra using a stack of two 8-megapixel cameras, one with a periscope lens offering 10x optical zoom and the other having a more standard 3x telephoto affair, combining to give up to 30x lossless zoom and 100x theoretical digital zoom. Having seen how good the P30 Pro’s 50x capability is and the way it is able to trounce the S20 Ultra in every department including its so-called unusable 100x zoom, it is not hard to imagine the P40 Pro and P40 Pro Plus models will probably win that zoom battle with ease.
Huawei was also one of the first companies to deploy time of flight sensor on its phones for better focusing and depth. The P30 Pro already takes some of the finest portrait mode shots on a smartphone, which means the P40 Pro should be able to do even better.
Sure, the size of the sensor could cause some focusing issues at close range, but it is unlikely that these issues will be as bad as the Galaxy S20 Ultra as Huawei has generally been great at tuning their cameras.
Camera tuning is perhaps the most important feature — for instance, Huawei’s phones pioneered night mode and they are amongst the best in that department. Now using software, these new P40 models can remove reflections from an image, they can even remove photo bombers while the on-device AI on these phones are detect a range of scenes that are a gleam for other gadgets.
Lastly, for people who care a bunch about selfies — the 32-megapixel front camera get an IR blaster, depth sensor and autofocus which means this could potentially be a contender for the selfie king.
As smartphones have become more and refined in the last decade, the major differentiating factor has been the camera — especially the still camera. Samsung upped its game this year, but Huawei’s rebuttal is a devastating one which will probably convert to real-world use.
An ascendency in industrial design
Huawei pioneered gradient finishes with the P10 in 2017, now all major smartphones save for the iPhone come with gradient finishes. Huawei takes its gradient patterns to the next level with P40 Pro.
They have this new matte finish which is coupled with a classy shimmering silver finish that also has a texture to it. This is by far the most inventive finish that I have seen from a smartphone company while also not going overly loud with the design language of the phone.
Huawei’s phones have always felt solid, more so than Samsung’s and this phone provides a better balance between the wacky design of the Mate 30 Pro and the P30 Pro.
They have also reverted to a pill-shaped hole-punch notch that incorporates the front-facing camera, IR blaster and depth sensor which also helps with a secure Face ID system. The screen also adds a new generation optical fingerprint scanner which has a very wide scanning radius.
Overall, Huawei gets everything right with the design of this phone while also executing basics like IP68 water and dust certification, adding a 90Hz refresh rate to OLED screen for a smoother interface.
By every measure here, the Huawei P40 Pro is a better phone than the Samsung Galaxy S20, as it looks nicer and has more pragmatic specs that enable more reliable performance. Perhaps, the only department where Samsung would likely beat the Huawei is in the department of display tech, which is an area of strength for Samsung.
When one talks about performance most people just look at through and through performance in terms of benchmarks — all Android smartphones excel at that kind of thing, but these scores don’t make a bit of a difference to the performance of this phone. For instance, both the P40 Pro and Samsung’s Galaxy S20 models don’t use the industry-standard Qualcomm Snapdragon processor which may lead many to believe that these phones aren’t that good.
But like in the case of the Samsung, the Exynos 990 delivers on performance. Sure, it may not score as highly as the Qualcomm based S20 in the US, but for most people, the throughput is more than adequate — on the contrary, it is fantastic. This is happening despite the fact Samsung’s phones are known to be not that well optimised.
Huawei’s phones, on the contrary, are known to be very well-tuned. The Kirin 990 chip, for example, doesn’t only add 5G into the mix but is more or less on the same level as the Snapdragon 865 and Exynos 990. What it lacks in pure GPU performance, it makes up for with better battery management and better on-device AI capabilities which supplement even its beastly cameras. Let’s be honest all these phones can multitask to your heart’s content and play most of the important games with ease — true differentiation comes in the form of things like augmented reality, image processing and AI. That’s why the iPhone leads mobile.
Huawei’s 990 system on the chip does this. For instance despite being a rather standard 4,200mAh battery initial reports claim almost 2-day levels of battery on the P40 Pro models which is far superior to the iPhone, Samsung Galaxy S20 models and even what is used to getting on phones from Xiaomi. These phones come with 40-watt fast charging and 27-watt wireless charging.
And here comes the software rub
The problem isn’t the hardware on these new Huawei phones. It is fantastic — not revolutionary but an extreme evolution which pulls it ahead of Samsung’s much-needed revolution. It is the software that holds this back.
Firstly, Huawei’s EMUI has been an eyesore for years — it has been something that’s not been pleasant to use. It also doesn’t play well with third-party Android launchers which makes it even more problematic to use.
And now, it doesn’t even have the Google Play store which means all your favourite apps that come from US companies can’t be had easily. More importantly, the preloaded Google apps are absent and the lack of Google’s services framework it breaks the user experience of many apps.
Last year, the P30 Pro was the best Android phone despite the unpleasantness of the EMUI. This year that will be a harder argument as now there is no Google Play Store.