Huawei’s P40 Pro is for early adopters only – for now

Huawei P40 Pro

Last October we said the Mate 30 Pro was a great phone no-one should buy. It might not be long until we say everyone should rush out and buy the new Huawei flagship. With the new 2020 smartphone models – the Huawei P40, Huawei P40 Pro and P40 Pro+ – we’re not there yet but we’re edging towards it.

Here’s the quickest test to see if the P40 is right for you. Huawei has outlined all the different ways to source apps for the P40 without Google Mobile Services and access to the Play Store, now that its teams have had ten months to work on the problem.

There is its own App Gallery, which has apps like Tinder, TikTok, Trainline and Deezer with a recent focus on ‘local’ apps and partnerships with the likes of TomTom (mapping) and Qwant (search) attempting to plug the remaining gaps. There’s the Huawei Phone Clone to transfer apps and data from old devices. There’s direct downloads, which senior marketing manager Peter Gauden points out are very familiar to people in China. And there’s other third-party app stores like Amazon’s.

Whether the above paragraph makes you cower in fear or curious about the challenge tells you what you need to know about Huawei’s latest phones. On specs, they match or move ahead of Samsung, as we’re used to from the yearly phone cycle now, but on the major question of apps and services outside China, this is a work in progress.

Huawei has brought its voice assistant – Celia – outside of China as well as APIs for all manner of third-party accessories from cameras to speakers. It has come a long way towards its goal of providing a legitimate alternative to Google and Apple but it’s no doubt early adopters who will get a kick out of this experience; others may balk at the lack of a seamless, completely comprehensive app offering.

We haven’t yet tested or had any hands-on time with the Huawei P40s – blame coronavirus – but once you’ve answered the apps question, it’s smooth sailing.

There are three models in total – all 5G – with the basic Huawei P40 missing out on most of the high-end features and less of a gap between the P40 Pro and P40 Pro+. So the P40 has a 6.1-inch display whereas the other two models have larger 6.58-inch screens. It’s only IP53 water resistant to the Pros’ IP68 rating, which is the difference between being able to handle water sprays and actually submerging your phone. (We’ll add price, release date and global availability info for the P40 series when we get it.)

The P40 Pro and Pro+ have a bigger battery capacity to serve the oversized screens – with 4,200mAh units to the P40’s 3,800mAh unit – and there’s also faster 40W wired charging, with the P40 limited to 22.5W, and even 40W wireless charging for the two premium models. Another bonus feature: the P40 Pro and Pro+ get faster face unlock in low light thanks to the addition of infrared.

All three models run 90Hz displays to keep in with the new refresh-rate race – we don’t know yet how granular the controls over this will be. Huawei has long been ahead on real-world battery life so we’d expect this to be addressed. There’s also a slightly bigger, slightly faster in-display fingerprint sensor. All three are powered by the Kirin 990 processor and run EMUI 10.1 on top of open-source Android.

The P40s have been treated to a new ‘overflow’ design in which the screen extends slightly to the top and bottom of the device, not just the sides – until we see this in person it’s hard to know whether the treatment, said to be inspired by the surface tension of a glass full of water, is overkill. But from the photos, it looks quite subtle.

Sticking with design, Huawei has gone all-in with ceramic for the most expensive model, the P40 Pro+. The glossy back of the phone is made from ceramic powder and granules, shaped and pressured then baked for five days at up to 1,500 degrees – it comes in black and white.

Huawei says the “volcano-esque” unit housing the camera arrays blends into the back of the device – from what we’ve seen this is a similar bump to other phones. In other words, you’ll notice it but if you’re buying this phone for its photography chops, no doubt you won’t care.

Huawei P40 Pro+

While some components return from the P30, Huawei looks to have done enough to its camera setup to justify the upgrade. All the P40s use a new 1/1.28-inch 50MP sensor for the main camera. It uses the RYYB setup, to absorb yellow light, not just green, that we saw last year and continues its sensible approach of balancing the megapixel count with the sensor size. It also allows Huawei to bring in phase detection autofocus, with eight focus points per pixel.

On the P40 Pro, this RYYB technology has also been added to the Super Zoom lens we saw on last year’s P30 Pro – Huawei says this is designed to improve low-light photography at a distance. It’s also improved its telephoto skills with dual OIS and AI-based stabilisation. And even the basic P40 gets 3x optical zoom this time round.

The star camera array is, of course, saved for the P40 Pro+, though. It actually has two telephoto lenses: a 3x optical zoom lens and a “true” 10x optical ‘Super Periscope’ lens, which aim to deliver the equivalent of 240mm. Huawei wouldn’t say too much about how it’s achieved this aside from “more refraction points” so stay tuned for more on how that works.

It maxes out at 100x zoom, which puts it on a par with the Samsung S20 Ultra. The addition of the extra work on stabilisation here could push it ahead. There’s also all manner of AI tricks to correct white balance on portraits, remove photobombers and identify sports, facial expressions and poses.

It was never a question of Huawei delivering on specs. The P40 series’ performance outside China, though, will be an intriguing assessment of how many of its users are willing to jump through a few hoops to stick with Huawei. If you’re an early adopter who doesn’t mind getting stuck in, its progress so far looks promising but, more than usual, we’ll save our judgement on whether these are mainstream flagship phones until we’ve spent some time with them.

Sophie Charara edits WIRED Recommends. She tweets from @sophiecharara

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