In the end of October last year, Huawei unveiled its new Mate 40 series of devices at a global unveiling event. A little over 24 hours later and a new Mate 40 Pro 5G landing on our review desk and we shot an unboxing of the device as we awaited news on when it would be officially available in South Africa, as well as how much it would cost.
As it turns out, it would prove to be a rather long wait, as this week Huawei Mobile South Africa have made the Mate 40 Pro 5G available for pre-order locally ahead of a launch on 1st April.
Having already dedicated quite a bit of time last year to the Mate 40 Pro 5G, we can finally publish our review of the device, which is great on paper, even better in-hand, but suffers from a significant achilles heal – Huawei Mobile Services (HMS).
So what are our thoughts on the latest flagship phone from Huawei? We unpack what what we discovered in two weeks of review time, along with five months of pondering, below.
We start as we always do on smartphone reviews, with design. Here there is a distinct evolution of the Mate series aesthetic, but for those who never got the chance to view the Mate 30 device which was mired in delays, the new Mate 40 Pro will look like an entirely different beast altogether.
Up front things don’t look all that new as far as Android flagship phones go, with a 6.76″ OLED FullHD+ display (2772×1344), but flip the Mate 40 Pro over and it’s day and night. This as the unique camera housing and colourway of our review, which is called Mystic Silver, are both eye catching elements.
We’ll touch on the housing and camera performance a bit later, but Huawei has taken to calling it the Space Ring. It has a generally pleasing look to it compared to the camera housing we’ve seen on other flagship phones of late, many of which follow that of the P40 Pro in the first half of last year.
As for the colour, Huawei has really won us over, much like it did when the Twilight and fellow gradient designed colour options entered the market a few years ago. Changing depending on how the light hits it, you’re definitely going to want to use a transparent or clear back cover to protect this device.
There’s also the little flourish of a red accented power button, just to keep things interesting.
Either way, when it comes to design, the Mate 40 Pro 5G pushes the boat out a little further than other flagship phones do, so kudos to Huawei on that front. If Mystic Silver ain’t your thing, there’s also a subdued Mystic Black option that should do the trick.
No holding back
Along with the design, Huawei has not held back when it comes to the specifications of this particular smartphone.
As has been in past years for example, the Mate 40 series features the latest silicon out of the HiSilicon foundry in the form of the Kirin 9000 5G SoC is onboard. Apart from the support for 5G, which many newer Huawei devices sport these days, the Kirin 9000 also features a 5nm architecture, which means despite several issues outside the realms of its control in 2020, Huawei is still able to keep pace with its rival in terms of chipset design.
This octa-core combines a CPU, GPU and NPU (Neural Processing Unit) into one SoC, and in-hand felt unerring in terms of its speed and ability to multitask, switching between processor-intensive applications with ease and showing no signs of strain or sluggishness.
Accompanying the Kirin 9000 is 8GB and 256GB of onboard storage, so in terms of memory the Mate 40 Pro is very much on par with its 2021 peers.
But here is where we run into our first problem – benchmarking.
While mobile benchmarking alone does not rubber stamp the pedigree of a smartphone, it is helpful to compare its performance to others, but the Huawei AppGallery does not feature many of the mobile benchmarks we have used on countless devices.
As such, at the time of writing, no benchmarking could be done, and while we can vouch for its performance, having the numbers to back it up would have been more than welcome in making a case for the Mate 40 Pro 5G over a rival device.
Let’s move onto to camera performance, and here the Mate 40 Pro is without fault. The camera setup makes even the most novice of smartphone users a handy photographer and for those with the understanding to switch to Pro mode and tinker with the different settings, the ability to create some great content.
Camera performance is one area where Huawei has set the bar in recent years, with its Leica partnership definitely helping, so it’s nice to see the German company’s logo feature on the Space Ring.
As for what that housing features – a new 50MP wide-angle lens is present and paired with a 20MP ultra wide-angle and 12MP telephoto options. This new setup does not feel like lens overkill, nor does it lean on too many gimmicks to win you over, while also delivering a simple point and shoot experience to yield great results.
We were particular impressed with the performance in low light, which is an area that Huawei has been focusing on in particular in recent years.
Coupled with the massive 4 400mAh battery and 66W fast charging, the Mate 40 Pro is equipped to keep you shooting all day an then some, so the categories of camera performance and battery life get two big ticks.
As great as the Mate 40 Pro 5G has been, we need to address one significant issue which will likely scare many consumers off until it is sorted out – Google Mobile Services. Over the past couple of years Huawei has been able to get by with HMS and the AppGallery, but on the Mate 40 Pro 5G those missing pieces are beginning to catch up with it.
When we reviewed the P30 Pro last year, which was the first Huawei flagship phone to feature only HMS as its mobile services platform, we set up the device by doing a Phone Clone. This gave us a workaround to a lack of Google-specific apps like Maps, with other workarounds needing for things like Gmail.
At the time HMS felt serviceable, but the Mate 40 Pro, which we set up fresh sans Phone Clone, it becomes more obvious that the ecosystem is still lacking crucial elements. For a device that costs R19 999 (RRP), those workarounds become difficult to grapple with, and while more tech savvy consumers could live with such issues, those who want a seamless and uninhibited Android will likely turn elsewhere.
The Mate 40 Pro 5G therefore becomes hard to recommend to those brand new to the Huawei ecosystem and familiar with a Google app-driven smartphone experience.
The Huawei Mate 40 Pro 5G may have been unveiled in late 2020, but the hardware it sports will prove difficult to match in 2021 for other smartphone makers. That superb performance and industry-leading technology only gets you so far though, as HMS, while making great strides in a short amount of time, is still lacking in key departments for those who want an unencumbered Android flagship phone experience.
Despite a brilliant camera, great battery life, vivid display and eye catching design, the missing piece of the puzzle that is the operating system might be bearable at first, but will soon become a pain point down the line.
At R19 999 (RRP), the Mate 40 Pro 5G is supremely well equipped, but leaves one crucial element unanswered. If Google and Huawei join forces once again, the Mate 40 Pro 5G becomes easy to recommend, for now though, those recommendations come with caveats.
Huawei Mate 40 Pro 5G
The Huawei Mate 40 Pro 5G might be the best Android flagship phone you encounter in 2021 based on its hardware and specifications alone, but that experience comes with a well known asterisks, Google apps. While we can recommend the Mate 40 Pro 5G to seasoned Huawei phone owners, newcomers to the ecosystem will be left wanting.