Tech

Huawei's P40 Pro Plus smartphone has a powerful camera — but the lack of Google is a big drawback

Key Points
  • Huawei is challenging Samsung in the smartphone photography department. But Samsung has something Huawei can't offer.
  • The Chinese firm's P40 Pro Plus comes with 100x zoom capability, like Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra.
  • However, the device doesn't have Google apps and services due to U.S. trade restrictions.
The Huawei P40 Pro Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC

Huawei is launching its new high-end P40 Pro Plus smartphone internationally later this month, and it's a formidable challenger to Samsung's top flagship device, the Galaxy S20 Ultra. But there's a catch.

The Chinese tech giant was added to a U.S. trade blacklist known as the "Entity List" last year, meaning it's no longer able to offer Google services on its new phones. As it can't offer a licensed version of Android, Huawei instead has its own "forked" version without any Google services.

I've been trying out the P40 Pro Plus for the past few days, and while I'm really impressed with the hardware, I can't help feeling there's something missing. I was able to access platforms like YouTube and Google Maps through Huawei's web browser, however these services aren't available in the company's own AppGallery app store.

Still, if you're not fazed by the idea of buying a Google-less phone, there are plenty other promising specs and features to consider.

Powerful camera

The P40 Pro Plus packs a powerful rear camera, equipped with five lenses (no, that's not a typo), the main one being a 50-megapixel sensor. Among those sensors is a 3x optical zoom lens on the top right and an impressive 10x optical zoom one on the bottom left.

The Huawei P40 Pro Plus comes with a huge penta-lens camera system.
Ryan Browne | CNBC

Through a combination of hardware and software, Huawei says the phone is able to achieve 100x zoom — though pictures taken this way often look shaky and blurred.

This zoom capability is something Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra also features. I spent some time walking around my local park to test out 100x zoom on both and see how they compare.

For reference, here's what it's like to zoom in 100x on the Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Zooming in 100x on Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra smartphone.
Ryan Browne | CNBC
Zooming in 100x on Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra smartphone.
Ryan Browne | CNBC
Zooming in 100x on Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra smartphone.
Ryan Browne | CNBC
Zooming in 100x on Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra smartphone.
Ryan Browne | CNBC

And here's what it's like on the P40 Pro Plus.

Zooming in 100x on Huawei's P40 Pro Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC
Zooming in 100x on Huawei's P40 Pro Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC
Zooming in 100x on Huawei's P40 Pro Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC
Zooming in 100x on Huawei's P40 Pro Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC

They're pretty close, but I was stunned by how I was able to actually make out the text on a sign while zoomed in 100x on the Huawei model.

Like its predecessor, the P30 Pro, Huawei's P40 Pro Plus also does a good job of enabling photography in low-light conditions. Here are a couple of snaps that I took in darker settings.

Taking low-light photos on the Huawei P40 Pro Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC
Taking low-light photos on the Huawei P40 Pro Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC

And here are a few other photos I took with the device.

Snapping a picture of geese up close on the Huawei P40 Pro Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC
Taking pictures on Huawei's P40 Pro Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC
Taking pictures on Huawei's P40 Pro Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC
Taking pictures on Huawei's P40 Pro Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC

Other features I like

There are a handful of other features that are also worth unpacking here.

The 6.58-inch display is really crisp and stretches right out toward the edges, making the so-called "bezels" on the phone razor-thin. Scrolling feels much smoother thanks to its 90-hertz refresh rate.

Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra Huawei's P40 Pro Plus pictured side by side.

I also like that the front-facing camera comes with an infrared sensor for more secure facial authentication. I found face unlock on the P40 Pro Plus to be super quick.

Plus, it takes a pretty good selfie.

Taking a selfie on the Huawei P40 Pro Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC

The rear camera can also take really smooth high-quality video.

The phone features swipe gestures, so you're able to drag your finger across the screen from left to right to go back, or swipe up from the bottom to return to the home screen. And you can also display more than one app at time on the screen.

Drawbacks

The main issue I have with the P40 Pro Plus is the lack of Google. That won't be a problem for consumers in China, where the phone has been available since June 6, as Google services are blocked in the country anyway. But in international markets, it's a big deal.

Huawei's AppGallery app store is limited, lacking several popular apps such as Facebook and Disney Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC

This leads me to another issue: Huawei's AppGallery is quite limited, lacking several popular apps like Facebook and Disney Plus. Huawei says there are workarounds that let you download apps that aren't available. For example, you can install Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram from Facebook's websites, or download an app that transfers data from your old Android device. But this inevitably creates some friction, which in turn means a loss of convenience.

For what it's worth, Huawei says it is hoping to be able to launch Google apps within AppGallery, similar to how they're available on Apple's App Store. Longer term, the company is also working on its own operating system called HarmonyOS. But neither of these solutions will happen overnight.

One other thing I'm not really a fan of is the design of the dual-lens front camera. When watching videos in full screen mode, for example, the pill-shaped cut-out in the bottom left is really visible. But this is a relatively minor issue.

Watching video in full-screen mode on the Huawei P40 Pro Plus.
Ryan Browne | CNBC

Should you buy it?

While Huawei packs a lot of great tech into its top-of-the-line P40 phone, I can't recommend buying it.

At 1,399 euros ($1,587), the P40 Pro Plus is roughly in line with the Galaxy S20 Ultra price-wise. Given Samsung can still provide Google services, you're likely better off opting for a Galaxy, an alternative Android or an iPhone instead.

Huawei's P40 Pro Plus and Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra photographed side by side.
Ryan Browne | CNBC

Plus, the phone will only be available in certain international markets, starting with Western Europe from June 25. And as Huawei can't release its phones in the U.S., American customers will have to buy it online, and that's not an ideal solution.

The coronavirus outbreak and resulting lockdown measures have also meant that premium smartphones are pretty far down on many consumers' shopping lists. According to market research firm IDC, global smartphone sales are set to fall 12% in 2020 because of the economic impact of the pandemic.

A big thing a lot of manufacturers are banking on to drive consumer demand going forward is 5G, the next generation of mobile internet that succeeds 4G. Fifth-generation wireless networks promise much faster download speeds and the ability for more people to connect to the internet.

Huawei, itself a leader in the development of 5G, has its own chip that supports the technology which features in the P40 series. I wasn't able access 5G data on the P40 Pro Plus, but from what I've experienced so far demoing 5G phones in London, the rollout of the technology is still too limited to justify buying a phone just because it supports 5G.

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