When I look back at 2020, the first thing that comes to mind will obviously be the world-stopping pandemic, but the next thing I remember might be that this is the year slab smartphones reached its apex—every smartphone brand mastered the art of making a great smartphone.

This is a great thing for consumers, because every recent smartphone above, say, $600, offers premium build quality, high refresh rate screen with super smooth animations, and a main camera that is very capable in all lighting conditions. It just makes my job as a reviewer much tougher because every phone is very good.

The reason phone performances have become more similar than ever is because they all copied from each other. I first came to this realization earlier this year when I reviewed the OnePlus 8 Pro. It was yet another ultra fluid, ultra fast smartphone from the company known for producing the fastest and zippiest phones. But the 8 Pro was not significantly faster than rivals anymore, because others had followed OnePlus’ lead and used a high-refresh screen, sped up animations, and use copious amount of RAM.

The same has happened to Huawei’s smartphones. Just a couple of years ago, Huawei flagships had battery life and low-light camera performance that lapped competitors. And I mean literally: Huawei phones from 2016 to 2018 had battery life that lasted at least six to eight hours longer than an iPhone or Samsung under the same usage scenario, and its ability to pull light into a pitch black scene was so far ahead of what the iPhone could do I posted comparison photos to Twitter, which was used by a writer at The Verge in an article criticizing Apple’s cameras.

How did Huawei achieve such dominance in camera? It used a larger image sensor and a higher megapixel camera (40-megapixel at a time when brands were all using 12- to 16-megapixel) than competitors. The larger image sensor pulls in more light, and the more pixels are put through a process called “pixel-binning” which combines four pixels into one so each pixel has more information than usual.

This superior hardware is also backed by smart software image processing that uses a multi-image stacking algorithm to further tweak lighting and dynamic range in a photo.

All of these moves have been adopted by competitors. Samsung began using a larger image sensor earlier this year with the S20 Ultra, and Apple will do the same with its upcoming iPhone 12 Pro Max. Apple also adopted the image-stacking software technique known as “night mode” beginning with last year’s iPhone 11, and further refined for this year’s 12.

The improvements made by Apple and Samsung are immediately noticeable—both the latest iPhones and Samsung phones can now also “see in the dark” in the same way Huawei phones can. I can’t take comparison photos and have them turn out as lop-sided as the tweet above anymore.

At least not with the main camera. Huawei, perhaps realizing the main camera tech has reached its apex, began focusing on the secondary ultrawide camera last year, and it is this lens where the Mate 40 Pro shines above the rest. But is it enough?

Design and hardware

Huawei’s Mate series has traditionally been Huawei’s top dog phone, because its release coincides with the official launch of Huawei’s newest Kirin chip. This year, the Kirin 9000 powering the phones is a bleeding-edge silicon built on 5nm technology—the same as Apple’s A14 Bionic—but the Kirin 9000 one ups the A14 Bionic in that it has an integrated 5G modem built in.

This means whether it’s benchmark scores or real world performance, the Kirin 9000 is quite a bit ahead of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 powering other Android phones right now.

On the outside, the Mate 40 Pro is a gorgeous piece of hardware as usual. The overall aesthetic of the Mate 40 Pro follows the design language set by the Mate 20 Pro, with a centrally located camera module, curved screens, and a real 3D facial scanning system for iPhone-like face unlock.

The drastic curved screen introduced in last year’s Mate 30 Pro—the left and right side slopes at 88-degrees, which Huawei has dubbed “Horizon Display”—returns, and it is as striking as ever.

Don’t worry about accidental unwanted palm touches—Huawei’s software algorithm does a flawless job of preventing them.

The back glass is coated in this soft matte finish, which feels soft to the touch and is resistant to fingerprints. It also shimmers in different colors depending on how the light hits the back—albeit much more subtle than before.

The screen being 6.67-inches, the Mate 40 Pro is a rather large phone, but the curvature and matte back helps it sit comfortably in the hand.

The screen refreshes at 90Hz, which is not the fastest on the market, but animations appear smooth enough. It’s a gorgeous, vibrant panel, with maximum brightness and viewing angles that matches the best screens on the market.

There is a larger-than-usual (for Android) screen cut-out in the upper left corner of the display, but it’s for good use: this is where Huawei houses its powerful front-facing camera system, which includes a 13-megapixel selfie camera, a wide-angle camera with a field-of-view of 100-degrees, and an infrared camera for face scanning.

That Huawei managed to cram a real 3D face scanning system into an area that small makes the notch in iPhones look bad. And that ultrawide selfie camera works great, too—more on this in the next section.

Cameras

The Mate 40 Pro’s main camera system consists of a triple lens set-up, headlined by a 50-megapixel main sensor and 20-megapixel ultrawide-angle camera and flanked by a 13-megapixel Periscope camera.

Notice I gave the ultrawide angle camera top billing alongside the main 50-megapixel sensor, which I had never done in my reviews before. That’s because on the Mate 40 Pro, the ultrawide camera is not an afterthought.

Dubbed “Cine Lens” by Huawei, this ultrawide angle camera shoots at a 4:3 aspect ratio, and is the default video camera. It’s got a narrower field-of-view than the ultrawide lens on an iPhone or Samsung, but Huawei’s 20-megapixel ultrawide camera packs significantly more details in the shot thanks to more pixels and a larger sensor. In other words, the same tricks Huawei pioneered with the main camera that other brands have adopted—but not yet for the secondary cameras.

The results speak for themselves. Take a look at this ultrawide angle shot captured by the Mate 40 Pro.

Now look at the same shot but captured with an iPhone 12.

If your eyesight is great, you should already be able to see the extra sharpness in the details in Huawei’s shot. Not to mention, the superior dynamic range.

But for those of you who can’t quite see the difference from a far, here’s a zoomed in crop of both photos.

Everything in the Huawei shot (left), from the blue street sign, to flowers on the wall, to the texture of the colorful shirt worn by the person closest to the camera, is clearly sharper than in the iPhone 12 image.

Here’s another set of samples. Let’s start with Mate 40 Pro ultrawide:

And iPhone 12 ultrawide.

And here’s a closer look at both pictures side-by-side.

You can still read the words in the traffic sign on the Mate 40 Pro’s image; whereas it’s a blur in the iPhone 12’s shot.

Now, is this a huge deal to most people? Probably not. One can easily argue that the point of taking an ultrawide angle photo is to show the entire photo, since it has a wider field of view and thus is great for sweeping landscape shots. However, there are instances when you do want to crop in, and it’s just nice to have that extra detail in Huawei’s cameras.

What’s more, this is a level of consistency that other phone cameras should strive for: on a Huawei Mate 40 Pro, shooting with the second or third camera doesn’t mean a significant step down in camera performance. You can’t say the same on an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, which clearly prioritized the main camera above all else.

Huawei’s focus on polishing the ultrawide lens carries over to that front-facing ultrawide selfie camera, too. Like the one on the back, this lens keeps sharpness and exposure consistent with the main selfie camera, allowing a much wider field of view. Throw in good digital image stabilization and the Mate 40 Pro is instantly one of the best vlog cameras around, allowing users to film themselves without a selfie stick and still get wide enough framing so their head doesn’t take up half the scene. I have selfie vlog footage at the 2:57 mark of the video below (along with many more photo samples).

Huawei’s main camera, as I mentioned at the beginning, used to be heads and shoulders above the competition in terms of night photography. The gap has closed significantly as Samsung and Apple has caught up, but that’s not to say Huawei’s main camera isn’t still great. That main 50-megapixel lens still has the largest image sensor in all of smartphones at 1/1.28-inch, and Huawei’s custom-built RYYB sensor still allows it to take the crown as the best camera in low-light situations. It’s just the win is smaller than in previous years.

The zooming capabilities of the Mate 40 Pro is still among the strongest, though the 13-megapixel 5x optical Periscope zoom lens here is not Huawei’s best offering. That’s because there’s even a higher tier Mate 40 Pro+ that houses a 10x optical Periscope camera, the same one used in the P40 Pro+.

Still, any zoom under 20x appears well-detailed, and anything 10x or under appears sharp as if it was regular photo. Below is a collage of photos captured at 1x, 10x, 20x and 50x.

Software

By now, most readers should know the software restrictions that have been placed on Huawei’s phones by the U.S. government. The Mate 40 Pro cannot run core Google services, including YouTube, Gmail, Google Drive, Google Docs, among others.

Other than YouTube—a monopoly with no credible competition outside of China—all the other Google services have alternatives from Microsoft or a dozen other companies that can get the job done. As a consumer, you have to decide if you can live without those apps. For me, the situation will never be ideal, but I can make do without them.

The Mate 40 Pro runs EMUI 11, the newest version of Huawei’s Android skin, and the biggest improvement this year come in multi-tasking. You can now swipe from the side of the screen at any time to open a quick app launcher, and these apps open in a floating window that can be resized. They can also be minimized into a floating ball on the screen. In this setup, the app is still running but it takes up just a tiny portion of screen space unless you enlarge the ball.

This has been particularly useful for me as I’ve had to juggle constant WhatsApp and Slack messages lately due to a new work situation. On an iPhone, anytime I need to read a new message, I have to switch away from whatever I’m doing (maybe it’s a video, maybe it’s an article), and go into that particular app. On the Mate 40 Pro, I leave Slack and WhatsApp running in floating ball state, and when I do have a new message, I enlarge it to a small floating window that takes up maybe 1/3 of the screen, leaving me enough space to continue scrolling Twitter, or writing that email.

Despite uncertainty, Huawei chugs along

There’s no sugarcoating this: the Google situation, and the nonstop attacks by the U.S. government has severely hurt the appeal of Huawei smartphones to average consumers.

The Mate 40 Pro will still have plenty of interested buyers (even outside of China), because it has a unique design, silicon, and still best-in-class cameras. But those who pay 1,199 euro for this will almost certainly be enthusiasts, or Huawei loyal fans.

Where your political stance lay will play a big part in whether you think this is a shame or not.



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