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Living a Google Free Life with a Huawei Phone

TomorrowTomorrow Huawei will launch its latest flagship phones, the P40 series, at an event to be streamed online. There won’t be any people in the audience, of course, but even if there were, the atmosphere would be pretty weird. That’s because it’s impossible to separate Huawei’s consumer products from the political onslaught it’s faced in the past couple of years.

Whether you believe that Huawei is a threat to national security in the West or not, the knock-on effects to its phone business are real. Google is barred from doing business with Huawei, meaning the Chinese giant is unable to obtain an Android license. And that means that until further notice, any new Huawei phone has to ship without Google apps and services.

You don’t have to be the most hardcore Google fan in the world to see how this is likely a dealbreaker for most people. Heck, you don’t even have to be an Android user. Google’s services are so widespread and pervasive that if you really don’t use any of them on a regular basis, it’s probably because you’re actively avoiding them. And Huawei is charging very high prices for high-end smartphones that, at least officially, cannot run them at all.

Partly out of personal curiosity and partly to put the P40 launch into better context, I decided to pick up Huawei’s most recent flagship phone, the Mate 30 Pro, and see if I could live with it for a while. (Huawei declined to provide a review unit upon its release.) The Mate 30 Pro is the company’s highest-end phone right now, running the same in-house Kirin 990 processor that will undoubtedly be in the P40. What’s it like inside Huawei’s walls today?

The Huawei Mate 30 Pro.
ThisThis isn’t really the point of this story, but the first thing I will say about the Mate 30 Pro is that it is absolutely stunning. Honestly, I don’t think there was a better looking phone released last year. In photos, you might look at the notch and chin and write it off, but in person the phone looks bold, balanced, and futuristic.

The aggressively curved “waterfall” display is as striking as it was on the Vivo Nex 3, and I haven’t had any problem with accidental touch input. The back panel of the phone is gorgeous, transitioning from a rough matte finish at the bottom to a glossier feel at the top, with an even shinier ring circling the camera modules. And that camera setup is as good as any you’ll find in a phone, with excellent low-light capabilities, a 3x telephoto, and a unique 40-megapixel ultrawide.

Huawei’s integration of hardware and software is on another level to most other Android phone makers. Other than Google, very few are offering a comparable 3D face-unlock system, and Huawei is doing it with a smaller notch than the iPhone — let alone the Pixel 4’s giant forehead. The Mate 30 Pro also has a neat solution to the lack of space for volume buttons afforded by the waterfall display: you just double-tap the edge of the phone and a slider pops up along the side. I think I prefer Vivo’s capacitive virtual rocker, since it’s easier to use without looking at the screen, but Huawei’s approach works well enough too.

Overall, I would say that if hypothetically there were ever an incredible piece of smartphone hardware that you might be willing to deal with a little software inconvenience for, the Huawei Mate 30 Pro would have as good a case as anything else on the planet. But let’s just say you’d really, really, have to want it.

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