Huawei’s P40 Pro Plus is the smartphone zoom king

It’s difficult to recommend that anyone in the West go buy a Huawei phone right now, since the Chinese tech giant is forbidden from shipping Google apps and services on its products. Their technical chops, however, should be in no doubt. I reviewed the flagship P40 Pro phone earlier this year and came away very impressed with the screen, camera, performance, and battery life — basically everything but the software, which is largely out of Huawei’s hands.

More recently, I’ve been testing the P40 Pro Plus, the higher-end version of the P40 Pro. Buying recommendations aside, it’s worth taking a look at because of its truly unique camera. Telephoto lenses are getting more commonplace on phones, but there aren’t any others that can match up to this one.

The P40 Pro Plus is essentially indistinguishable from the non-Plus Pro when you look at it head-on. Both have an identical footprint and share the same 6.58-inch 90Hz 1200p OLED display with curved edges on all four sides. Other specs like the Kirin 990 processor and 4,200mAh battery are shared across both models. The Plus is slightly heavier, though, which can likely be attributed to the use of ceramic rather than glass on the back panel — as well as the larger camera module.

The Plus does have a bigger camera bump, but not dramatically so. It houses four lenses, or five if you count the time-of-flight depth sensor — either way, there’s one more camera than on the P40 Pro. While both phones share the same 50-megapixel primary sensor and 40-megapixel ultrawide modules, the telephoto setups are very different.

The P40 Pro has a 5x periscope telephoto lens similar to what Huawei shipped on the P30 Pro last year, as well as on other phones from companies like Oppo and Samsung. The Pro Plus, however, has two telephoto lenses: one at 3x zoom, and another periscope module at an unprecedented 10x, or 240mm-equivalence in 35mm terms.

That means that the P40 Pro Plus has more zoom reach than just about any other smartphone unless you count historical oddities like Samsung’s Galaxy S4 Zoom, which was essentially a point-and-shoot camera strapped to an Android phone. Beyond pure zoom reach, though, the longer focal length means you can take photos of closer subjects that just wouldn’t be possible on any other phone.

If you told me this was taken on a DSLR with a zoom lens, I would one hundred percent believe you. This isn’t using a software-based portrait mode, and you can tell by the natural falloff in the depth of field and the way the bars in the foreground are subtly blurred even though they’re only slightly outside the plane of focus. Huawei has also wrung a lot of detail out of the 8-megapixel sensor.

To better illustrate the difference in depth of field compared to 5x periscope telephoto lenses, here are two photos taken of the same subject — one on the P40 Pro Plus at 10x, one with the P40 Pro’s 5x lens zoomed into 10x.

The difference in detail on the lantern is clear, which is to be expected given the use of digital zoom. But look at the background — the bokeh is far smoother and less distracting on the photo from the Plus, despite the 10x lens’ slower f/4.4 aperture next to the 5x lens’ f/3.4. The longer focal length makes a much bigger difference.

The P40 Pro Plus clearly wins at taking pictures of far-off objects. But that doesn’t mean it’s superior all through its zoom range. It’s a tradeoff. I could see the Plus being extremely useful in a world where attending live sporting events was a thing, for example, or for taking photos in nature. For most people, though, 5x zoom is probably plenty. A phone with both 3x and 5x lenses could be a sweet spot in terms of versatility — but again, the P40 Pro Plus can take pictures that just otherwise wouldn’t be possible without its 10x module.

Again, Huawei has the most detail while leaning redder than the Pixel’s green-tinted shot, but the iPhone falls far behind. (It’s worth noting, though, that you have to actively turn night mode off on the iPhone, whereas it’s a separate camera setting on the Huawei and Google phones.)

This is an interesting comparison because the three phones handle light very differently. The Pixel has the punchiest, most contrasty exposure at the expense of some highlight detail, while the P40 Pro Plus preserves the highlights for a flatter image overall, and the iPhone is somewhere inbetween the two. It’s kind of a toss-up as to which anyone might prefer best — there’s something to be said for all of them, though if I were planning on editing the photos at all I’d rather have the Huawei’s detail to work with.