The Huawei Mate Xs is no ordinary Android smartphone, and not just because of its unique folding design. It’s Huawei’s first major phone release in 2020 to come with an emphasis on its own app ecosystem, rather than Google’s Play Store. What’s it like to set up and use Huawei’s home-baked ecosystem on a daily basis?
Unlike the vast majority of other Android phones I review, the first few days have not been a breeze. The end result, however, is not only worth it due to the great phone itself, but also to discover what it’s like to live without Google on an Android phone.
Why no Google?
Businesses in the U.S. are unable to work with Huawei due to a restriction introduced by the U.S. government, based on accusations the company is a threat to national security. Huawei denies this, and no evidence has been introduced to back up the U.S. government’s claims. Huawei still uses the open-source version of Android on the Mate Xs, as no official relationship is required for it. However, Huawei has to use its own app store, services, and alternatives to Google’s apps.
I’ve used iOS and Android phones for a decade or more. The Mate Xs proved to be more of a challenge than any phone I can remember. Why? I’m used to Google Mobile Services (GMS) syncing my apps, bookmarks, and other data immediately after signing in to a new device. That’s not an option on the Huawei Mate Xs. There’s no Google account sign-in option, no Google Play, no Google apps, no Chrome, and no Google Drive.
This problem can be conquered, but it requires a new way of thinking and some extra time. The Mate Xs, Mate 30 Pro, and Huawei P40 can be made to function similarly to Google-friendly smartphones, but you have to work for it.
All about the browser
There are about 40 apps I consider essential. To get them on the Huawei Mate Xs, I didn’t use Google Play, but Huawei’s own App Gallery store. The Amazon App Store is available, too. If you already own another Huawei phone, the standard Phone Clone app will quickly migrate some apps across for you (along with a lot of other data, including contacts, photos, and music). Finally, it’s possible to install app APK files directly on the phone, circumventing stores entirely.
The immediate temptation is to head out and find a way to install GMS, along with Google’s apps and services. There are solutions to do so for older Huawei (and for other Android phones purchased in China), and out of interest I tried a few, but the phone is solidly locked down and refuses to play with any widely available method. Google itself doesn’t recommend circumventing the restriction, either, because it may compromise security.
Once I gave up on Google, I quickly realized the lack of Google’s stock apps isn’t a problem. I like the standard Huawei email client, which works well on the fold-out screen, and setting up Gmail through it was not a problem. Huawei’s own browser is solid, supports Dark Mode, and adapts well to the large screen. It defaults to Bing search, and uses Bing to pinpoint location too, so it works with browser versions of Uber and other location-driven services. All this is important, because you’re going to have to lean on the web browser more to fill the gaps left by certain apps.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to import bookmarks, passwords, or other information to Huawei’s browser. I decided to use Firefox to ease syncing, without resorting to an APK file to obtain Chrome. Once Firefox was installed on my Mac, too, it was simple to transfer data from Chrome, which was then instantly synced with my Mate Xs.
The only slight problem here is Firefox is not available to download from the App Gallery or the Amazon App Store. Instead, I had to use an APK file directly from Mozilla’s site.
What about the apps?
Of the 40 apps I wanted to install on my Mate Xs, I managed to grab eight from Phone Clone, eight from the Amazon Appstore, and two from the App Gallery. I can also use 11 as web apps in a browser. That’s 27 of the 40 apps I mentioned. The rest aren’t available at all, or can only be installed using an APK.
Choosing to use an APK is a personal choice. I used APKPure.com to install several apps — including Chrome — and the site says it is safe and secure. However, I’m wary of installing apps that have accounts and payment information attached to them. This is one to use at your own risk.
Let’s start with the good news. All major social networking apps are available. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are in either the App Gallery or the Amazon Appstore. The Here WeGo maps app is now available through the App Gallery, which is a decent alternative to Google Maps. Interestingly, Google Maps does transfer with Phone Clone, but you can’t sign in to recover saved routes or starred locations. Spotify, Tidal, Messenger, Dropbox, Prime Video, Trainline, Airbnb, and Booking.com were also directly installed. Phone Clone filled in a few holes, such as Asana, Slack, and Snapseed.
I have to open the browser to watch YouTube, BBC iPlayer, and other online streaming services. This works fairly well, but it means Chromecast is not an option. The browser enables Uber, and becomes the default place to check eBay or my PayPal account. It’s not the end of the world, as everything still works, but apps are quicker and more intuitive.
Now for the bad news. My banking app is not available — in fact, no common banking apps are. There’s no way to link the phone with a WearOS smartwatch, and no way to control Google Nest Home products. The phone doesn’t have wireless payments, as Google Pay isn’t supported. WhatsApp can be installed with Phone Clone, or from WhatsApp’s site itself, but it’s a complete pain to transfer over chat history which is stored in Google Drive on other phones, and the workaround relies on you having another Huawei phone.
I used WhatsApp without my history, which was a little unsettling, but not as problematic as the Line messenger app. I use this regularly to chat with friends, and couldn’t make the full app operate on the Mate Xs. However, the Line Lite app was fine. There is no way to sync chat history, and the app is extremely basic.
My biggest gripe is the lack of contactless payment, which I rely on regularly in the U.K. I’ve become used to leaving my wallet at home. That’s not possible with new Huawei phones.
What’s the upside?
First and foremost, you’ll be using one of the best folding smartphones available at the moment. That’s a solid argument for making these changes in the first place. The second could also be to reduce dependence on Google itself. I discovered just how much I relied on Google’s tight integration of its software and services in Android to get by, whether it’s a bookmark in Chrome or a saved place in Google Maps. If you’d rather not put all your eggs into Google’s basket, or haven’t already, then the transition to a Google-less Huawei phone will be much simpler.
Jumping to Firefox reminded me what a great browser it is and using Huawei’s email client is very similar to Apple’s Mail client on the iPad, with the way it splits the screen when you unfold the Mate Xs. This leads to Android and EMUI 10 on the Mate Xs itself. The multitasking is fast and effective, and the way the software adapts to the folded-out screen is smooth and seamless and makes the whole device easier and faster to use.
It’s through this that we can see what a life with apps designed for the Mate Xs will be like in the near future. The company is making it easy for developers to adapt apps for its own platform, and correctly operating with the folding Mate Xs is part of that. When you use the email client, the photo gallery, or another Huawei app, it’s obvious how much care and attention has been paid to getting the look and feel right. It’s an exciting glimpse at how apps on the Mate Xs, and on Huawei phones generally, will evolve over the next months.
An eye on the future
There are several takeaways for me at this early stage of using the Huawei Mate Xs. If you’re looking for a comparison, then it’s like going from iOS to Android, or vice versa. There are similarities and compatibilities, but you will also have to make some alterations, and some data may get lost in the switch. Even though the Mate Xs is technically an Android phone, it is Android built on Huawei’s growing ecosystem, not Google’s. Huawei’s goal is to build a third competitor app and service ecosystem to compete with Apple and Google, and it makes sense that you will have to bend to its will if you want to enjoy its splendid hardware.
Huawei knows the App Gallery is not well-stocked enough for an international audience yet. Just two of the apps I use regularly were available through it, and nothing I use is particularly niche. Sure, it’s getting better — there’s Tidal, Deezer, WeChat, and Microsoft Office, plus games like World of Tanks and Asphalt — but if the apps you use aren’t there, and there’s no immediate alternative, it’s a barrier against purchase. If your home and life are filled with Google products, including a WearOS smartwatch, the Mate Xs won’t play with them at all.
On the flip side of this, most Google apps aren’t essential — something you discover when you break free. Firefox, Here WeGo maps, Huawei’s email client, and Dropbox are all excellent alternatives to Chrome, Google Maps, Gmail, and Google Drive. Concern that you won’t be able to live without these is natural, but not entirely correct. Expect to put in a few hours longer than usual getting the phone set up, and then ironing out creases for the next few days. This is how it has been for me. The caveat here is if you use Google’s business suite for work, or rely on Google Docs, or have invested financially in Google products already. There’s no way around this at the moment.
Huawei knows an operational, fully stocked app store is key to its future, and it’s putting massive amounts of money and manpower behind making it a reality. Naturally, Huawei is brimming with confidence that it will succeed. Still, the improvements are only promised, and Huawei hasn’t provided a specific timetable for when missing big-name apps will arrive
Personally? I don’t care where my apps come from, so long as long as I can get them. I think new competition from Huawei in both software and hardware is a good thing. If Huawei can pull through, the Mate Xs and Huawei P40 — two spectacular smartphones — will have their true potentials unleashed.
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