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Huawei’s Play Store alternative has gotten better, but it’s the apps that count
If you’re looking to purchase any of the new HUAWEI P40 series, you’ll have to get comfortable using HUAWEI’s App Gallery rather than the Google Play Store. All thanks to the US trade ban. In previous years, the App Gallery felt like an afterthought, which is understandable given the dominance of Google Play. Now HUAWEI relies on its store exclusively, so is App Gallery in good enough shape for users to find what they need?
I want to preface the bulk of this article by acknowledging that the App Gallery does not have anywhere near the level of support as the Google Play Store. It’s only roughly a year since the US debacle began and building up developer support takes considerable time and investment. HUAWEI is gradually ramping up developer support and attempting to attract bigger developers, but we have to temper expectations.
That said, the dearth of commonly used apps is hard to ignore. For me, work essentials like Slack and Zoom are notable absences. Many popular apps like Facebook, Netflix, and WhatsApp aren’t available on the store either. However, HUAWEI has a neat trick for some of these apps that aren’t yet hosted on its store but are available in APK form from official sources. App Gallery simply links out to official websites where you can grab and install the APK manually. You can tell these apps by their “Get” rather than “Install” button.
App Gallery offers workarounds for some Google and other popular apps.
HUAWEI is also clearly working hard to try and support those who rely on Google apps. Google Maps, Translate, and Drive are all accessible in web page format via a search in the App Gallery. These can be added to the home-screen for quick access in lieu of an installed app. This will certainly feel like an alien concept for casual Android users, but it’s a reasonable workaround in the short term.
I should note that HUAWEI’s Phone Clone application can copy many apps from your old phone. Not all Android apps rely on GMS to function properly and these work just fine in my experience. In fact, even Google Maps works when copied over. However these apps will eventually miss out on updates and therefore might not function in the long term.
Out with the old, in with the new
Shortly before the arrival of the HUAWEI P40 series, the App Gallery underwent a notable makeover. The interface has seen a few tweaks and HUAWEI has made it somewhat easier for new users to find the apps they’re most likely to be after. These can be found under the “New User Kits” on the homepage.
Perhaps the most important change though is that the questionable apps that used to dominate the store have (mostly) been shoved out of sight. The App Gallery now happily presents its better known apps front and center on the storefront. Here you’ll find the likes of Snapchat, TikTok, Deezer, TIDAL, Telegram, and others. They’re still interwoven with the odd more dubious app when searching, but this is a vast improvement from the situation just a few months ago.
As an example, the old app store presented an array of knock-off or imitation apps when searching for the likes of Spotify or Netflix. See the images below captured from October 2019. Thankfully I couldn’t find any of these apps in the new 2020 App Gallery, they seem to have been removed. That said, HUAWEI’s store isn’t completely free of imitation apps and name abusers.
The imitation apps above are no longer found in the new store, but poor quality apps remain rife.
Despite the improved visibility of popular apps, the store still has issues when searching. While some searches provide reasonable alternatives if a specific app isn’t available, this isn’t the case for every query. Some are still far too linked to keyword matches rather than actual usefulness. For example, a search for “music” returns a drum pad app as the top result, followed by some music players and questionable “MP3 download” apps with one star reviews. It’s hard not to wonder how secure some of these apps are. Meanwhile, popular and highly rated streaming apps like Deezer and TIDAL don’t even make the list.
App discovery is still the biggest problem with the App Gallery and needs addressing promptly. Even if HUAWEI manages to bring more major developers on board, it will be a wasted effort if users can’t discover these apps on their own.
Quality of life features
HUAWEI has been making strides to brings the App Gallery up to speed with more popular stores by introducing several quality of life improvements.
For starters, apps are now sorted into categories that are easy enough to navigate. This feature is just as easy to use as the Play Store. When it comes to app pages, the App Gallery actually makes better use of space for app descriptions, sharing, etc, than Google. App ratings and reviews are easy to read, and it feels very familiar to discover other apps made by developers or to find similar apps. However, it’s telling how few active App Gallery users there are though, as many apps are yet to be rated and few have more than a handful of detailed reviews.
Unfortunately there’s still more that could be done to make the store more user friendly. For example, app categories don’t seem to be ranked according to ratings or downloads, making it hard to sort the good from the bad. HUAWEI could take a leaf from Google’s book and display ratings information and number of downloads in the search list to help guide user downloads.
Another gripe I have is that the store occasionally serves up a three-second ad when you opening it. While Google has app ads dotted around its store, full screen pop-ups are just annoying and don’t have a place in an essential smartphone app. Especially not in flagship-tier smartphones like the HUAWEI P40 series.
App discovery remains the biggest issue with App Gallery.
Huawei’s App Gallery makes it easy to manage your applications and even APKs, which is an arguably essential feature if you’re downloading from a few different sources. The manager tab lets you search for updates, uninstall apps, and install/remove APKs from anywhere on your system.
On the whole, HUAWEI has done a pretty good job bringing its store up to speed in the past few months. While some features, and in particular searches, could still be improved, the app is a very serviceable way to get apps. HUAWEI just needs more developers to get on board and starting using its HMS core alternative to Google’s GMS.
How good or bad is HUAWEI’s App Gallery?
It’s a little hard to rate HUAWEI’s App Gallery as merely good or bad. On the one hand it’s a functional way to download and manage your apps, and it does the job reasonably well. HUAWEI appears to be curating apps a little better than previously, but it’s still got a way to go with improving search and app discovery. Feature-wise, it’s not quite on par with Google’s store yet. However, it certainly feels as usable as Samsung’s Galaxy Store, if not more so.
App Gallery is a fine piece of software, but people don't like change. Still, HUAWEI desperately needs to attract more major app developers.
Ultimately the biggest concern for most users is finding the apps that they want to use. HUAWEI’s problem is simply app volume and attracting key developers. I imagine this situation will improve with time, as HUAWEI has a large install base and is investing heavily in developer support. Even so, App Gallery is likely to always play second fiddle to Google’s Play Store when it comes to developer support and updates.
In the meantime, HUAWEI is trying a few novel ways to ensure that users have access to as many familiar apps as possible. I can grin and bear some web apps and downloading APKs manually, but it’s clearly not ideal. However, this will be an odd and potentially jarring experience for general consumers who value simplicity and ease of use.
Huawei’s App Gallery has definitely improved lately. I personally don’t mind using it, and in some ways prefer the layout to Google’s increasingly bloated Play Store. But it’s the apps that count, and HUAWEI still has a very long way to go there.