By now you’re probably familiar with the Huawei ban. Back in May, as part of the US government’s pointless trade war with China, Huawei was put on an “entity list” preventing American companies from doing business with the Chinese giant. As a result, Huawei lost access to Intel and Qualcomm’s chips, Microsoft and Google’s software — like Windows and Google Mobile Services (GMS) — and much more US tech.
Huawei mostly makes phones using its own Kirin processors, so losing access to Qualcomm’s hardware isn’t a huge issue. The company can also continue using Android since it’s open source. But losing access to GMS means new Huawei phones cannot run Google’s apps or services, or third party apps that use Google’s APIs — a deal breaker in many markets, including Europe, where Huawei handsets are extremely popular.
The first two phones from the Chinese company to launch without GMS support are the Huawei Mate 30 Pro and the Honor 9x Pro (Honor is a sub-brand of Huawei). I recently received a Chinese-market Honor 9x Pro review unit from the PR team, and so began my first serious experience using an Android phone without GMS. I’m writing this article to share my trials and tribulations on this mad journey, from the perspective of someone who relies extensively on Google’s apps/services.
My goal here is to share which apps work, which don’t, and what alternatives exist. And yes, I’m aware of at least two workarounds to restore GMS support on these two handsets, but that’s besides the point. First, this isn’t as trivial as downloading and installing a few APKs and second, I’d like to explore what’s possible and what’s not before having to reach for the nuclear option — enabling GMS support.
Below are the apps I selected and tested on the Honor 9x Pro, along with any challenges I encountered along the way. For each category, I started by installing my preferred app, then settled on an alternative only if absolutely necessary. To be clear, the apps listed below are my personal picks, and you might not agree with my choices. Feel free to suggest better apps for each category in the comments below.
Since the Google Play Store was definitely out the window, and Huawei’s built-in AppGallery mostly features Chinese apps I don’t care about, my first idea was to download and install the Amazon App Store APK. This did not end well. While I was able to run the app and successfully login to my Amazon account, I systematically got a network error beyond this point, whether I was connected via LTE or WiFi — as if the phone was blocking access to Amazon’s servers.
I‘d pretty much resigned to using APK Mirror to get all my apps — a time-consuming process — when one of my podcast listeners suggested I try the Aurora Store. And that, dear readers, was a stroke of genius. The Aurora Store is an unofficial Play Store client that gives any Android device anonymous access to every app in Google’s store. It’s totally awesome, and I highly recommend it. From here on, downloading, installing, and updating apps was a breeze!
Since I’m not a big fan of the default Huawei/Honor launcher, I installed Nova launcher. No problems here, until I tried making it the default launcher. Turns out you can’t change the launcher on Huawei and Honor phones sold in China. Apparently, there are clones of the stock launcher with malware out there, so the company’s locked it down. Major bummer.
I like Google’s Gboard, and surprisingly, I was able to install and run it without any issues. This was a pretty rare instance of complete success with a Google app, though, because many of the others rely on a linked account for certain features to work.
My preferred SMS app is Google Messages, but strangely, it didn’t work, so I just used Honor’s built-in app — appropriately called Messaging. I’m sure there are better SMS apps out there, but texting isn’t critical when I’m testing a phone. Suggestions?
I don’t generally need WhatsApp, WeChat, or Telegram on handsets I review, so I didn’t try these apps, but I installed Facebook Messenger since my friends and family use it (for better or worse). As you’d expect, it worked just fine without GMS.
Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram installed and ran like a charm. No surprises here!
Email, calendar, and contacts
I’m lumping these together because I found a single app that conveniently syncs with Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Contacts. As you probably guessed, this app is Microsoft Outlook, and it’s fantastic. My only gripe is that it lacks support for Gmail labels, which I use extensively. But honestly, that’s a minor issue when you consider how well this app integrates with Google’s services.
I did run into one snag, though. Outlook uses a web view to login to Google’s services, and that didn’t work out of the box. I’m not sure if this a limitation with Honor’s built-in browser or something else, but the solution was to install Google Chrome and make it the default browser. Speaking of which...
I enjoy using Google Chrome on most of my devices, and I’m happy to report that Google’s excellent web browser installs and runs just fine without GMS. Obviously, you can’t connect it to a Google account to sync bookmarks and browsing history, but it works and even supports form and password autocompletion.
Google Maps is my go-to navigation app, and it works without any issues here. Honestly, this was a pleasant surprise. Like with Chrome, you can’t connect the app to a Google account to sync search and location history, but that’s not a huge deal. I didn’t try Waze since I don’t use it.
As you’d expect, Google Drive and the company’s Documents, Sheets, and Slides apps installed fine but didn’t run. That being said, you can use Google Drive on the web instead. It’s not ideal, but it’s OK in a pinch. I figure that Dropbox probably works without GMS, but I didn’t try it.
My preferred music app is Google Play Music, and obviously, that didn’t work. Like Google Drive, though, it can be accessed via the web — not the best solution, but possible. I also installed Spotify, and it ran totally fine.
Photo and video
Google Photos was a no-go, disappointingly. I really like using it to edit photos, so I expected it to behave like Google Chrome and Google Maps and run fine without being logged into a Google account. The app installs OK but crashes at launch. It’s really unfortunate since it does so much more than just backup photos. At least Snapseed works without any issues.
I didn’t try Google Play Movies, but I installed Netflix, and it doesn’t run. It complains about needing Google Play services, which seems like an odd dependency for a non-Google app, but is probably related to the app's notoriously fickle DRM.
While I don’t usually use Lyft and Uber on my review units, I decided to try them out — mostly because both use the Google Maps APIs, and Google Maps works fine. The apps installed OK, but didn’t run without Google Play Services, just like Netflix. That makes them effectively useless.
At this point I gave up. Sure, you might be able to replace Google Drive and even Google Photos with Dropbox for backups, and Snapseed for editing. And Spotify is definitely more popular than Google Play Music. But without Netflix, Lyft, or Uber, you’re pretty much DoA — and that’s not even counting the dozens of other apps I didn’t try that most people use every day, many of which probably rely on Google's Play Services for things as basic as notifications and as critical as in-app mapping and device authentication.
Ultimately then, it’s just not practical (or even reasonable) for anyone who has access to the unrestricted Internet to live with an Android phone that lacks GMS -- Google user or not. It’s a foolish and quixotic endeavor, best left to those who like to tinker and experiment. To put it another way: good luck with that. I ended up enabling GMS on my Honor 9x Pro review unit, and I haven’t looked back -- it’s been a great experience ever since.
And to be clear, this story is not about a particular handset, but about how critical GMS is to the future of Huawei.
In fact, the Honor 9x Pro is a lovely $320 mid-range phone made even better by re-enabling GMS. It features a notchless 6.59-inch 1080p IPS display and a 16MP pop-up selfie camera. There’s a Kirin 810 under the hood, along with 8GB RAM, 128GB of storage (plus micro-SD support), and a 4000mAh battery. But it’s the triple rear shooter that really shines, with a 48MP f/1.8 main camera, 8MP ultrawide lens, and 2MP depth sensor.
Hopefully, you’ll be able to enjoy this handset outside of China soon, as the US government is expected to lift the Huawei ban sometime in the next few weeks, In the meantime, you can pick up the global variant of the Honor 9x (non-Pro), which is very similar and supports GMS out of the box.