Huawei P20 Pro review: the three-camera iPhone killer | Technology


With the P20 Pro, Huawei has not only proven that it can compete with the likes of Apple and Samsung, but it can beat them in many ways. Three cameras really are better than one (or two).

Having established its name in value smartphones, Huawei has recently made inroads into the premium market with the likes of the Mate 10 Pro and last year’s P10. They were of high quality, and had all the features you’d expect from an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S. But until now they’ve not quite captured the same luxurious feel.

The P20 Pro has a 6.1in full HD+ OLED screen, bigger than even the Mate 10 Pro, but squeezed into a compact body with tiny bezels rivalling Apple’s iPhone X and Samsung’s Galaxy S9+. It also has a notch in the top – a cutout in the screen that contains a 24-megapixel front-facing camera, the earpiece speaker and various sensors.

The screen is bright and colourful, although not quite as pixel dense as rivals, and text is not quite as pin-sharp when viewed side-by-side. It’s a beautiful display that is close, but not quite as good as the best from Samsung or Apple.

Huawei P20 Pro review



Huawei’s fingerprint scanner is very fast at unlocking the phone or authenticating payments. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

Unlike rivals, Huawei has kept its best-in-class fingerprint scanner on the front, squeezed into an oval shape at the bottom of the screen. The back is glass with curved edges that blend neatly into the rounded and polished metal band around the sides. The camera modules stick out the back similar to an iPhone X, which means it doesn’t sit flush on a desk.

At 7.8mm thick and 180g in weight, the P20 Pro feels thin with an luxurious quality to it. It’s 0.7mm thinner and 9g lighter than Samsung’s Galaxy S9+, but 0.1mm thicker and 6g heavier than Apple’s iPhone X. All of which is to say the Huawei matches up well.

The P20 Pro is also water resistant to IP67 standards, meaning up to 1m of water for up to 30 minutes – good enough to survive a trip down the toilet or into the bath.

Specifications

  • Screen: 6.1in FHD+ OLED (407ppi)
  • Processor: octa-core Huawei Kirin 970
  • RAM: 6GB of RAM
  • Storage: 128GB
  • Operating system: EMUI 8.1 based on Android 8.1 Oreo
  • Camera: Triple rear camera 40MP colour, 20MP monochrome, 8MP telephoto, 24MP front-facing camera
  • Connectivity: LTE, Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth 4.2 and GPS (dual-sim available in some regions)
  • Dimensions: 155 x 73.9 x 7.8 mm
  • Weight: 180g

Charge it every other day

Huawei P20 Pro review



The P20 Pro fast-charges via its USB-C port, which is flanked by speakers but no headphone socket. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The P20 Pro has the same processor and memory configuration as the Mate 10 Pro – Huawei’s own Kirin 970 octo-core processor and its neural network processing unit – and as such is as fast and powerful as the earlier handset, keeping pace with its rivals.

The P20 Pro lasts significantly longer than both Apple and Samsung’s best between charges, although not quite as long as the 50-hours the Mate 10 Pro lasts. The P20 Pro consistently lasted over 39 hours on a single charge without having to activate any power saving modes. That was with two sims in it, using the smartphone as a primary device, browsing and using apps for five hours a day with hundreds of push emails and messages, 60 minutes of Netflix, the odd spot of navigation in Google maps, shooting around 30 photos and listening to around four hours of music via Bluetooth headphones.

There’s no wireless charging, but the P20 Pro charges pretty fast using the supplied power adapter and USB-C cable, despite having a comparatively large battery.

EMUI 8.1

Huawei P20 Pro review



EMUI 8.1 is Huawei’s most refined version of its modified Android experience yet, with lots of customisation options. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The P20 Pro runs Huawei’s modified version of Android called EMUI 8.1, based on Android Oreo 8.1, making it right up to date on launch.

It behaves very similarly to EMUI 8 running on the Mate 10 Pro – there is a Google Feed on the home screen and it offers the option to have an app drawer or force every app to have an icon on the home screen a la Apple’s iOS.

Various power-saving features are built in, including a system to keep rogue apps from destroying your battery life. Huawei’s ultra power-saving mode can significantly extend the battery life by disabling functions and limiting the number of apps you can use, if you really need your smartphone to last four days.

EMUI handles the notch in the screen very well, acting more like a screen with two ears at the top than one with a disruptive cutout. Notifications and other icons easily fit either side of the notch in the status bar, which by default is either transparent or colour-matched to the content on screen. There’s also an option to make it black all the time, effectively hiding the notch entirely.

Huawei P20 Pro review



The P20 Pro has a notch in the top of the screen containing the front-facing camera, earpiece speaker and sensors. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The big difference between the approach Huawei has used v that of Apple for the iPhone X is that when content or apps are displayed on the screen the area either side of the notch is blocked off so that it doesn’t intrude into what’s on-screen.

Some will simply hate the idea of the notch, but being narrow and using the space either side of it as the status bar is actually a good compromise.

Camera

Huawei P20 Pro review



The three cameras on the back work in harmony to produce the best image possible depending on light level, zoom or scenario. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The P20 Pro is the first smartphone to have not one, not two, but three cameras on the back, all working in conjunction to provide a multi-layered camera experience.

The primary camera is a large, 40-megapixel colour camera with an f1.8 lens, which is joined by a 20-megapixel monochrome camera with an f1.6 lens and an eight megapixel telephoto camera with an f2.4 lens.

The system automatically uses a combination of the cameras on the back to produce each shot. The monochrome camera adds extra light, detail and depth information, while the telephoto camera increases the zoom magnification.

The combination produces excellent detail, low noise and accurate colour capture. In good light it shoots images that are stunning. In low light the P20 Pro excels too, routinely producing better images than rivals.

But it is the hybrid zoom that really makes the P20 Pro really stand out. Many dual-camera smartphones offer up to a 2x zoom, which often proves rather modest. The Huawei offers up to 5x hybrid zoom, with steps all the way up and a button to switch between 1x, 3x and 5x zoom. Images shot at 3x and 5x zoom are very good, even in low light.

Huawei P20 Pro review



The P20 Pro has the best hybrid zoom in the business. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

There are plenty of modes to play with, including portrait and aperture modes, a monochrome mode that uses the dedicated camera, and an excellent long exposure night mode, which works very well even when handheld.

The P20 Pro also captures very good video, including up to 960fps slow motion, and has a “Pro” mode with plenty of settings to keep most photographers happy, including RAW capture.

By default the camera shoots 10-megapixel images, but there’s an option to shoot at the full 40-megapixel size, which can be fun.

Huawei’s built-in camera AI performs real-time object recognition to detect the subject and switch to the appropriate mode or scene. In most circumstances it does an admirable job, but occasionally it would get caught between scenes, such as “greenery” and “flower” when trying to shoot a bunch of roses. I also found some of the modes to artificially skew the colours in the image a bit too much for my liking, making them look like photos tweaked for Instagram. I turned it off for some shoots and got better results.

The front-facing selfie camera is also very good, producing well detailed and lit shots, complete with your choice of beautification effects, such as the face-shaping “perfect selfie” mode.

Observations

huawei p20 pro review



The twilight colour option is beautiful and really stands out in a sea of sameness. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian
  • The back of the phone is beautifully smooth and rounded in the hand, but is super slippery when placed on fabric surfaces
  • The P20 Pro popped up a message to say it would shut down in 30 seconds when the battery hit around 2%, giving time to quickly send a message before it died
  • Huawei claims its built-in AI will keep the P20 Pro running as fast on day 365 as it does on day one
  • Face recognition on the P20 Pro is lightning quick and works with sunglasses on too, but it is unclear how secure it is compared to a fingerprint or long pin
  • The twilight colour option is beautiful and really stands out against the competition
  • 4G performance is a cut above, holding onto a usable LTE signal in places most other devices struggle to connect
  • Bluetooth connectivity to a set of wireless earbuds wasn’t quite as good as a Samsung Galaxy S9+
  • The bottom stereo speakers are surprisingly good for a smartphone, but with little in the way of stereo separation
  • It has Dolby Atmos, but Bluetooth headphones aren’t supported

Price

The Huawei P20 Pro costs £799 with 128GB of storage and is available in three colours.

For comparison, the 6in Huawei Mate 10 Pro with 128GB costs £699, the 6.3in Samsung Galaxy Note 8 with 64GB of storage costs £869, the 6.2in Samsung Galaxy S9+ costs £869 with 128GB of storage, the 6in Google Pixel 2 XL with 64GB costs £799, the 6in OnePlus 5T with 64GB costs £449, the 6in Honor 10 View with 128GB costs £450, and the 5.8in iPhone X with 64GB costs £999.

Verdict

With the P20 Pro Huawei has finally produced something that I would recommend over competitors regardless of the price. While not cheap, costing £800, in some ways you get a better experience than rivals costing £200 more.

But the P20 Pro isn’t a value proposition; it is a no-holds-barred attempt to usurp the current kings of the top-end smartphone, Samsung and Apple. The Mate 10 Pro was great, but Huawei has hit a home run with the P20 Pro.

It’s a fantastic-looking phone that feels better than rivals in the hand, lasts significantly longer between charges and has a one of the best cameras available, offering useful features that others can’t match.

There’s no wireless charging, no headphone socket, EMUI has its quirks and Huawei’s record of keeping up with software and security updates is a bit patchy. But it’s truly great to see a company that isn’t Apple or Samsung pushing boundaries once more.

Pros: long battery life, great design, brilliant camera, good screen, stand-out colour options, water resistance, Android 8.1 Oreo, great performance

Cons: no headphone socket, no microSD card slot, no wireless charging, screen not the highest resolution, no Bluetooth 5 support

huawei p20 pro review



The P20 Pro looks and feels like a phone worth its £800 asking price. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

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