Huawei Mate 20 Pro review: Expensive, but probably the best phone you can buy right now
The tempo for major smartphone launches at the tail of the year is always a little hectic.
You’ve got Samsung, Apple, LG, Google, Razer, Samsung (again) and then - finally - Huawei. Even speaking as someone who writes about this stuff for a living, it feels like things are getting a little out of hand and overly-crowded. And it doesn’t help that everything has become so incremental and by-the-numbers.
These days, the word flagship gets invoked so often that the term has largely loses its meaning.
Still, Huawei's recent string of high-end devices does feels like something if not different then significant. It’s a breath of fresh air of a sort. Yes, the Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro feature all the usual spec-bumps and flagship parks. However, coming off the strengths of the P20 Pro, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro ends up being a lot more innovative than it needs to be.
Without dabbling too heavily in the hyperbolic technology-first narrative that Huawei are trying to build around themselves, it feels like the Mate 20 Pro sees them go from being the third-party Android vendor that does it cheaper to being the third-party Android vendor that truly does it better.
These days, I generally lean towards the view that - unless you care that much about having a cutting-edge camera - most people probably don’t need to buy a smartphone that costs more than $1000. That said, if you’re tickled by the notion of owning one of the most formidable flagship smartphones out there, the Mate 20 Pro is the smartphone you’ll want to spend $1500 on.
Display size: 6.39-inches
Display type: OLED
Processor: Kirin 980
Operating System: EMUI 9 (running on Android Pie)
Fingerprint Sensor: Yes, In-Display
RAM: 6GB of RAM
MicroSD slot: No
Ports: USB Type-C
SIM: Dual Sim
Connectivity: CAT 21 LTE, Bluetooth 5, Wi-Fi (802.11ac), NFC
Rear Camera: 40-megapixel wide angle (f/1.8) + 20-megapixel ultra wide (f/2.2) lens + 8-megapixel telephoto
Front-Facing Camera: 24-megapixel (f/2.0)
Colors: Black, Midnight Blue
Dimensions: 157.8 mm x 72.3 mm x 8.6 mm
Availability: Vodafone, JB Hi-Fi, Harvey Norman, Kogan, Optus and MobileCiti.
Design - Look, Feel and Features
If you look at it on paper, there's not a huge amount separating the Mate 20 Pro from the rest of the flagship crowd.
It’s got an OLED display, wireless charging, IP68 rating against water damage, dual stereo speakers, face unlock and no headphone jack. In other words: the norm for flagships these days. The Huawei Mate 20 Pro is a device that ticks all the boxes. It's got everything you'd hope for - and expect - from a phone that costs this much and - in some ways - there's not a hugely long song to be sung here.
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That being said, there are two neat inclusions that, at least for now, you'll only be able to find in the Mate 20 Pro.
The first is an in-screen fingerprint sensor. This is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than a physical fingerprint sensor, you tap your finger to the screen and you phone will unlock.
Overseas, other devices like the Vivo Nex have included an in-screen fingerprint sensor. However, as far as local options go, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro is basically the first of its kind.
You get all the convenience and security of a traditional fingerprint sensor without any cost to the broader form-factor and design of the handset. And, in practice, the in-display fingerprint sensor works really well. There’s even a cool ripple effect that works its way across the device’s display whenever you do unlock it. This isn’t exactly subtle but it does serve to accentuate the futuristic charm of the feature.
The second unique feature here is Reverse Wireless Charging. When toggled, this allows you to leverage the Mate 20 Pro's 4200mAh battery to charge up another Qi-enabled device.
Reverse Wireless Charging works well but its not a massive game-changer. If anything, it ends up being a little limited both by the slower charge speed and the number of menus you have to jump through in order to toggle the feature. It does what it says on the tin but would be better if you had a shortcut for it in the same way you do things like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and NFC connectivity.
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro also boasts 3D Face Unlock similar to that found in Oppo’s Find X and Apple’s iPhone X, iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. And, in theory, it works much the same. An array of sensors embedded in the Mate 20 Pro’s notch use infrared light to generate a 3D map of your face. If it recognizes you, Mate 20 Pro will automatically unlock.
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Now - It’s worth saying that, during our own experience with the device, Huawei’s 3D Face Unlock has worked entirely as intended. Anecdotally, I actually felt like it was slightly faster than Apple’s own FaceID tech. However, there has been a story doing the rounds this week where the Mate 20 Pro’s 3D face unlock mistook one German tech writer for another (despite one of them wearing glasses). Huawei has yet to respond or comment on the story - which is frustrating and makes it hard to put your faith in the security of the feature without a few reservations.
Still, despite that bumper-sized list of features, the Mate 20 Pro itself actually comes off as pretty sim when held. It’s the more expensive option in the Mate 20 lineup but markedly smaller than the plus-sized counterparts being fielded by Samsung, LG and Google around this time of year. Coming off the Note 9 and Google Pixel 3 XL, the Mate 20 Pro made for a pleasant change in feel-factor.
The Midnight Blue variant of the device also works to distinguish itself through the addition of a new hyper optical surface coating that adds a really tactile sense of grip and texture to the back of the device. Of course - you’ll only get the physical benefits of this coating if you’re using the Mate 20 Pro without a case, which can be a perilous way to go.
Sure, the Mate 20 Pro might be feature Gorilla Glass 5 on both sides but glass is glass. Even a short fall can leave a lasting impact. My own Mate 20 Pro review unit slipped out of my pocket while I was sitting on a bench. All told, it dropped a foot - maybe a foot and a half - in distance.
The consequences can be seen below:
Of course, you can - and probably should - reduce the risk of your shiny new $1500 smartphone suffering the same fate by armoring it up. Like most smartphones nowadays, the Mate 20 Pro comes bundled with a transparent plastic case.
However, I’ve reviewed most of this year’s all-glass smartphones without their courtesy cases - and none of those devices came away with anything close to this degree of damage. As with the issues around the Mate 20 Pro’s 3D Face Unlock, this isn’t necessarily going to be a deal-breaker for some - but it’s definitely worth knowing before you buy.
Performance - Software, Benchmarks and Battery Life
Though the Mate 20 Pro doesn't come with the automotive branding found in its Porsche-branded cousin, easy comparisons to luxury cars feel apt when it comes to performance.
The Mate 20 Pro runs on Huawei's latest Kirin 980 CPU and 6GB of RAM. It also run a meaner and cleaner version of the company's EMUI Android skin. Storage-wise, the Mate 20 Pro comes with a native 128GB in ROM. However, frustratingly, it doesn't offer you the ability to increase this via MicroSD.
Instead, Huawei have opted for a new proprietary memory format called Nano Memory. It's available separately - and at almost double the cost per/GB than traditional Micro SD. Theoretically, the benefit here is that Nano Memory takes up less space in the internals of the Mate 20 Pro - which in turn allows Huawei to eke out a larger battery and more advanced camera system.
Yet, as far as these things go, the Nano Memory requirement sticks out as a clear con in a device with few other real drawbacks.
And while I've been pretty critical of EMUI in the past, the jump to Android Pie feels like it leaves Huawei's software in a much better place than it previously occupied. Everything loads super fast and there's a plethora of ways to customize the experience to your liking.
That said, I would love to see them offer more options and avenues of customization - specifically when it comes to the style of the home screen. I've always been a bigger fan of the swipe-up drawer interface found in Samsung and Google's launchers and found the options included here to be a little limited.
EMUI 9 even boasts its own analogue to Google's Digital Wellbeing app called Digital Wellness. This idea here is for you to to track and manage the amount of screentime you spend with your smartphone. For example, you can set time limits on apps or manage your phone usage by setting up a “bedtime”.
When it came to benchmarks, Huawei's latest hardware delivered impressive enough - but not exceptional - results. What’s more, these numbers have to come with a big caveat.
In September 2018, it was revealed by AnAndTech that several Huawei smartphones - the Huawei P20, Huawei P20 Pro, Huawei Nova and Huawei Honor Play - had been pre-programmed in such a way that their results when running 3DMark would be inflated.
During the benchmarking process, these devices would enable a hidden ‘performance mode’ that boosted the power and battery usage of the device - a practice that is forbidden by UL’s benchmark rules & guidelines.
More information about this development, including Huawei’s response to it, can be found here.
Now, it’s possible that Huawei have learned from being caught out on this. However, it’s equally possible that they haven’t. I lean towards giving them the benefit of the doubt. But without a private version of the 3DMark app to double check the scores, we’re limited in our ability to confirm either way.
As such, the benchmark results for the Mate 20 Pro should be taken with slightly more salt than usual.
As for battery life, we’d easily make it through the usual 9-5 work day and often into a second day of active use as well. Even if we accidentally forgot to leave the device on charge overnight, we’d still plenty of juice left to work with. In fact, we’d usually make it through about two full days of regular usage per charge
We’re talking fourteen or more hours of average use here, though - as always - your mileage may vary. Particularly, if you watch or film a lot of video content, crank the brightness way up or mess with the Mate 20 Pro’s various battery-saver settings.
The Mate 20 Pro supports both Huawei’s proprietary SuperFast wired charging and 15W Fast Wireless Charging.
The Huawei P20 Pro was a big leap forward for the brand, the Mate 20 Pro is more of a stride - albeit one in the same direction. It still features a triple-lens camera configuration but trades out the monochrome sensor for a new ultra-wide lens.
This ends up being much more of a meaningful inclusion that it sounds.
The P20 Pro's 3x and 5x zoom allowed you to take the shots that other smartphone cameras couldn't. The Mate 20 Pro's ultra-wide lens and super macro mode allows you to get the shots that the P20 Pro couldn't take.
These additions aren't a revolution - but it is does make for a more versatile camera.
The same could be said for the device’s new AI-driven cinema modes - which allow you to mimic things like color grading and bokeh in real time - and added support for filming in the 21:9 aspect ratio -which just make for more video content across the board.
Going back to the AI Cinema modes, it’s worth noting that the results produced by the Mate 20 Pro’s AI-cinema modes can sometimes be a little too sketchy to rely on. Honestly, it feels like this is a feature that Apple or Samsung are going to adopt, iterate upon and impress with in about twelve months time.
During the company’s official unveiling of the Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro in London, Huawei also showed off a slick 3D scanning and animation feature that sort of builds on what Sony have been including in their Xperia handsets for a few years now. Unfortunately, so far as we can tell, that feature isn’t included in the software we’ve got on our Mate 20 Pro sample. We’ll update this review accordingly when it does.
Unfortunately, one weakness we’ve discovered is that the Mate 20 Pro’s wide-angle lens just doesn’t have the same aptitude for low-light environments you’ll find in its other lenses. Another minor drawback here is that, like its predecessors, the Mate 20 Pro's AI-assisted photography features sometimes overstep their mark and overdo it. I wouldn't say this happens often but the post-processing is still not as consistent as I'd like, nor as good as it is in Google's Pixel phones.
Still, despite this, it’s hard not to come away feeling like the Mate 20 Pro has the best smartphone camera hardware money can buy right now. Most of the time, the machine gets it right and the photos you get back are striking in all the right ways.
Whether everyone - or anyone - should spend that much money to up their ‘Gram game is another question entirely. But if you’re after the best in smartphone photography, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro sets the bar.
The Bottom Line
To sum things up: the Mate 20 Pro really is far and aweigh the best smartphone Huawei have produced to date. It's not quite the same leap forward for smartphone photography that the P20 Pro. However, it holds its own on other fronts that serve to propel it to the top of the category.
$1500 is a lot of money to spend on a smartphone. However, if you're looking to spend that amount of money, the Mate 20 Pro makes a powerful case for itself. It's got all the high-end, premium features that matter plus a few exclusive tricks you can't find elsewhere.
It's not perfect but, taken as a whole, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro holds up as a magnificent piece of tech.
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