Huawei P20 Pro review: See it and believe the hype
- Phenomenal camera
- Really competitive price
- EMUI remains a weakness
- No headphone jack
A good smartphone is more than just a camera - and while the P20 Pro’s camera do catch more of the finer details than the competition can, a lot of elements around that camera don’t always deliver on the same level.
When faced with a device like the Huawei P20 Pro - which emphasizes the camera side of the equation so strongly - you inevitably have to scrutinize just how important a part of the overall picture a smartphone’s camera really is. After all, these days, once you go above $800 or so, the differences between the different smartphones you can buy largely come down to two things: the software experience and the camera.
However, regardless of how close any brand veers towards (or away from) that stock Android experience, your mileage when it comes to software is probably going to come down to personal preference more than anything else. Some users appreciate the extra features that brands bring to their particular flavor of Android. Some really don’t.
This isn’t really the case with the camera - which tends to be why both vendors and reviewers tend to focus on it so much. However, for a lot of users, a good smartphone is more than just a camera - and while the P20 Pro’s camera do catch more of the finer details than the competition can, a few of experiential elements around that hardware don’t always deliver on the same level. Again, the camera on this device is second-to-none - but when you’ve got it front of you, you have to wonder why the rest of the package doesn’t always quite match or deliver that same high.
Display size: 6.1-inch
Display type: OLED FHD (2240 x 1080 pixels)
Processor: Huawei Kirin 970
Dimensions: 73.9mm x 155mm x 7.8m
Operating System: Android 8.1, EMUI 8.1
Fingerprint Sensor: Yes
Ports: USB Type-C
Headphone Jack: No
Dual SIM: Yes
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2, Cat 18 LTE, NFC, Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac)
Rear Camera: 40-megapixel main (RGB, f/1.8 aperture) + 20-megapixel (monochrome, f/1.6) + 8-megapixel (telephoto, f/2.4)
Front-Facing Camera: 24-megapixel (f/2.0)
Colors: Graphite Black, Twilight
Even before Huawei officially debuted the P20 Pro at a Paris-based press conference, tech enthusiasts and critics were captivated by the stunning gradient on the Twilight variant of the handset. It’s not hard to see why. I mean, look at this thing:
For better or worse, the review unit we were sent wasn’t Twilight. It was the Graphite Black. This version of the P20 is a little less eye-catching but I suspect it’ll wear better over the long term and make for a more inconspicuous accessory to users who prefer a more-professional look.
When I first saw pictures of the liquid glass back on the P20 Pro, I was a little concerned that it would lack the sleek and comfortable feel-factor that made its predecessor so enjoyable to use. I’m happy to report that this is not the case. It doesn’t always come through in the photos but the edges of P20 Pro are made of (what feels like a) very similar and ever-so-slightly curved metal. As a result, I found the P20 Pro sat nicely nicely in my hand - aside from the difference in size - it offered up a pretty similar feel-factor.
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Then there’s the notch. Like the iPhone X, Essential PH-1, OnePlus 6, LG G7 and countless other 2018 smartphones, Huawei have opted to maximize the usable screen-space on the P20 Pro by wrapping the screen around the front-facing camera and speaker - leaving a conspicuous black notch in the center. Whether or not you’ll be a fan or not is largely going to be a matter of personal preference. I wasn’t - but I was encouraged to see what Huawei have included an option to hide the notch by camouflaging it with a black bar at the top of the display.
Again, the P20 Pro is noticeably larger than the P10 was, which remains a change I’m not massive on. The 5.1-inch form-factor of the P10 not only made it feel different and slimmer compared to the other flagships out there and also put it in the unique position of offering top-notch smartphone photography in a pretty compact form.
Still, the 6.1-inch display on the P20 Pro doesn’t look or feel bad in any tangible sense. It’s just where the market trends are at these days. In practice, it’s great for watching video content, scrolling through your socials or even multi-tasking using Android’s split-screen function. That said, it does blur the lines between what Huawei are offering here and what they offer with their Mate range - which irks me a little.
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Speaking of market trends, the P20 Pro also come with a full IP67-rating against water and dust damage and fully coated in Gorilla Glass 5 on both sides. These are fairly standard inclusions in a flagship like this, but appreciated nevertheless. Unfortunately, there’s no wireless charging in the P20 Pro. For now, it looks like Huawei are keeping that feature exclusive to the ultra-premium Huawei Mate RS.
The final aspect of the design worth noting here is the absence is the headphone jack. Like the notch, your mileage may vary when it comes to the real-world impact of this change. If you’re like me, and have already jumped pretty deep into the world of true wireless earbuds, it’s not too much of a hassle. However, if you haven’t (or just want to keep things wired), Huawei have bundled in a pair of USB-C headphones and a USB-C to 3.5mm converter with the device.
Of course, the main event here is the P20 Pro’s triple-lens camera. Time will tell whether the P20’s configuration proves a gimmick or a standard but, as far as these things go, it manages to deliver on the hype handily. The phrase ‘see what other cameras’ can’t gets thrown around quite a bit these days but it feels like it’s never been quite so apt as it is here.
By now, you’ve probably heard some of the hype around Huawei’s P20 Pro. You’ve likely heard about the triple lens camera, the 40-megapixel sensor and 5x hybrid zoom. You might have even heard about its record-breaking DxOMark score of 109. Here’s what it looks like in action:
Landscape shot at 3x optical zoom
Landscape shot at 5x hybrid zoom
According to Huawei, AI is the active ingredient here. Last year’s Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro made a big show of leveraging the Kirin 970’s NPU (neural processing unit) to enhance your photography with minimal hassle and that feature returns here and even if the implementation of AI into the smartphone camera isn’t as unique a feature as it once was, it feels like Huawei’s version of it is by far the most mature solution.
The AI-powered object recognition here supports 19 different scenes, including cat, food, group, natural colours, close-up, night shot, text, greenery, portrait, dog, fireworks, blue sky, flowers, stage, document, sunset, snow, waterfall, and beach. Once recognized, the camera will optimize itself to product better quality images and, while your comfort-level when it comes to trusting the algorithms to get it right might vary, the results don’t. Across the board, photos taken with the P20 Pro had featured an undeniably-magnetic combination of vibrant color, sharp details, striking contrasts.
My one persistent criticism with the Mate 10 Pro was that the AI-powered features often felt too subliminal in their execution and that, while Huawei could easily claim the feature made a major difference, its impact was sometimes too ephemeral to really feel or notice it. By comparison, it feels like the P20 Pro does a noticeably better job of communicating what it actually contributes to your photography.
That said, part of me wishes that there was a slider that gave a little more control over this feature. It’d be nice to decide where and when I want the AI to step and how often I want to be notified that it is getting involved in whatever I happen to be doing.
Of course, with low-light photography being such a focus in 2018, Huawei have included a dedicated night mode. Images taken using this mode do require a few seconds to render but, once they do, they like miles ahead of anything you can get out of even the boldest of the P20 Pro’s competition.
The only part of using this mode I don’t like is that way that human figures caught in low-light shots do sometimes come out a little muddy. As far ahead of the competition as the P20 Pro is, it feels like there’s definitely still room for improvement here.
Huawei say the sensor in the handset comes equipped to capture photos in up to ISO 102400. However, at the time of writing, this feature has yet to actually be enabled in the Pro mode. Out of the box, the P20 Pro only goes up to ISO 6400. Huawei say higher ISO support will be added in a later software update.
There’s also a riff on EIS called AIS, which assists in stabilization during both video content and the 5x hybrid zoom. Practically, the impact of this feature is pretty behind-the-scenes but its a welcome inclusion nonetheless and - as is the norm for the P20 Pro - well ahead of what the competition offer.
Finally, for portrait mode shots taken using either the front or rear cameras, the P20 Pro supports AI-assisted dynamic lighting simulation in addition to the usual suite of beautification features. Given that not too many smartphones outside of the iPhone X support the former, it’s nice to see it pop up here.
As mentioned at the start of this review, camera is only one part of the larger puzzle when it comes to a good smartphone experience and while the P20 Pro’s camera undoubtedly lifts it up - the software side of things still feels like it drag.
If there’s any aspect of the P20 Pro that can be said to be an Achilles Heel, it’s this.
Your mileage may well vary. However, with every Huawei phone I have ever had to use or review, I’ve always gone through the same, tired motions when it comes to grappling with Huawei’s EMUI skin. I eventually find a place where I’m happy with it - but mostly because I grow tired of messing with it and just want to use the thing.
Out of the box, I’m averse to the way EMUI looks, feels and, more-broadly, the overall design logic of how it conveys the functionality offered by Android. It rarely feels as cohesive and eloquent as the skins used by Samsung or strains that sit closer to stock Android do. EMUI feels hyper-functional but not in a ‘this has been designed for power-users way’ so much as a ‘tick all the boxes, who cares how it looks’ one. I will say that Huawei are getting better but there’s still so much more room for improvement.
Huawei do offer an out here in the form of the various themes available. Unfortunately, the range is pretty limited. Sure, you can always load up a compatible custom Home Launcher but you can do that on most Android devices. If we're rating the P20 Pro on its out-of-box software, it gets a passing mark but fails to earn a distinction.
Still, even with these reservations about the UI and UX on the P20 Pro, it’s difficult to not respect the raw results that the Kirin 970 delivers when it comes to benchmarks. Our testing found that it managed to outperform most of our recent crop of Android devices, sans the Samsung Galaxy S9+. Across the board, it even managed to outperform its Mate 10 predecessor - even if only by a few points.
Update: 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.
As a result, the above devices have all been delisted from UL Benchmarks’ rankings.
More information about this development, including Huawei’s response to it, can be found here.
It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a smartphone 4000mAh battery and, as usual, after messing with the P20 Pro I’m loath to go back from one. In terms of every-day 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.
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 or crank the brightness way up.
Again, the P20 Pro does not support wireless charging - which is a shame. However, it does boast Huawei’s own SuperCharge fast-charging, which can bring you from zero to full charge in about ninety minutes.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to the camera, it’s hard not to praise what Huawei have managed with the P20 Pro. Even as someone with a fair amount of reservations about the core software experience here, that awe-inspiring camera counts for a lot. Of course, it’s only when you see the price of the P20, that the pieces really fall into place.
It’s not difficult to imagine Huawei using the triple-lens camera on the device to charge a premium price that hovers even above their most expensive rivals. But they haven’t. Instead, they’ve clocked in at a price about $100 cheaper than both the Nokia 8 Sirocco and the Samsung Galaxy S9.
Even if I still have some hangups about EMUI, it’s hard not to see the value in that.
The Huawei P20 Pro is available now through JB Hi-Fi (Black & Twilight), Mobileciti (Black & Twilight) and Harvey Norman at a local RRP of $1099.
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