It was just a few years ago we were criticising Huawei for its software and design approach (take a look at our P8 review, from 2015). But how far the Chinese company has come. With the P20 Pro in hand, reviewed here in its delightful Twilight dipped-in-Unicorn-dust paint finish, it's incredibly hard to criticise on either of those points.
Not only is the P20 Pro one of the most visually arresting phones we've seen for some time, it's a device that doesn't hide behind software excesses (there are some quirks, but only diehard Android heads will care), a device that is on trend when it comes to design (ok, so the notch is rather iPhone X, but it can be hidden via software), while pushing hard on the camera front to pursue best-in-class quality (and, spoiler alert, succeeding).
After the lacklustre launch of the P10 in 2017 - which was the weakest flagship device launched that year, in no small part due to its smeary screen issues - Huawei had a point to prove. And in the P20 Pro it's not only gone and righted its earlier wrongs, it's produced a device that's so spectacular across the board that it could well be the flagship phone of 2018.
iPhone X design, but better
- Glass rear with plenty of unique colours
- Front-facing fingerprint scanner
- No 3.5mm headphone socket
- IP67 waterproofing
- Just 7.8mm thick
When the also-impressive Huawei Mate 10 Pro launched in the latter half of 2017, it brought with it a glass back. That's been the flavour of recent smartphones: from the Apple iPhone X to the LG V30S and Samsung Galaxy S9. And that's the look that Huawei has gone for in the P20, too, albeit without wireless charging (an odd decision, just as it was in the Mate 10 Pro).
Nonetheless, wireless charging or not, that rear glass looks great. And while we thought that trio of cameras - Huawei's calling card in the P20, but more on that later - might look like someone had superglued some extras on as a joke, in hand it looks great. The in-line Leica and Huawei logos help to soften the vertical arrangement from looking too heavy to the top corner. Indeed, our only moan about the lenses all being to one side is that the phone wobbles about when it's sat flat on a tabletop.
The rear is an otherwise a mostly clear face - unless you spot the CE marking, which you'll then never be able to stop seeing - which gives room for the colour options to breathe, reflect light, look all fancy and, yep, get covered in smeary fingerprints. Take good care of this phone with a microfibre cloth and it'll look glorious, though, as you can see in our photos. Twilight really is a winner.
One thing that isn't on the back (as it is on the Mate 10 Pro) is the fingerprint scanner. Huawei has crammed this discretely onto the front, towards the bottom, just like an Apple Home button. Shame it's not a hidden-behind-the-screen fingerprint sensor where half the screen could be used as a sensor, but we suspect that'll be something for 2019. Despite the P20 Pro scanner's small size, however, it's super responsive; we've had next to zero failings to read our prints during use, which is great. Especially because Huawei's Face Unlock is so poor, it's really not a patch on Apple's equivalent in our experience.
As with most new high-end phones in 2018, the P20 Pro has no 3.5mm headphone jack, which we do find rather annoying. That said, the USB-C port can be used via an included adapter. Or you can just use USB-C headphones. Or wireless ones. It's just one of those transition things we'll all have to get used to. Because, well, because Apple popularised it (Essential Phone started it, but most people have forgotten about that - although a new one is expected later this year).
Visually speaking, then, the Huawei P20 Pro has more than a few iPhone X design similarities. But, and as we said when we first previewed the phone, the P20 Pro "takes the iPhone design and evolves it". Kudos where it's due, the P20 Pro has its own look and feel, while simultaneously taking many of the best bits from the competition and successfully adapting them for the better.
To notch or not to notch, that is the question
- 6.1-inch 18.7:9 aspect ratio OLED display
- Full HD+ resolution (2240 x 1080 pixels)
- Notch can be software hidden in settings
Onto what we thought would be a huge bone of contention: the notch. Yes, aping Apple once again, the P20 Pro has a little blacked-out dent to the top of its panel, so the front-facing camera and speaker can live there. Which, when we first saw it in the iPhone X, made us blow steam out of our ears. "How could a designer think that's a good idea?".
Yet, after just a couple of hours of use, the notch really doesn't act as a constant eyesore. We barely notice it; when game apps load they typically won't load to the full edge; and, via settings, you can software remove the notch anyway, by giving the whole top area of the panel a black strip. And because the P20 Pro uses an OLED panel, it can do black levels very well. Thus, if you software de-notch then it really does appear to almost vanish.
Huawei could have gone about this design in a different way. Just look at Xiaomi with the Mi Mix 2 and Mix 2S: both have slender bezel and plant the front-facing camera to the bottom edge, which is a theoretically great idea, but not a practical one when it comes to selfies (as in, say hello to constant double-chin selfies). But no, the notch is here to stay and Google's Android software will be accommodating it by design in a future update (the P20 Pro uses the company's EMUI 8.1 re-skin as a solution - more on the software later).
Notch forgiven, then, the P20 Pro's screen is a delightful panel. Huawei calls it a FullView display, which in non-marketing terms means it's an 18.7:9 aspect ratio, measuring 6.1-inches on the diagonal, for an elongated form that's great for holding in one hand. The bezels, too, are shrunken to near micro form - to the point that they're about the same as the aforementioned Mi Mix 2S, which we've put side-by-side to the Huawei. This makes for a large, all-encompassing panel, which actually feels rather small. Fist an iPhone 8 Plus after this and you'll wonder if your hands have shrunk or something.
In terms of resolution, it seems we're settling into a sweet spot for 2018. We've seen 4K panels from Sony in the past, but even its latest XZ2 has pulled back on the resolution (and rightly so). The P20 Pro delivers what's called Full HD+, meaning it has the usual 1080 rows, but the extra height of this panel's aspect ratio means more pixels to accommodate and retain a Full HD equivalent over a different scale. It works perfectly well to our eyes. No, it's not quite as bright as Samsung's S9, but the Huawei's viewing angles are great and the colours punch (plus you can adjust the colour caste via the software to suit warmer or cooler tastes).
Mate 10 hardware, excellent performance and battery
- HiSilicon Kirin 970 chipset, 6GB RAM
- 128GB storage, no microSD (dual SIM only)
- 4000mAh battery, USB-C fast-charging, no wireless charging
Under the hood, the P20 Pro is more or less the same as the Mate 10 Pro. That means there's the HiSilicon Kirin 970 chipset, along with 6GB RAM. Hardcore power users might lament that there's no Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 platform here, but with Samsung adopting Exynos for its Galaxy S9 in the UK, and things getting generally so powerful across the board, most users won't notice any difference.
That's the thing about the Kirin 970. It's got its buzzwords, like neural processing unit (NPU), which is meant to sound space-age and make so-called artificial intelligence (AI) operations run smoothly. We wouldn't call it AI just yet - and we've said the same about other handsets this year - but the P20 Pro certainly runs oh-so-smoothly.
That's the most important take away about this phone: it's fast, buttery smooth, apps load quick and, since we've started to use it, the EMUI 8.1 software hasn't glitched out as much as previous iterations.
Better still, the battery capacity is a whopping 4000mAh (where does it all squeeze in?), which puts it on par with the Mate 10. Only, in the P20 Pro it seems to last longer. It really does go on and on, almost irrelevant of which apps you throw its way.
On our second full day of use, for example, including lots of connectivity time and even gaming with high-power apps like South Park: Phone Destroyer, the phone hadn't even hit the half-way mark by bedtime. And 14 hours of use leaving 56 per cent remaining? That's good innings. Other days since we've hit around 40 per cent battery after a good 14 to 15 hours of use. So power users will be more than happy with this beast's longevity.
Performance is pretty stellar, as is the 128GB default storage. However, as there's no microSD card slot you're going to need that on-board capacity. It's an oddity that Huawei has removed this expandable functionality, as the phone is dual SIM, so we don't see why the second slot couldn't be designed to take mSD too, as with its earlier devices. Oh well.
A word on software
- Google Android Oreo 8.0 operating system with EMUI 8.1 re-skin
Now, in the past we've picked Huawei apart for its EMUI software - that's "Emotion User Interface" - as it's often been disruptive, full of constant alerts, pop-ups and unnecessary pre-installed apps. Not so with the P20 Pro, where the EMUI 8.1 re-skin over Android does very little to disrupt.
It does have some quirks, though: the swipe-up from lock screen reveals a row of quick-access tools, like a page ripped straight out of Apple's book, but which doesn't work at all well in this Android guise (and never has). There are other small oddities, such as Mail notifications not being available to delete, only archive or dismiss (Motorola does the same, in fairness, and we don't really care in either case - but some died-in-the-wool Android fans will).
What Huawei has been rather clever in addressing are some of its older disruptive features, such as power-intensive app prompts. Rather than remove the feature, it's available to use on an app-by-app basis, with deep dive controls that are genuinely useful. And it's not all on by default, so you won't need to spend hours tinkering with settings after first setting up the phone.
The software also adds some positive features: there's a dock-free PC experience, which functions straight out of the USB-C cable to any monitor; while a new split-screen proactive alert notification means you can side-by-side apps when prompted to make best use of the 18:9 screen ratio.
As mentioned above, battery life is exceptional, but can be improved upon further by using lower resolution settings, including a dynamically adjusting auto mode that will change resolution based on which app is in play. Some processing throttling can also be employed if you want a genuine two day battery experience and don't mind things running a little slower or choppier.
All in all, while EMUI used to put fear in our hearts circa 2015, it's now evolved to a stage that isn't going to be a bother for your average user.
A camera that's truly cutting edge
- First: 40MP RGB camera, 1/1.7in size, f/1.8 aperture, optical image stabilisation (OIS)
- Second: 20MP monochrome camera, f/1.6 aperture
- Third: 8MP 'telephoto' camera, f/2.4 aperture
- Phase detection and laser autofocus
- LED dual-tone flash
- Front camera: 24MP, f/2.0 aperture
Everything we've said so far is really a precursor to the camera. Well, cameras plural. It was always the visual sell for the P20 Pro, what with its "triple O" appearance and "See Mooore" promotion, thus it's a major reason people are going to consider buying this flagship.
Huawei has gone from dual to triple lenses in the P20 Pro, taking the principle of its previous cameras - with one dedicated RGB and one dedicated monochrome sensor - and throwing a third "tele" lens into the mix for zoom, while hugely upping the resolution stakes to 40-megapixels maximum too.
Huawei is now deep into its Leica endorsed partnership - which we've always felt has carried some marketing weight, but hasn't really delivered truly best-in-class images compared to other flagships. In the P20 Pro it's different; it's better. This triple-camera phone is mightily impressive in low-light, operates fast, can do all those fancy software-based Portrait mode background blurs just as badly as its competition, along with image stabilisation and that intelligent zoom.
Whereas we've sometimes felt past Huawei cameras have produced images that are too grainy or have lacked bite in low-light conditions, the P20 Pro's images are every bit the counter to that. Shooting in a darkened cinema? No problem. This camera phone's autofocus - which, in Pro mode, you can actively see working as square focus points dynamically move about on screen - is impressive in a multitude of lighting conditions. The image processing ensures quality results even from such dark conditions too.
The same extends to video. As we noted in our preview, the 960fps slow-motion (at 720p) matches the Samsung Galaxy S9, but the P20 Pro "can make this work in lower light conditions, whereas the Samsung S9 basically captures a noisy mush". Yep, the Samsung is good in low light - but the Huawei is that bit better.
It doesn't all have to be about low-light, though. With 19 auto-detected scene modes built-in (that's the AI at work, identifying people versus pets and food versus flowers, etc), high dynamic range (HDR) and other tricks Night mode for handheld long exposures, there's quality abound.
We're much prefer the P20 Pro's new camera app, too, which pushes all the main modes - including Pro for manual control - onto a single on-screen rotational wheel, avoiding the need to dig through screens to get the settings you want. There's a More section to house the lesser used modes, which feels like a better home for Document Scan, Watermark and so forth.
As for Portrait mode, which is becoming a common staple among most phones these days - and which blurs the background behind a subject to give the impression of a "pro" photo - we're still unconvinced. No company has got this fake bokeh effect to foolproof work every time yet, as depth maps are inaccurate when it comes to detail finery, such as complex hair edges, or even reflections confusing the algorithm as to whether they're in the foreground or background. We've shot some things and watched as a patch of foreground is reduced to a smudge, for example. Sure, Portrait mode is just as good on the Huawei as it is anything else, but we still think it's a gimmick that looks ok on a small screen and poor at a larger scale.
In short: Huawei finally has a class-leading camera on its hands, to put it in the same arena as the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Google Pixel 2 XL (and, if we're being generous, iPhone X). The only other thing we'd want it s a super-wide lens… but the P30 might throw down a quad lens solution, eh?
Huawei's product output has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs over the last couple of years. But those software lows in the P8 and screen issues in the P10 have been used as educational stepping stones. Sure, some may still struggle to get over the "Huawei" brand name and how to say it aloud, but if you're seeking a genuine flagship then you're looking right at one.
In the P20 Pro, Huawei has arguably produced the best phone of 2018. It looks great, lasts an age per charge, the camera is a top-ranking effort, and there's all the performance you could need.
Criticisms are few and far between: Face Unlock isn't a patch on Apple's solution, why there's no wireless charging in a glass design is an oddity (the Porsche Design RS version has it), there are minor software quirks that may irk the Android hardcore, and the notch may be divisive, but, well, that's about it.
It's a shame that a phone so great won't be distributed by carriers in the USA. Because savvy buyers would snap up this phone over a Google Pixel 2 XL or a Samsung Galaxy S9 and not regret it for one second.
Alternatives to consider
Samsung Galaxy S9+
The obvious mainstream Android alternative to the Huawei is also a stellar option. It's fast, it's all glass, it looks great and will be the immediate choice for many. We'd have said the same thing were it not for the P20 Pro. Maybe flip a coin?
Read the full article: Samsung Galaxy S9+ review
Google Pixel XL 2
The XL is at conflict with itself: it features a lacklustre screen, but one of the best cameras in a phone that you can buy. Thing is, we think the Huawei P20 Pro has at least matched it in the camera ranks. The other real reason to buy the Pixel is its pure Android software, for which it's always at the front of the updates line.
Read the full article: Google Pixel 2 XL review
Apple iPhone X
It's no Android, of course, but the Apple device is the pinnacle of the company's line-up, featuring many of the design traits that the Huawei riffs on. Thus if you're an iOS user it's not just the logical choice, it's a great choice - and one of the year's best phones.
Read the full article: Apple iPhone X review