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.
However, since the more recent P30 Pro fell under the spotlight due to US-China relations causing some issues, some argue that the brand has been tainted. Whatever you make of that, it's hard to not see the P20 Pro for what it is: one of the most visually arresting phones we've seen in terms of design, while pushing hard on the camera front to pursue best-in-class quality - which, as we said in our original version of this review, it succeeded at, putting Huawei on the map (and, perhaps, making it a target in the process).
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. Is the generation-old device still one worth considering, or is the more recent P30 Pro, or another flagship competitor, the only route to consider?
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, which became the trend for smartphones. While we thought the trio of cameras – Huawei's calling card in the P20, but more on that later – might look like someone had superglued some extras on, in hand it looks great (and better than the 'hob cooker' four piece on the Mate 20 Pro or the bump-tastic arrangement on the P30 Pro). Our only real moan about the lenses all being to one side is that the phone wobbles about when it's sat flat on a tabletop.
The phone's 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. That Twilight option really is a winner.
One thing that isn't on the back is the fingerprint scanner. Huawei has crammed this discretely onto the front, towards the bottom, just like an Apple Home button. In 2019 that does feel kind-of old, as the P30 Pro has an under-the-screen scanner, while many others are now using either side-mounted (such as the Honor 20) or rear positioned.
Despite the P20 Pro scanner's small size, however, it's super responsive; we've had next to no failings to read our prints during use, which is great. Especially because Huawei's Face Unlock isn't that great - at least it's really not a patch on Apple's equivalent, in our experience.
As with most new high-end phones these days, 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).
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 now; 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 3 or Honor with the Magic 2: these phones have slider mechanisms so the camera can pop-up as and when wanted. However, having used these for a longer period of time since their launches, we don't find that design to be proficient. Perhaps a punch-hole camera notch would have been better?.
Notch largely 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 3. This makes for a large, all-encompassing panel, which actually feels almost 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 these days, too. We've seen 4K panels from Sony, but most settle on Full HD (1080p), roughly speaking, which we think is fine for the sake of battery life.
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 S10, 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 platform here, but with Samsung adopting Exynos for its Galaxy flagships in the UK, and things getting generally so powerful across the board, most users won't notice any difference between the lot. Sure, the P30 Pro is more powerful, and Qualcomm's even-more-recent Snapdragon 855 will give you a bit extra, but the older hardware still goes strong.
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 – but the P20 Pro certainly runs oh-so-smoothly.
Better still, the P20 Pro's battery capacity is a whopping 4000mAh, which seems to last for an age. 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. That's 14 hours of use leaving 56 per cent remaining. 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. Over time that will dwindle, as that's how batteries work, but having fired this phone back up a year later it's still delivering a good innings.
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. The Mate 20 Pro, on the other hand, introduced NM (think nanoSD).
A word on software
- Google Android Oreo 8.0 operating system with EMUI 8.1 re-skin at launch
- Update to Android Pie 9.0 OS with EMUI 9.0 re-skin from October 2018
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 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 excessive 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.
The software has also been updated to EMUI 9.0 since October 2018, for a few nips and tucks in layout and features. And the base Android system that it works on top of will remain in tact too - there was a wobbly moment where Google was commanded to cease operations with Huawei, but that's now reinstated. That means an Android Q update is promised at the very least for future security and feature updates.
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 (and on to quad in the more recent P30 Pro), taking the principle of its previous cameras – with one dedicated RGB and one dedicated monochrome sensor (something, oddly, that the Mate 20 Pro ditches for all-RGB) – 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 simply 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 that 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.
In some situations we'd say we prefer the P20 Pro's camera setup to the P30 Pro, because the latter has a 5x optical zoom, whereas the 3x optical zoom here can feel more natural. And we think the P20 Pro takes the sharpness crown, too.
As we noted in our preview, the 960fps slow-motion (at 720p) matches the Samsung Galaxy equivalent, but the P20 Pro "can make this work in lower-light conditions, whereas the Samsung S9 basically captures a noisy mush". If you're looking to buy a generation-old phone but aren't sure then, among the great options, we found the Huawei to beat its Google equivalent too (link below).
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 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. It does get busy, but once you know the option to use you'll naturally navigate towards it.
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 a bit 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: when the P20 came out, Huawei landed a class-leading camera. It was better than anything else. Since then, however, its launched the P30 Pro, which is even more versatile still. There is more competition though: the Google Pixel 3 offers impressive Night Sight for low-light shooting, while even Oppo is coming in strong, with its Reno 10x Zoom.
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 - from how to say it aloud, to how the brand is seen due to US-China relation issues - 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. If you want a larger phone then, sure, there's the P30 Pro, which adds some more bells and whistles, but as a generation-old device the P20 Pro still stands strong.
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 or a Samsung Galaxy and not regret it for one second.
This review was originally published in April 2018 and the copy has since been updated to reflect software and contextual updates.
Huawei P30 Pro
The more recent and larger phone brings quad cameras and longer battery life. It's certainly impressive, but if the 5x zoom here isn't of interest then the 3x on the P20 Pro and the smaller scale still make it a savvy purchase (for less cash, too).