(Pocket-lint) - Fewer companies have grown in size or popularity as quickly as Huawei over the past few years. But, perhaps more important than that, is how quickly the company has learned to refine and improve its phones from both a hardware and software perspective. Nowhere is that more clear than with the latest P20.
- Huawei P20 vs P20 Pro: What's the difference?
- Huawei P20 and P20 Pro specs, release date and price: Everything you need to know
Back in 2017 the P10 and P10 Plus were good, but not great phones. Now, the P20 not only correct the mistakes of such predecessors, it sits on such an evolved level that it can compete directly with both iPhone X and Galaxy S9. Yup, the Chinese company with the weird-to-say brand name has kicked 2018 off with a bang.
- Just 7.7mm thick and 165 grams
- Glass rear with plenty of unique colours
- Front-facing fingerprint scanner
Huawei has long been great at a trying out new and interesting things with design, while also taking the best hot trends in the market and incorporating them into a new device. Similar to HTC's eye-catching U11 finishes, Huawei this year covered the back of the P20 in a glossy and iridescent glass. And it looks great (save for the inevitable fingerprint smears).
Our review unit is in Pink Gold, which has a light, creamy pink base, but with a shimmering gold, blue and purple layer on top that changes depending on the angle. We've also seen the blue model which has a similarly attractive aesthetic. It feels nice in the hand too - much better than the weird rough texture we saw on the diamond-cut finishes of 2017.
The P20's rounded metal edges complement this finish well. They're polished aluminium, but have a slight pinkish goldish tint to them, and the attention to detail here is rather fantastic. The metal edges are sandwiched between two pieces of glass, but rounded in a way that gives a truly seamless look and feel.
As if the attention to detail wasn't obvious already, glancing at the bottom edges makes it even more apparent. The Type-C port and the mic/speaker grilles that flank it are perfectly in line and perfectly symmetrical (despite one being purely for show - as the actual speaker is only housed on the one side here).
The P20, much like the P20 Pro, is among the best looking and best feeling handset that Huawei has ever made. These two phones might even be the best looking and best feeling Android phones currently available. The P20 really is sublime.
Notch or not?
- Notch can be software hidden in settings
The notch. To some this black-out dip to the top of the screen is an evil that should never exist. To others it's just a minor inconvenience. To others still, it's a blessing. Whatever your opinion, it's here to stay as Android devices begin to adopt the design that the iPhone X kicked off.
Compared to Apple's notch, Huawei's implementation is fairly subtle in the P20. It takes up roughly a finger's width at the top of the phone, and is noticeably less intrusive than the large panel on the top of the iPhone X. Unlike Apple's, though, it doesn't house any high-tech depth sensors. It's simply a front-facing camera and a round earpiece.
While the technological advantage may belong to the iPhone, Huawei gets kudos for leaving useful amounts of space at the top of the display. It's allowed the company to push the status bar indicators up a level, leaving a little more room for displaying content on the main part of the screen.
For those who really, really don't like the notch, you can hide it by activating a black bar across the top of the screen, camouflaging it and making it harder to pick out.
There is the odd occasion when it actually gets in the way. With some third party apps - like Instagram - the notch covers the part of the display where you'd normally find the contrast button when posting a new image. As a result you'll need to make sure such apps aren't permitted to go Full Screen within the settings on an app-by-app basis.
In our opinion, having the display go right up to the edges at the top adds to the striking visual appeal of the P20. If there's one downside, it's that this screen isn't pushed to the edges on the bottom half. Instead, Huawei has added a slim bezel to house the fingerprint scanner/home button. It makes sense in this location as - similar to the P10 and P10 Plus - it can be used as the sole navigation button, via gestures, should you choose (tap to go back, tap and hold to go home, or swipe across it to launch the multitasking recent apps view).
- 5.8-inch IPS LCD display
- 2244 x 1080 resolution (428ppi)
It may only have a Full HD+ resolution spread over 5.8-inches diagonally, but don't let that fool you into thinking the P20 is low res. Its display is very sharp, clear and surprisingly vibrant for an LCD IPS panel.
Photographs and media are dynamic and eye-catching, while the overall look of the interface appears really clean. Perhaps most surprising is the high contrast levels. Blacks aren't quite as dark as an OLED based screen would be - like in the P20 Pro - but there's not much in it.
What this all means is that you'll enjoy media on here as much as you would on any of the top phones, except perhaps when watching Netflix. Like a few other devices from Huawei, Netflix won't stream or download in its highest available resolution. Similarly, Google Play Movies play at 480p.
If there's any other criticism, it's that the tone is does appear quite cool in general, but there's an easy fix for that: switching on Eye comfort mode, making the screen slightly warmer for an easy-to-read experience. You can also activate Natural Tone to automatically adjust the colour, similar to True Tone on newer iPhones and iPads.
- Google Android Oreo 8.0 operating system with EMUI 8.1 re-skin
With its latest iteration of EMUI (Huawei's own Android re-skin) sitting on top of Google Android Oreo operating system, Huwei has largely moved away from the obtrusive and often frustrating software of previous years. Yes, you can still download and apply one of thousands of gaudy, terrible themes if you want, and it still has a few pre-installed apps we'd rather weren't there, but on the whole it feels cleaner and more streamlined.
One of the joys of EMUI 8.1 is the ability to make it work the way you want. If you'd like a new theme or new look, you can download one of hundreds. If you'd rather have an app drawer rather than an iPhone-like sea of app icons and folders on your homescreen, you can. Similarly, you can change the animation when you swipe through home screens.
Some elements of frustration remain, like the way you can't interact with the notification cards on the lock screen like you would in stock Android, or how some settings seem buried within the wrong category. But these frustrations are minor. The former becomes a non-issue since the Face Unlock feature means you rarely see your lock screen for more than a fraction of a second at a time. The latter is mostly solved by the permanent search bar on top of the settings menu, which is very handy.
On the whole the, the default interface seems nowhere near as far removed from stock Android as older versions, which is a very good thing. EMUI 8.1 is clean, largely fuss-free, and even has its own positive features - such as PC mode (without the need for an additional hub), knuckle gestures, screen record and individual app notification alert control, as examples.
Speed and longevity
- Kirin 970 Neural Network Processing Unit, 4GB RAM
- 128GB storage, no microSD (dual SIM only)
- 3,400mAh battery and USB-C fast charging
With the P20 being smaller than the P20 Pro, it also comes with a smaller battery capacity, which in turn means you won't get the same really long battery life of the P20 Pro. Capacity-wise, it's some 600mAh short of the 4,000mAh offered by its bigger brother.
That's not to say it won't get you through a day though. With what we'd consider regular use, we got to around 11pm with comfortably over 30 per cent still left in the tank. This was with a couple of phone calls, a spot of gaming, video watching and general social media. It was far more comfortable getting through the day than what we experienced with the Samsung Galaxy S9.
What's more, thanks to Huawei's own fast-charging technology, there's the backup for quick top-ups. Indeed, just 30 minutes at the plug is enough to get you from zero to 50 per cent.
It's just a shame in this newly reinvigorated market of wireless-charging phones that Huawei hasn't added that functionality to the P20. Especially as the phone has a glass back. But it seems only the Porsche Design Huawei Mate RS is currently destined for that accolade.
In addition to the battery life, Huawei has also kitted out the P20 with its most powerful processor yet: the Kirin 970. Unlike the Pro model, it's paired with 4GB RAM, rather than 6GB - but that's more than enough for an Android smartphone. It's certainly more than capable of keeping up with even the most intense gaming titles. Playing Injustice 2 was as smooth an experience as anything we've played the mobile game on in the past. This speed is matched in other areas too, so regardless of which apps you're switching between or what you're interacting with, the phone keeps up.
Underpinning all of this performance is more than just a collection of components. Huawei has developed what it calls "the power of AI (artificial intelligence)", essentially using machine learning to keep the phone running fast for months, even years, after you first get one. This AI power is also what's behind the impressive battery life. And the automatic scene-recognition in the Camera app.
- Dual Leica camera
- Big Pixel 12MP f/1.8 + 20MP monochrome
- 2x hybrid zoom
- 24MP front camera
Huawei hyped up its camera big time in the run up to the P20 launch. While the "See Mooore" slogan clearly referred to the Leica triple-lens system on the P20 Pro, the P20 has some camera chops of its own.
Like the Pro model, the P20 utilises Huawei's AI-powered recognition technology. This means in auto mode it detects what's in the photograph and adapts its shooting settings to match. It can tell whether it's looking at flowers, greenery, food, a person, a dog and so forth. While this is undoubtedly smart, the execution does need a little work.
With greenery for example, we found it boosted contrast and saturation so high, it made lush green leaves look unnatural. Similarly, with people, it goes into Portrait mode, attempting to separate the subject from the background using software-derived bokeh and - as with most portrait modes in most phones - it often gets elements confused, blurring out detailed parts at the wrong depth levels.
There is a manual mode along with the usual selection of shooting modes, but the one really standout feature for us is Night Mode. Typically, when shooting long exposures at night, you need a tripod. Even the slightest amount of movement can result in a blurry streaky mess. However, with Night Mode, Huawei has somehow made it possible to shoot a 4-5 second multiple-exposure without blurring from a completely handheld position. Use Night Mode in the daytime and it delivers grand HDR-like results.
On the whole, the P20's images in good daylight are sharp, clear and with nice natural colours. What's more, you can switch the AI mode off if you want to and just use its automatic mode without it trying to understand and adjust to its subject. Or you can deactivate the current AI selection by hitting the "x" on, say Greenery - and once you've done so for a specific mode on reapeat, the phone will learn and query whether it should remove such a setting in the future.
In low light, without using Night Mode, automatic mode tends to leave the P20's images a little blurry and noisy. That's where the camera arrangement of the P20 Pro excels to the next level.
With Huawei's somewhat inconsistent recent history, we went into this review expecting to find at least one major annoyance with the Huawei P20, but were pleasantly surprised by its pursuit of perfection.
No phone is perfect, though, and the P20 could have better camera results - especially given the P20 Pro's hugely impressive camera setup - and the addition of wireless charging and weather-sealing wouldn't go amiss.
For the first time in the annual phone war, Huawei has succeeded in creating a genuine alternative to the Samsung Galaxy S9. The P20 is refined, polished and attractive. There are almost too many superlatives to describe this mighty impressive phone.
Alternatives to consider
Samsung Galaxy S9
While it's not perfect, the Galaxy S9 is a fantastic device. It's got a brilliant display, great camera, excellent performance all-round, all wrapped into a body that's easily one of the most elegant ever released. Its stereo sound makes such a difference to media consumption too.
Read the full article: Galaxy S9 review
Apple's £1,000 smartphone is as impressive as it is expensive. It could be argued that it's the inspiration behind many of today's newest Android phones, the P20 included. Where Apple's differs though is that it's built from stainless steel and has a depth sensor for a far more secure facial recognition system.
Read the full article: Apple iPhone X review
Huawei P20 Pro
The P20 is great, but the Pro is even better. It's bigger, has better battery life, a more impressive camera system, and is water- and dust-resistant. It's a true flagship powerhouse by any metric.
Read the full article: Huawei P20 Pro review