(Pocket-lint) - Huawei released our favourite phone of 2018 in the P20 Pro. Which meant its bigger-screen cousin, the Mate 20 Pro, had all eyes fixed in its general direction when it launched in late 2018. Almost a year after release, and with the Mate 30 expected to arrive before the third quarter of 2019, is this top-spec flagship still worth a look?
Well, its feature set is still very current. The Mate 20 Pro has speedy processor smarts, one of the larger battery capacities we've seen in any Huawei phone (the P30 Pro goes one-up on this, though), a bunch of future-facing features - including in-screen fingerpirnt scanner - and a design that's immediately stunning... well, from the front anyway.
As many may be aware, however, there have been some US trade war issues that have caused people to baulk at the idea of Huawei phones, but as that political pantomime gets sorted out between the relevant parties, here's why the Mate 20 Pro will continue to live on.
Design & Display
- 6.39in OLED display with curved glass edges, 19.5:9 aspect ratio, 3120 x 1440 resolution, full notch
- Colours: Pink Gold, Midnight Blue, Emerald Green, Twilight, Black
- Glass body design, curved edges on every side
- No 3.5mm jack (USB-C headphones included)
- In-screen fingerprint scanner
At first glance and, well, it's all rather Samsung Galaxy S9+, isn't it? The expression goes 'imitation is the greatest form of flattery', but despite the similarities Huawei manages to hold its own distinctive design cues: you won't see a physical fingerprint scanner anywhere (more on that in a moment); both the finish and colour palette are far more exciting than Samsung's 2018 offerings; and there's the unmistakable presence of a screen notch (that black-out dip to the top of the display) - which became old hat for the Samsung Galaxy S10+ update.
Yes, the Huawei's notch is fairly large as these things go, especially given the punch-hole approach of the newer Samsung series and the dewdrop implementation in the P30 Pro, but after many weeks using this phone it's not something we've found a bother in daily use.
The Mate 20 Pro has a curved OLED screen, which has a subtle and symmetrical fold to every single edge of the device - both front and back - that makes it very comfortable to hold. It doesn't always make it the most practical to use though: the edges are less sensitive to touch, we've found, which can cause some missed presses.
The 6.39-inch panel is elongated too - it's taller than the S9+ and has additional resolution that caters for this - so there's a huge amount of display space across this 19.5:9 aspect ratio. It's not the super-long 21:9 of the Sony Xperia 1, thankfully.
As the display is an OLED panel it offers deep blacks, popping colours, and lots of brightness to counteract even bright sunlight. The curve, however, causes a sort-of 'shadow' to the edges, where the contrast falls off, which is most apparent when viewing bright or white pages. It's not a killer, but it's another downside in having a curved panel - just as we'd say of all other devices with such a design feature, including the OnePlus 7 Pro.
Flip the Mate 20 Pro around and its rear is one of its main selling points. In blue and green finishes there's a so-called 'Hyper Optical Pattern' design, where diagonal lines are etched into the screen - they're very subtle, however, so you'll need to run a fingernail over them to feel the texture. Our preference, however, is the Twilight finish (as pictured), which has a colour gradient from top to bottom and will guarantee to turn heads.
Sadly, however, the camera unit will turn heads for a whole other reason. The three lenses are arranged in a square-shaped oddity to the rear centre, supposedly inspired by a sports car (Richard Yu, Huawei CEO, said so on stage at the launch event in 2018 - but we're struggling to see anything but an induction cooker hob).
We don't think this design choice is that pretty and it's a real shame Huawei has ditched the almost iconic trio of lenses in vertical form, as per P20 Pro. That said, the Mate 20 Pro's design looks like less of a dog's dinner than the S9+ and its scatter of sensors. And based on the forthcoming iPhone 11 designs, we're in for an, err, 'treat' on that front (hint: it looks hideous). If there's a silver lining then that's it.
As we've mentioned, there's no physical fingerprint scanner to be seen anywhere on this Huawei. That's because, like the Porsche Design Huawei Mate RS that came before it, the Mate 20 Pro has opted for an in-screen fingerprint scanner. Which made us rather nervous at first because, frankly, none of these scanners had worked all that well. The Mate 20 Pro was the first steps to such scanners becoming useful, though, as it's responsive. We suspect the Mate 30 Pro will be even more advanced in this area.
If you don't want to use the fingerprint scanner then there's 3D Face Unlock. This is the company's most advanced version thanks to a series of sensors: proximity, dot projector, illuminator, IR camera and main 24MP camera. That's why the screen notch is so wide.
Performance & Battery Life
- Kirin 980 octa-core processor (2x 2.6GHz, 2x 1.92GHz, 4x 1.8GHz), 6GB RAM
- Qi wireless charging (bonus: charge other devices from the phone itself)
- 4200mAh battery capacity, SuperCharge fast-charging (at 40W)
With its glass design, the Mate 20 Pro finally opens the door for Qi wireless charging - something we had been waiting to see in a Huawei phone for some time. Shame there's no wireless charger in the box, though.
It comes with an additional benefit too: the ability to charge-up other Qi devices direct from the phone, in what's called Reverse Wireless Charging. We put an iPhone X back-to-back with the Mate 20 Pro and the iPhone was able to pull extra juice from the Huawei. That might not be its greatest use of this tech though: think of wireless earphones and this feature is a great addition (although not many earphones feature wireless charging themselves, even AirPods 2 don't necessarily feature the wireless charging case unless you pay more).
Wireless charging isn't the fastest way to juice the battery though. And as the Mate 20 Pro has a very capacious cell, at 4,200mAh, the speedier way to refill is via the USB-C cable. Because with SuperCharge fast-charging at 40W, the Mate 20 Pro can go from dead to 70 per cent full in 30 minutes. That kind of speed is only secondary to the Super VOOC charging (50W) of the Lamborghini Oppo Find X.
On the performance front the Mate 20 Pro is the first device to feature Huawei's Kirin 980 processor, which remains the current top-end solution through 2019 too (including in the P30 Pro). This is Huawei's competitor for Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845/855, the former focusing on a different division of cores - arranged in 'big, medium, little' to share the workload - and dual so-called 'NPU' (Neural Processing Units) to act as the phone's brain and take the AI (artificial intelligence) a step further, dividing the workload for different tasks. All of this is ultimately designed with efficiency in mind, in addition to the core power available.
We've used the Mate 20 Lite for some weeks, which operates on a different Kirin architecture, and didn't find it very good. By comparison the Mate 20 Pro is far superior, and having switched from Lite to Pro the day-to-day performance is light-years apart. Everything is just so fast and smooth: whether opening the Camera app, loading multiple browser tabs, or dipping in and out of emails.
There's also the addition of GPU Turbo, to unlock some additional graphics support for certain games (not everything is compatible, it's down to developers to get on board) like PUBG Mobile. We're bigger fans of South Park: Phone Destroyer, however, which has been running like a dream without the phone getting too hot.
And that's just in 'normal' mode. Within the battery settings there's the option to activate 'performance' mode, which the phone warns 'battery usage and device heat may increase'. That warning is true, with heat being much more noticeable from the back of the device, but it's not going to cook your fingers. It's good to have this 'booster' mode available on demand.
Overall the Mate 20 Pro delivers very strong day-to-day performance - whether that involves work, play or a combination of both - with great longevity from that battery. We've been seeing around 50 per cent use over 12 hours, so it's a genuine 24 hour battery (we forgot to charge it one night and still had nine per cent remaining one day in!). Even when hitting hours-long gaming sessions after a full day's work, we've seen the Mate 20 Pro arrive at bedtime with around 40 per cent battery remaining (one such example showed 38 per cent remaining almost 15 hours after waking up).
- EMUI 9.0 at launch (over Android 9.0)
The Mate 20 Pro was also the phone to see the advent of Huawei's EMUI 9.0 software, which appears over the top of Android Pie (9.0). The whole EMUI debate has often split the crowd - is it more fussy than standard Android? - but Huawei continues to plug it, citing improvements over Android's stock file system, performance longevity, unlocking GPU aspects, and introducing features not available elsewhere (many of which end up in stock Google later down the line in one form or other anyway).
However, EMUI does 'undo' some of Android Pie 9's features. Having the latest Google software sometimes feels a moot point in the Mate 20 Pro. Whereas Google's own software will give most-used app shortcuts in the recent apps view, the Huawei does not. There's also no in-app quick shortcuts present - say, 'new Chrome tab' or 'message Chris (in WhatsApp)' - even when the App Drawer setting is in use. And we've seen some bugs over its times, such as WhatsApp notifications showing as blanks on the screen (this has since been fixed).
Huawei has also been on a bit of a rollercoaster when it comes to its relationship with the USA. In mid 2019 the Chinese company was put on the USA's Entity List, effectively banning US clients from trading with the company - including Google, thus the Android software partnership was in threat. That blacklist has been updated and Android will be supported for updates in the future. But this threat has obviously affected people's mindset about the whole brand and software.
Still, EMUI does offer some positives of its own. The ability to offer two forms of one app for dual SIM use (Facebook, WhatsApp, WeChat, and so forth) is handy for business and personal use, for example.
There are other specific new features too, the main ones being: HiTouch, which is a bit like Google Lens, allowing for a double-thumb press-and-hold on the screen to generate a query which, based on the image captured, will be contextually answered; HiVision, found within the camera app or search bar, which uses the camera to auto recognise what's in front of it (but not very well at all - it seems like a beta at best) and access shopping via Amazon; and you can also use Desktop Mode via MirrorCast for a wireless desktop on an additional screen (the phone acts as a mouse/touchpad).
- Triple rear Leica cameras (all colour, no mono): 40MP wide-angle f/1.8, 20MP ultrawide-angle f/2.2, 8MP tele f/2.4
- Single 24MP front-facing camera (used with sensors for 3D Face Unlock)
- Super macro mode (2.5cm from lens focus)
- Master AI (artificial intelligence) modes
- 4K video capture
Perhaps the most important part of the Mate 20 Pro experience is its camera setup. Sure, that rear square arrangement isn't the greatest looking, but in terms of features the latest Mate is hard to beat. Sure, the P30 Pro offers more zoom, but this Mate arrangement is still solid.
Those three cameras aren't the same as found in the P20 Pro, though, despite all being co-engineered by Leica. The Mate was the first to ditch the monochrome sensor, citing the overall pixel count as more than enough to derive all the information required for any of its special features. We could argue that the loss of the monochrome is a big shift change that undermines many of the points in having it in the first place - but Huawei has still managed to perform some magic with the Mate 20 Pro's cameras.
Principal to the setup is three different focal lengths. There's a wide-angle lens, used as standard, which is 40-megapixels. There's a 20-megapixel ultra-wide lens too, which is 0.6x that of the wide lens, for ever broader views onto the world. And then there's an 8-megapixel tele lens for zoom without degradation (to 3x optically, up to 5x with digital, right through to 10x if you're willing to accept cropped images and some quality degradation).
Having that ultra-wide lens makes a difference for sure: not only for super-wide scenes, but for its super macro mode, which kicks in if the lens is up to 25mm from a close-up object - it can still focus, which is something few phone cameras can manage - for some potentially amazing results.
With the P20 Pro, Huawei pushed its Master AI (artificial intelligence) mode rather hard. This 'brain' auto-recognise scenes and adjust the settings accordingly. In the Mate 20 Pro it's back and has a wider capacity than ever before - but it still has some of the foibles present before, namely the overzealous processing in many modes (Greenery, Blue Sky) and its sometime inability to correctly distinguish a subject (when pointed at the floor during one day of testing, for example, it was adamant that 'Fish' was the correct setting for a slab of concrete, hmm). That said, when AI works well, it pumps the colours, levels the exposure and makes most scenes look great on the phone's screen.
With heaps of core power, the Mate 20 Pro also offers many shooting features. There's Portrait which offers software-adjusted lighting and aperture options for blurred background effect, plus a variety of filters (which can be used real-time in movie capture, including live background blur or colour selection). Best of them all, to our minds anyway, is Night mode - which takes multiple exposures (even with a handheld shot) and creates a hyper-real high dynamic range shot that no other maker can currently compete with. It's not as impressive as Google's Night Sight, nor as the SuperSensing sensor in the Huawei P30 Pro, but it's a great mode nonetheless.
Furthermore the quality is often outstanding. Shooting autumn leaves revealed their vein detail beyond what we can see by eye. Sure, the shots are technically over-sharpened, but for on-phone viewing it's spot on. Even low-light shots retain more detail than most competitors.
Overall, the Mate 20 Pro camera is sensational. Superb quality, fast functionality and great features combine for what was the best in the business at launch. It's not the best any more - just look at the P30 Pro, or the Pixel 3 - but that shows how aggressively competitive this market has now become. We'd like to see Huawei do more to mellow out its AI system (or at least learn quicker so it knows we don't want to use Greenery, well, ever), but otherwise there are few complaints from a camera system that gets so much right.
By combining the highest quality design, the best cameras at launch (still good by today's standards, just no longer the very best) and superb battery longevity, the Mate 20 Pro asserts its position among 2018's top flagship phones. It's still a great buy in 2019 too.
That said, some software hiccups, a little uncertainty in whether there will be future Android support for years to come, that weird-looking camera panel on the rear, and overzealous artificial intelligence camera features are its nit-pick letdowns.
All in all, the Mate 20 Pro was the 2018 flagship to buy. And even just before its Mate 30 Pro replacement arrives, this is still a flagship that's easy to fall head-over-heels for.
This review was first published in October 2018 and has been updated to reflect market context and software fixes.
Huawei P30 Pro
With a bigger battery capacity and quad camera (5x, standard, ultra-wide and depth) this phone takes the Mate 20 Pro's strong points and further improves upon them. It won't be as cheap to buy, though.