Huawei released our favourite phone of 2018 in the P20 Pro. Which means its bigger-screen cousin, the Mate 20 Pro, has all eyes fixed in its general direction to see if it can do the seemingly impossible: be even better.
It's got the latest processor smarts, the largest battery capacity we've ever seen in any Huawei phone, a bunch of future-facing features - including in-screen fingerpirnt scanner - and a design that's immediately stunning (well, from the front anyway).
Having handled the Huawei Mate 20 Pro since its official London unveiling, we've rather quickly fallen for this top-spec flagship phone. In the same breath, however, we've also stumbled upon some software hiccups. Do such foibles hold the Mate 20 Pro back from being the best phone you could buy right now?
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 offerings; and there's the unmistakable presence of a screen notch (that black-out dip to the top of the display).
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. Yes, the notch is fairly large as these things go, but after a working week using the phone it's not something we've noticed in daily use.
As the display is an OLED panel it offers deep blacks, popping colours, and lots of brightness to counteract even bright sunlight (yes, we've had sun in the UK in late October!). 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 one downside in having a curved panel - just as we'd say of all other devices with such a design feature.
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 - but we're struggling to see anything but an induction cooker hob). We don't think this design choice is remotely 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. If there's a silver lining then that's it.
As we've mentioned, there's no physical fingerprint scanner to be seen anywhere. 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 work that well (the Vivo NEX S is another culprit). Praise where it's due though: the Mate 20 Pro's in-screen fingerprint scanner is the most responsive yet, to the point that it succeeds in replacing a physical one, thanks to a very detailed setup that requires a lot of fingerprint reads for increased accuracy.
At our initial briefing we queried Huawei if the in-screen scanner would have the same issues as its Porsche Design Mate RS equivalent, i.e. that it won't work for every possible eventuality. Although the company said this would be the case, it's not: we've happily signed into our AMEX UK app and assigned fingerprint login successfully, the same with Google Pay. Which is great news as it's the first time we've seen an in-screen fingerprint scanner that can be used just like a physical one.
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've 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. 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 though: think of wireless earphones and this feature - which is activated manually within the settings and remains active for three minutes before automatically deactivating - could be a great addition.
Wireless charging isn't the fastest way to juice the battery though. And as the Mate 20 Pro has the most capacious cell we've ever seen in a Huawei phone, 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. Sadly, however, we can't test it: our European review unit has a two-prong EU plug, not the three-prong UK plug.
On the performance front the Mate 20 Pro is the first device to feature Huawei's Kirin 980 processor. This is Huawei's competitor for Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845, 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.
Now, 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, whic 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).
In short: the Mate 20 Pro's battery life is utterly brilliant.
- EMUI 9.0 at launch (over Android 9.0)
The Mate 20 Pro also sees 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).
Now, Huawei might be right that this software helps aid the brilliant battery life. But it also comes with its share of hiccups, some of which we've found rather annoying.
The first is a sound problem. Typically the 20 Pro's stereo speakers are a step forward for Huawei (but not as good as, say, the Google Pixel), but the software introduces an occasional 'click' noise when the phone is in silent mode. Typically it occurs when a video tries to autoplay on screen, or when jumping between apps. It's the tiniest of sound, butswe find it rather irksome.
Secondly the software, while better than the EMUI 8.2 version we've seen in the Mate 20 Lite, isn't always 100 per cent perfect. WhatsApp notifications, for example, often show as blanks on the screen (the notification is there, but it's just white space until you open the app or orientate the phone into landscape). Again, a small thing, but something that's not an issue with Android Pie proper.
Next is the undoing of 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.
Which may go some way to explain why EMUI sometimes gets a hard time in the UK market. But despite us pointing out those little shortcomings above, we don't find the software to massively different to most Android experiences. In some instances it can be better, such as the ability to offer two forms of one app for dual SIM use (Facebook, WhatsApp, WeChat, and so forth).
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
The final - and major! - part of the Mate 20 Pro experience is its camera setup. Sure, that rear square arrangement isn't the greatest looking, and we do wish that Huawei had opted for the more iconic vertical camera arrangement, but it is what it is, and in terms of features the latest Mate is hard to beat.
Those three cameras aren't the same as found in the P20 Pro, though, despite all being co-engineered by Leica. The Mate ditches any 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 Mate 20 Pro's 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 sometimes 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 features like this that make the Mate 20 Pro truly special.
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 there's nothing that'll better this Huawei. Even low-light shots retain more detail than any competitor we've seen to date - although the Google Pixel 3 will certainly be gunning for that crown (that said, as we found with the P20 Pro vs Pixel 2 in our head-to-head test, the Huawei was the out-and-out winner).
Overall, the Mate 20 Pro camera is sensational. Superb quality, fast functionality and great features combine for what's the best in the business. 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 in any smartphone, superb battery longevity, and future-facing features such as an in-screen fingerprint scanner, the Mate 20 Pro asserts its position among 2018's top flagship phones.
That said, some software hiccups, that weird-looking camera panel on the rear, and overzealous artificial intelligence camera features are its nit-pick letdowns.
As we said of the P20 Pro: it's a shame that a phone this great won't be distributed by carriers in the USA (they're not allowed), because savvy buyers would snap up this phone over a Samsung Galaxy S9+ and know they'd have the better deal.
All in all, the Mate 20 Pro is the 2018 flagship friend you'll want to know. We've rather quickly fallen head-over-heels for this top-spec flagship.
Samsung Galaxy S9
Seen as the go-to Android flagship, the Mate 20 Pro asks all the right questions, offering a more enticing design, longer battery life and an even more impressive camera setup. The Samsung's more settled software is better, though.