Versatile three-camera system takes incredible photos • Excellent low-light mode • Can run two instances of the same app simultaneously • Gradient finish is beautiful • Generous storage and battery life
The Huawei P20 Pro has the best smartphone camera around, but the myriad options for using it might confuse some users. The phone is also beautiful and powerful, but it’s missing wireless charging and a headphone jack. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth the money.
In April 2016, Huawei launched a smartphone with a dual rear camera — the P9 — nearly half a year before Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus launched with a dual camera of its own. The fact that a Chinese smartphone maker is trying to out-Apple Apple wasn’t that surprising, but I didn’t expect the P9’s rear dual-camera system to be as good as it was.
Several flagship iterations later, Huawei now has the P20 Pro, a phone that absolutely destroys all other phones in terms of sheer photography firepower with its triple rear camera and a 24-megapixel selfie camera. The advantages aren’t there only on paper: In roughly ten days of testing, I came to believe that this is the most versatile and most powerful camera system in any smartphone today.
The rest of the phone is pretty great, too, but there are numerous details you’ll want to know about before actually buying one.
The P20 Pro is revolutionary for Huawei in another important way: It’s the first Huawei phone that’s not boring. Yes, on the front it’s just another Android with a notch, but the triple camera and the beautiful, gradient Twilight color of the phone’s glass-covered back make it the nicest Android I’ve held outside of Samsung’s curvy flagship phones.
It’s not just superficial beauty. The P20 Pro feels incredibly solid in the hand; it’s curvy and comfortable to hold and, to me, its 6.1-inch OLED screen is just the right size. The phone is water- and dust-resistant with an IP67 rating.
But there are several drawbacks to this design as well. There’s no headphone jack, and the phone is incredibly slippery and fingerprint-prone. Add to that a pretty sizable bump on the back that hosts two of the phone’s three cameras, and you’ll know that this is one of those phones where a case is an absolute must. I’d recommend a clear one, though, especially for the Twilight and Pink Gold variants which both have a beautiful gradient color finish.
On the front, you get a notch that’s far smaller than the one on the iPhone. Like it or not, most 2018 flagships (with the notable exception of Samsung phones) have a notch. Unfortunately, the screen doesn’t go all the way to the bottom; there’s a bezel down there that hosts the oval fingerprint scanner. The scanner is incredibly fast and works well (the phone has facial recognition as well, and it worked flawlessly for me), but I’d prefer to have it on the back as navigating your thumb that far down isn’t always easy.
Performance, screen, and battery life
The P20 Pro has Huawei’s 970 Kirin chipset, 6GB of RAM, a 4,000 mAh battery, and 128GB of storage. Huawei’s last flagship, the Mate 10 Pro, has exactly the same specs, and there’s nothing new to report here: The P20 Pro is blazing fast and its battery lasts a full day and a half, and that’s if you’re a demanding user like me.
There are a couple of noticeable differences, though. The P20 Pro supports the Dolby Atmos standard, and the audio coming out of its speakers sounds quite different — a little more detailed, and with a wider soundstage. Neither phone’s sound is quite as loud or as punchy as the iPhone X’s excellent stereo speakers, though.
The P20 Pro’s display is an OLED with a 2,240 x 1,080 pixel resolution. Compared to the iPhone X’s screen, it’s nearly as bright (the difference is truly minute), the contrast is nearly the same, and colors are a little bit colder. It also has all of Apple’s bells and whistles, only they have different names: Apple’s True Tone becomes Huawei’s Natural Tone, and Night Shift goes by the name Eye Comfort.
Despite the altered semantics, the P20 Pro doesn’t win on any count here, and the result so close to the iPhone X’s screen that you probably won’t be able to see any difference.
In terms of screen real estate, it’s important to note that Huawei’s fingerprint sensor doubles as a gesture-based navigation button. In fact, you can get away with not using the standard Android Home/Back/Recent buttons if you’re willing to learn a couple of new gestures (tap the button to go back, tap and hold to go to home screen, swipe the button left or right to browse through open apps). It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but you do get a little more screen real estate that way.
Typical Android software
The Huawei P20 Pro runs the latest version of Android, Oreo 8.1, coupled with the latest version of Huawei’s EMUI 8.1 skin. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to Huawei’s flavor of Android, which blends in bits of iOS, and I like many of its features, like knocking twice on the screen to take a screenshot.
There’s a setting to hide the notch at all times with a black bar.
Improvements compared to previous versions of Huawei’s EMUI are subtle but they’re there. Settings are now consolidated under a single screen, which is great given that so many Android phones (including older Huawei phones) tend to unnecessarily hide several settings. Plus you can run dual instances of the same app — useful if you have more than one Facebook account, for example. There’s also a setting to hide the notch at all times with a black bar, if you prefer (Android status icons remain to the left and right of it, though).
Some features, like knuckle gestures, I still find to be mostly useless. Also, the phone comes with a ton of Huawei-specific apps and services that you probably won’t use as they overlap Google’s services. The amount of crapware is not nearly as bad as I’ve seen on some other Android phones, though.
One thing that’s worth mentioning is Huawei’s face unlock feature, which works surprisingly well — on par with Face ID on the iPhone X — but not in very dark conditions.
Huawei’s P20 Pro is a nicely designed, powerful phone with a battery that lasts forever, but none of that would matter if it had a crappy camera. But, not only does this phone’s camera measure up with Samsung and Apple phones — it’s the best camera on a smartphone, period.
Huawei’s triple-camera system consists of a 40-megapixel RGB camera with an f/1.8 aperture, a 20-megapixel monochrome camera with an f/1.6 aperture, and an 8-megapixel telephoto camera with an f/2.4 aperture. It has better optical zoom than the iPhone X (3x vs. 2x) and it can take incredibly detailed photos, even in dark conditions (though not as dark as Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and its dual-aperture camera).
Of course, the camera can’t do all of those things at once. Huawei’s software combines the images from its three cameras to get results, so if you take a 40-megapixel photo, forget about zooming in.
This is why you’ll often get the best results by taking 10-megapixel photos, which is the default setting on the P20 Pro camera. Yes, that’s a lot less than the 40 megapixels you were promised, but when you do this, you get the 3x optical zoom and 5x hybrid zoom options. Furthermore, the camera will combine every four pixels from the main, 40-megapixel RGB sensor to get huge 2μm pixels, which boosts performance in low light. Finally, the 20-megapixel monochrome sensor will provide additional detail for a sharper and brighter image overall.
I was worried whether Huawei’s software will be able to manage all that, but the results are superb. The photos below were taken at dusk, and the P20 Pro still took a beautiful, sharp, detailed photo. The 40-megapixel photo is even sharper, but it’s darker and some detail is lost.
Here’s a detail from another photo compared with the detail from a similar photo taken with the iPhone X. The colors from the iPhone X shot are a bit more vivid and the photo looks more attractive from afar, but check out the loss of detail compared to the P20 Pro. Note that this particular photo is taken at default settings, so the 10-megapixel Huawei pic has a lower resolution than the iPhone X’s 12-megapixel photo.
There was still just enough light in the day to test the P20 Pro’s zoom. With the 3x optical zoom, the result is a darker but an amazingly detailed, sharp photo. The 5x zoom requires a steady hand and is a bit of a mixed bag; I mostly avoided it. In this particular case I’d get a better result by zooming into and cropping the 3x photo.
And then there’s the pure, 40-megapixel mode. You won’t be able to zoom in and it’s best used in perfect conditions, but boy, will you get some great images out of it.
Things get a bit complicated due to Huawei’s AI system, which automatically chooses the best settings based on what you point the camera at. It’ll recognize scenes like sky, greenery and food. But, more often than not, what the AI did to my photos felt like an Instagram filter. Check out the photo below: It appears attractive at first sight, but the colors are oversaturated and unrealistic, and details are lost as a result.
Thankfully, you can turn the AI off (either on a photo-by-photo basis or completely), which produces less flashy but overall better results.
Most of the time, the impressive night mode took stellar results.
When it comes to evening shots, the P20 Pro beats even its excellent predecessor, the Mate 10 Pro, on details and sharpness, but the iPhone X did win on some occasions. However, the P20 Pro has another trick up its sleeve: Night mode.
It’s basically a long exposure mode, with Huawei’s AI-based image stabilization making sure the photo stays sharp. On occasion it would produce a horrible photo full of odd lines and artifacts, so there’s definitely room for improvement there. But most of the time it did work, with stellar results.
Check out the photo below, compared to one taken seconds later with the Vivo V9’s 16-megapixel camera on auto mode.
Like any good smartphone, the P20 has an HDR mode, which takes three differently exposed pics in rapid succession and combines them to create the most realistic shot. Unlike many phones, though, the P20’s HDR mode cannot be turned on all the time; it’s a separate mode that you have to activate manually, and in that mode, you can’t take 40-megapixel photos (10 megapixels is the maximum) and the optical zoom is disabled.
Indoor shots were just as great as they were on the Mate 10 Pro — they’re a little too dreamy and soft for my liking, but the P20 Pro will muster a decent-lighted shot even in totally crappy conditions.
The selfie camera has 24 megapixels and an f/2.0 aperture, and with it you’ll easily take some incredibly detailed selfies, though there will always be some sort of softening going on, even when you dial the “beauty” slider to zero, as I have.
I’ve just touched the surface of what the Huawei P20 Pro’s camera can do. There’s also a panorama mode, a 3D panorama mode (which lets you create something akin to a 3D model, a time-lapse mode, a slow-motion mode that captures 960 frames per second (just like the Samsung Galaxy S9), and 4K video recording. There’s even a full HD recording mode with 4D predictive tracking, which autofocuses on moving objects using AI…the list goes on.
For true photo enthusiasts, though, the best feature will be the phone’s powerful Pro mode, which lets you manually set settings such as ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, white balance, and so on.
Not all is ideal. Selfie bokeh mode ranges from acceptable to quite dreadful. Night mode doesn’t always work. And the sheer number of options will intimidate some users — the iPhone X’s camera is definitely simpler to use. But in terms of power, features, and versatility, the P20 Pro currently has the best smartphone camera I’ve tested by a pretty decent margin.
The true contender
For so long, it’s been a tough call recommending a Huawei flagship. The company makes great phones, but they’re not cheap, and let’s face it, a lot of what Huawei does is just blatantly copy iPhone features.
With the P20 Pro, it truly feels like Huawei has finally stepped ahead of its competitors. The phone is beautifully designed, it has an incredibly versatile camera, it’s crazy powerful, and it comes with tons of features. The only things that are missing are the headphone jack and wireless charging… and perhaps a screen that goes all the way to the bottom of the phone (a valid criticism of a flagship in 2018).
So for the first time, the price of 799 pounds in the UK (the phone is not officially out in the U.S., though you can get it through eBay for about $883) does not seem too crazy. It’s still a ton of money to dish out for a phone, but it’s two hundred pounds less than the iPhone X and 70 pounds less than the Samsung Galaxy S9+ in the UK. And this time, for the money, you’ll get a phone that’s best on the market in more than one way.