What does Huawei have to do to be taken seriously in the smartphone race? First it was build quality, then it was raw hardware, this year Huawei is tackling the camera, and boy, they delivered.
Disclaimer: this review was conducted after 2 weeks of using the Huawei P20 Pro as my primary device. The Huawei P20 Pro I have is a European model CLT-L29, used on the British carrier Three UK in the Southeast of the UK. The P20 Pro received no software OTAs during my testing.
- Insanely Good camera
- Gorgeous Screen
- Impressive Battery
- Stellar Performance.
- Android 8.1 out of the box
- 6.1" Display is large
- Some will not like the notch
- EMUI is still not for everyone
The Huawei P20 Pro is the epitome of what Huawei can create, it’s an astonishingly well-crafted device, with impeccable internals and a top notch (heh) camera, but is it enough to sway people from the Galaxy S9 or iPhone X? Read on to find out.
Feeds and Speeds
- 6.1” 2240×1080 18.7:9 OLED Display
- Octa-core Kiring 970 Soc With NPU
- 4x Cortex A53 @ 1.8Ghz
- 4x Cortex A73 @ 2.4Ghz
- ARM Mali G72 MP12 GPU
- 6GB of LPDDR4 RAM
- 128GB of UFS2.1 internal storage
- Triple Leica Camera setup
- 40mp RGB sensor with F1.6 aperture w/OIS
- 20mp Monochrome sensor with F1.6 Aperture w/OIS
- 8mp RGB Telephoto camera with F2.4 Aperture w/OIS
- Colour Temperature sensor
- Laser autofocus system
- Dual Tone LED Flash
- 24mp front facing autofocus camera with F2.0 Aperture
- 4000mAh Lithium-Ion Battery
- Huawei Supercharge capable 4.5v/5a
- Android 8.1 With EMUI 8.1.
For a more in-depth look at the specifications that the Huawei P20 Pro holds, head on over to the GSMArena site.
Where do I start with the hardware of the Huawei P20 Pro? It’s incredibly well designed and for the most part, you can see the amount of care that went into producing it. The 7000 series aluminium chassis is strong and far denser than I expected it to be. Weighing in at a pretty hefty 180g, the P20 Pro commands your attention, and with some of the stunning colours the device is available in, such as the Twilight colour shifting back, it deserves it.
Up front, it’s hard to talk about the P20 Po without talking about the notch in the display. Whether you love them or hate them, for this year at least, they appear to be here to stay. The 6.1” OLED display of the P20 Pro is, for the most part, bordered by small bezels until you get to the chin, wherein lies one of my big problems with the P20 Pro, the fingerprint scanner. Whilst it is known that I am not a fan of front mounted fingerprint scanners, the one on the P20 Pro seems to bug me even more due to its extreme placement. The fingerprint scanner is wedged into this miniature sliver under the screen, and is therefore very small. The problem is how far down it is on such a tall phone. It’s partially on the curved edge, and there isn’t really anything under it. Most people who like front scanners state that it is where their thumb resides, but the problem with that on the P20 Pro is that your thumb naturally resides a little higher, roughly where the on-screen home button is. This is due to the weight distribution of the phone, paired with the slippery glass. I felt like I would drop the P20 Pro when using the fingerprint scanner, luckily, I didn’t have to.
Like the infamous iPhone X with its notch, Huawei’s phones support face scanning, and honestly, it works really well. Partly due to it being a good sensor with the lens, the other due to its sheer resolution. 24 megapixels is a lot of detail and information to capture, and even though the P20 Pro is “only” using the front facing camera, I was unable to trick it with a full-sized printed photo of my face (on glossy photo paper or standard A4 paper) and with a selfie taken on the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, I was unable to trick the system 9 out of 10 times. The face unlock paired with “lift to wake” means that the P20 Pro was already unlocked by the time I had paid attention to it. Even early on, when I was not sure how good the face scanning was, it had unlocked before I was able to relocate my thumb to the scanner; this is something I can bet behind.
The P20 Pro’s screen has curved corners as well as curved glass, and I absolutely love it, it’s something that looks cleaner and more refined, and is something I wished my Mate 10 Pro had. It’s a small detail, but one that I notice and love. Back to that notch, does it annoy me? Honestly, no. The Notch is a crutch, I will freely admit that, until we are able to hide the camera beneath the screen, or hide it in little pockets in the frame (Check out Vivo’s concept Apex phone) we have to put the camera somewhere. Ambient light sensors can be hidden beneath OLED displays. Traditional proximity sensors can too, to a degree, but we’ve seen other companies replace those with ultrasonic proximity sensors, once again, can go under the screen. For the earpiece, we can go crazy and turn the entire screen and frame into a piezoelectric speaker, but the easier option is to do what Essential and Xiaomi did, put it in the gap between the screen and the frame. The one thing we can’t currently hide is the camera, and unless I’m looking for it, I forget it’s there.
Unintentionally, I use a mostly black background (shout out to Justin Maller for some awesome backgrounds) and turned on the dark system theme to prolong the life of the OLED screen, and so in the system apps It’s nearly impossible to see even when I’m looking for it, and in some apps, which have no optimisation for Android’s custom status bars, they just overlay a black bar, such as Amazon’s shopping app. It’s remarkable at how little of an issue it’s been.
On the left-hand side we have the SIM card tray, which on my unit houses support for 2 NanoSIMs, which also support dual 4G with VoLTE, which is neat. Flipping to the right we have the Volume rocker and the power button. Nice, tactile buttons with little to no rattle, a niche chamfer and, on the power button specifically, a nice little red accent, just in case you needed help knowing which button was which. Up top has the IR blaster (no one tell Nilay) and the secondary noise-cancelling microphone, meanwhile the bottom has the USB-C port which happens to support USB 3.1 Gen1 (5gbps) as well as USB- Alt modes for DisplayPort, meaning you can use a USB-C hub with an HDMI port in it to output to a TV or monitor, something I’m doing right now to write this review. Yes, I’m reviewing the P20 Pro, on the P20 Pro! Either side of the USB-C port is a speaker grille, only one of which is a speaker though (it’s the right one) whereas the other hides the microphone. That does mean that the P20 Pro has no headphone jack though, just like the Mate 10 Pro, which is less of an issue to me as I’ve almost exclusively switched to Bluetooth earbuds, but Huawei do include a cheap pair of USB-C earbuds, as well as a 3.5mm dongle, though if you want a decent pair of USB-C headphones, check out these Xiaomi ones.
Having a quick look at the rest of the chassis, on the left-hand side we have the SIM card tray, which on my unit houses support for 2 NanoSIMs, which also support dual 4G with VoLTE, which is neat. Flipping to the right we have the Volume rocker and the power button. Nice, tactile buttons with little to no rattle, a niche chamfer and, on the power button specifically, a nice little red accent, just in case you needed help knowing which button was which. Up top has the IR blaster (no one tell Nilay) and the secondary noise-cancelling microphone, meanwhile the bottom has the USB-C port which happens to support USB 3.1 Gen1 (5gbps) as well as USB- Alt modes for DisplayPort, meaning you can use a USB-C hub with an HDMI port in it to output to a TV or monitor, something I’m doing right now to write this review. Yes, I’m reviewing the P20 Pro, on the P20 Pro! Either side of the USB-C port is a speaker grille, only one of which is a speaker though (it’s the right one) whereas the other hides the microphone. That does mean that the P20 Pro has no headphone jack though, just like the Mate 10 Pro, which is less of an issue to me as I’ve almost exclusively switched to Bluetooth earbuds, but Huawei do include a cheap pair of USB-C earbuds, as well as a 3.5mm dongle, though if you want a decent pair of USB-C headphones, check out these Xiaomi ones.
Lastly, one of my favourite parts of the P20 Pro, and that’s the rear. The sleek slender device has a relatively featureless rear, until you look to the top left, where the 3 camera lenses reside. The top camera lens is the 40mp RGB lens, with the 8mp Telephoto beneath it, and the 20mp Monochrome sensor resides on its own. When speaking about this at the launch, Huawei said they positioned it like this to invoke the feel of a camera and so you’d be more likely to hold the device in landscape, I think this works well, but if they really wanted to invoke a camera, they should have included a camera button, but I think that request fell on deaf ears.
The P20 Pro comes in 4 pretty beautiful colourways. I have the Midnight Black mode, which in the light almost has a graphite/dark chrome look to it. There is also the stunning Blue model which really reminds me of the Honor 8, in the best way possible. Then there is Pink Gold which, as it sounds is a colour shifting coating that shifts from pink to gold, but does it all with a pearlescent sheen to it, if that’s your thing, you’ll absolutely love Pink Gold. Lastly, my favourite is Twilight. Twilight is a purple-y, green-y, blue-y colour shifting pattern, reminiscent of seeing a petrol droplet in a small puddle of water, Twilight is one gorgeous colour.
Software has never been a strong suit for Huawei, there is no denying that. But thankfully, EMUI 8.1 is a far world away from what we were introduced to on the P6 all those years ago. EMUI 8.1 is based on Oreo 8.1, meaning that on top of important changes like Mandatory project Treble support (for faster updates) and access to the machine learning APIs in Android (such that the NPU is more useful) you also get something important.
The correct burger Emoji.
In all seriousness though, EMUI really has come leaps and bounds in a short amount of time. Whilst It still won’t be the skin of choice for people who like things to be as close as possible to “Google’s Android” which, at this point isn’t really all that plausible. One thing that Huawei has been trying to do over the years is making things more cohesive and less broken overall, and things are looking up with 8.1.
Huawei is still a little too aggressive with its battery warning messages, and it’s scaremongering pop ups when you try and change your default applications don’t help things, but if you can look past those things (though, it should be noted that you shouldn’t have to) Huawei’s take on Android is just as customisable as it gets. You don’t like the Huawei Launcher? Change it, whether it be to Action Launcher like me, or the Microsoft Launcher. Don’t like Google Assistant? Then change her, you can disable the Google app and set the default assistant as Alexa from Amazon or Cortana from Microsoft. If you are a Windows Phone expat you could buy this and replace all the Google-y bits with Microsoft’s versions and all without breaking a sweat.
But if that isn’t enough for you, and I know it isn’t for some of you, that’s where the second bit comes in. The P20 Pro ships with android Oreo out of the box, one of the mandatory parts of Android Oreo, that is voluntary for devices upgrading to Oreo, is Project Treble. Project Treble detaches the core parts of Android and the end-user parts of Android, meaning you can update one without changing and messing up some of the other parts. A Side effect of Treble is that you can flash a stock, AOSP image over your current one, and most of the “hard stuff” like radios, cameras etc, all still work! You still have to unlock your bootloader and flash a custom recovery, which of course means you will void your warranty, but we are edging closer and closer to the day where you can buy a phone from Samsung, Huawei, LEG etc. and they can provide you a signed package for you to flash on their recovery that gives you stock android, and that is awesome!
Whilst I look forward to that future, I’m honestly not too fussed about it, as the Huawei P20 Pro works so well out of the box. My usage works fine, but I happen to know Craig here at MobileTechTalk was still having issues with EMUI 8.0 on the Honor view 10, so It still depends more on your individual usage than other vendor customisations. Huawei’s big schtick this year is that EMUI will use the NPU and examine your usage of the phone to alter things to even better increase the battery and performance, which I don’t think I’m seeing yet, but it might just be working that well that I haven’t noticed.
Huawei is once again using the top tier chip from Huawei Subsidiary HiSilicon, the Kirin 970. The Kirin 970 is a behemoth of a chip, utilising 4 of ARM’s Cortex A73 high-performance cores, as well as 4 of their high-efficiency A53 cores and the great Mali G72 second gen Bitfrost GPU.
I have very little to say here on performance that hasn’t already been said in my Mate 10 Pro review 5 months ago, it’s a stellar chip, made on a proven 10nm FinFET process from TSMC, with great performance, great efficiency, incredibly Radio prowess and more. Huawei’s performance increases from the Mate 10 Pro to the P20 Pro come in the form of minor revisions in the cores themselves to make fabrication easier/ more consistent, and to optimisations in the software itself, something that happens all the time in SoC design and Huawei is no different.
This section of the review is mostly quite boring due to the fact of how normal and fast everything was, there were no slowdowns, no chugs, nothing, the P20 Pro just did everything I asked, and did it without hassle, everything just worked, and that’s great.
For those of you that really care, I’ll post some screenshots of benchmark applications, but whatever the numbers say, know that the everyday usage is stellar.
As I said at the beginning, Huawei’s been trying to break Smartphone cameras since the Huawei P9 2 years ago, and each generation they get better and better, but they were never quite top of the pack, this year though, that might be over. The triple Camera setup from Huawei and Leica this year is really something to behold.
It isn’t just the sheer number of cameras on the phone either, as we’ve seen plenty of manufacturers like Motorola, Essential etc. just shove another camera on the back and call it a day, that’s not even talking about the plethora of inexpensive Asian manufacturers that add a second camera for “depth information” (Something Huawei has also done in the past). But with the P20 Pro, Huawei went all in. It sourced an insane, 40mp main camera sensor. It also happens to be a sensor that is 125% larger than that of the Galaxy S9, and a whopping 170% larger than that of the iPhone X. The downside of having 40mp even in this monstrous sensor? Each pixel is smaller, 1 micron pixel to be precise, but that is where another one of Huawei’s tricks comes into play, Pixel Fusion. Pixel fusion is a fancy branding name for pixel binning, or, taking a certain number of pixels and using software to combine them. In this case, taking 4 pixels and telling them they’re a single pixel with a large 2 micron pixel size, now that makes the 40mp sensor a 10mp sensor with 2 micron pixels, which are large, meaning that in low light, you can go into 10mp mode and get some stupidly good shots. The best part? The phone is smart enough to know when to change.
Next, we have the 20mp Monochrome sensor. This secondary sensor has been a staple of Huawei’s Leica cameras, and there is a reason, one of the things Leica is known for is stunning, sharp, monochrome photos, and whilst the P20 Pro isn’t going to outclass something like the Leica M Monochrom, but with the Leica processing on board, the Monochrome shots on the P20 Pro do look absolutely stunning, and far better than just throwing a black and white filter on a colour photo. Both of these Cameras also have ridiculously fast f1.6 lenses which allow for a pretty shallow depth of field naturally but also allow you to take photos of fast moving objects with less blurring, neat.
Lastly, we have the new addition this year, the 8mp f2.4 telephoto lens. Now, this doesn’t sound all that impressive when you put it in the same sentence as 40mp and 20mp black and white cameras, but Huawei has put some serious work into this. Whereas the Mate 10 Pro used the difference in resolution between the RGB and Monochrome sensor to do its 2x hybrid zoom, on the P20 Pro, the 8mp camera is optically zoomed 3x in advance of the 40mp sensor, and then the P20 Pro uses that interpolation trick between the 3x 8mp and raw 40mp image to do hybrid Zoom. what’s even more impressive is that on top of all that, it’ll still do a 10x digital zoom and it still doesn’t look like crap
If it wasn’t obvious, I’m seriously impressed with the camera on the P20 Pro, and have put together a small set of galleries below of standard, monochrome, and zoom comparisons.
Now for the Monochrome Shots.
Lastly, I did some comparison shots of the zoom capability of the P20 Pro, the layout is 1x, 3x (optical zoom), 5x (Hybrid Zoom)
I also have an open Gallery of photos from multiple P20 Pro uses, created by Jon Morris, and with photos by multiple people, here.
Moving on to the front facing camera, it’s pretty damn great, but not for the reason you’d think. The sheer resolution of a 24mp front facing camera is impressive, but the thing I love the most? The autofocus capability. Most front facing cameras are fixed focus for roughly a foot or so away from the device, and that’s fine for most scenarios, but when it isn’t, it’s really annoying, and since we adopted autofocus on our main cameras, it just seemed to make sense that we’d make the jump with our front cameras.
If I had any gripes with the front facing camera, it would be with the fact that it likes to overexposed a little, compared to other Huawei devices even, such as the Mate 10 Pro. This is annoying, but not a death knell, as this kind of tweaking is done for most smartphones, and with how well Huawei have tuned the rear camera, I don’t see why they wouldn’t put the same amount of care into the front camera.
Lastly, Video. This is one area where Huawei can still improve. Whilst I am happy they included the H.265 codec for greater efficiency, as well as the older and less efficient H.264 codec for compatibility, and tells you that. In fact it actually uses H.264 by default for the widest compatibility, though a simple toggle takes you to H.265 town.
One thing Huawei added this year is 960fps 720p super slow-mo. Yes, this isn’t new. Sony added it last year, and just a few months ago, Samsung Added it to the Galaxy S9 series. It’s okay, and just like those, it requires ample lighting, it also requires you to plan your shot. It’s a “one and done” type deal, not quite as simple as older slow-motion video and certainly not as “point and shoot” of normal video.
The fact of the matter is, Huawei made a stellar camera, with very few things to hold it back, and the things that do, are minor and can be addressed via a software OTA, and I’m excited to shoot with this in the future.
If you’ve been paying attention to the rest of the review, you can probably guess how this section will go. Huawei threw a 4000mAh Lithium-Ion Polymer battery in the P20 Pro, a monstrous battery that is larger than their competition from all sides. But we’ve seen in the past that having a huge battery doesn’t mean great battery life.
Huawei’s choice of OLED panel is good as it uses an efficient emissive material, meaning that under good conditions for OLED, it consumes little power. This also ties in with the custom HiSilicon Kirin 970 chipset and the power optimisations in the EMUI skin. Huawei is able to grind the most juice out of this battery pack as it controls as much as it does, and it shows.
I was easily able to get 2 days of use out of the P20 Pro, and the only day I wasn’t able to was my first day, where it was still installing all of my applications, where i was roaming, where I was taking a load of photos and still playing with it for the newness, literally every other charge from then on has lasted me 2 days, and I can do nothing but commend Huawei for this. The only phone to come close to this is the BlackBerry KEYone, which uses a much lower power chip and a smaller IPS display. So kudos Huawei, Kudos.
For those that really care, here is the battery benchmark inside of Geekbench results.
Huawei also has it’s insanely good Supercharge standard, which is 4.5v at 5a, and man, that really does make a difference, in half an hour you can get nearly 60% of your battery back! And as most of the smarts are removed from the device and incorporated into the charger itself, the phone doesn’t even get warm! Of course, this does require a special cable and plug, but unlike Apple, Huawei includes this in the box, a nice touch.
When thinking of miscellaneous things to add to this review, I could only think of two, one of which is to do with the EMUI desktop functionality, the other is to do with the USB-C port.
I’ll talk about the quicker one first, the USB-C port. It’s kinda sharp. If you balance your phone on your pinky and use your thumb to interact with your thumb and rest the phone on the other fingers, which seems to be a pretty common way of using a device, the corners of the USB-C port aren’t chamfered and are actually quite sharp and it became quite irritable.
Next, is EMUI Desktop, which I love. As I said, I’ve written the vast majority of this review on the P20 Pro using the Google Docs and WordPress apps, It’s made easier with direct access to the gallery for photos etc. Huawei’s desktop doesn’t make sense for everyone, but on light usage days, plugging the P20 Pro into my USB-C hub on my testing monitor and using that instead of powering up my full desktop is something that makes sense. I spend most of my time in chrome, Youtube, Slack and Twitter, all of which I’m able to do, and do quite well on EMUI desktop, I also seamlessly get my notifications, and If I choose to, I can keep my phone charged as well.
Well, here we are, at the end of the road. Should you buy it? That’s the question I ask at the end of every review, and if you even remotely care about battery, build quality, or especially the camera, it is an unequivocal yes. Huawei’s R&D budget grew this last year, and it’s clear to see where they funnelled it into.
Though, if you’re buying off of contract, it’s kind of pricey, from Carphone Warehouse in the UK at £799. You get a lot of phone for that price, but for some people that is a little too much. If you want to get a strikingly good phone with a still decent camera, the Mate 10 Pro can be had for £529, or the bog standard Huawei P20 for £599, you get a still incredible battery and performance, with a pretty damn great 5.84” IPS display, so you have options.
If you have the money, the P20 Pro is an incredible device that I would recommend over and over again, and one that I imagine can only get better and better over time, which for a Huawei device, is refreshing.