Huawei P20 Pro review: the new benchmark in mobile photography
Huawei Kirin 970 CPU octa-core + micro core i7
(4 x Cortex A73 2.36 GHz + 4 x Cortex A53 1.8 GHz)
(1080 x 2240 pixels (FHD+), 408 PPI)
128GB ROM (no expansion)
Rear camera: Tri-lens camera
- 40 MP (RGB, f/1.8 aperture) + 20 MP (Monochrome, f/1.6 aperture) + 8 MP (Telephoto, f/2.4 aperture, stabilized)
- 4 autofocus modes (laser focus, deep focus, phase focus, contrast focus)
- AIS (AI Image Stabilization)
Front camera: Single-lens camera
- 24 MP, f/2.0 aperture, supports fixed focal length
March 27, 2018
Aluminum and glass
Android 8.1 Oreo-based EMUI 8.1
This is our full Huawei P20 Pro review; we have spent two weeks with the phone and used it across France, Hungary, and Romania.
The Huawei P10 of early 2017 was (still is) a super capable phone that was highly regarded among our editors here at Pocketnow. The Huawei Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro came along late last year to convince us that the company is meaning serious business. We all expected the Huawei P20 and P20 Pro to be some sort of point-iteration, and we’re glad we were wrong!
We had a hunch this might be something big the moment the company hinted towards the number 20, and not 11. 11 would have made more sense in terms of iteration from both the P10 and Mate 10. With the P20, Huawei has created a completely different animal. A real predator if you will.
The family includes a normal version, the Huawei P20, as well as a Lite and a Pro variant. We’re taking a closer look at the flagship in this Huawei P20 Pro review.
It’s a combination of old and new. Some of the internals have been reused (from the Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro). This is how Huawei rolls, with the spring flagship reusing the fall flagship’s guts, just to improve on it the next autumn. Some aspects are new, and the novelty is pretty impressive.
In a world dominated by the Samsung Galaxy S9+ and S9, the Pixel 2 on its way out and its follow-up coming soon, the LG G7 around the corner alongside the OnePlus 6, HTC, Moto, Sony, and other raptors, can the Huawei P20 Pro position itself at the top of the food chain?
It’s got the looks, the specs, and the smarts on its side, as well as one very important ace up its sleeve: it’s the world first triple-camera smartphone. The P20 pro is aiming to bring high-end photography to the palm of your hand. Will it deliver? We’re trying to answer that, and more, in our full Huawei P20 Pro review below.
The first thing you’ll do once you get the chance to hold a P20 Pro is to check out the back. Yes, that’s where the three cameras live. We can talk all we want about looks, notches, performance, color options, battery life, and other stuff, but what you’ll probably be most interested in is the camera setup.
This phone has a total of 92 megapixels (yes, 92!) combined for all four of its cameras. 24 of those live on the front. On the back, from left to right (or bottom to top, if you will), you have a 20MP monochrome, 40MP RGB, and an 8MP Telephoto unit, in addition to the laser auto-focus, color temperature sensor, and the LED flash. Impressive! The only comment I had initially came from my obsession with aesthetics, but faded away quickly: why couldn’t Huawei raise the mono unit (left or bottom) to the same level as the other two? Somehow we learned to live and accept the camera bumps… I know, I’m just nitpicking…
Huawei insists on perfect symmetry when it comes to the P20 Pro. The top, bottom, and sides are curved, so when you first grab the phone you’re feeling a cold slab of glass and metal that’s very rewarding to touch and grip. Yes, it’s a tad slippery, but that’s the case with all glass and ceramic (even some metal-back) phones. You’ll be fine.
The fingerprint scanner on the front, below the screen, is the main reason for the chin, and for breaking up that symmetry. The notch at the top, whether you like it or not, is a necessary evil you’ll have to learn to live with. It adds additional screen real estate by moving notifications to the top, notifications which would have otherwise used up that amount of screen from your apps. Huawei also made efforts to minimize the notch by employing a circular earpiece/speaker instead of the regular, rectangular, elongated one. That, the 24MP front camera, ambient sensors, and a tiny LED notification light are the only things the notch is holding.
The fingerprint scanner could have been placed at the back for a full screen experience, top to bottom. There’s plenty of room on the back, but this was Huawei’s decision, and this is what we have to live with. Well, nitpicking again…
At 73.9 mm wide, 155 mm tall, and 7.8 mm thick, this is a nicely balanced, very thin phone. 180 gr. ensure a consistent feel in the hand and the curves are nicely embraced by your palm. No antenna lines are breaking up the back, so that whichever color you choose (Twilight, in our case) it is nicely showcased.
The screen is 6.1-inches in diagonal with yet another odd aspects ratio (18.7:9) and takes up roughly 82 percent of the front. The 1080 x 2240 pixel resolution (401PPI) is smaller than what you will find on competitors like the Galaxy S9+. Speaking purely numbers, yes, it is a smaller resolution, but it’s a difference you are barely seeing when holding the two side-by-side. Huawei stressed that the reason behind the choice for the FHD+ resolution is purely battery life related (and it delivers, as you’ll read about it later in our Huawei P20 Pro review).
The P20 Pro on its own has a gorgeous display, with great brightness (visibly brighter than the S9+), color reproduction, but it is lacking just a tad in direct sunlight. Nothing too serious, and we’re definitely placing it among the best displays on a smartphone today.
Let’s talk about the notch, as it is lately one of the most polarizing smartphone topics. As previously mentioned, it is a necessary evil that you have to learn to live with. Manufacturers are constantly trying to bring more content real estate to the palm of your hand, and the notch is one of the solutions employed. You’ll get used to it really quickly, that’s if it bothers you to begin with, and, if you really must, Huawei gives you the option of “disabling” (concealing) it so that the notifications seem to float on top of the screen. It is, or it should, definitely not be a deal breaker.
There’s a lot of horsepower under the glass, even if we’re seeing last year’s chip in action, Huawei’s own Kirin 970 chipset. Used on the Mate 10 Pro, it has already proven its skills and it brings the same performance and AI features to the P20 Pro, thanks to the built-in NPU. Helping it out there’s the Mali-G72 MP12 GPU and 6GB of RAM, which, combined, delivered top notch performance in our Huawei P20 Pro review testing.
128GB of storage is what you’re limited to, as there is no microSD expansion slot. Huawei decided to equip the P20 Pro with a dual SIM capability, but is should be plenty, and if it’s not, you always have a cloud option.
If you’ve been following Huawei you know that the battery life on their phones is good, to say the least. The P20 Pro doesn’t disappoint either. You’ll definitely get a full day’s use out of the 4,000mAh unit packed under the glass, regardless of how hard you push it. Anything lighter than heavy use, and you’ll probably squeeze two days out of it. This is achieved by a combination of a larger-than-average/larger-than-competitors’ battery size, smaller resolution (FHD+), and some great memory, CPU, and battery management hocus pocus going on behind the scenes.
During our Huawei P20 Pro review testing period, we found consistent two-day battery life, with screen on times that vary from a minimum of 4.5 to 6, depending on usage, brightness used, etc.
There’s no Wireless Charging support, but the P20 Pro brings Huawei SuperCharge. It is capable of charging your phone to 100% in 1.5 hours, sometimes even less, which is impressive.
EMUI is another polarizing topic, but in our experience it, is just as good as any other Android launcher with its pros and cons. The P20 Pro runs EMUI 8.1 based on Android 8.1, and it brings all the features present on the Mate 10 Pro’s EMUI 8, as well as some new additions. That means it still offers everything you need to solely rely on it, with a ton of customization features, as well as a touch of novelty the new features bring.
Desktop Mode is still present and you still need a USB Type-C to HDMI cable should you want to turn your smartphone experience into one that resembles a computer. Face Unlock is a software feature that quickly (very quickly) allows your phone to unlock by glancing at your face. In our Huawei P20 Pro review test period we found it was so quick that we were surprised to see the lock screen every now and then. It works well in low light too, granted it might fail under these circumstances once in a while.
The Camera detects six new additional scenes it can auto-tune your settings for, and if you dig deep into the settings you can not only hide/conceal the notch, but you can also get rid of the navigation buttons on the bottom and replace them with either a floating button called Navigation dock, or choose the on-screen navigation key or the off-screen navigation button (that enable you to navigate by using gestures on the fingerprint scanner).
With or without the notch, with or without the app tray, and with or without the navigation buttons, EMUI 8.1 delivers solid performance and we found nothing to complain about during our Huawei P20 Pro review period. Other features like AppTwin (where you can run multiple instances of an app, with different log in credentials), split-screen, iPhone-like raise to wake, always on display, dark mode, and then some, only add to the experience. EMUI is definitely not a deal breaker, but if you can’t live with it, there are other solutions out there.
The camera of the P20 Pro is, undoubtedly, the biggest selling point of the phone. The camera system is truly impressive, with a combined pixel count of 92MP for the entire phone. But megapixels alone, as we’ve seen in the past, mean little in the bigger picture. It’s a combination of sensors, lenses, processing, stabilization, AI, and software; the P20 Pro delivers.
These are the P20 Pro’s bragging rights:
- the world’s first triple camera
- a 20MP monochrome unit, f/1.6 aperture
- a 40MP RGB unit, f/1.8 aperture
- an 8MP Telephoto unit, f/2.4 aperture
- 24MP front facer
- 3X Optical Zoom and 5X Hybrid Zoom
- 2μm pixel size
- 102,400 maximum ISO
- 4D Predictive Focus
- 4-in-1 Hybrid Focus system
- 960 frames per second slow-motion recording
- AIS (AI assisted Image Stabilization)
Triple Camera setup on the back
The way the three units on the back work is by combining and using information from multiple sources: the 20MP monochrome unit captures more light and details (because of the lack of color filters), which are combined with the color information obtained by the 40MP sensor. The 8MP unit is used for zooming and additional focal length, and it is the only unit that features OIS. Not that AIS is disappointing; read about it later in our Huawei P20 Pro review.
The default shooting mode is set to 10MP output, and this mode is where the Master AI is doing its job, as well as where the phone takes advantage of the 2μm pixels. These 2μm pixels are obtained from 1μm pixels by a process called pixel binning, similar to what Nokia was doing with its original PureView cameras back in the day. The P20 Pro combines four pixels into one, which is something familiar to Huawei’s head of imaging Eero Salmelin, former imaging chief of Nokia back in the Lumia 1020 days.
By combining these pixels in the 10MP output mode, the results are clearer and sharper (sometimes we can definitely see some over-sharpening, something Huawei could easily address via tuning the software in an update release). That’s not to say you can’t shoot in 40MP mode (or RAW), but if you do, you’ll want to do it in bright conditions, and you’ll also lose your ability to zoom.
At 1/1.7th of an inch, the sensor is rather large (think double the sensors on the iPhone X and Galaxy S9+), and the direct effect is extremely good low-light performance, outpacing any and all competitors at the moment.
The most exciting feature, and the main ace up the P20 Pro’s camera sleeve, is the low-light performance. The phone is capable of capturing handheld images at night with up to 6 seconds of long exposure, with minimal to no blur. That’s a game-changer, and Huawei really declares war on the tripod. Responsible for this is both the large sensor which sucks in a ton of light, and the AIS, Huawei’s Artificial Intelligence driven stabilization. The results are truly impressive.
Master AI driving the entire camera software experience not only detects more scenes than before, but it automatically sets the right camera settings for that particular scene. It can recognize the sky and emphasize it; same goes for grass and flowers, text from a document, receipt or invoice is automatically cropped and saved accordingly; faces trigger portrait mode; getting close enables macro mode; food is not only detected and the proper scene set, but apparently the AI is so smart that it can detect the style of cooking, we’ve been told.
As with any “scene” or software/AI that selects it for you, the resulting images are more “appealing”, popping, eye catching, than real. There’s something for everyone, and if you’re among those who want images to be as true-to-life as possible, you can disable MasterAI and go manual. That’s where the Pro mode comes in handy, where you take full control of the shooting experience to manually set metering, ISO, shutter speed, focus, white balance, exposure compensation, etc.
There are a variety of modes, tweaks, and features which make the camera software and overall experience so comprehensive that you’ll have to spend quite some time to master and unleash its capabilities. That, of course, is not an issue, if you’re opting for the P20 Pro as your permanent daily driver.
The Telephoto unit is capable of producing 3X optical zoom. Additionally, there’s also a 5X Hybrid Zoom, and they both generate very satisfying results. Optical zoom by itself makes a phone, and the pictures taken, stand out, as it is more often than not lossless. With the help of OIS (it is definitely needed the more the zoom level increases), you can get closer to your subject without actually being closer. Hybrid Zoom takes this one step further by combining optical zoom with some software magic, and we can easily say that the results are very satisfying.
Depending on how you like your photos, you might want to disable the Beauty mode unless you want a completely fake, blurred out, make-up heavy portrait of yourself and people around you in the frame.
The performance of the front-facing camera is on par with the overall performance of the main shooter(s), meaning it’s really good. However, you can totally ruin your selfies if you are not making some adjustments to your settings, and by this we specifically mean the Beauty mode. Again, some will prefer this, I kind of like counting the ever-growing number of wrinkles on my face. As you can see in the samples below, color, tone, dynamic range, accuracy, brightness and contrast are spot on for their respective conditions, and, for the purpose of these Huawei P20 Pro review samples, we left Beauty mode on for some of them (can you spot which ones?).
It might lack OIS, but AIS is doing an awesome job at stabilizing your images when shooting in low light. As long as you flip to the Night mode in the Camera App, you’re good to go, just keep it relatively steady. No need to brace, hold your breath, or do other things we’ve all been doing. Let these pictures do the talking!
All camera samples. Click arrows to scroll through.
With a great screen, unparalleled camera performance, exceptional audio quality, superb battery life, top-notch performance, and extraordinary wireless performance, there’s no doubt that the experience on the P20 Pro is superlative.
Whether out of the box or packed with apps, we haven’t seen a single hiccup during our Huawei P20 Pro review testing period. We touched on battery life (which is unbelievable) and screen in the chapters above, and, without repeating ourselves, they’re simply great.
The speakers deliver loud, quality, immersive sound from the top earpiece and bottom driver. They get loud without losing dynamic range, and for a smartphone they sure pack quite a lot of oomph. No, there’s no headphone jack, but using the dongle delivers the same high-end listening experience, and the phone features LDAC for high-bitrate Bluetooth streaming.
Wireless performance is great! Whether we’re talking cellular, wireless, or bluetooth signals, the phone finds them quickly, and holds on. As such, call quality and data speeds are top notch (limited only by your carrier’s quality of service), and we have experienced nothing notable worth mentioning as a negative during our Huawei P20 Pro review testing period.
…and the camera, which sets a new standard for mobile photography, is the real innovation here.
We have to commend Huawei for innovating and making the P20 Pro more than an evolution from its predecessors, rather than an iteration. Being the world’s first smartphone to pack a Triple Camera setup is definitely not a gimmick, or another bullet point on a salesman’s pitch list. There’s real utility here and Huawei is pushing the envelope really hard. It’s not a question of when will the competition catch up, but rather a question of how can Huawei outperform itself with upcoming models.
In this industry there are the trendsetters and there are the followers. While everybody copies everybody, there are those who every now and then give competitors something to think about (get inspired from, and improve upon).
As such, Huawei is the real trendsetter for 2018’s smartphone photography so far. It’s not about the components of the system, taken individually; it’s not just about the sensors, or the lenses, or the processing, or the AI driving it. It is the entire system that, as a whole, delivers some of the best results in the industry available today (with the absolute best in some categories). Is it perfect? No. Is it the best? Arguably, but it’s definitely a phone that history will remember and talk about (in the chapter mentioning the Nokia 808 PureView, and the 1020).
Pricing & Availability
The Huawei P20 Pro price is €899 (£799, or roughly the equivalent in other currencies) and it is available globally both unlocked at retailers online and offline, as well as through carriers. The company is still struggling to enter the US market and CEO Richard Yu invited top executives from major carriers like Orange, Vodafone, T-Mobile, and Telefonica to talk about their relationship with Huawei.
This was clearly an attempt in trying to convince the US authorities (and/or carriers) that the allegations against Huawei are false, and that the key network operator players around the world are backing the company across the globe.
One thing is certain: with the P20 Pro, Huawei managed to create a phone that could sell very well, a phone that carriers can’t pass on. There’s definitely a demand, but whether this will be enough to break the ice in the US or not, through carriers and retailers, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, until that happens (if it happens) you can import the phone if you don’t want to be among those missing out.
It’s not often that we use so many superlatives in a review, but Huawei simply nailed it with the P20 Pro. The phone, as a whole, is a real work of art, undoubtedly Huawei’s best phone ever, arguably the best phone of 2018 yet. It’s that combination or great design, top-notch performance all the way throughout, and that overall feeling of “just right” that makes this phone so exciting and irresistible.
It’s impossible not to recommend this phone, and not to commend Huawei for getting it right. Just the same way as it is impossible not to get excited about what the future holds, both for Huawei and the competition, as well as for consumers and the industry in general.
- great design and colors
- benchmark smartphone photography
- high-quality display
- great performance
- insane battery life
- solid speakers for multimedia
- no wireless charging
- no headphone jack could upset some
- Master AI image processing is at times inconsistent
- concealing the notch via software needs work in some apps