The Huawei P20 Pro remains one of the very best phones available today
Weight: 180g Dimensions: 155 x 73.9 x 7.8mm OS: Android 8.1 Screen size: 6.1-inches Resolution: 1080 x 2244 pixels CPU: Kirin 970 RAM: 6GB Storage: 128GB Battery: 4000mAh Rear camera: Triple 40MP + 20MP + 8MP Leica Front camera: 24MP f/2.0
REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID
-‘Just’ HD screen
The Huawei P20 Pro, despite being surpassed by the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, remains one of the very best phones if you’re looking for a premium alternative to the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S9.
We love the P20 Pro’s Leica-branded triple camera. Yes, you read that right, this camera has three camera sensors, a 40MP RGB, 20MP Monochrome, and 8MP telephoto. The three lenses are can be used to capture some very pleasing images.
The OS is coming on leaps and bounds as well, and the design and feel of this device really is fantastic.
It’s a smartphone that really puts a cat among the pigeons… the pigeons in this case being Samsung, Apple, and Google.
It’s not quite perfect, though. The UI still lags behind its competitors, and some won’t be too fond of the iPhone X-esque design.
Despite its flaws, we think it’s a brilliant smartphone, thanks to a neat blend of design, features, and camera. Plus, the battery life is top draw, too, capable of lasting around two days.
Huawei was among the front-runners in the dual-camera race with the P9 and then the Mate 10, so who better to take things to the next level? The Huawei P20 Pro one-ups all current major players and comes with three cameras on its back, each unique in its own right.
Okay, the 20MP monochrome sensor is the least exciting, but not for its lack of color – it’s just that we’ve seen it on a couple of generations of Mates and the P10. The other two, however, are all new.
The star of the show is the 40MP camera – let’s go ahead and call it the primary one. It’s the most resolution we’ve seen on a smartphone since the Lumia 1020 PureView all the way back in 2013. The third one has a modest 8MP resolution but boasts an 80mm-equivalent focal length – effectively 3x the focal length of the primary cam. All this camera goodness, of course, carries a Leica branding – the badge of a German optics specialist makes everything better as the Lumia 1020, and its Zeiss lens can attest.
There’s more megapixels on the front, 24 of them in the selfie camera. And you couldn’t miss it – it’s right there in the notch. Yup, notches are everywhere whether they’re needed or not, and whether you like them or not.
For all the abundance of pixels in the cameras (some 96MP combined), there are not all that many pixels on the screen – the 6.1-inch AMOLED panel has a FullHD+ resolution of a Huawei-specific variety (1080 x 2240px) to account for the notch.
Huawei likes its batteries big, and the P20 Pro gets a nice 4,000mAh power pack, with the company’s flavor of fast charging, one of the fastest around. Another thing Huawei’s own, the chipset is the Kirin 970 from the last-gen Mates, so no surprises there either. There’s RAM and storage to spare too.
Huawei P20 Pro specs
- Body: dual-glass with metal frame, 7.65mm thick
- Screen: 6.1″ AMOLED, 1080 x 2240px resolution (408ppi);
- Chipset: Kirin 970 chipset, octa-core processor (Cortex-A73 2.4GHz + A53 1.8GHz), Mali-G72 MP12 GPU
- Memory: 6GB RAM, 128GB storage
- OS: Android 8.1 Oreo with EMUI 8.1;
- Camera: 40MP f/1.8 color + 8MP f/2.4 color telephoto + 20MP f/1.6 monochrome; 4K video capture, 720@960fps slow-mo; Leica co-developed
- Camera features: 1/1.7″ 40MP sensor, up to ISO 102,400, 3x optical zoom, 5x hybrid zoom, OIS + EIS, can change focus and lighting in photos after they are taken, Variable Aperture, Portrait Mode, can shoot long-exposure without a tripod
- Selfie cam: 24MP, f/2.0 Leica lens, Portrait Mode with live bokeh effects; 2D Face Unlock
- Battery: 4,000mAh; Super Charge
- Security: Fingerprint reader (front), 0.4 seconds response time
- Connectivity: Dual SIM, Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2 + LE, NFC, USB Type-C
- Misc: IR blaster, stereo speakers
Huawei may be guilty of following some of the not-so-positive trends in the industry such as removing the headphone jack and having a notch on the screen, but we’re glad the IR emitter is still on board. It’s either Huawei or Xiaomi that you’ve got left to look to if you want to use your phone to control non-smart stuff around the house. Even the regular P20 won’t do – you’ll need to step up to the Pro we’ve got here.
So yes, you can have the latest flagship smartphone replace the remote for your 1992 VCR, but first, you’d need to take it out of the box, so let’s start with that.
Huawei P20 Pro unboxing
The Huawei P20 Pro comes in a white cardboard box, which contains all the kit you’d need to get started. Underneath the phone, you’ll find a set of earbuds that connect via USB-C, but also a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter in case you want to plug your existing headphones.
There’s a USB-A to USB-C cable and a fast charger, and you need both of these together for the proprietary fast charging to work. We love fast charging, but we hate proprietary tech limitations, so we’re conflicted. In any case, the fact that you have the quick charger and the cable in the box is great (we’re looking at you, Apple).
You won’t think about the accessories when you first see the phone though, it’s simply gorgeous to look at. Join us on the next page where we take a closer look at the two shades of awesomeness on the units we have for review.
Design and 360-degree spin
It’s quite the stunner, the Huawei P20 Pro. It may not have ‘dazzling’ in the official color scheme names like the last generation, but dazzling it sure is.
Huawei embraced glass with the latest Mates, and the company has chosen to stick with it for the P20 Pro. The smartphone will be available in a choice of four colors and here’s a side-by-side shot of the two you’re likely to crave.
Midnight Blue is the plain one (right) if you can even call the shiny attention grabber that, while the even more striking dual-tone version (left) goes by Twilight. The other two options are the mandatory Black and Pink Gold.
Both paint jobs are in essence mirrors shifting reality into bluer tints depending on what’s reflected off of them, so you rarely get the same color twice. The downside is that the moment you lay your fingers on the phone’s back, it turns into a crime scene investigator’s dream. The smudges are reasonably easy to wipe – it is glass, but it’s only for a brief instant that the P20 Pro remains clean. But, boy, is it pretty during that instant.
There’s a lot going on on the back. First up, obviously, the three cameras. The primary 40MP unit has a huge (in smartphone terms) Type 1/1.7″ sensor with stabilized f/1.8 optics. Then there’s the smaller 8MP cam with a telephoto lens pushing 3x zoomed images.
Both these cameras take up physical space, so Huawei figured if they’re making a camera bump, they’d best put them together. This dual-cam setup sticks out quite a bit, but at least you know why. Oh, and there’s a laser transmitter and receiver between the two lenses, so they don’t have to have their own, separate windows somewhere (like they do on the P20 non-Pro).
Under the meaty 40MP module, the humbler 20MP monochrome camera rests, its front element barely protruding from the glass back. Further down there’s the dual-tone flash and a light temperature sensor.
There’s quite a lot of text on the P20 Pro’s back – a bit too much, actually. The Leica badge next to the flash, complete with lens names and specs, the Huawei name in bold capital lettering alongside some finer text, and then the regulatory markings on the other side – when is enough enough?
Let’s find salvation from text on the front – there’s mostly display here, so no room for letters. No room for much of anything actually, so Huawei’s gone for a notch. The 6.1-inch AMOLED display has got a cutout at the top to house the usual top-bezel stuff – earpiece, selfie cam, ambient light and proximity sensors, and even a tiny status LED.
The fact that what’s left of the top bezel is thicker than the side bezels irks some people and we can see where the sentiment is coming from – the iPhone X’s bezels are the same all around. The thing is though, you can enable a virtual top bezel of sorts which ends up symmetrical with the physical bottom one, but with the added benefit of having information in the display parts on top. Sort of like the definition of having the cake and eating it.
There’s a proper chin below the display to house the fingerprint sensor – the Mate RS Porsche Design might have an under-display reader, but let’s not forget it’s more than twice as expensive as the P20 Pro. The sensor is always-on, super-fast to unlock, and can also substitute the on-screen navigation bar by using gestures.
In the hand • Top bezel • Home key/fingerprint sensor on the bottom
The polished aluminum frame of the P20 Pro is home to the power button and the volume rocker on the right side. The power button has an indentation that is painted red – the P10 and P10 Plus had a red accent too, only around the button.
On the opposite side of the frame you’ll find the card tray. Or, to be precise, the SIM card tray – there’s no microSD slot for storage expansion on the P20 Pro. You do get 2 nano-SIM bays, though. The tray also has a gasket to help with the dust and water protection – you don’t want stuff coming in through the card slot and compromising that IP67-rated weather sealing.
The USB-C port is on the bottom of the phone, the primary speaker to its right. On the other side, behind the near-most hole, is the primary mic. Nope, no 3.5mm jack around here, and there isn’t one on top either – just a secondary mic and an IR emitter (yay! for the latter).
Power button in red • A couple of nano SIMs, no microSD • USB-C port, primary speaker.
The P20 Pro measures 155 x 73.9 x 7.8mm, which is 3mm shorter than the Galaxy S9+, 0.1mm narrower and 0.7mm thinner. The 6-inch Mi Mix 2s is a mil wider and 0.3mm thicker than the Pro, but some 4mm shorter. The iPhone X is noticeably more compact with its 143.6 x 70.9mm footprint and it’s also 0.1mm slimmer.
Apple’s Ten is lighter than Huawei Twenty Pro, but the 6-gram difference isn’t all that much. Meanwhile, both the Galaxy S9+ and the Mi Mix 2s are heavier than the P20 Pro, by about 10g.
The P20 Pro is just too good-looking to not bring it up once more, just like that, with no connection to the narrative whatsoever.
There’s one thing we need to get out of the way from the start – right now Huawei’s Master AI is barely apprentice-level at its craft. It’s adept at recognising the scenes, but the color settings it chooses to apply all too often are way too exaggerated – like Instagram filter all the way to 100 exaggerated.
The Blue sky mode, for example, amps up the contrast, cranks up the blues and introduces a fair bit of vignetting – lens makers try to engineer it out, Huawei AI adds it in software. ‘Greenery’ is the same, only with grass – of course, no one likes dull foliage, but there’s probably a middle ground to be reached somewhere. Oh, and these two are often clashing with each other so a slight change in framing on a landscape scene could result in a dramatically different image.
Granted, this review unit is still running on an early software so we hope to see an improved approach once the first updates start coming out.
Master AI: On (Blue sky) • Off • On (Blue sky) • Off • On (Blue sky) • Off • On (Greenery) • Off
One exception where we’d pick the AI’s interpretation of the scene is food. If you’re the type to document or share your meals, or you’re just impressed by the presentation this one time, do enable Master AI.
Camera samples, Master AI Food mode
Another benefit to using it is that it would automatically switch to Portrait mode or Night mode based on the scene and these are not some color profiles but entirely different camera modes.
What we’re trying to say is that while we wish the Master AI wasn’t as heavy handed with the color effects it is, after all, a headline feature of the P20 Pro, so we kept in on for most of our samples. With that in mind, let’s go ahead and look at some 40MP images shot in full auto with Master AI enabled. As you can tell, the ultra-sensitive Blue sky has kicked in on most of them, resulting in that characteristic over-the-top look. It’s hard to talk about colors or dynamic range, or anything, on such overprocessed images.
What we could mention, is the heavy, and we mean heavy, purple fringing. A likely result from the large sensor and subsequent compromises in optics, plus the specific way in which the sensor operates, the chromatic aberrations are nearly ubiquitous, and are obviously not fixable in processing – we can’t imagine Huawei has missed them.
Camera samples, 40MP, Master AI enabled
It would be entirely wrong, however, to judge the 40MP images, as they weren’t meant to be used that way. For a more technical perspective you can check out our article on the topic, but let’s just say that the entire point of the 40MP camera is to get good-looking 10MP images, not full-res 40MP ones. And there’s good news. Shoot in 10MP and there’ll be no purple fringing, so you’ll be left with just the dramatic colors.
Camera samples, 10MP, Master AI enabled
When resolution is set to 10MP, you also get one of the P20 Pro’s best features – zoom. The tele camera is only 8MP, but the 40MP one lends a hand, and the ‘3x’ shots turn out great – sharp and detailed, bringing your subjects closer. And it’s not like you can replicate the results by cropping the center portion of the 40MP image to match the ‘3x’ FOV and upscale – no, it is a team effort by the two cameras. The phone even complains if you cover the monochrome cam.
Camera samples, zoom: 1x • 3x • 5x
Camera samples, zoom: 1x • 3x • 5x
Camera samples, zoom: 1x • 3x • 5x
Camera samples, zoom: 1x • 3x • 5x
Camera samples, zoom: 1x • 3x • 5x
Speaking of, there isn’t much new about the monochrome camera. It’s once again 20MP, with the updated f/1.6 aperture optics introduced with the Mate 10. We’ve said it before, but let’s reiterate – a dedicated monochrome camera is and will always be a specialty tool. As these go, the one on the P20 Pro is great – it has excellent dynamic range and captures plenty of fine detail.
Camera samples, monochrome
In low light, the near-magical Night mode will produce some pretty stunning results, even if it has its limitations. It creates pseudo long exposures by stacking multiple frames gathering light along the way. We’re talking three-, sometimes five-second, hand-held exposures which would otherwise result in a blurry mess.
We’re not saying you’ll be getting 100% keepers and you still need to have a reasonably steady hand, but you’ll be getting usable photos in situations you’d otherwise get none. The phone also does a remarkable job of retaining color where others would lose saturation.
Camera samples, Night mode
Depending on the scene, you may not need to go into Night mode to get good low-light results. Here are the same scenes captured in the regular photo mode.
Camera samples, Photo mode
One caveat of Night mode is that if subjects move, they will get blurred. That’s to say, the algorithm will successfully cancel out camera shake, but there’s little it can do against motion blur. But let’s say we don’t mind the occasional ghost if it means capturing photos like these.
Camera samples, Night mode
With the 40MP camera supposedly doing HDR all the time, we didn’t encounter a scene where the AI would trigger a similar sounding mode (Sony’s is called ‘Backlit’). You can enable HDR manually from the More position of the mode selector, and it does produce quite different photos. The midtones get a boost and images overall look livelier, though zoom in to 1:1 magnification and you’ll see increased sharpening and loss of fine detail.
HDR scene: Master AI (Blue sky) • Master AI off • HDR mode on
The P20 Pro captures good panoramas with a vertical resolution around 3,000px. Stitching is flawless, and there are no issues with varying exposure.
The P20 Pro, like other multi-camera Huawei phones has a couple of faux bokeh modes – Portrait and Aperture. Portrait is the one meant for people, complete with bokeh toggle, beautification and simulated lighting. Aperture, on the other hand, let’s you do post-shot focus and simulate apertures in the f/0.95-f/16 range. We’ve been clamoring which one actually is best for pictures of people, and we haven’t reached a consensus, so samples from both will follow.
Portrait mode samples
Separation is similarly non-perfect in both modes, but given the right subject and background you can have some usable and convincing portraits. A lot of that is due to the fact that you can shoot zoomed in to the 3x position for an 80mm equivalent focal length – an actual portrait focal length in classic 35mm photography.
An added benefit is that you don’t have to be up your subject’s nose thus making them feel more comfortable in the process. Yes, you can also shoot in ‘1x’ magnification, but we found the ‘3x’ setting more liberating.
Aperture mode samples
As for subject isolation of non-human subjects, the P20 Pro will do, but it’s not too proficient.
Aperture mode used on inanimate objects
The selfie camera of the Huawei P20 Pro has an excessive 24MP resolution and a fixed-focus lens. We’d gladly trade half those megapixels for autofocus, or at least a focus plane further from the phone, because as it is you need to be pretty close to be in sharp focus.
Once you get the distance right, there’ll be plenty of fine pores for you to marvel at – the level of detail is quite amazing, but then you’re also quite close to the camera. Colors are faithfully represented and dynamic range is good for a selfie camera.
More selfie samples
There’s also a portrait mode. In fact, it’s the mode the selfie camera defaults to when you switch from the main cam – a bit weird. You can turn the blur on and off, there’s beautification (a 0-10 setting) and 3D lighting with a handful of simulated lighting modes.
Selfie samples, portrait mode
The P20 Pro surprisingly offers you a choice between the h.264 and h.265 codecs (the P10 only used h.265). Even more surprising is the small difference in bit rate for 4K videos – it’s 24Mbps vs. 20Mbps so h.265 doesn’t really give us the huge file size reduction benefit we’re used to seeing elsewhere. So unless you have specific reasons to go for h.265, we’d recommend using the h.264 codec for its inherent compatibility with all platforms and devices.
The final surprise was that this sort of bit rate more akin to 1080p videos and not 4K. 1080p videos here are recorded in a bitrate as low as 5Mbps.
There are also framerate peculiarities. Our 1080p/30fps videos ended up at a little under 29fps most of the time, while 1080p/60fps ones were around 51 frames per second. Still, it’s worth reminding that we’re dealing with early software here – literally the first version the phone ships with so there is definitely room for improvement and we’ll keep an eye on that.
Anyway, despite all odds 4K footage is nice and detailed, with pleasing colors and plenty of contrast. Dynamic range is a bit tight, and we do feel videos are a little underexposed, but more irritating is the occasional exposure pulsation. Not bad overall though, especially given the small file size of the videos.
1080p/30fps still manage to retain a decent level of detail. Shooting at 1080p/60fps doesn’t come with any penalty on the resolved detail unlike what we’ve seen on other phones, so that’s nice.
Stabilization is only available in 1080p/30fps and not in 4K or 1080p/60fps. It is super effective and you can see the difference in the viewfinder as you’re shooting. What you can’t see is that the stabilized 1080p footage is much softer and less detailed than regular 1080p – it’s looking more like upscaled 720p. Non-stabilized footage, on the other hand, is extra jerky, so we’re not sure which side we’re leaning on. In any case, shooting video while walking is not a good idea with the P20 Pro.