Today in Paris, Huawei unveiled three new P-Series smartphones; the P20 Lite, P20 and P20 Pro. For reasons you’ll discover soon, I am concentrating my attention on the P20 Pro.
Every time a new phone is released, you can be pretty sure the camera will be the centre of attention. Manufacturers know people want a good camera experience, and every new model promises improvements on the model before.
Huawei is no exception and since first teaming up with Leica, it has continued to build on the partnership it started with the P9 and has now been used on the Mate 9, P10 and Mate 10 phones. The P9 was marketed as ‘reinventing smartphone photography’ with the dual RGB/BW image sensors, while the P10 was pushed as the phone to make ‘every shot a cover shot’.
Now it’s the turn of the P20 range.
In many cases, camera improvements are not particularly revolutionary. From one model to the next, the changes might not be that significant. It’s indicative of the harsh reality that, for some time now, flagship smartphones have offered customers an excellent experience.
I had to wait nearly a month to be able to say why these new devices, one in particular, are so exciting!
So, when I had the opportunity to get to see the new Huawei P20 series weeks ahead of today’s launch, I went in with the usual expectation that the new phones would offer obvious improvements, but probably not anything revolutionary.
I was very wrong.
While the standard P20 could be considered the more evolutionary upgrade, retaining Huawei’s traditional dual-camera setup on the back, the P20 Pro moves things on considerably through both hardware and software enhancements.
Many of these new features have been absent from the various leaks that have gone out ever since Huawei itself first started talking about the new phones last month!
It was correct in the leaks that the flagship P20 Pro had three cameras. It was correct that one of these cameras was a whopping 40-megapixels, but most of the benefits were unrealised.
Firstly, in a similar fashion to Nokia’s PureView technology, the 40-megapixel sensor isn’t designed to produce 40-megapixel photos (although it can if you want), but to use data from 4 pixels to produce 1, clean, pixel. The resulting 10-megapixel image being clear of noise and grain, and the pixel size being an effective 2 microns in size – the largest on any modern day phone.
Coupled to the 20-megapixel monochrome sensor for better low-light performance, the photos we were allowed to take at the event (but not save to publish, which is why there are no examples here) certainly proved this to be true.
Yet even that isn’t the whole picture, as there’s the 8-megapixel telephoto lens too, giving users an additional benefit of a 3x lossless zoom and 5x hybrid zoom.
The Artificial Intelligence (AI) functions have been improved too, detecting more scenes and even now detecting 32 different types of dog, as well as the difference between western and oriental food.
The P20 Pro can now change settings for additional scenes, such as waterfalls, fireworks, and an all-new macro mode that is totally automatic. Portrait photos are also easier to manage.
Autofocus is now enhanced with 4D Predictive Focus that constantly analyses a scene and predicts movement, meaning it can notice even the finer details like a flower blowing in the wind.
Finally, more accurate white balance detection should also take care of those photos that sometimes come out too warm or cool.
All in all, the camera interface has been totally overhauled and even if you’re upgrading from an earlier Huawei/Leica phone, you’re sure to see many differences.
Shake, rattle and control
But, believe it or not, all of that wasn’t the coolest feature we were shown – and sworn to secrecy on.
This came in the form of the enhancement of the existing night mode function, which now requires neither a tripod or steady hand. Previously, you’d need to make sure your phone didn’t move at all while it took an extra-long exposure, as any movement would ruin everything.
The new look back for the flagship P20 Pro. Bonus points for noticing Huawei’s slightly tweaked logo!
Thanks to the latest enhancements in Huawei’s AI tech (powered by the Neural Processing Unit on the same Kirin 970 chipset as inside last year’s Huawei Mate 10 Pro), the phone can take a six-second exposure while you simply keep the camera pointed in the right direction.
The camera will compensate for any movements and still produce an in-focus, sharp, image. It’s like optical image stabilisation on steroids (the phone has that too, by the way).
Most important of all, it works. We had a few demos and while it will struggle if you go crazy and shake the phone around, it was spot on every other time we used it.
It was almost scary to see, and this feature – in addition to all the others – gives Huawei something to shout about from the rooftops.
The same AI stabilisation is also used to improve video recording too.
Slow it down a moment
It almost seems hardly worth mentioning after all the above, but there’s now the same 960fps super slow-motion mode that was recently made available to Samsung S9 customers, and has been available since last year for Sony XZ1 and XZ Premium users.
Like Samsung, the slow motion mode is restricted to 1280×720, rather than the full HD offered on Sony’s forthcoming XZ2 and XZ2 Compact phones, and it still requires good lighting, but it’s still nice to have even if it’s not a mode you’re likely to be using that often.
What’s notch to like?
Moving on from the camera, the other stuff that was correct in the leaks was the notch. Like it or not, the notch is coming to Android – and you can expect it from high to low-end phones.
I was no fan of the iPhone X screen, but there’s soon likely to be little choice. Just as the 3.5mm headphone socket has gone from many new phones so if you wish to protest, you’ll limit your choices quite substantially.
On the plus side, with proper support from the operating system, developers can work to taking the best advantage of the screen on either side of the notch – which many are now apparently referring to as ‘ears’.
What’s more, the screen has been made taller (1080×2240 pixels) so the extra pixels don’t impact on the ‘main’ display. On the P20 Pro, the screen size is 6.1-inch (OLED), while on the P20 it is 5.8-inches (LCD).
When looking at photos or watching a film, the ‘ears’ blank out and it’s then you notice Huawei has been rather clever by making the top look just the same as the bezel at the base (the P20 Pro’s OLED screen works best here).
Turn the phone to the side and it doesn’t look too dissimilar to the Mate 10 Pro, except now you have the option (where supported) to show notification icons, the time and battery status without encroaching on the normal display.
Hidden notch: Where did it go?
No doubt future products will find a way to get rid of the notch, and an in-display fingerprint sensor can do away with the bottom bezel (on the P20 Pro, this is where you’ll find the fingerprint reader). As such, the notch might be a temporary solution that we’ll look back on in years to come as a ‘bit weird’, but for now it is something you can likely get used to. In fact, you’ll likely have to.
Mentioning the Mate 10 Pro is important here, because for just about every part of the handset specifications, besides the new camera tech and the notch, the phones are almost identical hardware wise.
There’s 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM. The 4,000mAh battery is identical, it has the same IP-rating for water resistance, and it also has a Cat 18 LTE modem (1.2Gbps/150Mbps) with dual 4G and dual VoLTE & VoWi-Fi.
Where it does differ is that the P20 Pro comes with Android 8.1 and EMUI 8.1, as well as a 24-megapixel front facing camera.
Front fingerprint sensor; not everyone is going to like this
Last year I questioned how Huawei could take things much further on the next P-Series phones after the release of the Mate 10 Pro. Now it’s clear that the camera experience has moved on immensely.
The Mate line has always been marketed more to business users (even if it is just as capable at standing its ground alongside the rest of them), but the P-series is to be marketed directly at consumers that want the absolute best camera experience.
Nevertheless, it’s certain that by the end of the year Huawei will transfer a lot of the P20 Pro’s camera wizardry to the Mate 10 Pro successor, and then soon after all eyes will return to the P-series to see what Huawei and Leica come up with next.
Since the P9 arrived two years ago, few could have predicted things would advance so far and so quickly. There was no shortage of doomongers early on claiming Huawei had simply paid to use the Leica name and little more, but the P9 quickly proved itself as a very capable device that made it possible to get good photos in a variety of situations. The P10 improved upon that, and the Mate 10 Pro further still.
Roll on to today and Huawei has achieved great things, which can be seen to actually make a real difference. All three phones launched today have their own strengths for their position in the market, but the real stand-out phone by miles is the P20 Pro.
It’s the one you’ll definitely want to look at if you want to see how far we’ve come on smartphone photography. Of course, the proof will only come when I am able to use one properly and get photos to show – and you can see for yourself.
Update 1: I now have a P20 Pro and will be adding photos to the gallery from now on!
Update 2: O2, Vodafone, Three and EE will all be selling the P20 Pro, as well as the standard P20. Pre-ordering is open now, with the P20 on sale immediately and the P20 Pro from next week.
Join my open Google Photos gallery to see photos taken with the P20 Pro, including (as time goes on) photos from other phone owners.
More info: Huawei P20