Huawei P20 Pro Review: Taking mobile photography up a notch


After using the Huawei P20 Pro for almost a month, I’m hereby ready to post my review that’s had the added benefit of restoring faith in an industry that was beginning to look like it was lacking innovation, with nothing but evolutionary updates and tweaks.

The P20 Pro is strongly based on the Mate 10 Pro, but with some changes that will make a substantial difference if you’re into mobile photography.

As a result, I’ve decided to write this review based more on the changes between the Mate 10 Pro and the P20 Pro, than doing a deep dive into the workings of the phone, which has already been covered in my in-depth Mate 10 Pro Review.

HUAWEI-P20-Pro-Group-Shot

The Mate 10 Pro has hardly become obsolete, but there’s certainly now a more difficult choice to be made as to which phone to go for if you’re in the market for one of Huawei’s flagship phones.

The Mate 10 Pro has a solid camera performance, but the P20 Pro is, to put it bluntly, in another league.

If you aren’t solely focused on the camera, you may find the extra performance on the P20 Pro beyond your requirements. Likewise, the screen notch or the front-mounted fingerprint sensor may also help make up your mind.

If you read my preview of the P20 Pro you’ll already know that Huawei added a ‘hidden notch’ mode in the settings that effectively makes the notch disappear, and when the top of the screen is blanked out (but still able to show notification icons, signal strength, the time and information, as if by magic) you will probably not worry about its inclusion at all.

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Hidden notch mode enabled

It’s a wonder that Huawei decided to show off the notch so clearly in all of its official images, perhaps unaware at the time of the backlash spreading around the forums and social media that suggest a notched screen is the work of the devil.

The blanking of the top of the screen doesn’t compromise anything, as there are an extra 80 pixels on top of a normal Full HD+ (1080×2160 pixels) screen. Not only does this mean you won’t lose anything, but you actually gain by having the notifications ‘off the screen’.

It’s the bottom of the phone where you’ll see the front-mounted fingerprint sensor instead of on the back as with the Mate 10 Pro. The front is not my favourite position, but I have been used to this placement on other phones, including the Honor View 10 most recently, and last year’s flagship Huawei P10.

While I prefer the sensor on the back, there are some advantages to be had from having it up front, in that it can be used for multiple purposes. Unlocking, of course, but also a short tap to go back, a swipe right for the recent apps display, or a long press to go home.

Once you get used to it, it’s actually very intuitive. If you don’t like it, you can disable the extra functionality and have on-screen buttons instead. Just bear in mind that, just as you gain space by moving the notifications up, you also gain space by removing the software buttons.

Before the notch, there was also a lot of fuss around 18:9 ratio screens, but now it seems normal and is widely accepted, especially as it has many advantages, like showing more of web pages or emails, and also having less of the screen obscured by the on-screen keyboard.

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Camera vs Phone

The phone now has a totally redesigned back that looks best when in landscape mode (actually, with the shiny finish, it looks good at any angle), and the design is much like the old days of Sony Ericsson, and some Nokia, phones where the back was designed to make it look more like a camera than a phone.

The finish on the Twilight colour variant is stunning, with a gradual shift in colour from one end to the other. The Twilight colour won’t be available in the UK from launch, but even the blue and black models are equally impressive in their own right.

There’s also a pink version too, but it seems to be limited in availability.

The model I have is blue, and I’m more than happy with it – just as I’ve always commented on the same colour for a myriad of Honor phones over recent years.

The likelihood is that you’ll put the phone in a case anyway, as that gorgeous glass back is near impossible to keep clear of fingerprints, and as time goes on, scratches, so your chosen colour probably won’t matter.

The front is all black, which helps with the hidden notch feature. There’s a factory fit screen protector that has shown some signs of wear, and can either be removed entirely or replaced with a range of plastic or glass protectors from Amazon, eBay etc.

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Camera

If you’ve already seen any of my photos on here, or my open Google Photos gallery, you’ll have been able to see why DxOMark awarded the P20 Pro with the highest score to date. That’s an overall score is 109 points, made up from 114 for photographs and 98 for video.

The camera is quite simply astounding, and seems to work in every condition with amazing results. That’s not an exaggeration, as you can see not only in my own photos but also those of others who have added their own pictures from around the world.

The Mate 10 Pro was good, and still is, but the P20 Pro offers some enhancements that are made possible through better software and hardware.

There’s nothing to stop Huawei updating the Mate 10 Pro camera software to improve on the scene recognition (the P20 Pro can recognise many more scenes, and even different types of food, animal etc), but there’s no way to enhance the camera functionality afforded by the use of three image sensors, improved autofocus, and white balance detection.

Like earlier handsets produced in conjunction with Leica, the owner of one of these phones doesn’t need to have any photographic talent beyond knowing how to point at their intended target and shooting. In the case of the P20 Pro, it will even lend a hand with that to get you to better frame a shot, or keep things level when shooting photos of the horizon.

Since the Huawei P9, the camera interface has offered a range of options to make it possible to enjoy great photos in varying lighting conditions, and of different scenes with very little skill required, but also with a professional mode for when you do want to be more adventurous.

One of the very special modes was night mode, which until now required a tripod or other secure resting place. This allowed for fantastic photos in almost total darkness, which would otherwise be impossible to achieve on a phone.

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By going with a triple camera offering, Huawei has been able to retain its setup of a monochrome and colour image sensor, but now adding a telephoto lens (8-megapixels, f/2.4) to further boost the flexibility of the phone.

The Mate 10 Pro had a 2x hybrid zoom, which worked well, but now the P20 Pro takes this to another level with a 3x lossless zoom, and a 5x hybrid zoom. You can even push things to 10x, but at this point you’ll begin to see the loss in detail on all but viewed back on the phone screen.

The jump from a 12-megapixel colour camera on the Mate 10 Pro to a 40-megapixel colour camera (f/1.8) brings back memories of Nokia’s PureView camera technology, that was so sadly cut short by the eventual demise of Nokia as we knew it.

HMD Global may now sell phones with the Nokia brand (and great phones they are too) but the clever camera tech was not part of the deal.

As it happens, Huawei saw fit to give jobs to some talent from PureView, and this phone is likely the end result of their input.

Nokia Lumia 1020 with PureView technology
Nokia Lumia 1020 with PureView technology: History repeating itself?

The thinking behind using such a large pixel count is that, yes, you can save a 40-megapixel image if you wish (and in the best lighting conditions, the results can be amazing), but the real purpose is to combine the data from 4 pixels (a process known as pixel binning) to produce a cleaner, sharper, 10-megapixel photo.

For most purposes, a 10-megapixel image is ample for what we use most of our photographs for; sharing online. However, you’ll still get a good print if you want.

This is basically the same way the Lumia 1020 worked, except it is considerably faster. There’s absolutely no lag when taking photos, and no processing time required between shots. To be fair to Nokia, the Lumia 1020 came out in 2013 and a lot has happened in the best part of five years.

Unlike the PureView cameras, the Huawei then has a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor (f/1.6) to improve contrast, depth estimation for bokeh effects and low-light performance. Oh, and that telephoto lens too.

Raw Experience

If you want even more impressive photos you can use the professional mode and save RAW images that are around 80MB in size. That’s an awful lot of image data to play around with, and I’ve yet to have the time to experiment. In my opinion, you will likely be just fine allowing the phone to do all the calculations at the time of taking the photo, saving you time and effort.

Kirin970
Kirin 970 with a dedicated NPU (Neural Processing Unit)

Last year Huawei spoke of the many things its new Kirin 970 chipset would be able to do in the field of artificial intelligence. Some of it could undoubtedly have been considered a gimmick, and some of the features were already available on other platforms, but by and large they’ve done most of what they said they would.

Google has been analysing the content of photos for years to enable better searching, or automatic sharing, but Huawei has incorporated a lot of this machine learning technology in the handset itself to allow recognition to take place in real-time, not when uploaded into the cloud. Indeed, it can do things without you even needing an Internet connection.

The AI functionality gives the camera the ability to recognise scenes and adjust camera settings automatically (right down to noticing you’re scanning a document and cutting it out and straightening it up automatically). It also allows for the phone to anticipate things like movement.

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AI Scene recognition for food

There’s something to see here, keep moving

The new night mode feature is the single most impressive feature of the phone. It’s going to be a difficult feature for shop staff to demonstrate in a brightly lit store, but one that can be easily demonstrated here.

It’s for the night mode that Huawei’s AI Stabilisation tech comes into its own.

Long exposures will always help a cameraphone compete with more professional cameras, but few people carry a tripod with them to enable the use of this mode.

The night mode function now allows for a four to six-second exposure shot with the phone simply held in your hand.

The phone filters out any camera shake in a way that has to be seen to be believed. It can’t work miracles if you violently shake it, but it will cope with more movement than you’d expect.

Night mode can also work wonders indoors to capture more detail and colour
Night mode can also work wonders indoors to capture more detail and colour

It also copes with movement in the photo itself, so you can still take a photo with moving objects (perhaps someone walking down the street) and still get a sharp result.

It can sometimes get it wrong and you’ll see a bit of blurring (the type usually seen on HDR shots where three photos are combined into one) but it’s a rarity.

This is because the phone will take a main photo and then use the extra exposure time to gather more light and colour data, which is then combined.

The results have to be seen to believed, and although some photos can look a little over processed at times, or even a little too light, it’s nothing out of the ordinary and certainly in a similar vein to photos taken with Google’s HDR+ mode on a Pixel phone.

The difference is that photos are arguably more detailed than Google’s current hardware offers, given the single sensor and lower pixel count.

For most people the P20 Pro can easily stand in for a DSLR and you could go on holiday and come home with photos that many people won’t believe came from a phone camera.

If there’s any complaint about the phone’s imaging capabilities, it’s that video lacks the same ‘wow’ factor. It lacks things like 4K recording at 60 frames per second, or image stabilisation. Even the software stabilisation is restricted to 1080p video (and even then, not at 60fps), although some of this may be addressed in a future firmware update.

The 960 frames per second super slow-motion feature, first introduced on Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium and now available on the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+ is restricted to 720p. It’s fun, but not class-leading.

You just press the button to record a short clip and that’s it. It’s a lot more basic than either Sony or Samsung offers, although I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s not a feature you’ll likely use often anyway.

Sony has gone on to offer 4K video recording with HDR and full-HD (1080p) super slow motion video on the XZ2 and XZ2 Compact, so it would seem that the next thing for Huawei to work hard on will be in the video department.

Let me point out that it isn’t bad at video, it’s just not class-leading.

Wider Compatibility

There’s now a fix for the earlier issues with the video codec Huawei began to use last year for 4K video recording. While Google Photos and YouTube can now cope with H.265 encoded video, you get the choice to use the less efficient, but more compatible with editing software, H.264 coding for saving video.

Finally, I should mention the front-facing camera. I’m no lover of selfies, nor the beauty mode that Huawei seems to set as default as if we all want to look soft and fuzzy, but Huawei has been generous with a 24-megapixel sensor.

Turn the beauty mode off and you’ll find the sensor is pretty capable. It can also be used to record 1080p video once all the enhancements are disabled.

Sounding and Looking Good

Audio on the Mate 10 Pro was good, and there’s now Dolby Atmos accreditation (with AC-4 audio codec support) here. The phone comes into its own when you watch a film in landscape mode, as it activates the earpiece as a second speaker.

The bass comes only from the base-mounted speaker, but you still get a good stereo sound with a combination of that and the top earpiece speaker.

On the visual side the HDR 10 display now actually gets a chance to show itself off properly with full HDR support from Netflix and, hopefully, other apps in the future.

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USB-C in, 3.5mm out

Like the Mate 10 Pro, there’s no 3.5mm headphone socket here. Inside the box you’ll find a set of USB-C earphones and a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter for any other headphones you already own.

On the Bluetooth audio side, there’s a very good range of codecs supported to offer high-quality audio.

Notch again!

I’ve already mentioned the notch at the start of this review, but feel that given how crazy the world has gone when talking about notches, I should probably talk a bit more about it. It’s really a sore point for so many people.

My opinion has been that a screen notch is ugly, and it’s a feature of the iPhone X (and the Essential phone, which arguably started the ‘trend’) I considered to be the last thing the industry should set out to copy.

By rights, I should be jumping up and down in anger over Huawei’s decision to use a notched screen, but I’m not thanks to the ‘hidden notch’ option to effectively make it disappear.

By adding extra pixels the blanked out section doesn’t compromise the normal screen real-estate and it has the added bonus that once the phone is held in a landscape orientation, the bezels are equally matched left and right.

It looks far worse when a phone has a screen that is off centre.

Perfect symmetry with the top of the bezel ‘disappearing’ and taking the notch with it.

The benefit of this extra bit of screen is obvious when you see the ‘bezel’ displaying your notification icons, time and signal strength.

What other manufacturers choose to do with their notched screens will no doubt spark more debate, but I can not only live with the P20 Pro setup, but it has even made me start to look at the Mate 10 Pro has odd for not having the same display!

Also, for anyone that does like the notch, you can have it shown in its full glory, just as the Huawei product shots show. The choice is up to you, but don’t let the notch cloud your judgement on whether to buy this phone or not.

Connectivity & Productivity

Like the Mate 10 Pro, the P20 Pro comes with dual-band Wi-Fi with 802.11ac, plus the option of a dual SIM/dual VoLTE version. There’s Wi-Fi calling support too, as long as the SIM(s) is provisioned for it.

It’s great that the phone has universal settings for VoLTE (4G calling) and if you get the dual-SIM version (available only from Three in the UK), you can be connected to two 4G networks at the same time, allowing voice calls over 4G on one network, while using data on another.

There are rumours you can convert a single SIM model to dual SIM with a firmware flash and a replacement SIM-tray, but this is still to be confirmed and you can likely kiss goodbye to your warranty if you go down this route. However, I’ll be keeping an eye on this and will update the review as appropriate in the future.

Cat 18 LTE: Offering speeds of up to 1.2Gbps
Cat 18 LTE: Offering speeds of up to 1.2Gbps – but this will do!

I expected the P-series line to lack the Mate 10 Pro’s desktop mode, given the different market Huawei is aiming this phone to, so was pleasantly surprised to see that the EMUI Desktop mode remains. With a simple USB-C to HDMI cable, you can run most of your apps on a big screen in a windowed environment.

You can use the phone as a virtual trackpad and keyboard to control things, pair up Bluetooth input devices, or use a USB-C hub to add wired accessories. Get a powered hub and you’ll be able to charge the phone at the same time.

It’s also worth mentioning that one difference between the Mate 10 Pro and the P20 Pro is Android Oreo 8 and 8.1, including Emotion UI 8.1. This is likely to be rolled out to Mate 10 Pro users in the coming month.

The P20 Pro also adds face unlocking. It’s very quick and this additional method of unlocking can be set to activate when you lift up the phone and aim at your face. It can even work in low light pretty well and for a lot of the time you’ll be able to unlock this way and not even bother with the fingerprint sensor.

Staying power

The 4,000mAh battery is another massive benefit of the P20 Pro (and Mate 10 Pro) over rivals. You’ll no doubt wonder how Huawei can pack in a large battery in a small shell, when other companies equally capable of building hardware seem unable, or unwilling, to go down the same road.

I rarely found the need to enable the power saving functionality (which turns down the brightness, restricts CPU performance and disabled background synchronisation) as the battery allows for hours of screen on time without faltering.

You can also use the camera for long periods of time without the battery taking a big hit, and it’s near impossible to put the phone under a heavy enough load to heat it up.

Admittedly, during my time with the P20 Pro I barely played any graphically intensive games, but I have full confidence that it has the stamina to not let you down, backed up by the Supercharging capabilities to get your phone charged up quickly when charging eventually becomes a necessity.

It’s always hard to give an accurate real world measure of battery life, given differing needs (and other factors like signal strength) but you can expect to use the phone however you want, and get 4 or 5 hours of screen on time consistently.

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Conclusion

Last year I expressed some concern about what Huawei could do with the next P-series phone after releasing the Mate 10 Pro, and now I know the answer was, well, quite a lot.

The Mate 10 Pro still has a place in the market, especially if the price is right. At the time of writing, the Mate 10 Pro could be found on Amazon for just £495. The P20 Pro on the other hand will set you back around £800.

As you can see from my Mate 10 open gallery, the Mate 10 Pro camera is still good and if the enhanced camera features aren’t worth over £300 more, you certainly won’t be disappointed.

There is also the standard Huawei P20 as another possible choice, although you then forego the OLED screen and will still have to pay an extra £100 over the Mate 10 Pro.

For anyone into imaging, I can’t think of a better all-rounder on sale today. It’s obvious others will seek to copy what Huawei and Leica has achieved here, and I am looking forward to this phone shaking up the entire industry, but for the time being if you want the best phone camera, what you’re looking for is already here.

Key specifications

Price £799 SIM-free + Contract on EE, Vodafone, Three and O2
Size 155 x 73.9 x 7.8mm
Weight 180g
Screen 6.1-inch 18.7:9 2240×1080 AMOLED / HDR10 (top 80 pixels with centre notch)
Battery 4,000mAh
OS Android Oreo (V8.1) with EMUI 8.1
Processor Kirin 970
RAM 6GB
Storage 128GB
Camera (rear) 40MP RGB f/1.8 + 20MP Mono f/1.6 + 8MP f/2.4 80mm telephoto
Camera (front) 24MP f/2.0
Video (rear) 720/1080/2160 (4K)
Video (front) 720/1080
Fast Charging USB-PD & Huawei SuperCharge
Fingerprint sensor Yes (front)
4G LTE Cat 18 (1.2Gbps) + VoLTE/VoWiFi
Wi-Fi Dual-Band with 802.11ac
Notes Dual SIM version has dual 4G/dual VoLTE/VoWiFi support

How to get one

The P20 Pro is being sold for connection to any network, with Three selling the dual SIM version (in my opinion, this is the one to go for).

More info: Huawei Website


Disclosure

It’s probably clear I’m a big fan of Huawei’s development over the last few years, including its sister-brand Honor, and some may have concerns that I’m being paid to write these reviews. I am not.

However, I did receive a P20 Pro at the launch event that is mine to keep. But if I hadn’t, I would have bought one.

If you liked this review, please share it. I cannot ever expect the same level of exposure as the big tech websites, but I hope my reviews are in-depth and honest.

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