Huawei P20 Pro review: A top-notch contender despite the controversy

2018 has been an interesting year for Huawei; the company’s US expansion plans with American carriers was canned just hours it was supposed to happen at CES 2018, and  things haven’t gotten any better since. The Chinese handset maker was dropped from shelves at Best Buy and certain US agencies are even advising against buying their products. While there was much talk about the Mate 10 Pro’s lack of sales channels and consternation about the US consumer ‘missing out,’ the more significant concern should be that the consumers will also miss out on the Huawei P20 Pro and P20 that launched on March 27 in Paris. Luckily for Huawei, the rest of the world is still open for business.
Sporting a premium glass and metal design with some fantastic color options, both the P20 Pro and the P20 are stunning phones to behold. The P20 Pro sports internals such as a 6.1-inch FHD+ OLED display complete with 18:7:9 aspect ratio and notch, a Kirin 970 octa-core processor, 6GB RAM, 128GB of built-in storage, and a 4,000mAh battery. Camera-wise, there’s a whopping 98 megapixels of camera chops thanks to its 24MP front-facing camera and three camera sensors on the rear panel. The P20 Pro is Huawei’s golden ticket to the big league, outside of the US of course.

While the review mostly concentrates on the impressive P20 Pro in this review, we’ll also cover where it and the regular P20 part ways regarding design and functionality.

Design

“Stunning,” “beautiful,” “a jaw-droppingly good finish,” are perfect adjectives to describe the P20 and P20 Pro, especially if you are lucky enough to get one in the Twilight or Pink Gold colors. Huawei certainly kicked things up a notch (sorry) since the P10 launched at MWC 2017, a phone whose aesthetics I felt had been ‘dialed in’ by Huawei’s design team. This is not the case with the P20 Pro that sports glass layers front and rear with an aluminum frame melded in between. When combined with the superb iridescent blue-to-purple paint job called Twilight, the P20 Pro is a phone that you simply can’t stop gazing at. Naturally, with a rear glass panel that simply oozes into the metal frame seamlessly, the P20 Pro is a tad slippery, so you may want to wrap it in a case. You’ll just want to make sure it’s a clear case so you can show the phone off to everyone around you.

It’s now time to talk about the notch. Just to be clear, before I received the P20 Pro review unit, I held the opinion that whoever developed the idea of having a notch should possibly be burned at the stake. A tad extreme, I know, but I believed the notch’s presence held zero use. After three weeks with the Huawei P20 Pro, the notch inventor can breathe much easier. EMUI gives us a choice to either see the notch in all of its dubious glory or to hide it along the notifications bar. I’ve alternated between the two options and found that the notch is not something you have to shake in terror about. When the notch is visible, you get a few extra pixels either side of it, but that’s the only change you’ll notice other than the WiFi, cellular signal, and NFC icons being shunted to the left-hand side. With the notch being 2018’s trend among smartphones, it’s unlikely that you’ll see a flagship smartphone from anyone except Samsung that doesn’t sport a notch. And even then, there may be some bad news on that front.

The volume buttons reside on the right-hand-side of the handset, just above the power button that sports a go-faster ride strip to help make it easier to recognize. On the left-hand-side is the SIM-tray, and on the top is the infrared blaster, a microphone hole, and the signal cutouts.

On the bottom, the USB Type-C charging port sits between a couple more signal cutouts and twin speaker chambers, only one of which has a speaker within.

Something you may have noticed that is missing on both the P20 Pro and the regular P20 is the 3.5mm audio jack. Just like the Mate 10 Pro before it, the audio jack is nowhere to be found. It’s one of those features that you either care deeply about or not at all, possibly determined by whether you’ve made the jump to using wireless headphones. Personally, despite having been perturbed by the lack of an audio jack on the Mate 10 Pro previously, it’s something I’ve come to accept, a process that has been helped by the purchase of a decent pair of wireless headphones.

As with the P10, the P20 and P20 Pro sport a fingerprint reader on the front just below the display. It’s an interesting design choice considering that everything else on the front of the phone is aimed at making the most of the phones real estate. It feels a little like its a case of form over function with the fingerprint sensor being crammed in below the display so it wouldn’t diminish the beauty of the rear glass panel.

When it comes to dust and water resistance, the P20 Pro has an IP67 rating that means it can be submerged in up to 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes. The P20 makes do with an IP53 rating that allows it to handle splashes of water when in an upright position, which is a little disappointing in 2018 at this price point.

Hardware

 Huawei P20Huawei P20 Pro
AnnouncedMarch 27, 2018March 27, 2018
Display5.8-inch FullView LCD Display, 2240 x 1080 resolution, 429ppi, 18:7:9 aspect ratio6.1-inch FullView OLED Display, 18:7:9 aspect ratio, 2240 x 1080 resolution,
ProcessorHUAWEI Kirin 970Octa-core CPU (4*Cortex A73 2.36GHz + 4*Cortex A53 1.8GHz) + i7 co-processorHUAWEI Kirin 970Octa-core CPU (4*Cortex A73 2.36GHz + 4*Cortex A53 1.8GHz) + i7 co-processor
RAM4GB6GB
Storage64GB128GB
Rear Camera12MP RGB (f/1.8) +
20MP monochrome (f/1.6)
HUAWEI AIS
4D predictive focus
5x Hybrid Zoom
4K and 960 fps video recording
40MP RGB (f/1.8) +
20MP monochrome (f/1.6) + 8MP
telephoto (f/2.4)
HUAWEI AIS
4D predictive focus
5x Hybrid Zoom
4K and 960 fps video recording
Front Camera24MP24MP
Battery3,400mAh (non-removable) Huawei SuperCharge4000mAh (non-removable), Huawei SuperCharge
ChargingUSB Type CUSB Type C
SoftwareAndroid 8.1 Oreo with EMUI 8.1Android 8.1 Oreo with EMUI 8.1
ConnectivityWi-Fi 2.4G, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac with Wi-Fi Direct support BT4.2, support BLE support aptX/aptX HD and LDAC HD AudioUSB Type CDisplayPort 1.2Wi-Fi 2.4G, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac with Wi-Fi Direct supportBT4.2, support BLE support aptX/aptX HD and LDAC HD AudioUSB Type CDisplayPort 1.2
SensorsAmbient, proximity, accelerometer, gyro, compass, fingerprintAmbient, proximity, accelerometer, gyro, compass, fingerprint
Ingress protectionIP53, IP67, dust & water resistance
Measurements 149.1 mm x 70.8 mm x 7.65 mm 155.0 mm x 73.9 mm x 7.8 mm
Weight165g180g
ColorsBlack, Champagne Gold, Twilight, Pink Gold, Midnight BlueBlack, Midnight Blue, Pink Gold, Twilight

Performance

With a 6.1-inch FullView OLED display, a slightly odd 18:7:9 aspect ratio, and 2240 x 1080 resolution thanks to the notch, the P20 Pro carries on with the trend of smartphones getting taller rather than wider. The panel shows vibrant colors, deep blacks, and has great viewing angles; there’s very little to nitpick about the display other than perhaps not being a bright as I would like, although it’s perfectly readable when outdoors. The regular P20 sports a 5.8-inch FullView screen with the same resolution and aspect ratio as the Pro, but of the LCD variety. As per usual with Huawei handsets, both the P20 and P20 Pro have a factory fitted screen protector installed.

Much like 2017’s Mate 10 Pro, the P20 Pro sports Huawei’s latest HiSilicon Kirin 970 octa-core processor and has 6GB RAM with a very welcome 128GB of built-in storage while the smaller P20 makes do with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage. There isn’t a noticeable difference in performance between the P20 and P20 Pro, but you will see apps reloading a little more often on the smaller variant. The venerable MicroSD slot is missing from both the P20 and P20 Pro, which may be a dealbreaker to some, although the Pro’s 128GB of built-in storage will go a long way towards mitigating this.

While we don’t place too much substance in benchmarking apps, we checked to see how the two handsets performed on GeekBench 4. The P20 achieved a Single-Core score of 1876 and Multi-Core score of 6533, while the P20 Pro managed a higher score of 1921 and 6669 respectively. Both the P20 and P20 Pro beat the Pixel 2 XL in the benchmark tests but fell short of the iPhone X and Galaxy S9+ scores. What does this mean in terms of real-world usage? Not much, really. Both models offer a slick, highly responsive user experience, and in three weeks of using the P20 Pro I have yet to see them stumble on any task, despite running non-final firmware (B106). Performance and battery life for that matter is helped by the presence of the FHD+ display, which means the GPU doesn’t have to push as many pixels.

Battery

It’s become something that you take for granted with Huawei handsets, and a detail that I immediately notice after using other brands of smartphones: the outstanding battery life. The Mate 10 Pro’s stamina was mightily impressive, and I’m pleased to report that the P20 Pro matches it. The P20 will get you through the day, but the Pro’s extra 600mAh really makes a difference. In use from around 7am until midnight, I’ve been hooking the P20 Pro up to the charger with around 20-30% left in the tank. Bear in mind that this is with heavy usage that includes taking pictures, browsing YouTube, checking emails and social media, instant messaging, browsing the internet, and the odd game of PvZ2 or PUBG (purely for research purposes, of course).

Watching an hour of Netflix will use just under 10% battery life at 50% brightness without enabling any battery saving techniques, which means it possible to eek out battery even more with a little effort.

If somehow, you do manage to empty the tank, Huawei’s super-fast SuperCharge technology will top up the P20 Pro’s 4,000mAh battery from empty to 54% in 30 mins and from 0-100% in just 90 mins. Besides being scarily quick, it also takes away any hint of battery anxiety you may have. When running low without access to a charger, EMUI 8.1 has a few options such as Power Saving Mode and the ability to downgrade the display resolution to 720p to help conserve power. And, if you are truly desperate, you can enable the Ultra Battery option that disables everything except a few essential apps. It has to be said that it’s a shame that Huawei didn’t include wireless charging with either the P20 or the P20 Pro.

Software

This is usually the place where I say that Huawei makes excellent hardware but falls down on the software side of things. I’m not going to say that droves of stock Android fans are going to flock over to EMUI 8.1, but I will go as far as saying that for the first time, there’s no urgent need to install a third-party launcher and that users should give EMUI 8.1 a chance.

This latest version of Huawei’s Emotion User Interface is the real deal, offering slick, snappy performance. Menus and sub-menus are, for the most part, easily navigated, although having the Always-on-Display settings in the Battery menu strikes me as a little odd. The same goes for the presence of the System Navigation settings in the System section instead of Smart Assistance like it is on the Mate 10 Pro. While not things you access day-to-day, they do cause mild frustration when setting the phone up for the first time. You’ll want to take a look at our Tips and Tricks guide to make the most of your P20 or P20 Pro.

Despite being just a .1 bump in version numbers, EMUI 8.1 is much more consistent than what we saw with the Mate 10 Pro. That isn’t to say that there aren’t still some untidy quirks to be seen in EMUI 8.1 as mentioned earlier, but it’s a genuine surprise to see them.

Notable features include 2D Facial Recognition, the Ability to hide the notch, and the Quick Settings that includes apps that you can access from the lock screen. Much like Samsung with its progressively better TouchWiz overlay, Huawei is making assured progress with every new iteration of EMUI that it develops. EMUI 8.1 offers a feature-rich experience that will satisfy all but the most ardent stock Android fan.

Camera

This is another area that the P20 and P20 Pro diverge. The regular P20 has a dual rear camera setup that is a small upgrade from the Mate 10 Pro consisting of a 12MP RGB sensor and a 20MP monochrome sensor. The P20 Pro sports a trio of rear cameras that includes a 20MP monochrome sensor, a massive 40MP RGB (color) sensor, as well as an 8MP telephoto lens. The P20 Pro’s three rear camera sensors combine to a whopping 68MP, plus both models sport front-facing cameras with 24MP. I think it’s fair to say that the megapixel race is back on. Other things of note are the 3X Optical Zoom, 5X Hybrid Zoom, 102,400 ISO, and super Slo-Mo video @ 960fps.

Huawei has re-imagined the camera app, and instead of sliding the various options in from the left or right, now you have a little slider just below the viewfinder that hosts a bunch of functions such as Portrait, Night, Video, Pro mode, and more. There’s a settings button in the upper right corner that you can use to access things like resolution, the Master AI toggle, Assistive Grid, and so on. I would say that it is a work in progress. I found the slider to be helpful although it can be a little frustrating having to swipe all the way from Aperture to More to access HDR or Slo-Mo.

As with the Mate 10 Pro before it, the P20 and P20 Pro sport a Neural Processing Unit (NPU) that lets the camera determine what settings are best depending on the environment using Artificial Intelligence (AI). The AI can recognize up to 500 scenarios in 19 categories such as cats, greenery, close-ups, portraits, and a whole lot more. For the most part, it works well, except when it doesn’t. Luckily, when the AI gets it wrong, you can choose to revert to the default settings. You can also go an extra step and turn the AI off altogether in the camera settings by toggling the Master AI button. Doing so will mean you’ll also miss out on Huawei’s 4D predictive focus that predicts the movement of moving objects, as well as its AI-Assisted Composition that makes intelligent suggestions when framing group shots and landscapes pictures.

Night mode is a feature that has been present on many Huawei (and Honor) devices such as the Honor 8, Mate 9P10, Honor 9, Mate 10 Pro, etc. And usually, in our reviews, we’ve shown that Night mode produces fantastic shots in low-light conditions with the caveat of having to use a tripod to keep the phone stable because of the long exposure time. Well, no more. Huawei has somehow worked it so that you can use Night mode without a tripod, take shots with 4-6 seconds exposure, and produce a fantastic image, thanks to Huawei’s AIS technology. Take a look at the unedited photos below that I shot after midnight with no flash or tripod. Just because it’s called Night mode doesn’t mean that you can only use it at night, though; you can bring out some extra color and detail during the day as well when in less than perfect conditions.

Despite the presence of the 40MP rear sensor, the P20 Pro takes images at 10MP with a 2μm pixel size unless you manually change the setting. The light information from four 1μm pixels is combined into a single 2μm pixel using a process calling ‘pixel binning.’ While it is possible to change the setting so you can shoot using the 40MP sensor by default, you can’t zoom in, and the 10MP setting will take better photos in less than perfect conditions.

Let’s not forget the role of the 20MP Monochrome sensor that captures more light information than the 40MP color sensor which results in images with higher details in any conditions as well as taking some great black and white photos.

The P20 Pro’s other party trick is its 3x Optical zoom/5x Lossless Hybrid zoom that allows you to get up close and personal with objects and people without moving. Zooming all the way into an image at 3X will produce an image with a high level of detail while at 5X the quality has dipped a little, but not to an unacceptable level like you might experience on other handsets. Check out the examples below.

Before we move on to video, a comment on the P20’s camera. The P20 Pro outperforms its smaller sibling, especially when using the zoom feature. Pictures come out with extra noise and some fuzziness, and it misses out on some of the options that its larger sibling has.

Shooting video is where the P20 Pro falls down a little, in that 4K content doesn’t benefit from stabilization and is limited to 30fps. You can get 60 Fps at 1080p, but you’ll need to downgrade further to 1080p @30fps to gain stabilization. It’s unfortunate, and something to keep in mind if you shoot a lot of video on your phone. Something that was made a big deal of at the launch is the ability to shoot super slo-mo video @960fps in 720p. It can be a little tricky getting the timing right to capture the exact moment, but it can produce some high-quality moments, as you can check out in the video below.

Closing

It’s easy to give an old backhanded compliment such as ‘This is Huawei’s best phone yet‘ etc. because while the old adage does hold true, Huawei has seriously outdone itself with the P20 Pro.

Some critics will argue that Huawei has simply thrown a third camera lens into the mix, but in reality, the P20 Pro is far more nuanced. Sure the third rear camera sports a huge 40MP sensor, but thanks to Huawei’s partnership with Leica, the resulting images are far more than just vast numbers of megapixels. It’s a shame about the stabilization issues with video recording, especially considering we are in 2018. Despite this, I would say that Night mode is as notable as Google’s HDR+ effect on its Pixel and Pixel 2 smartphones. It’s that good.

Finally, the finish on the P20 Pro is otherworldly. Huawei’s flagship smartphones have had great build quality in recent years, but the P20 Pro takes it a step further. When combined with the Twilight color, it makes for a beautiful handset that you’ll never tire of showing off. The way that the purple blends into the blue on the rear panel is mesmerizing.

The big question here is if you should buy the P20 that costs £599 or the higher-specced P20 Pro with its trio of rear cameras at £799. The regular P20 is a good phone in its own right, but it doesn’t match up to its similarly priced competitors such as the S9OnePlus 5T, or the Mate 10 Pro that currently costs £529 in the UK.

On the flip side, although it costs an extra £200 when purchasing it SIM-free (£799), the P20 Pro boasts a bigger display, outstanding battery life, and a fantastic triple camera setup. Huawei’s latest flagship offers something for both professional and amateur photographers alike in a smartphone with both an exquisite design and high-end specifications. For the moment at least, the P20 Pro is the best smartphone you can get in 2018, provided that you live outside the US and can live with the notch.

Tips and Tricks for the Huawei P20 and P20 Pro

Best case guide for the Huawei P20 and P20 Pro

Here’s the Huawei P20 Pro, complete with a 40MP camera and display notch


About the Author: Peter Holden

He's been an Android fan ever since owning an HTC Hero, with the Dell Streak being his first phablet. He currently carries a Pixel 2 XL, Huawei P20 Pro, and a Huawei MediaPad M5 (8.4) in his pockets and thinks nothing of lugging a 17-inch laptop around in his backpack. When not immersed in the world of Android and gadgets, he's an avid sports fan, and like all South Africans, he loves a good Braai (BBQ).