Huawei P20 Pro review: style and substance from an unlikely source

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Huawei P20 Pro review: style and substance from an unlikely source

I’ve spent every waking moment of the past 10 days in the company of the Huawei P20 Pro. This phone has surprised and delighted me like few others, and what you are about to read is a collection of happy words about it. I don’t think the P20 Pro is perfect, nor the best phone ever released, but I do believe it’s one of the most important devices we’ve seen in the mobile world for years.

In spite of its massive networking and telecommunications business, and the millions of phones it sells in its native China, Huawei has remained an underdog in other smartphone markets. The P20 Pro changes that. This phone is as powerful, refined, fast, stylish, and desirable as anything we’ve seen from Samsung, LG, and HTC at their best. At a time when US spy agencies are warning Americans off Huawei phones due to (so far unsubstantiated) espionage fears, Huawei is responding in the best possible way: by making amazing phones.

Huawei is releasing the P20 Pro today for a price of €899 in Europe with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. That places it in direct confrontation with Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and Apple’s iPhone X. And the remarkable thing is how well Huawei’s phone competes in that rarified class of super flagships.

The P20 Pro is a typical Chinese phone in that it has an overwhelmingly rich spec sheet and an eye-catching design. But it’s different in how effectively it capitalizes on its high specs and in how subtly beautiful it is. Instead of one color, Huawei has given this phone an iridescent gradient paint job that exudes sophistication. The combination of beauty and brawn here is topped off with IP67 certification for water and dust resistance. Every phone company wants to imbue its devices with a premium feel, but few succeed as well as Huawei has done with the P20 Pro. (100) add

It starts as soon as you take the phone out of the box, with its perfectly contoured sides resting softly in the palm of your hand. For a phone with glass on both the front and back, the P20 Pro feels surprisingly rigid and durable. With a huge 4,000mAh battery inside, it also conveys a satisfying sense of density that only Apple’s iPhone X can match. There’s a litany of subtle design details and pleasing symmetries in this Huawei design that add up to create a positive first impression. I love the inconsequential but cool accent color on the power button, for instance. It’s fair to say that I liked the P20 Pro before I even turned it on. (119) add

Coming from a Google Pixel 2 XL, I find the P20 Pro to be an ergonomic upgrade. Huawei’s phone has a slightly larger screen, at 6.1 inches, but is physically smaller. That’s something that notch detractors will have to consider before they criticize the notch on the P20 Pro: it does provide more screen real estate than an un-notched design. But more to the point, the P20 Pro is easy to pick up and to grip securely. The glass surfaces can feel slippery, however I haven’t come close to dropping the phone even once during all my testing (which is unusual). (101) add

My two complaints about the P20 Pro’s industrial design are minor. One is that the rear glass picks up fingerprints with the same ease as the Galaxy S9 and iPhone X that Huawei is competing against. And the other downside is the size of the camera bump, which is roughly the same as Apple’s on the iPhone X and leads to similar issues of the phone being imbalanced when laid on a flat surface.

Huawei’s decision to retain the fingerprint sensor at the front of the phone was peculiar to me, given how everyone else has either removed it (Apple), shifted it to the back (Samsung), or integrated it directly into the display (Vivo). But it took me only moments of using the P20 Pro’s fingerprint reader to realize that keeping it was the right move. It is astonishingly fast and accurate, and the way it feels under my thumb is great. It takes no more than a glancing tap to unlock the phone, and I appreciate still having a home button for exiting full-screen apps with a single tap. In-display fingerprint sensors can’t yet compete with the quickness of a discrete solution like Huawei’s, while rear-mounted ones just aren’t as easy and intuitive to use as those at the front. (137) add

As if the fingerprint ID system wasn’t swift enough, Huawei has also added a Face Unlock option to the P20 Pro, which uses the front-facing 24-megapixel camera. I was again skeptical that this would be anything other than an Apple-chasing spec gimmick, but my skepticism was quelled by the experience. Face Unlock on this phone is instant in almost all circumstances. Even when I locked myself in an unlit bathroom, the phone took less than a second to identify me. Is this system as secure as Apple’s more sophisticated Face ID? No. But its speed and accuracy are at least as good, if not better. (105) add

Like the majority of its Android rivals this year, Huawei will be criticized for having a notch at the top of its display and a “chin” at the bottom. The P20 Pro can shrug off those complaints on the strength of its awesome fingerprint reader and genuinely useful face-unlocking technology. I even love the circular earpiece and the loud, crisp sound that it produces during calls. Nothing about this design is superfluous or perfunctory. And if you truly hate the notch, Huawei gives you the option to hide it away.

The 6.1-inch, Full HD+ display on the Huawei P20 Pro is excellent. There are a couple of color modes to choose from, and once I switched to the Natural one, I got colors that had just the right amount of saturation and vividness. Not perfectly accurate, perhaps, but perfectly suited to consumer mobile use. The Pixel 2 XL feels drab by comparison, while the recent HTC U11+ appears lurid and oversaturated. Only the two phones that Huawei is trying to overcome, the iPhone X and Galaxy S9, can claim to have displays as good as the P20 Pro. All three are OLED, all three can be used comfortably in bright outdoor conditions, and all three provide plenty of sharpness, contrast, and accuracy. Huawei has its own version of Apple’s True Tone tech, which adjusts color temperature in accordance with ambient light around the phone: it’s subtle and works brilliantly well. (150) add

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The cameras are intended to be the Huawei P20 Pro’s biggest differentiating feature. The 24-megapixel selfie cam is joined by a 40-megapixel f/1.8 main camera, a 20-megapixel f/1.6 monochrome camera, and an 8-megapixel f/2.4 telephoto camera on the back. If you’re in the mood for math, that’s 92 megapixels of image-processing might.

Huawei makes smart use of all those pixels by combining four of them into one, similarly to what Nokia previously did with its PureView cameras on the 808 and Lumia 1020 (incidentally, Huawei’s head of imaging, Eero Salmelin, is a veteran of Nokia’s PureView team). This approach produces sharper, cleaner images at a lower resolution. You can still shoot 40-megapixel stills if you insist on it, but the default (and the highest quality) setting is a 10-megapixel shot with the combined light information from the whole sensor.

The P20 Pro’s main camera sensor is extra large to match its extreme resolution, coming in at 1/1.7 of an inch. That’s more than double what you’d get with a Galaxy S9 or an iPhone X, and it leads to some shockingly impressive low-light performance. One of the Huawei P20 Pro’s quad-pixel pixels would measure 2μm, easily outshining even the 1.4μm pixels of the superb Google Pixel 2 camera. What all of these numbers ultimately add up to is a formidably capable camera that I’m not sure I’ve come close to making the most of yet.

Image quality from the P20 Pro is, by a great margin, the best that Huawei has ever produced. Huawei’s new camera system is, in my judgment, superior to those on the Galaxy S9 and iPhone X, though personal preference or a fondness for particular features may sway that decision. For my liking, I still see too much processing, too many small details lost in the battle to eliminate image noise and imperfections, to crown the P20 Pro my favorite camera. The Pixel 2 XL spits out much more noise than the Pro — and if you look at the Gare du Nord comparison image, Huawei’s shot retains sharpness all the way to the edges of the frame, whereas the Pixel’s periphery is soft — but with that noise I get a more realistic and faithful sense of the scene captured. The flaws in the Pixel’s image help it produce more credible results, or at least results that feel more photographic. (160) add

It’s difficult to know where to begin to encapsulate Huawei’s camera software, which is certainly comprehensive. You can shoot panoramas, portraits, monochrome, burst, a simulated f/0.95 aperture, at 40 megapixels, or handheld long exposures. And the Pro mode lets you go wild with manually tweaking every possible parameter. This is an overwhelming diversity of options, but you can just lean on Huawei’s new Master AI system to make all the adjustments on your behalf.

Master AI is a trained-up image recognition system that quickly (usually instantly) recognizes the circumstances of what you’re trying to capture and adjusts the camera’s processing accordingly. When I was photographing the Eiffel Tower, for example, the P20 Pro camera sensed a blue sky and amped up its saturation. Green leaves reliably triggered the camera’s “greenery” adjustments, and any receipts I presented to it were handled by a built-in document scanner. Huawei claims this year’s iteration is smart enough to not only detect food, but to know the particular style of cooking, whether it’s Chinese, Italian, Indian, or whatever else. (100) add

The philosophy underpinning Master AI is about producing the most pleasing, not necessarily the most realistic, photos. You can think of it as the AI intelligently applying subtle filters to all your shots. Apple already does something similar behind the scenes in the processing of iPhone photos. Huawei’s Master AI is optional, because it applies more aggressive alterations and doesn’t always get things right, though its judgment is good enough for me to be okay with keeping it on all the time. I suspect the vast majority of people will feel the same way — and photography purists can always dismiss the suggested scene-detection tweaks or switch to Pro mode. (110) add

Matching features with the Galaxy S9, the Huawei P20 Pro also has a 960fps super slow-mo at 720p. It’s a fun novelty. Also keeping up with the iPhone, the Pro has a “studio lighting” setting on its front-facing camera that tries to isolate your face from the background and generate a dramatic look. As with the iPhone, it’s terribly imprecise and should be avoided at all costs.

The third camera on the P20 Pro is used to provide a 3x optical zoom or a 5x so-called hybrid zoom. Photographing Parisian landmarks in the daytime, I found both zoom options useful, giving me greater compositional flexibility and delivering crisp detail. The telephoto lens is the only one that’s optically stabilized on the P20 Pro, though I can’t say I’ve seen any hand shake in the hundreds of photos I’ve shot with any of the cameras on this phone. Huawei has a thing it calls AI stabilization, which evidently does a wonderful job of neutralizing clumsiness or unsteadiness on the part of the user. (105) add

Huawei’s night mode in the P20 Pro is a unique and remarkable new feature. Exposing the shot for a full four seconds, it somehow manages to produce handheld photos that remain sharp, accurate, and practically noise-free. No other phone can match the P20 Pro’s night photography, which makes even the Pixel’s low-light photos appear flat, washed-out, and noisy. This advance might get lost in the deluge of camera options, but I think it’s the single biggest advantage that Huawei now enjoys over its competition. For more on how it works and a side-by-side comparison with the Pixel, see my earlier in-depth article on the P20 Pro’s night mode. (108) add

There are no image processing delays on the P20 Pro, and that smooth and assured speed of operation extends to the entire user experience. As with the premium feel on the outside, the responsiveness inside the P20 Pro is top notch. Shipping with the latest Android 8.1 Oreo software on board, the Pro is also super reliable — I’ve had more app crashes on the Pixel 2 XL than I’ve had stutters with Huawei’s phone.

There is room for improvement, though. For some strange reason, Huawei doesn’t offer the widely used shortcut of double-tapping the power button to launch the camera. Instead, I have to map that to the volume-down key, which is mostly fine — unless I’m listening to music or a podcast, and then I end up turning the volume down.

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EMUI, Huawei’s skin atop Android, has evolved from being a clumsy iOS rip-off a couple of years ago to a quite acceptable user experience today. I can’t say I’m in love with it, and I’d have preferred to see an always-on display option, but the mere fact that it doesn’t upset me with its weirdness or unreliability is a major step forward for Huawei. The company’s deviations from Google’s original Android design can mostly be sidestepped or disabled, and I appreciate having a dark mode, an increasingly valuable feature for phones with OLED displays.

Like Samsung, Huawei now offers a feature called App Twin, which lets you run multiple instances of the same app and thus be logged in to multiple accounts of the same social or messaging service. Huawei has split-screen too, of course, and a sophisticated screenshot tool. The EMUI lock screen also has a handy set of quick shortcuts, accessible by swiping up from the bottom: there’s a voice recorder, flashlight, calculator, timer, and a QR code reader. Like Apple, Huawei also offers a raise-to-wake function, which together with its fast Face Unlock does a great job of emulating the iPhone X’s seamless unlocking. (103) add

Huawei has adjusted its notifications bar to accommodate the display’s notch, but not in a way that I like. The clock feels cramped up against the right curve of the screen, while the cellular and Wi-Fi status icons have jumped across the notch to the left. Putting those permanent icons in the space usually occupied by transient notifications creates a dissonance: every time I glance at that corner, I keep thinking I have unread messages.

Most Android apps play nicely with the notch already, although there are a few niche incompatibilities, such as the “waiting for network…” message on Telegram appearing immediately below (and thus mostly obscured by) the notch. Huawei offers the option to mask the notch by keeping the display around it blacked out, except for notification and status icons. I like that option, but I don’t find it necessary because the notch never offends or distracts me while using the phone.

Huawei’s biggest sin with the notch is in the imperfect way it masks the top corners of the screen when playing back YouTube videos, as illustrated by the image above. There’s a tiny sliver of the video that’s left uncovered, which I find to be an annoying oversight.

The P20 Pro is outstanding in three fundamental aspects of modern smartphones: audio, battery life, and wireless performance. Firstly, the speaker on this phone gets loud without ever becoming shrill or distorted. I love it. Listening to podcasts on this phone is a joy, and its ringtones and notifications come through with authority. The absence of a headphone jack is still an issue, but at least Huawei supports LDAC for higher-bitrate Bluetooth streaming. Even without many headphones compatible with that standard, I was super impressed with the strength and reliability of Bluetooth connections with the P20 Pro. Only Apple’s own iPhone can sustain as good a connection to the AirPods as the P20 Pro achieves. (115) add

Pairing wireless headphones and speakers was faster with this Huawei phone than any other Android device I’ve used, and the P20 Pro maintained a strong signal no matter how I gripped, cupped, or hugged it. The same is true for cellular signal: I found the P20 Pro delivered the best possible mobile data speeds wherever I was, and I had no dropped calls even in areas of spotty coverage.

The battery of the P20 Pro makes me laugh. It lasts for a preposterously long time. Right now, the phone’s been away from a charger for 32 hours and I’ve still got 52 percent of the battery to play with. On a busier day that might include an hour of YouTube videos, hours of streaming audio, and immoderate amounts of time browsing Twitter and triaging emails, I’d still only bring the battery down to 40-something percent after 24 hours. Huawei claims two days of battery life with the P20 Pro, and the phone duly delivers. The absence of wireless charging from this phone, which would be a competitive disadvantage for others in 2018, is a non-issue for me because of how rarely I need to charge it. (127) add

The synergy between the excellent ergonomics, display, camera, and responsiveness of the Huawei P20 Pro shouldn’t be underestimated. I probably like each individual aspect of this phone more because of the quality of its surrounding components. Huawei has matured to the point of emulating the iPhone’s integrated and fluid user experience instead of merely imitating the iPhone’s basic features. Having spent a month with Samsung’s Galaxy S9 Plus, I absolutely prefer the P20 Pro over Samsung’s 2018 flagship. Huawei offers the more potent camera, better ergonomics, longer battery life, and hell, it even has a less irritating Android skin. The gap is even wider when comparing the P20 Pro to Huawei’s most recent Mate 10 Pro flagship, which never attracted me the way the P20 Pro does. The new phone’s design is truly unique and delightful to hold, and its camera has shed most of the artificiality of its predecessor. (150) add

Comparisons against Apple’s iPhone X and Google’s Pixel 2 XL are harder to make. The iPhone has an entirely different ecosystem, and odds are that you’ll make the Android-iOS choice before you decide on the actual device you buy. As to the Pixel, I still favor it on the strength of its unique camera and clean Android experience, but the P20 Pro beats it on every other criterion. More to the point, the P20 Pro will be available to buy in far more places around the world (US unfortunately excepted) than Google’s boutique product.

Instead of gimmicks and gaudiness, the Huawei P20 Pro delivers refinement and efficiency. That’s a major change for Huawei, which could previously be relied upon to be the fastest iPhone copycat in the East. With Huawei’s rapid improvement, Apple and Samsung now have a credible third competitor in the contest for super flagship phone supremacy. It’s time for the entire world to sit up and take notice, because Huawei is now the maker of 2018’s best phone and one of the best phones overall.

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