Huawei P20 Pro Review: A game-changing camera on a stellar smartphone, w/ conditions

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Huawei may be struggling to gain any traction in the United States, but worldwide, it’s still one of the biggest smartphone makers on the market. That’s for good reason, too, as the company makes some fantastic devices. This year, the company’s first big flagships are the Huawei P20 and P20 Pro.

While Huawei’s smartphones are usually far from perfect, these devices had some notable advantages from the moment they were announced. Now, I’ve spent a few weeks with the P20 Pro in my pocket, so let’s take a closer look at it…

The best gifts for Android users

HARDWARE |

Excellent hardware, but with clear inspiration

When it comes to hardware, Huawei never really fails to impress me with its flagships, and the P20 Pro is no exception. This phone is a glass/metal sandwich just like the Mate 10 Pro, and it feels just as premium as you’d expect from phone this expensive. Not only does it feel premium, but also really good in the hand. The curved metal frame with the glass back panel is super slick, but fits in the hand nicely and I don’t mind using it without a case.

The design here is straight up beautiful too, but it’s clear where Huawei drew its inspiration. Aside from its colors, the P20 Pro bears a striking resemblance to the iPhone X, right down to the silver metal border. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not great for making the phone look unique and that’s disappointing considering Huawei’s biggest design aspect with the P20.

Gorgeous colors you won’t find anywhere else

Alright, so, this phone is gorgeous mainly because of one reason, and that’s the color options. The unit I used came in the standard blue color, but even that is unique and beautiful in a sea of phones that are just black, white, and grey. The real star is the Twilight color, though, which mixes green, purple, and blue in one colorway. If you’re buying this phone, definitely go for that option.

Thin bezels all-around, but why in the world is there a fingerprint sensor up here?

Great colors, wonderful hardware, and an excellent design. What could there be to complain about? Well, the bezels certainly aren’t any part of that as they’re slim all the way around. That is, except for the bottom.

For reasons I cannot fathom, the P20 Pro packs a fingerprint sensor at the bottom of the display. While I understand that having a rear sensor would have ruined the aesthetic of the phone, Huawei made a bad call with this sensor. For one, it ruins the look of the front of the phone, and because it barely has any room, you’ll often end up pressing something on screen when trying to use it. Worse yet, it doubles as a home button, so if you’re using a fingerprint to authenticate within an application, half the time it ends up taking you back to the homescreen. This is easily the worst part of the device.

DISPLAY |

Look, the notch isn’t all that bad

There’s a fair bit to talk about with the display on the P20 Pro, but the elephant in the room is its notch. In short, the notch isn’t all that bad. Huawei’s implementation of the display notch is fairly compact, and while I’ve already voiced my complaints when it comes to how it plays with the status bar, it’s really not that bad. It hides away in the background, and you can easily hide it through software.

Compact and OLED

As for the display itself, Huawei has done a great job here. After using LCD on most of its displays for years, Huawei has finally embraced OLED and on the P20 Pro, that’s with a 6.1-inch display. That size leaves plenty of room for any tasks you need to get done, but thanks to slim bezels it still fits well in the hand and in the pocket.

Like most OLED displays, this one is bright, rich in color, and has gorgeous deep blacks. I’ve not spotted any troubles with color shifting like on the Pixel 2 XL either. Really, the only legitimate complaint about this display is the screen protector it ships with. Huawei phones have shipped with screen protectors for a long time, and they’re usually pretty decent even over time. Sadly, though, the P20 Pro is not one of them. After a few weeks the protector started getting dirty beyond being cleaned and the corners started getting damaged. Really, it’s best to remove it soon after purchase, especially since this phone actually does have an oleophobic coating, unlike its predecessor.

SOFTWARE & PERFORMANCE |

Android 8.1 out of the box and Huawei’s best software to date

The biggest pain point Huawei has had over the years has been that of software. EMUI was an absolute train wreck just a couple of years ago, but it’s gotten much better in recent years. The P20 Pro ships with EMUI 8.1 and it’s easily the best version of the skin the company has shipped yet.

In terms of looks, you’re either going to love it or hate it. Personally, while it’s not my favorite, it’s a decent look that doesn’t get in the way too much for me. Really, nothing has changed here since the Mate 9, but Huawei has been making a lot of slight improvements all over the place that have continually improved it for the better. The biggest area of improvement is performance, where a lot of the slow menus and buggy interfaces of the Mate 10 Pro have been polished up.

Even with top-notch specs, classic Huawei lag pops up now and then

However, even with the improvements found in EMUI 8.1, Huawei’s best flagship still slips up here and there. The Kirin 970 and 6GB of RAM that operate this phone are more than enough to run it smoothly day in and day out, and for the most part they do. This device doesn’t choke often, even when under heavy load. Really, it all comes down to software bugs which, at times, can bring the performance down to a crawl for several seconds at a time. It’s nothing totally uncommon for any phone, but a shame nonetheless.

Android version/Monthly Security Patch report

Something I want to start highlighting in Android device reviews are how that OEM treats software updates. Things have just been getting worse and worse with updates, so it’s something anyone buying a device should know going in.

Thankfully, Huawei isn’t all that bad when it comes to updates. Major software updates aren’t super timely, but flagships like this generally get at least one major upgrade. As far as monthly security patches, things are a bit hit or miss. Huawei definitely isn’t one to deliver these on a stable monthly basis, but they do arrive from time to time. During the time I was using the P20 Pro, Huawei did roll out one update that delivered April’s patch level (in early May).

CAMERA |

Three cameras makes for a mighty beast

The real story around the Huawei P20 Pro isn’t the hardware, the software, or even the stellar battery life we’ll talk about in a minute, it’s the camera. Or, rather, the cameras. Dual-cameras have become a staple in smartphones in recent years, but The P20 Pro one-ups that with the addition of a third sensor.

The primary sensor on the P20 Pro is a whopping 40MP sensor. That’s already impressive, but things takes a step further when you look at the physical size of the sensor which measures in at 1/1.78”. That’s twice the size of competing devices like the Galaxy S9. Thanks to that, the P20 Pro can pull in more light, especially when you add in the 20MP monochrome secondary sensor which is designed to improve low-light performance.

That secondary sensor and the 8MP third sensor are used to improve zoom as well. You get 3x optical zoom on this device, and Huawei has used the combination of the sensors and AI to create a 5x hybrid zoom option which is spectacular as well.

Further setting this unconventional setup apart from the competition is how Huawei handles images from that main sensor. Instead of simply inputting a 40MP shot, the camera actually exports 10MP shots by default. Huawei uses “pixel binning” on the P20 Pro where data from the sensor is combined in a 2×2 pattern. In English, that means shots have better low-light performance and less digital noise and distortion, and the results are incredible.

Another killer feature of the P20 Pro’s camera is AI. Like the Mate 10 Pro this device can use AI to identify objects you’re taking a picture of and adjust settings accordingly. Personally, I never find this mode useful, and the results are usually not as good as just leaving things along. What is impressive about Huawei’s AI, though, is how it handles stabilization.

The P20 Pro has OIS on all three sensors and EIS powered by its AI. Using all of that, this phone is able to stabilize itself to an extent I’ve never seen before. This is most evident using the night mode. This mode ups the shutter speed and takes multiple images to get the most out of the available light. On any other phone, this would require mounting to a tripod or incredibly steady hands. Yet, the P20 Pro manages to take stunning shots in low-light and often pull in more light than even your eye would. This shows itself in the “Night” mode, which can pull incredible amounts of light out of near pure darkness, as you can see in the gallery below.

For reference, these two images were taken using Night Mode with essentially no surrounding light beyond distant street lights.

If I had to sum up the P20 Pro’s camera in one word, it’s game-changing. The setup here is capable of things we never expected to see on a smartphone, and really, it allows you to do things you probably wouldn’t even be able to do on a regular camera.

But it doesn’t quite dethrone the Pixel

All of that said, I still can’t say this is the best mobile camera on the market. Huawei pulled no stops with the P20 Pro’s camera. It takes incredible images, especially in low-light, and it’s fully deserving of being the highest-rated mobile camera. It’s not the best, though.

That award still goes to the Pixel in my mind, and that’s because the Pixel takes shots as great as it does without making you work for it. More often than not on the P20 Pro, I have to retake a shot because the AI kicked in or because I was in the wrong mode. Meanwhile, the Pixel 2 XL takes the shot I want it to take every time without a second thought. If you don’t mind waiting to get things set up right with the P20 Pro, you won’t be disappointed, but sometimes the subject isn’t going to wait, and that’s where the Pixel takes the crown.

BATTERY LIFE & CHARGING |

Excellent endurance

As usual with Huawei, there’s a huge battery in the P20 Pro. The 4,000 mAh power pack easily lasts me a full day of use every single day. I tested the P20 Pro as my daily driver for well over a month and during that time I never once found myself seeing the phone die before going to bed. In fact, the lowest it ever got was about 10%. On average I was able to easily hit 4-6 hours of screen time as well.

Would it have killed anyone for wireless charging?

Fast wired charging over USB-C is included on the P20 Pro as well, but strangely, there’s no wireless charging. Despite the glass build, Huawei simply isn’t adopting this user-friendly feature. It’s a shame as it’s definitely something I would’ve enjoyed using.

FINAL THOUGHTS |

There’s a whole lot more I could say about the Huawei P20 Pro, but the most glowing review I can give to it is this. I happily used this phone every day for well over a month and not once did I want to use something else. My Pixel 2 XL sat on a desk, a Galaxy S9+ in a drawer. This truly is a spectacular smartphone and even though it’s far from perfect, I doubt there would be many that would truly be disappointed in it.

Of course, this phone is never coming to the United States, so oh well. Just go buy a Pixel.

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