WHEN SAMSUNG launched the Galaxy S9 range at MWC this year, it scuppered the plans of several other major manufacturers that wanted to do likewise.
A month later, this is what we missed, and nobody will be happier than Samsung that Huawei waited because this would have ripped the rug out from under them.
Because where the S9 and S9+ were relatively incremental updates, the Huawei P20 range is a huge call to arms that the Chinese giant refuses to be seen as an “us as well” brand, but instead has thrown a proverbial kitchen sink at this new model – the successor to the Huawei P10. Huawei is so bullish, it’s skipped 10 numbers ahead.
We’re reviewing the Huawei P20 Pro here – the flagship. We’ve been lucky enough to have it for longer than most other sites so we can give you a full review, not just a hands-on one. For reference – the regular P20 is more or less the same, save for some different specs, which we’ll tell you at the end.
The actual design of the Huawei P20 isn’t particularly new or revolutionary. It’s the usual all-gorilla glass body. The ‘full view’ (virtually bezel-less) screen has a fingerprint sensor at the base. It manages to retain relatively svelt thickness despite the 4,000mAh battery within which brings the weight up ever so slightly – it’s not heavy, but it’s definitely ‘stockier’.
At the back, the almost overpowered cameras have meant all three lenses jut out slightly. It’s not offensive, but it is noticeable, especially without a case.
That said, you may not want a case because the decision to offer gradient colors on the back feels far too good to cover up. There are the standard shiny blue and blacks that Huawei and Honor are so fond of, but the gradients are just sumptuous.
We’re not going to get too caught up on the notch, but it does seem to be the new black and sure enough, here it is, housing the earpiece and the 24MP selfie-cam. It doesn’t offend but nevertheless, this is, we’re told a “transition” before the bezels are gone completely in future models.
The fingerprint sensor is at the front and you either like that or you don’t, but the whole effect is exceedingly smart. Huawei has never gone for the curved displays of Samsung, so a front view gives you nothing but black.
There is an IR Blaster for remote controlling, but there’s no headphone jack (an adapter is supplied).
So much estate is being put in the P20’s camera that it’s easy to forget that it is actually a phone as well. It runs EMUI 8.1 – Huawei’s skinning of Android. It’s something that you either love, get used to or hate. It does vary from AOSP somewhat – particularly the black-on-white color scheme, but if anything, you get more from it rather than less.
Most aspects are pretty identical to what you’re used to from EMUI and there’s no question that the performance is simply phenomenal. 6GB RAM could easily be ‘acceptable’ as it is largely the standard for flagships right now, but the way that Huawei tunes it via the Kirin 970 chip makes it easily on par or more with its rivals.
Our only frustration with Huawei phones is its battery management technique which involves closing down idle apps. In previous models, this can mean that it takes the background processes with it and you lose notifications, or worse still your progress at, say, a run.
Fortunately, the Kirin 970 offers smarts that put pay to most of that, though you may need to override the odd app that it doesn’t “know”.
Either way, battery life is incredible. That is partly down to that slightly weighty 4,000mAh battery, but primarily, it’s the AI intelligently using the 10 processor cores and closing what isn’t needed. We got over two days of use out of it without it conking out on us. When was the last time we got to say that?
The sound, co-engineered with Harman, comes from two face-down speakers which give off enough rounded sound to leave an MP3 speaker at home.
As ever, there’s a choice between a second SIM or a microSD card in the same slot. This is good news because “that” camera takes RAW format photos.
At which point we should really talk about it, because it’s the hero feature, because it got several firsts to its name, and because it’s frankly, game-changing.
Since we all became shutterbugs with the first cameraphones, they have moved on a lot from grainy VGA to the megapixel monsters we have now.
Huawei has just upped the ante. A lot.
Yes, picture art such as light painting is still there. Yes, the 960fps slo-mo is the same as we saw in the Galaxy S9. And yes, once again the lenses are made by Leica. But that’s just the beginning.
For a start, those numbers – 40MP with an f/1.6 to f/2.aperturere for the main lens is ridiculous. Even Huawei knows this and so the default setting is 10MP because otherwise, even the potential 384GB storage will be swallowed very quickly. In fact, it’s worth you knowing that the photos in this review are all at the 10MP setting because, at 40MP, our content management system couldn’t cope!
But the point is, this camera is capable of being your main camera and so the option of 40MP is there if you need it.
The second, 20MP camera lens is monochrome – which means that the main lens can concentrate on color giving you a sharper image.
The third is an 8MP/2x optical zoom. This means that using the other two lenses and a bit of AI magic, you get a 5x hybrid zoom which offers quality on a par with a 5x optical, without the lens having to jut out.
But there are two more elements to the camera (and that’s not even counting the flash). There’s that 24MP front camera with portrait mode, offering a choice of sympathetic lighting and that ‘beauty mode that the Influencers are so fond of.
And the fifth is the Kirin 970 AI chip, which interprets the visual data and automatically adjusts the camera settings to make the most of it. And that, even more than the 40MP lens, is the gamechanger.
It has ‘learned’ 400 different objects and environments – dogs, food, gigs, grass, clouds and has a way of photographing each of them so all you do is click.
The first time we pointed it at a dog, it popped up “Dog”. Heck, it can even recognize the dog from its tail and bum. It’s quite scary. It brings out the grain of the fur, and reduces the potential for ‘yellow eye’.
In snow, it emphasizes the white. On a summer’s day, it brings out the blue sky.
In movement shots, it can get a grasp on an image (such as a branch blowing in the wind) and stabilize it as if you are using a tripod.
If you’re traveling in a moving vehicle, it can grab an image and unblur it by using the frames around it to ‘interpret’ the picture, probably better than your eye did.
And in low light, it still manages to create order out of chaos. This photo might not look like much, until you realize it was taken from the back of a dark gig, by holding it over the head, clicking, and then cropping. The camera did the rest – filtering out streaking lights, steadying the photo, and pulling focus.
It’s quite hard to get sycophantic, but this is easily the best phone camera we’ve ever seen. It’s the first time we’ve ever said this, but it could actually outperform some DSLRs.
P20 vs P20 Pro
For reference, the P20 is slightly smaller than its big brother at 5.7 inches. It has two Leica lenses – no telephoto, but everything else is much the same.
Huawei has been so smug and bullish about the P20 that you could be forgiven for thinking it would be a disappointment at some level. But it just isn’t. When we reviewed the Mate 10 Pro earlier in the year, we loved it and now we’ve got all that we loved about that and a simply mind-blowing, game-changing camera that will give all its rivals food for thought. A triumph.