Huawei P20 Pro review: A three-eyed monster of a smartphone

The Chinese firm goes all in on functionality with this Galaxy S9 Plus rival

Editor's Choice
Price
£665
  • Unrivalled camera functionality; Eye-catching design; Excellent battery life; Highly customisable interface; Cheaper than the competition
  • An expensive upgrade for P10 owners

The P20 Pro is Huawei's answer to the super-sized, super-powered, plus model devices that have dominated the top end market recently - those that exploit the latest tech at a premium price.

Along with the smaller Huawei P20, it's the latest from the Chinese manufacturer and the successor to last year's P10, though it has received quite a few changes in just a short period of time.

In something of a masterstroke, Huawei recognised that in order to compete against the likes of Samsung or Apple, especially as a comparatively lesser-known brand, it needed to create something that truly stood out.

The theme of the P20 Pro is functionality. It offers one of the most sophisticated (and indeed only) triple camera setups available on a mobile device while maintaining the design quality and power of its rivals, at a substantially lower price.

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It promises one hell of a package, but does it deliver?

Huawei P20 Pro review: Design

The P20 Pro is perhaps the shiniest, sleekest phone we've ever held. It features glass panels on the front and back, the latter of which has been finished with a dazzling sheen that's complemented by a polished, rounded off aluminium frame on the sides. It's the feel of the device that really sells the design here, as it's devoid of sharp edges or the roughness you often find with anodised metals on other phones.

The backplate in particular is what makes the P20 really stand out. In the UK it's most commonly shipped in a turquoise blue, which, given its highly polished finish, looks gorgeous in direct sunlight. There's also a two-tone 'Twilight' version available that uses a deep purple near the top that gradually fades to blue.

However, the highly polished look comes with two big drawbacks, the first being fingerprints. While every glass-backed device suffers from this to some degree, the P20's mirror-like backplate is perhaps the worst offender on the market. It's easy to clean and surprisingly scratch resistant, but a brief look at notifications and some web browsing will cake the shimmering panel with greasy smudges.

The other is its frustrating tendency to want to be anywhere other than where you place it. The P20 features quite a beefy camera setup (more on that later), and its placement in the top left corner makes the entire device rock when placed on a flat surface. This, paired with the smooth back, means if only the slightest bit of phone is sticking off the edge of, say, a table, it will slowly slide off. We've accidentally dropped the P20 at least five or six times, each the result of it trying to Shawshank its way off our desk.

That said, it's quite refreshing to see a manufacturer take such a bold move with its design, particularly in a market where so many devices are near indistinguishable from one another.

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Yet, if it hadn't had the bold colouring and polished finish, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was an iPhone X. The camera positioning and design are near identical, it uses the same speaker style of large holes on the bottom, they both feature rounded edges, and, most puzzlingly, the P20 also has a 'notch'.

Given the flak Apple received for its divisive black cut-out, it's surprising to see Huawei do the same, albeit with a far smaller bar. Apple needed the space for its Face ID tech, and so the P20 has cut its version down to only house the front-facing camera and speaker. For those that hate the notch trend, it's far less obtrusive - but the effect is the same. Luckily you can set the device to display software-powered black bars either side, effectively cancelling out the cut-out.

Huawei P20 Pro review: Display

Edge to edge display is the name of the game in 2018, and this is the first time Huawei has jumped on the trend for its P range (with its first ever example being the Mate 10 last year).

The P20 is a top end phone, but cutbacks to make it cheaper than the iPhone X or Galaxy S9 mean its screen has a slightly lower resolution. It ships with a 1080 x 2240 AMOLED display, essentially a stretched Full HD display at an 18.7:9 ratio - slightly wider than the typical 18:9 resolution - on a 6.1in frame.

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While not being as technically impressive as Samsung's S9, especially when it comes to things like pixel density, for most users the differences will be near-impossible to spot. Its 99.9% sRGB coverage and max brightness of 387 cd/m2 allows for superb colour reproduction even in direct sunlight.

There's really nothing here to criticise - although the Pro does ship with a fairly mediocre screen protector. Having one included is a nice touch, but you'll want to replace it with something decent fairly early.

Huawei P20 Pro review: Hardware & performance

Regardless of which P20 you choose, you'll be getting a Hisilicon Kirin 970 processor, an octa-core beast that uses four clocked at 2.4GHz and four at 1.8GHz. The only difference with the Pro is that the RAM has been upped to 6GB over 4GB. Both also come packed with an incredibly generous 128GB of storage.

In our performance tests, the P20 Pro held its own against the competition, with a single-core score of 1,919 and a multi-core score of 6,806 on Geekbench 4. While that translates to an 8% increase over last year's P10 Plus, and a slightly better score than the Google Pixel 2 XL, it's still far behind the Galaxy S9 or iPhone X.

That's not necessarily a terrible thing, though - after all, it's a cheaper device than either the X or the S9, and still more than capable of handling anything Android can throw at it.

Where it really shines is in its battery life. It's fitted with a 4,000mAh battery that, with the screen set to 170 cd/m2, managed to last 14 hours 35 minutes while streaming continuous video. That's some way off the 20-hour peak of previous generations' flagships, but it's near identical to the score we recorded with the Galaxy S9, and almost 5 hours longer than the iPhone X.

Huawei P20 Pro review: Software & Features

The P20 is powered by Android 8.1, but uses Huawei's EMUI software layered on top. The first thing to mention is that the interface is a joy to use. Everything feels incredibly responsive with apps and folders loading near instantaneously.

There's also a ton of options when it comes to customising the interface to suit your habits. A touch-sensitive space at the bottom of the device, which normally would have been a physical home button, acts as a fingerprint reader and virtual home button - great for those that are used to physical buttons on older devices.

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However, the software could do with some tweaks. By default, the fingerprint scanner/home button is paired with a virtual bar that sits on the screen just above. While this provides extra navigation buttons, it also contains another redundant home button in the middle.

In fact, we'd recommend ditching the virtual bar altogether, as we'd often close down apps by accidentally hitting this extra home button instead of the spacebar on the virtual keyboard. Thankfully, the software offers some alternate styles for flicking between apps, including a much cleaner-looking but harder to use navigation key.

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As is fast becoming the standard, the P20 also comes with USB C as its default charging and headphone port.

Huawei P20 Pro review: Camera

Now we get to the P20's headline feature - its triple camera setup. The array on the back may look like overkill, but in reality it functions in a similar way to standard dual lens cameras.

The P20 Pro uses a 40MP camera and a monochrome 20MP lens that work together to create images of far better quality, greater dynamic range, and lower noise than would normally be possible on a single lens. The third 10MP camera is simply there to provide optical zoom.

What's important here is that image quality is superb. The triple camera setup captures incredibly detailed images regardless of the lighting environment, and at a variety of zoom levels. It had no trouble with intricate details in brickwork, or the deciphering the various light levels when aiming at clouds on a bright day.

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Huawei's love of smart processing also shines here, as one of the P20's killer features is its software-based image stabilisation, branded AIS - an alternative to optical image stabilisation. What this means in reality is the camera is able to automatically stabilise an image by using sensors and post-processing to improve image quality.

This seemed to work perfectly well on normal photos without zoom (traditional OIS kicks in on the 10MP camera if zoomed in), and it really shines when paired with the camera's night mode function. AI-powered processing is able to merge a set of photos taken over a few seconds, which produces some superb ultra-dark shots that don't skimp on the detail like other devices.

The P20's camera also automatically adjusts to different exposure levels by default, based on what it detects as the main object of the shot. While we found this to work well with flowers and the sky, taking pictures of greenery usually results in unnatural-looking grasses and plants. Thankfully this auto-adjustment can be dismissed by hitting the 'x' on the tag that appears.

The suite of tools at your disposal is also equally impressive, particularly the 3D panorama mode that lets you capture the environment around you and view it like a 3D photo. Its slow-motion mode is also great, able to support 960fps for some very satisfying shots - though, like the Galaxy S9, it's capped at 720p.

The P20 supports 4K video, though it's restricted to only 30fps and isn't supported by image stabilisation. For some shots, it's far better to drop the resolution down to make the video more comfortable to watch.

Huawei P20 Pro review: Verdict

It's clear Huawei was looking to create something that could stand out among the myriad other devices using edge-to-edge displays, and the result certainly does that. It successfully infuses the design quality and luxury experience offered by the iPhone X and Galaxy S9 with all the staples of a decent smartphone.

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It's got one of the most sophisticated camera setups on the market, a killer design, plenty of power, and a battery life that's really only rivalled by the Pixel 2 - at least in terms of current-gen devices. There are some small issues with its design, particularly its slippery backplate, but these can safely be dismissed.

It also makes compromises where it counts. The P20 Pro's screen isn't as fancy as the Galaxy S9's, but you're getting a camera with greater functionality at a slightly lower price, with that same superb battery life.

Of course, at 799 inc VAT it's not a cheap phone by any means, but it's a great option for those looking for Galaxy S9 or iPhone X quality at a price that's a little easier to stomach. It's also a perfect device for those looking to try out a brand alternative.

Verdict

A highly functional top-end smartphone that’s brilliantly positioned to rival the Galaxy S9 and iPhone X. Sensible compromises mean it performs where it counts, offering a premium experience at a killer price.

ProcessorHisilicon Kirin 970 - Octa-core (4x2.4 GHz Cortex-A73 & 4x1.8 GHz Cortex-A53)
RAM6GB
Screen size6.1in
Screen resolution1080 x 2240
Screen typeAMOLED
Front camera24MP/ 1080p
Rear camera40MP + 20MP + 8MP
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