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Huawei P20 Pro review: Three rear cameras, and a lot more

Huawei’s new P20 and P20 Pro are this year’s updates to the well-received P10 and P10 Plus. The main pre-launch talking point about the P20 Pro was its three-camera setup at the rear which, along with AI features, delivers exceptional photography performance — particularly in low light.

Smartphones — particularly top-end handsets — are often described as being ‘all about the cameras’ these days, but there are plenty of other differentiating features, and this £799 (inc. VAT) flagship handset has a lot more to offer than three rear cameras.

The glass backplate isn’t my favourite style as it’s reflective, attracts fingerprints and makes the handset quite slippery to hold. Smaller hands, like mine, struggle to grip the handset tight for one-handed use, and the phone too easily slides off soft surfaces like chairs and sofas. Just as well, then, that the P20 Pro has an IP67 rating for dust and water ingress.

Despite the fuss about them, the rear cameras aren’t particularly visually arresting. Arguably the most notable feature is the way the main pair of lenses protrude significantly from the back of the 7.8mm-thick phone.

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Huawei’s flagship P20 Pro runs on the AI-optimised Kirin 970 chipset with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage. It’s a dual-SIM IP67-rated handset with a 6.1-inch 1,080-by-2,240-pixel screen, weighing 180g.


Image: Huawei

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The lenses for the 40MP RGB and 20MP monochrome cameras protrude significantly at the back.


Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The edges of the Huawei P20 Pro are unremarkable, apart from a welcome flash of red on the power button, on the right-hand side. Twin speakers sit on the bottom edge and deliver good sound quality, even with the volume turned up. The speakers flank a central USB-C port, and Huawei provides USB-C earphones plus an adapter for headsets with a 3.5mm audio jack. The SIM slot, on the left edge, will accommodate two SIM cards, but there’s no option to use MicroSD in place of one of the SIMs. Still, there’s a generous 128GB of internal storage, which should be plenty for most use cases.

The front of my black review unit — the P20 also comes in midnight blue and ‘twilight’ — was dominated by the 6.1-inch OLED screen. The long edges are nearly bezel-free, while the top edge that has a slightly larger bezel with a central iPhone X-style ‘notch’ for the front-facing camera and speaker.

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If the notch for the front-facing 24MP camera and speaker annoys you, it can be hidden in settings.


Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

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The bottom edge has a relatively large bezel — all of 9mm, according to my ruler. Still, the near absence of a top bezel means the handset isn’t oversized at 73.9mm wide by 155mm deep by 7.8mm thick. It’s reasonably light at 180g too — Sony’s Xperia XZ2, by contrast, comes in at 198g for its 153mm by 72mm by 11-6mm dimensions.

The large bottom bezel houses a home button that incorporates a fingerprint sensor — not my favoured location for the latter device, as it’s tricky to hit when working one-handed. It’s far more ergonomic to have the fingerprint sensor on the rear, as it is on most recent flagship handsets.

Authentication is also available using face recognition, but the P20 Pro consistently refused to recognise my face so I couldn’t test this feature. I’ve not encountered this problem before, so maybe a software update will sort it out.

The OLED screen is stunning. It’s slightly taller and slightly narrower than the 16:9 aspect ratio screens that are becoming standard, having an 18:7.9 aspect ratio. That provides capacity for the screen to stretch almost to the top of the handset and wrap around the central camera at the top. That little bit of extra screen height means the overall resolution is 1,080 by 2,240 pixels (rather than the 16:8 standard of 1,080 x 2,160).

It’s not something that makes a massive difference to usability, and if the camera-hugging cut-out is irritating, it’s easy to ‘hide’ it in settings, which uses the space to the left and right for system notifications rather than the display itself. That turned out to be my preferred setting.

There are plenty of other ways to customise the display, including fiddling with the colour temperature, and filtering out blue light. Keeping up with the Joneses of the handset world, the Huawei P20 Pro supports HDR10, and it will stream HDR content where you can find it, such as on Netflix. Even without taking advantage of HDR10, video looks great — and given the quality of the audio subsystem, this handset is well suited to mobile gaming too.

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You can adjust the OLED screen’s colour mode and temperature, and schedule a reduced-blue-light ‘eye comfort’ setting.


Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

We’ll be doing a deep dive on the P20 Pro’s camera performance elsewhere, but will note here that the three-camera system with Leica optics on the back of the handset is extremely impressive. The two main cameras are a primary 40MP RGB sensor with an f/1.8 lens and a secondary 20MP monochrome sensor with an f/1.6 lens. Between them, these cameras ensure that photos are crisp and detailed, delivering particularly good results in low light conditions. The third camera has an 8MP sensor with an f/2.4 lens, delivering 5X hybrid zoom (only available in the default 10-megapixel shooting mode).

The ‘PhotoGenius’ AI system has a go at identifying the subject and adjusts settings accordingly. I found this to be pretty effective, and although a photography purist armed with a real camera would produce shots of the same subjects that look rather different in terms of light and colour, results from the P20 Pro will keep many users happy. And anyone who does a lot of low-light shooting should be particularly pleased with what they see here.

The multitude of shooting options, and the range of tweaks that can be made to settings when you move from auto into ‘Pro’ mode, are made accessible thanks to a scrolling bar that sits beneath the viewfinder area. This makes it more likely that regular users will actually try the pro-level features. It might encourage more people to try the bokeh effect that can automatically kick in if you select portrait mode, for example.

According to Huawei, only the 8MP telephoto camera has optical image stabilisation (OIS), but iFixit’s teradown analysis found OIS hardware on the other two rear cameras as well. Video enthusiasts will appreciate the P20 Pro’s support for 720p footage at ‘super slo-mo’ 960fps.

The front camera is worth an honourable mention too. It has a 24MP sensor and an f/2.0 lens, and takes a very nice selfie indeed. It should suit the narcissists among us well.

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The P20 Pro comes in black, midnight blue and ‘twilight’.


Images: Huawei

As usual Huawei couples its own EMUI overlay with Android — in this case Android 8.1 Oreo. Huawei does tend to add a lot of bits and pieces to Android, and that’s the case here. Some of this will appeal, and some may not. Among the many apps added in a Tools folder is a sound recorder and torch app — the latter unnecessary, really, given that a torch setting is accessible from the home screen with a single downward finger swipe.

Tools also contains an app called Mirror, which puts a photo frame around photos and videos. You can blow into the microphone and the screen mists up like a mirror in a steamy bathroom, ready for you to write something on the ‘glass’ with your finger. Bizarre.

Much more useful, in my view, is Smart Controller, which allows you to bring the IR blaster on the top edge of the phone into service as a remote control.

There are lots of other tweaks and touches to be found. Long press an app icon and a series of options appear, making it very fast to add a new calendar event or alarm, or start a timer for example. Generally, my experience with these tools suggests they’re not quite as expansive as those you get with the OnePlus 5T, for example. Still, they should prove useful.

The Huawei P20 Pro performs well, its Kirin 970 processor and 6GB of RAM handling anything I threw at it without delay. The 4,000mAh battery is among the biggest you’ll find on a flagship handset, and it easily got me through a day’s use. Hardened gamers or those into streaming media for hours might have a different experience, but I didn’t take the battery below 50 percent in any full day during the test period.

Conclusions

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Image: Huawei

Huawei’s P20 Pro is a superb handset, with its triple rear camera setup the clear headline-stealer. Elsewhere, performance is great and battery life is among the best I’ve seen in recent times. The IR blaster coupled with TV (and other IR device) software is a real winner — I don’t understand why this isn’t standard on more handsets.

Most of the negatives are a little picky, the exception being the fingerprint sensor location. This really should be on the back and not beneath the screen, where it’s very awkward to find one-handed. The lack of MicroSD card support may disappoint some people, but 128GB of internal storage is plenty for me. Reliance on USB-C for the headset connection could irritate too, but Huawei does provide a 3.5mm adapter. I don’t like the glass back, but others will disagree.

Overall though, this might be my flagship handset of the year so far.

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