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Huawei P20 Pro review: A sensational smartphone

by Brandon Russell | April 30, 2018April 30, 2018 11:50 am PST

A few years ago, Huawei made a phenomenal device that will forever live in the annals of mobile history. It offered exciting software, a confident design, and a large, imposing footprint. It announced Huawei as a major player in a market dominated by Apple and Samsung.

Three years later and Huawei has conjured up its most impressive smartphone yet. The P20 Pro is striking in ways the Galaxy S9 and iPhone X aren’t, setting a high bar for quality. But the device isn’t perfect—and the fact that it’s not available in the U.S. almost disqualifies it as a genuine competitor.

In case you haven’t heard, the U.S. government has warned against using Huawei products because of the company’s alleged ties to the Chinese government. Meanwhile, carriers have decided not to offer Huawei devices at all, striking a serious blow to the company’s expansion plans.

Despite Huawei’s inability to break into the U.S. market, it’s still one of the biggest manufacturers in the world, and the P20 Pro is proof that consumers stateside are seriously missing out.

I love the gradient paint job

The quality of Huawei’s hardware has never been a problem. The Nexus 6P was stylish and monolithic in its presentation; the P20 Pro reaches a higher plane of existence. Aside from its powerful specs and triple-camera setup, I’m completely enamored by the sophisticated, daring paint job.

Instead of a mundane silver or dreary black, the P20 Pro’s twilight gradient looks unlike anything available right now. Not even the Galaxy S9’s wonderful coral blue, often a benchmark in the spectrum of mobile colors, can compete. The gradience infuses the P20 Pro with so much life.

And when viewed outdoors, the device looks even better. It goes from purple to blue to green and back again. I know it’s a small thing, but I got enjoyment out of seeing how the paint would catch light at different angles. It feels like a magic trick where the device is transforming before your eyes.

It helps that the device is so wonderfully constructed, even without the gradient paint job. The sides are comfortably contoured and the overall footprint isn’t too big or too small. Everything is protected by an IP67 rating and what Huawei says is 3D glass.

The one knock against the P20 Pro’s design, like other all-glass smartphones, is how easily it attracts fingerprints. A soft t-shirt will quickly wipe them away, but they’ll be back with a vengeance the moment you handle it again. It’s a losing battle, and something you’ll have to accept.

The other thing people might find annoying is the lack of a 3.5mm headphone hack. Huawei does provide an adapter if you still rely on wired headphones, but it’s clear the trend is toward Bluetooth. Which I don’t have a problem with, though others have argued that the port’s demise is user hostile.

Flip it to the front and you’ll notice a few things. For better or worse, there’s a notch, along with a fingerprint sensor that doubles as an input area for gestures. I actually like the fingerprint sensor being on the front; it feels more natural and easy-to-use, as opposed to being on the back. And it’s fast. Place your finger on the reader and you’ll blow past the lock screen.

In addition to the fingerprint reader, there’s a Face Unlock option that utilizes the P20 Pro’s front-facing 24-megapixel camera. It’s not as secure as the iPhone X’s Face ID, but it works surprisingly well; I encountered few instances when it failed to work.

Although the notch interrupts the 6.1-inch OLED Full HD+ display, the P20 Pro still features a 91.99 percent screen-to-body ratio, offering users plenty of real estate to watch video, browse the web, and play games. Like the iPhone X, you’ll soon forget the notch is even there.

If you don’t like the notch, you can hide it with software. There’s a setting under “Display” where you can turn it off. Switching the setting will just see the software pretend like the notch doesn’t even exist. Personally, I prefer the default option, which is to wholeheartedly embrace the notch.

A performance powerhouse

Despite not featuring the eye-searing resolution of the Galaxy S9’s screen (1440 x 2960), the P20 Pro’s 1080 x 2240 display is crisp, vibrant, and very pleasing to look at. It’s not quite on a par with Samsung, but it’s close. It’s easy to see outdoors and there are some nice additions in the software that allows users to adjust the screen’s color and reaction to ambient light—features we’ve come to expect in premium flagship devices.

Like past Huawei phones, the P20 Pro operates smoothly and without any noticeable slowdown, whether you’re running graphics-intensive apps or watching a video. When a phone has a Kirin 970 processor and 6GB of RAM, performance is a non-issue. Which is great, because I was on the P20 Pro a lot during my few weeks of testing. Probably too much.

Thankfully, the device held up admirably under stress, and the 4,000mah battery was plenty full after a long day of use. That’s about typical for a modern flagship. It seriously depends on your daily usage. Some days I would casually use the device, take a few pictures, and others I would watch YouTube videos, send emails, and play games. Through it all, the P20 Pro’s battery didn’t even break a sweat.

Curiously, Huawei omitted wireless charging from the P20 Pro, despite the all-glass build. It’s a pretty big oversight when you’re going up against devices like the iPhone X and Galaxy S9. There’s also no expandable storage. Then again, the Pixel 2 doesn’t support feature and we absolutely adore that device. We’d certainly prefer the inclusion of wireless charging, but by no means is it a deal breaker.

Where I start to scratch my head is with Huawei’s software, which is a mixed bag. There are some truly useful features, like the ability to customize swipe transitions, home screen style, and more. But it could do with a makeover. Huawei’s EMUI continues to be overly bright and cartoony, to the point where it’s a distraction.

What I do like, however, is how many settings there are to create the exact experience you want. You can use the always-on display feature, or not. And you can turn on a dark mode, which looks absolutely fantastic on the P20 Pro’s OLED panel. It’s little things like that that I can appreciate.

The overall software experience is admirable and plenty useful, but I prefer the more reserved approach from Samsung. Of course, the Pixel’s software is the ideal version of Android, which you can easily achieve by downloading a launcher.

The camera is a triple threat

Besides the slick design, the camera is what sells the P20 Pro. Huawei includes a triple camera setup—a first among top-tier Android smartphones—promising the best experience on the market. Does it live up to the hype? For the most part, yes. But don’t put too much stock in DxOMark’s score of 109.

The P20 Pro sports one 8-megapixel sensor with f/2.4 telephoto lens (top), a 40-megapixel RBG sensor with f/1.8 (bottom), and a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor with f/1.6 (single), which is terrific for low light photography. Also contributing to the stellar low light performance is the main image sensor’s size, which is 1/1.7 inches. That’s larger than what you’d find in an iPhone X or Galaxy S9. All three cameras, by the way, feature some form of stabilization

What Huawei does is combine four megapixels into one, resulting in cleaner images at lower resolution. The goal is to provide users with the best possible quality, because you don’t really need your photos to be the resolution of a 40-megapixel photo. The default for the P20 Pro is 10-megapixels, which is more than enough for Instagram and the like.

The photos captured by the P20 Pro are pretty fantastic, with great detail, pleasant exposure, and good white balance. I’m quite impressed by what Huawei has managed to accomplish with the camera, as it stands toe-to-toe against the Galaxy S9, iPhone X, and Pixel 2.

But it’s not the best camera phone out there, despite its triple-camera system and extra large 40-megapixel sensor; it’s good, but not mind-blowing. For one, the sharpening and processing looks a little too aggressive, sometimes giving images an unpleasant and artificial look.

Like other Android manufacturers, Huawei imbued the P20 Pro with AI software that will automatically select the best shooting mode based on the scene. If you point the camera at a dog, it will know; the same goes for when it’s looking at the sky, trees, food, etc. It’s a pretty cool system that worked well during testing.

The AI’s purpose is to give more life to images. However, if you’d prefer to edit your photos in post, you’re better off turning the feature off entirely. That way you can get the most representative images of what you actually saw. Still, for people who just prefer to point and shoot, the P20 Pro’s AI does its job well.

There are other modes for shooting, too, including portrait and pro modes. Both modes are pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t go into detail. Needless to say, they add to an already terrific camera experience.

A few more things you need to know: the P20 Pro features 3x optical zoom and 5x hybrid zoom, giving the device more flexibility when shooting. The device and also shoot 960fps super slow motion at 720p, but the quality isn’t all that impressive.

Being based on the U.S., it’s hard to recommend the P20 Pro, simply because it’s not available here. You can’t go to a nearby AT&T store and pick one up, and you won’t find it at Best Buy or any other big box store. Hard as Huawei tries, its grand entrance into the U.S. likely won’t happen—at least not anytime soon.

Which is a shame, because the P20 Pro is a terrific device that gives flagships like the Galaxy S9 and Pixel 2 a run for their money. The design, software, and camera combines into a high end experience worthy of your time and money. I was constantly impressed and surprised by the P20 Pro, and I particularly love the gradient paint job.

But, again, the tragedy here is the device isn’t easily accessible in the U.S. For those in overseas markets, however, I say give it a hard look. I still find myself making a deeper connection to the Pixel 2, because of its cleaner software and wonderful camera. But the P20 Pro certainly makes my eyes wander.

This post is sponsored by NordVPN


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell likes to rollerblade while listening to ACDC.

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