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Huawei P20 review: A smaller, sleeker Mate 10 Pro with camera enhancements

  • Editors' rating
    8.4 Excellent
  • $535.40

Pros

  • Gorgeous fit, finish, and design
  • Outstanding camera performance
  • Ample internal storage
  • Solid battery life
  • Many options to customize to your preferences

Cons

  • Fingerprint sensor is positioned too low
  • Less water resistance than P20 Pro (IP53 vs 67)
  • No support for wireless charging

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ZDNet's Sandra Vogel recently published her full review of the Huawei P20 Pro, which I also have in hand and am using to test out its imaging prowess. Over the last week and a half I have also been using the Huawei P20 that offers much of the same as the P20 Pro for EUR250 less.

Apple usually perfects features and technology that is first seen in Android smartphones, but last year's iPhone X launched with a display that extended to all four edges of the front with a notch for sensors, a speaker, and the front-facing camera. In 2018, we are seeing Android manufacturers (and Google with Android P) embrace the notch. Huawei's new P20 and P20 Pro devices are some of the first to launch with the notch.

The P20 is the successor to the P10 with some design changes, including a glass back, removal of the 3.5mm headset jack and microSD card slot, and an expansive front display with a notch. It retains the lower front oblong fingerprint scanner, dual rear cameras with Leica branding, and more.

Specifications

  • Processor: Huawei Kirin 970 octa-core with NPU
  • Display: 5.8 inch 2244x1080 pixels resolution LCD (428 ppi)
  • Operating system: Android 8.1 Oreo with EMUI 8.1
  • RAM: 4GB
  • Storage: 128GB internal
  • Cameras: Rear dual cameras; one 20 megapixel f/1.6 aperture monochrome cameras and one 12 megapixel RGB f/1.8 camera. Front 24 megapixel f/2.0 aperture
  • Battery: 3400 mAh with SuperCharge fast and safe charging technology
  • Dimensions: 149.1 x 70.8 x 7.65 mm and 165 grams
  • Colors: Black, pink gold, champagne gold, midnight blue, and twilight

The Huawei P20 stacks up rather well with the Mate 10 Pro with both having the Kirin 970 processor and NPU for AI and other advanced functionality. The Mate 10 Pro is larger, has more RAM, and is priced higher than the P20 while the P20 has newer generation rear cameras and a higher resolution front-facing camera. The Mate 10 Pro may be for those who need a phone to easily go a couple of days while the P20 may be more amenable to the masses with its smaller form factor, higher screen-to-body ratio, lower price, and more advanced cameras.

Huawei P20 vs P20 Pro

The Huawei P20 and P20 Pro have a similar full screen display with a notch and metal/glass design, but there are also some key differences. As you look at Sandra's Huawei P20 Pro review and this review, here are some key differences between the two phones.

Huawei P20 Huawei P20 Pro
Screen size/type 5.8 inch LCD 6.1 inch OLED
RAM 4GB 6GB
Dimensions 149.1 x 70.8 x 7.65 mm\165 grams 155 x 73.9 x 7.8 mm\180 grams
Water/dust resistance IP53 IP67
Rear cameras Two-20MP mono/12MP RGB Three-40MP RGB/20MP mono/8MP 3x tele
Battery capacity 3400 mAh 4000 mAh
Price EUR649/£599 EUR899/£799

Hardware

Huawei is known for its stunning hardware and the Huawei P20 is no exception. Let's start with the front of the device and the expansion of minimizing bezels from just the sides to the top and bottom. Along the bottom we see a shrinking bezel height, but with the oblong hardware fingerprint scanner there is a limitation as to how far down Huawei can go.

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Unfortunately, the oblong button is just above the curvature of the glass and is not in any sort of natural ergonomic position. Everything about the Huawei P20 screams 2018, except for this oddly positioned fingerprint sensor. One has to make a conscious effort to reposition your hand to hit it with your thumb and this means holding the phone down near the very bottom or holding it in one hand while the other hand uses this fingerprint sensor.

Huawei has some of the fastest responding, perfectly positioned rear fingerprint sensors on many of its other smartphones and should have implemented that on this phone for it to be a true champion. It's not clear what might have prevented that placement, but hopefully it was a technological challenge and not just a design decision. You can do more than unlock the phone with this sensor, as discussed below in the software section.

At the top of the display, we have the new notch. The P20 notch is about a third the width of the iPhone X notch and contains a round handset speaker, 24 megapixel front-facing camera, sensors, and an indicator LED. I am perfectly fine with the notch on the iPhone X and the notch on the P20 is also acceptable. Huawei even gives you the ability, in the settings, to choose to hide the notch with black on the display or keep it on by default. It's a handy trick, but I just keep the default enabled.

The power and volume buttons are found on the upper right side. It's cool to see a red line in the center of the power button as Huawei adds a bit of color to the phone. A mic opening is on the top and the dual SIM card tray is on the upper left. A USB-C port and one speaker (right side) are found on the bottom. The single speaker is quite loud, but I use a headset the majority of the time so am fine with the single speaker.

It is also interesting to see that Huawei continues to release its flagship Mate and P series devices with 1080p displays. As I've stated on the MoTR podcast and written here on ZDNet, 1080p is perfectly acceptable to me for smartphones and going to higher 2K resolutions doesn't improve my viewing experience while it does have an impact on battery life. The LCD screen on the Huawei P20 looks great.

The review unit I have came in a retail box that is labeled black, but the curved edges are silver and I after looking in various lighing conditions, this is actually the midnight blue model. I see on the Huawei website that the black model has black edges. It is extremely glossy, looks like a mirror on the back, and has a different hue to it as I move it in various lighting conditions. The entire front is black.

The Kirin 970 chipset and EMUI 8.1 help the P20 perform flawlessly. I haven't seen any stuttering, slowdowns, or app crashes since I started using it. I am also seeing very solid RF reception on T-Mobile, based on watching the Android signal status meter in the settings. The P20 has actually been showing better dBm readings than the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Samsung smartphones usually beat everything else I test out.

The Mate 10 Pro and P20 Pro have also shown me some incredible performance when it comes to RF strength and ability to have functioning internet and make phone calls in areas where other phones lose data and cellular connections. I would not think this possible with these devices that are not necessarily tuned to US wireless carriers, but the P20 does have support for many bands so that T-Mobile performance has been verified as rock solid.

According to Phone Arena the Huawei P20 supports the following bands. FDD bands: 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/9/12/17/18/19/20/26/28/32 and TDD bands: 34/38/39/40. The P20 does not support the new T-Mobile 600 MHz frequency (Band 71) that is actively rolling out, but it does support the other key T-Mobile and AT&T bands. These main bands include 4 and 12 for T-Mobile with band 17 for AT&T. Thus, GSM performance in the US should be great. LTE Cat 18 is also supported on the P20.

The Huawei P20 upgrades the Leica dual-lens experience with improved low light performance and stabilization performed through AI. The two cameras are on the upper left of the back in a raised housing with the flash positioned below them. It is interesting to note that Huawei and Leica branding text is oriented for landscape so that the phone looks more like a camera than a phone when in shooting mode.

The 12 megapixel RGB sensor has a 1.55 µm pixel size for improved low light with software that helps you obtain some rather stunning results. Like the Samsung Galaxy S9, you will also find 960 fps super slow motion support on the P20. You can check out this short video of a water feature in super slow motion. Advanced portrait options are also available. The camera software has also been improved significantly, as discussed below.

Software

EMUI has come a long way since it first appeared on Huawei phones and is now one of my preferred user interfaces, in large part for its support of the Google feed as a home screen panel which is something you usually only get with the Google launcher. Most of the EMUI customization on the P20 is present in the settings area where you can fully customize the device to your preferences.

Others who have lamented EMUI are also now writing reviews that do not slam the user interface as it looks more and more like a stock Android experience. There are some Huawei specific elements still present, but these do nothing to slow down the device and I find they improve the experience over vanilla stock Android.

I continue to be pleased with the presence of the Huawei gallery application and image editing tools that help you develop some creative images to share with family and friends. HTC used to have its own custom gallery and editing tools, but switched to Google Photos. Google Photos is fine for backup and photo management, but a custom gallery with high-powered editing tools provides for a much better experience. The color splash option is my personal favorite on the Huawei P20.

Other apps included by Huawei include: a file explorer, flashlight, Huawei Health, Huawei HiCare (service app), Music (media player), Notepad, Themes, Recorder, Email, and Weather. I am using a review device provided by Huawei, but for some reason am unable to get Google Pay working with the phone. That is the only issue I have seen with the software though.

The Huawei P20 also supports knuckle gestures so make sure to try them out in Smart assistance>Motion control>Knuckle gestures. Taking a screenshot with a single knuckle tap to the display is handy and drawing a line for split-screen mode is very efficient.

Enterprise users will also be interested in knowing the P20 supports easy projection so you simply plug in the USB-C to HDMI and out to a monitor to use your phone as your computer.

While I think the fingerprint sensor is placed too low, there are some interesting options for the way you navigate on the P20. There are four system navigation options to choose from: off-screen navigation button, onscreen navigation button, virtual navigation button, and navigation dock. I like the off-screen option that turns the fingerprint sensor, and area to the right of it, into your navigation system with presses and swipes. The onscreen option puts a small bar just on the bottom of the display that you manipulate like you would with the fingerprint sensor. The virtual navigation option is the default Android approach with three buttons on the bottom and on the P20 you can have up to four buttons and in a sequence you choose. I've tried the last option, navigation dock, that places a single virtual button on the display that you can move wherever you like, but I kept messing it up and gave up on this option.

The camera software has been given a complete overhaul on the P20 and P20 Pro. When you launch the camera app (try double pressing the volume down with the display off to jump right into the camera app) you are taken into auto photo mode. Like Apple, and Samsung with the S9/S9 Plus, you now switch common modes by swiping left or right with the mode highlighted in orange text at the bottom of the viewfinder. By default, available modes are aperture (let's you adjust the aperture in software), night, portrait, photo, video, pro (manual), and more. When you select more, then an interface of shortcut icons (similar to the previous camera interface) appears and includes slow-mo, panorama, monochrome, light painting and many more. These include more modes that you can download too. You can change the order of these in the more menu, but you cannot bring these modes to the main navigation bar.

We saw Huawei enhance the auto mode through artifical intelligence and this provided some interesting results. While AI was helpful, you had to switch to pro mode to take photos without the AI applying its influence. On the P20, the master AI can be enabled or disabled in the settings. In addition, if it is enabled, then an item is identified and the AI shows you what it will do in the viewfinder. If you do not like what the AI provides, simply tap the small X next to the AI prompt and normal auto mode will appear.

There were 13 AI items on the Mate 10 Pro. We see 19 on the P20, including cat, food, group, natural colors, close-up, night shot, text, greenery, portrait, dog, fireworks, blue sky, flowers, stage, document, sunset, snow, waterfall, and beach. These can be interesting and helpful, but with the P20 Huawei also gives you full and complete control over the image capture experience so you can spend hours exploring all of its capabilities.

I found it very helpful for switching automatically to portrait mode in auto photo while capturing pictures of people. I was not expecting the P20 to take things this far, but it is nice to let the AI help you out and is something I have been looking for these smartphones to do for us for quite some time. Smartphones are powerful tools and they should be doing some of this heavy lifting for us to move the bar forward.

AI is even built into the pro (manual) mode where the software will offer intelligent layout suggestions to help you improve your photography skills.

The Huawei P20 supports the front fingerprint scanner for security, but also has facial recognition to more quickly unlock your device without having to use the awkwardly positioned sensor. I have been able to get facial recognition to work most of the time to unlock the P20, but like Samsung implementation this is only good for unlocking your phone and not for secure websites or services.

Pricing and competition

The Huawei P20 price is £599 (EUR649) for 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The Huawei P20 Pro, with three rear cameras and a slightly larger OLED screen, is priced at £799 (EUR899).

The iPhone X, 64GB model, is priced at EUR1149 so you get quite a bit more in the P20 at a significantly lower cost than the iPhone X.

The Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are the primary Android flagships of 2018 and cost EUR849 and EUR949, respectively. Again, the P20 remains the lowest priced option for Android smartphone fans.

Daily usage experiences and conclusions

Unfortunately, people in the US will have to find a reputable importer in order to purchase a Huawei P20 or P20 Pro due to US government concerns over the company and Best Buy's move to stop selling Huawei phones in its stores. I see that Huawei sells the P20 EML-L29 for $647 (black) and $749 (blue and pink) on Amazon so it is affordable for US customers too. The P20 and P20 Pro may be the best smartphones of 2018 though so you may want to check out more reviews and consider buying at Amazon or through another vendor.

Reception has been fantastic, the camera is a blast to use and results are outstanding, the phone fits well in a pocket and looks stunning, and you can customize the P20 to your preferences. The Kirin 970 flies and the potential for the NPU and AI is there to make the overall experience even better.

The Huawei Mate 10 Pro is a long lasting solid smartphone and the P20 brings all of those experiences in a slightly smaller form factor. However, the Mate 10 Pro has that excellent rear fingerprint sensor and a larger battery so it may be a better choice for the enterprise. In either case, you can pick up an excellent competitor to Samsung for $650 to 750.

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Huawei P20 (pink)

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