I have spent all the waking moments of the last 10 days in the company of the Huawei P20 Pro. This phone has surprised and delighted me, like few others, and what you are about to read is a collection of happy words about it. I do not think the P20 Pro is perfect, nor the best phone that has been released, but I do believe that it is one of the most important devices we have seen in the world of mobile devices for years.
Despite its huge network and telecommunications businesses, and the millions of phones it sells in its home country of China, Huawei remains a disadvantaged player in other smartphone markets. The P20 Pro changes that. This phone is as powerful, refined, fast, elegant and desirable as everything we have seen from Samsung, LG and HTC at its best. At a time when US spy agencies are warning Americans that they are not on Huawei phones due to espionage fears (hitherto unproven), Huawei is responding in the best possible way: making incredible phones.
Huawei is launching the P20 Pro today for a price of € 899 in Europe with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. That puts him in a direct confrontation with Samsung's Galaxy S9 and Apple's iPhone X. And the remarkable thing is how well Huawei's phone competes in that crazed class of super flagships.
The P20 Pro is a typical Chinese phone, as it has an overwhelmingly rich spec sheet and eye-catching design. But it is different in the way it capitalizes on its high specifications and how subtly beautiful it is. Instead of a color, Huawei has given this phone an iridescent gradient paint job that exudes sophistication. The combination of beauty and strength here is completed with the IP67 certification for water and dust resistance. Every phone company wants to imbue their devices with a premium feel, but few do as well as Huawei has done with the P20 Pro.
It starts as soon as you take the phone out of the box, with its perfectly contoured sides resting softly in the palm of your hand. For a glass phone in the front and back, the P20 Pro feels surprisingly stiff and durable. With a large 4000 mAh battery inside, it also conveys a satisfying sense of density that only Apple's iPhone X can match. There is a litany of subtle design details and nice symmetries in this Huawei design that add up to create a positive first impression. I love the color of inconsequent accent but great in the power button, for example. It's fair to say that I liked the P20 Pro even before turning it on.
The dimensions and ergonomics of this phone are close to perfection
Coming from a Google Pixel 2 XL, I find that the P20 Pro is an ergonomic update. The Huawei phone has a slightly larger screen, 6.1 inches, but it is physically smaller. That's something that detractors will have to consider before criticizing the notch in the P20 Pro: it provides more screen space than a design without notches. But more to the point, the P20 Pro is easy to pick up and grab safely. The glass surfaces may be slippery, however, I have not been about to drop the phone, not even once during all the tests (which is unusual).
My two complaints about the industrial design of the P20 Pro are minor. One is that the rear glass picks up fingerprints just as easily as the Galaxy S9 and iPhone X against which Huawei competes. And the other drawback is the size of the camera's bump, which is roughly the same as Apple's on the iPhone X and leads to similar problems of phone imbalance when placed on a flat surface.
Huawei's decision to keep the fingerprint sensor on the front of the phone was peculiar to me, since everyone else has deleted it (Apple), moved it backwards (Samsung) or integrated it directly on the screen (Alive). But it took me only a few moments to use the P20 Pro's fingerprint reader to realize that keeping it was the right move. It's surprisingly fast and precise, and the way it feels under the thumb is great. It does not take more than a simple touch to unlock the phone, and I appreciate that you still have a start button to exit the full screen applications with a single touch. The fingerprint sensors on the screen still can not compete with the speed of a discreet solution like Huawei's, while those mounted on the back are simply not as easy to use and intuitive as those at the front.
Facial unlocking of Huawei is fast, and even works in the dark
As if the fingerprint identification system was not fast enough, Huawei also added a facial unlocking option to the P20 Pro, which uses the 24-megapixel front camera. I was again skeptical that this was anything other than Apple's spec trick, but my skepticism was stifled by the experience. Face Unlock on this phone is instant in almost all circumstances. Even when I locked myself in a bathroom without light, the phone took less than a second to identify me. Is this system as safe as Apple's most sophisticated Face ID? No. But their speed and precision are at least as good, if not better.
Huawei's EMUI software offers the option of disguising the notch at the top of the screen.
Like most of its Android rivals this year, Huawei will be criticized for having a notch on the top of its screen and a "chin" on the bottom. The P20 Pro can ignore these complaints thanks to its impressive fingerprint reader and its truly useful facial unlocking technology. I even love the circular headset and the loud, sharp sound it produces during calls. Nothing about this design is superfluous or superficial. And if you really hate the notch, Huawei gives you the option to hide it.
The 6.1-inch Full HD + screen on the Huawei P20 Pro is excellent. There are a couple of color modes to choose from, and once I switched to Natural, I got colors that had just the right amount of saturation and vividness. It is not perfectly accurate, perhaps, but it adapts perfectly to the mobile use of the consumer. The Pixel 2 XL feels dull in comparison, while the recent HTC U11 + looks spooky and oversaturated. Only the two phones that Huawei is trying to overcome, the iPhone X and the Galaxy S9, can claim to have screens as good as the P20 Pro. All three are OLED, all three can be used comfortably in bright outdoor conditions and all three provide a lot sharpness, contrast and precision. Huawei has its own version of Apple's True Tone technology, which adjusts the color temperature according to the ambient light of the phone: it's subtle and works superbly well.
The cameras are destined to be the biggest differentiating feature of the Huawei P20 Pro. The 24 megapixel selfie camera joins a 40 megapixel f / 1.8 main camera, a 20 megapixel f / 1.6 mono camera and a f / 2.4 telephoto camera 8 megapixels on the back. If you're in the mood for math, that's 92 megapixels of image processing power.
Nokia's PureView legacy endures
Huawei makes intelligent use of all those pixels by combining four of them in one, similar to what Nokia previously did with its PureView cameras in the 808 and Lumia 1020 (incidentally, the head of Huawei image, Eero Salmelin, is a veteran of the PureView team from Nokia). ) This approach produces sharper and cleaner images at a lower resolution. You can still take 40-megapixel still images if you insist on it, but the default setting (and the highest quality) is a 10-megapixel capture with the combined light information from the entire sensor.
The main camera sensor of the P20 Pro is extra large to match its extreme resolution, reaching 1 / 1.7 of an inch. That's more than double what you would get with a Galaxy S9 or an iPhone X, and it takes you to impressive performance in low light. One of the four-pixel pixels of the Huawei P20 Pro would measure 2μm, easily surpassing even the 1.4μm pixels of the magnificent Google Pixel 2 camera. What all these numbers finally add up to is a camera with formidable capability that I'm not sure of have taken full advantage.
Huawei P20 Pro four-second night mode on the left / top side, Google Pixel 2 XL on the right / bottom.
The image quality of the P20 Pro is, by a large margin, the best that Huawei has produced. Huawei's new camera system is, in my opinion, superior to those of the Galaxy S9 and the iPhone X, although personal preferences or a penchant for particular characteristics can influence that decision. For my taste, I still see too much processing, too many small details lost in the battle to eliminate image noise and imperfections, to crown the P20 Pro as my favorite camera. The Pixel 2 XL spits out a lot more noise than the Pro, and if you look at the comparison image of Gare du Nord, the Huawei shot retains the sharpness to the edges of the frame, while the periphery of the pixel is smooth, but with that noise I get a more realistic and faithful sense of the scene captured. Defects in Pixel's image help it produce more credible results, or at least results that feel more photographic.
Huawei P20 Pro on the left / top, Google Pixel 2 XL on the right / bottom.
It is difficult to know where to start encapsulating Huawei's camera software, which is undoubtedly complete. You can take panoramas, portraits, monochrome, burst, a simulated aperture f / 0.95, at 40 megapixels, or portable long exposures. And the Pro mode allows you to go crazy by manually modifying all possible parameters. This is an overwhelming diversity of options, but you can rely on Huawei's new Master AI system to make all the adjustments on your behalf.
Master AI is a trained image recognition system that quickly (usually instantly) recognizes the circumstances of what you are trying to capture and adjusts the processing of the camera accordingly. When I was photographing the Eiffel Tower, for example, the P20 Pro camera detected a blue sky and increased its saturation. The green sheets reliably activated the "green" settings of the camera and all the receipts I presented were handled by a built-in document scanner. Huawei says that this year's iteration is smart enough to detect not only food, but also know the particular style of cooking, whether Chinese, Italian, Indian or anything else.
Huawei tries to make all the photographic decisions for you, and is correct most of the time
The philosophy that sustains Master AI is to produce the most pleasant photos, not necessarily the most realistic ones. You may think that it is artificial intelligence that applies subtle filters to all your shots. Apple already does something similar behind the scenes in the processing of iPhone photos. Huawei's master IA is optional, since it applies more aggressive alterations and does not always do things right, although its judgment is good enough so that I can be well keeping it on all the time. I suspect that the vast majority of people will feel the same, and purists of photography can always discard the suggested scene detection settings or switch to Pro mode.
The AI Master of Huawei P20 Pro in "green" mode in the upper left, Google Pixel 2 XL in the right / lower part.
Along with the features of the Galaxy S9, the Huawei P20 Pro also has a super slow from 960 fps to 720p. It's a fun novelty. In addition to keeping up with the iPhone, the Pro has a "studio lighting" configuration on its front camera that tries to isolate its face from the background and generate a dramatic look. As with the iPhone, it is terribly vague and should be avoided at all costs.
Huawei P20 Pro in the default configuration (27 mm equivalent, left / up) and using the 3x zoom (83 mm equivalent, right / down).
The third camera of the P20 Pro is used to provide a 3x optical zoom or a 5x hybrid zoom. Photographing the Paris landmarks during the day, I found that both zoom options are useful, so I have a greater flexibility of composition and sharp details. The telephoto lens is the only one optically stabilized in the P20 Pro, although I can not say that I have seen tremors in the hundreds of photos I took with any of the cameras on this phone. Huawei has a thing called AI stabilization, which obviously does a wonderful job of neutralizing the user's clumsiness or instability.
Huawei P20 Pro in the default configuration (27 mm equivalent, left / up) and using the 3x zoom (83 mm equivalent, right / down).
The Huawei night mode on the P20 Pro is a unique and remarkable new feature. By exposing the shot for four full seconds, it somehow manages to produce portable photos that remain crisp, accurate and virtually noise-free. No other phone can match the night photography of the P20 Pro, which makes even low-light photos of the Pixel appear flat, discolored and noisy. This advance could be lost in the avalanche of camera options, but I think it is the biggest advantage that Huawei now enjoys over its competition. For more information on how it works and a side-by-side comparison with the Pixel, see my previous detailed article on the night mode of the P20 Pro.
There are no delays in image processing on the P20 Pro, and that smooth and assured operating speed extends to the entire user experience. As with the premium feeling on the outside, the responsiveness within the P20 Pro is first class. Sending us with the latest Oreo software on Android 8.1 on board, the Pro is also super reliable: I've had more application blocks on the Pixel 2 XL that I've had stutters with Huawei's phone.
However, there is room for improvement. For some strange reason, Huawei does not offer the widely used shortcut of pressing the power button twice to start the camera. Instead, I have to assign that to the key to lower the volume, which is mostly fine, unless I'm listening to music or a podcast, and then I end up lowering the volume.
The EMUI of the P20 Pro is the least offensive that the Huawei software has had.
EMUI, the skin of Huawei on Android, has gone from being an awkward iOS scam a couple of years ago to a quite acceptable user experience nowadays. I can not say that I love it, and I would have preferred to see an always active display option, but the mere fact that it does not bother me with its rarity or lack of reliability is an important step forward for Huawei. The deviations of the company with respect to the original design of Google Android can be avoided or disabled, and I appreciate having a dark mode, an increasingly valuable feature for phones with OLED screens.
Like Samsung, Huawei now offers a feature called App Twin, which allows you to run several instances of the same application and thus log in to several accounts of the same social or messaging service. Huawei also has a split screen and a sophisticated screen capture tool. The EMUI lock screen also has a handy set of quick shortcuts, accessible by sliding up from the bottom: there is a voice recorder, flashlight, calculator, timer and a QR code reader. Like Apple, Huawei also offers a wake-up feature, which along with its fast Face Unlock does a great job emulating the smooth unlocking of the iPhone X.
Huawei has adjusted its notification bar to accommodate the notch on the screen, but not in the way I like it. The watch feels tight against the right curve of the screen, while the Wi-Fi and cellular status icons have jumped through the notch to the left. Putting those permanent icons in the space usually occupied by transient notifications creates a dissonance: every time I look at that corner, I still think I have unread messages.
Most Android applications already work well with the notch, although there are some niche incompatibilities, such as the message "waiting for the network …" on Telegram that appears immediately below (and therefore almost obscured by) the notch. Huawei offers the option of masking the notch while keeping the screen around it obscured, except the notification and status icons. I like that option, but I do not consider it necessary because the notch never offends or distracts me while I use the phone.
Photo of Vlad Savov
Huawei's worst sin with the notch is the imperfect way of masking the top corners of the screen when playing YouTube videos, as illustrated in the image above. There is a small portion of the video that has been left uncovered, which I consider an annoying oversight.
The P20 Pro stands out in three fundamental aspects of modern smartphones: audio, battery life and wireless performance. First of all, the loudspeaker of this phone gets strong without becoming strident or distorted. I love him. Listening to podcasts on this phone is a joy, and your ringtones and notifications come with authority. The absence of a headphone jack is still a problem, but at least Huawei is compatible with LDAC for higher-bitrate Bluetooth transmission. Even without many compatible headphones with that standard, I was very impressed with the strength and reliability of the Bluetooth connections with the P20 Pro. Only the Apple iPhone can maintain as good a connection with the AirPod as the P20 Pro does.
The battery challenges the belief
The synchronization of headsets and wireless speakers was faster with this Huawei phone than with any other Android device I have used, and the P20 Pro maintained a powerful signal no matter how I grabbed, hugged or hugged it. The same is true for the cellular signal: I found that the P20 Pro delivers the best mobile data speeds possible wherever I was, and I did not have dropped calls, even in areas of irregular coverage.
The battery of the P20 Pro makes me laugh. It lasts for an absurdly long time. At this time, the phone has been away from a charger for 32 hours and I still have 52 percent of the battery that I can play with. In a busier day that could include one hour of YouTube videos, hours of audio transmission and immoderate amounts of time exploring Twitter and sorting emails, it would still only reduce the battery to 40 percent after 24 hours. Huawei claims to have two days of battery with the P20 Pro and the phone delivers it properly. The absence of wireless charging from this phone, which would be a competitive disadvantage for others in 2018, is not a problem for me because of how little I need to load it.
The synergy between the excellent ergonomics, screen, camera and responsiveness of the Huawei P20 Pro should not be underestimated. I probably like every single aspect of this phone more because of the quality of its surrounding components. Huawei has matured to the point of emulating the integrated and fluid user experience of the iPhone instead of simply imitating the basic functions of the iPhone. After having spent a month with the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus, I prefer the P20 Pro than Samsung's flagship 2018. Huawei offers the most powerful camera, better ergonomics, longer battery life and, hell, it even has a less irritating Android appearance. The gap is even greater when we compare the P20 Pro with Huawei's latest Mate 10 Pro flagship, which never appealed to me like the P20 Pro does. The new phone's design is truly unique and charming to hold, and your camera has lost most of the artificiality of its predecessor.
Comparisons against Apple's iPhone X and Google's Pixel 2 XL are harder to make. The iPhone has a completely different ecosystem, and you are likely to choose Android-iOS before deciding which device to buy. As for the Pixel, I'm still favoring it thanks to its unique camera and clean Android experience, but the P20 Pro outperforms it in any other criteria. More specifically, the P20 Pro will be available for purchase in many more locations around the world (except the US, unfortunately) than Google's boutique product.
Instead of tricks and garish, the Huawei P20 Pro offers refinement and efficiency. That is a major change for Huawei, which previously could be considered the fastest iPhone imitator in the East. With the rapid improvement of Huawei, Apple and Samsung now have a third credible competitor in the contest for the supremacy of the star phone. It's time for everyone to sit down and take notice, because Huawei is now the manufacturer of the best phone in 2018 and one of the best phones in general.
Photograph by Vlad Savov
Epic battery life
Lovely and sophisticated design
Exceptional camera system
High quality screen
Software adaptations to the notch could be better
Without headphone jack
Master AI image processing is not perfectly consistent
Without wireless charging
Vox Media has affiliated associations. These do not influence the editorial content, although Vox Media can earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.