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Huawei P20 Pro Review: First look

Huawei P20 Pro Review: First look
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Rather than call it the P11, Huawei has decided to follow up the P10 with the P20. There are three phones in the range, a Lite version with a 5.8in screen, a ‘standard’ version which looks almost identical and a Pro model which is a little larger with a 6.1in display.

It’s that latter phone we’re reviewing here. We got our hands on a P20 Pro a few weeks ahead of launch for a short while so these are our initial impressions, mind, and we’ll update them to a full review once we’ve run our suite of benchmarks and get pricing.




PRICE AND AVAILABILITY
At the phone's Paris launch, Huawei announced that it will cost €899. In the UK, it will cost £799 SIM-free from Carphone Warehouse and - undoubtedly - other retailers from around 6 April.

That's a lot, but it's the same price as the iPhone 8 Plus (£799/US$799) and cheaper than the Galaxy S9+ (£869/US$839).

EE will be offering it for £39 per month with a £50 up-front cost (24-month contract). It's available to pre-order from EE from 28 March.

The P20 is cheaper, and you can read our hands-on review of that model.

FEATURES AND DESIGN
The P20 is, just like the Mate 10, a redesign rather than an iteration of the P10. Perhaps that’s one reason why it’s the P20 and not the P11.

In any case, it has rounder edges than its predecessor but, more noticeably, a glass back. Without doubt it looks much better than the sandblasted aluminium of the P10 and comes in a range of colours including Twilight which is a gradient from dark blue to a pinkish hue.

Photos can't quite do the finish justice, but in the flesh it’s another eye-catching design that will make people ask “What phone have you got?”. If you prefer, there’s a black version, Pink Gold or Midnight Blue.

The other obvious feature that’ll get people talking is the third lens. It’s the first phone to sport a trio of rear cameras, but it’s slightly odd that one sits separate to the other two. We’ll get to the details of those cameras below.

Around the front, there’s a 6.1in screen which has a similar design to the iPhone X as there’s a camera and speaker in a notch at the top.

Surprisingly, Huawei decided not to make the bottom edge bezel-less but instead cram a long, thin home button/fingerprint sensor there. It’s great news for those who despise rear-mounted fingerprint sensors.

There’s IP67 water-resistance but all you’ll find on the bottom edge is a USB-C port, not a standard headphone socket.

Screen
With a resolution of 2244x1080, the 6.1in display is even wider than the Mate 10 Pro, with an aspect ratio of 18.7:9. Unlike the regular P20, the Pro gets an AMOLED screen. This offers more vibrant colours and – subjectively – a little more brightness.

We’ve not had long enough with the phone to see how Android Oreo handles the notch, and we’re sure it’ll depend on the apps you use as to whether you end up with a black border or the interface can use the full extent of the screen.

However, like the Mate 10 Pro you can enable the always-on option so the clock is displayed when the phone is asleep.

Hardware
The P20 borrows the Kirin 970 processor from the Mate 10, but that’s not really an issue since it’s a very fast chip. On the P20 Pro, it’s backed by 6GB of RAM and 128GB of on-board storage.

It also has 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO, Bluetooth 4.2 (not 5.0) and Cat 18 LTE for up to 1.2Gb/s download speeds, when they’re available from your mobile operator.

Cameras
Cameras are a major selling point for the P20 Pro and Huawei didn’t talk about a whole lot else at the phone’s launch.

They’re so important that the whole rear of the phone has been designed around the cameras, with the Huawei logo running parallel to the line of cameras so it’s readable when you’re taking a picture – or video – in landscape mode.
The left-most camera in this orientation is the 20Mp mono camera that Huawei has used for quite a few of its recent phones, including the P10. In the middle is a 40Mp colour camera and, on the right, an 8Mp camera with a 3x telephoto lens.

Those are some serious numbers, and you’ll probably recall Nokia putting a 41Mp sensor in its 2012 PureView 808 phone (and later using it in the Lumia 1020).

While you can shoot photos at 40Mp, the P20 Pro defaults to 10Mp. This is to enable a 5x Hybrid Zoom mode which combines the three cameras and some clever processing to deliver some credible-looking telephoto shots at 10Mp.

Here’s how that looks in the real world. The images here have been resized in Photoshop, but we have included 100% crops of the 3x and 5x photos below so you can see the full level of detail captured.



This is the 100% crop of the 3x photo:

And here's the same crop from the 5x hybrid photo:

It’s certainly impressive, with the hybrid mode delivering sharper results than you might expect and better than simply interpolating a 3x photo in Photoshop to make it larger.

Camera features don’t stop there. There’s a nifty six-second long exposure mode which uses AIS (Artificial Intelligence Stabilisation) and ISO right up to 51,200 to deliver sharp night shots without a tripod. The Kirin 970’s NPU (Neural Processing Unit) is used along with all the camera hardware to eliminate blurring caused by shaky hands.

And while it sounds too good to be true, it actually works. We tried it in an almost pitch-black room with a cityscape projected in the background and, although we could only review the images on the phone’s screen, they certainly looked sharp enough.

We even compared this mode to an equivalent 6-second long exposure in the Pro camera mode where we saw the expected blurry mess, so that AIS is clearly doing a lot. You can’t select anything above ISO 6400 manually though: the highest 102,400 ISO is only used when needed in the Night Shot mode.

In our usual low-light comparison, the long-exposure shot has more saturated colours and is clearly sharper than the standard auto mode (click/tap to enlarge):

On top of this, the Ultra Snapshot (where you double-press the volume down button to take a photo even if the phone is asleep) now takes just 0.3 seconds, so you can pick up your P20 Pro and capture whatever’s going on at that instant.

Continuing with the AI theme, the P20 Pro uses “4D predictive focus”. It analyses movement in the frame and predicts where the object will go next so – hopefully it’s in sharp focus no matter when you hit the shutter button. We tried this out on a couple of fencers doing their thing and the phone picked one person and followed his movements. And for the most part, it accurately predicted the direction he would move next. Although the foils were blurry due to the fast movement, the fencer was – as far as we could tell from the preview – in sharp focus.

Another AI feature, as found on the Mate 10, is scene recognition. The P20 Pro can identify 19 different scenarios (6 more than the Mate 10) from food to pets to portraits and landscapes. In each, it will automatically adjust settings to get the best possible photo without you have to manually select the mode.

For example, if it detects you’re taking a portrait, it will automatically blur the background using the depth sensing capabilities. Here’s the difference between a standard photo and one taken with portrait mode. It doesn’t perfectly mask out the background, but still does a decent job:

Huawei refused to say if the new AI features would find their way onto the Mate 10.

Here’s a comparison of the 40Mp and 10Mp modes. You can see that there’s very little processing done in the former, but in the latter there’s plenty of sharpening and also HDR. Yet all we did between taking the two photos was change the resolution.


Here's a 100% crop of the 40Mp photo:

Around the front you’ll find a 24Mp selfie camera. That’s not a typo either: the P20 pulls no punches with its sensor resolutions. In our limited testing, it proved to be very impressive indeed, delivering the kind of sharp detail usually reserved for rear cameras. Huawei says this will step down in resolution as light deteriorates in order to maintain sharpness and reduce noise.

We’re not done yet with the cameras: the P20 Pro also records video. It’s almost as if this is an afterthought (just as with the P10 and Mate 10). We say this because although the AI stabilisation is used for video, it’s only at 1080p at 30fps. No stabilisation is offered at all at 1080p60 or at 4K.

There’s no support for HDR video recording either. It means that, for those who like to use their phone to make home videos, the P20 is unlikely to be the best choice.

However, Huawei has added a Super Slow Motion mode which – like the Galaxy S9 – shoots a second or so of 960fps video at 720p. The implementation isn’t quite as intelligent: you have to press the button at the instant the action happens. So as with the Xperia XZ1, it’s a bit of a case of luck if you manage to capture the motion you wanted. It processes the video for a few seconds afterwards so you can’t immediately shoot another clip, but the resulting video starts at normal speed, smoothly transitions to super-slo-mo and then back to normal speed at the end.

Battery
Despite the thickness of 7.8mm, there’s a 4000mAh battery in the P20 Pro. Huawei hasn’t quoted any battery life figures, but we’d be surprised if the phone can’t easily last a day of fairly intensive use.

Anecdotally, a photographer who has been testing out the P20 Pro said that after three days of use, the AI had optimized battery life significantly to the point where 60 percent remained after an entire day of shooting.

Software
In the box, the P20 Pro ships with Android Oreo 8.1 and Huawei’s EMUI 8.1 software.

If you already know Huawei phones and EMUI, you’ll know exactly what to expect: little has changed compared to the Mate 10 or P10. It defaults to an app grid like iOS, but you can enable the app drawer if you prefer not to have all your apps plastered across multiple home screens.

There are a couple of improvements. One is that AI is used to tag photos for better searching. It can put photos into one of roughly 100 categories. It’ll also use algorithms to ‘score’ photos for aesthetic beauty so you can easily see the ‘best’ photos you’ve taken. AI can also straighten wonky horizons.

If the notch bugs you, just choose the 'Hide notch' option in the settings and it disappears:

EMUI 8.1 brings wireless file transfers to a PC or Mac with no special software required. We couldn’t test this out, though, and Huawei didn’t go into detail about exactly how this works.

Similarly, the Huawei Clone app runs faster and can transfer data from your old phone up to 5x faster: 32GB of data can be “cloned” in 19 minutes according to the firm.

The wide screen lends itself to multiple apps and sure enough, you can run certain apps side by side (or one above the other):

SPECS
  • Android Nougat 8.1 + EMUI 8.1
  • 6.1in 2244x1080, 18.7:9 OLED display, 408ppi
  • 2.4GHz HiSilicon Kirin 970 octa-core processor
  • Mali-G72 MP12
  • 6GB RAM / 128GB storage
  • Cameras: 40Mp with OIS (colour) + 8Mp telephoto (3x) + 20Mp, f/1.6 (monochrome)
  • Front camera: 24Mp, f/2.0
  • 802.11 ac Wi-Fi (2.4 and 5GHz)
  • Bluetooth 4.2
  • NFC
  • GPS + Glonass
  • 4G LTE Cat 18
  • Dual nano-SIM
  • 4000mAh, non-removable battery
  • USB-C SuperCharge
  • IP67 rating
  • 7.9mm
  • 174g (TBC)

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