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Huawei P20 Review: Hands-on

Huawei P20 Review: Hands-on
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The P20 is one of two new Huawei phones launched in Paris on 27 March 2018 along with the P20 Pro. It comes hot on the heels of the Galaxy S9 with the odd addition of an optional notch.

We went hands on with the P20 prior to the event to see what Huawei is doing differently in 2018 for its flagship P line of phones after last year’s impressive Mate 10 Pro.

  • 649€ (approx £569/$799)
  • Premium build may heighten price
  • Expect it to undercut the Galaxy S9

Huawei is good at announcing phones with a fanfare but no official release date or pricing information.

This time around we know that the phone, along with the Pro model, will be available 'immediately'. However, the UK release date is 6 April.

Huawei has given a price of 649€ so that's £569 or $799 when converted but those might not be the final prices in the UK and US.

You can get the P20 and P20 Pro from networks including Carphone Warehouse, EE, O2, Vodafone and Three. Those who order before 5 April will get a free pair of £329 Bose QC35 II noise cancelling headphones.

  • Notch at the top of 18.7:9 display
  • Metal and glass sandwich
  • No headphone jack

The P20 is a radical design departure from last year’s P10. Where there was once sandblasted aluminium and bezels there is now glossy colourful glass and a pesky notch for the selfie camera.

The phone will be available in black, champagne gold, twilight, pink gold and midnight blue.

Gone is the headphone jack in favour of USB-C audio, though Huawei puts a 3.5mm headphone jack adapter in the box. It’s a flagship feature we’ll have to get used to.

There’s also a notch in the top of the 5.84in display – yes, like an iPhone X, but also like the Essential Phone and the Asus Zenfone 5. Like the absence of a headphone jack, notches are here to stay for 2018, with the OnePlus 6 also rumoured to have one. 
Until manufacturers can put earpieces and cameras in slimmer bezels, then notches are the workaround in order to give the most screen to body ratio possible. Some will ask why more don’t ape the Galaxy S9 design which does seem to manage without a notch pretty impressively, but clearly Huawei has preferred the ‘eared’ design here.

Huawei has kept the fingerprint sensor on the front of the device. With so many so-called bezel-les phones moving the feature to the rear, it’s refreshing to see it on the front in a place that many prefer it.

The button is a slim pill shape to save space and makes unlocking on a table possible. This means less hand acrobatics in general to find a button you can’t see on the back.

The phone has a great in hand feel and a premium air about it that eluded the P10. The glass, while fragile no doubt, is lovely and the in-hand feel makes this a desirable piece of kit where Huawei design was once overly practical and utilitarian.

  • Kirin 970 processor with ‘AI’ smarts
  • LCD not OLED
  • 128GB expandable storage, 4GB RAM

We first used the Kirin 970, Huawei’s answer to the Snapdragon 845, in the Mate 10 Pro. Huawei makes bold claims about the chip's AI functions, and we are still dubious of any smartphone manufacturer claiming their products have AI capabilities. All that ‘AI’ really means in this instance is slightly cleverer software tweaks on top of apps like the camera.

Huawei says the camera app will intelligently select shooting modes for you, and you can image search Amazon from anywhere within the UI. Cool tricks, but not game-changers - and we've seen it before.

More interesting to explore in our full review will be the AI-assisted stabilisation on the P20's cameras.

The display you view everything through is a 2244x1080 18.7:9 LCD (bit of a mouthful), while you get an impressive 128GB expandable storage. The P20 has to make do with 4GB RAM, with the P20 Pro getting 6GB.

Even though it only has two lenses compared to the P20 Pro's three, the P20's camera set up is still impressive.

There are 12Mp and 20Mp lenses (colour and monochrome respectively) though there's no OIS in sight - a shame on a flagship device in 2018.Only the 8Mp telephoto lens on the P20 Pro has OIS.

The selfie camera has also had a bump to an impressive 24Mp - just remember to turn off Huawei's still-annoying beauty mode unless you want to come out airbrushed.

In our full review we'll put the P20 through its imaging paces. Though not as equipped as the P20 Pro, the regular model should still be capable of some impressive low light and black and white photography. It can also capture 4K video at 30fps and 960fps slo-mo as seen on the Sony Xperia XZ Premium and Samsung Galaxy S9.

Huawei has stuffed a 3,400mAh battery into a phone that's only 7.65mm thick. That's impressive, and with Huawei's fast-charger in the box you can easily keep topped up if you're a heavy user.

Huawei claims you can eke two days of use on the battery but we remain unconvinced until proven in our testing.

Unfortunately like the Mate 10 Pro, the P20 does not support wireless charging - despite the glass back that can technically allow it. It's not a dealbreaker, but Huawei is clearly behind the pack now.

Other stuff
The P20 is only IP53 water resistant, unlike the IP67 P20 Pro. Like the LCD instead of OLED display, this can be seen as Huawei stripping back costs on the regular model to meet a price that appeals to the floating purchaser - the extra saving compared to some rival phones could nudge a few people into Huawei purchases this year.

The company claims the face unlock feature on the P20 is 100% faster than the iPhone X at 0.5 seconds, and works in the dark. Again, this will be tested in our review, as without the sensor array of the iPhone X, the P20 may struggle, as other Android phones do. It's also less secure when relying on image only.

Blue P20 (left) and twilight P20 Pro (right)

  • EMUI is still clearly modelled on iOS
  • Less cluttered than previous versions
  • Incredibly slick and smooth

The P20 ships with EMUI 8.1 based on Android Oreo 8.1. Based on our time with the phone so far, it's an improvement, though each incremental version of EMUI generally is.

Menus are becoming clearer, and the interface is relatively intuitive, though the skin is still heavy to the point of change for change's sake. But the notification shade is still good to use, and the granular controls within the camera app bely Huawei's continued focus on photography and the company's partnership with Leica.

Its decision to install Google's Messages app rather than its own is also a positive embrace of Google's often superior stock apps.

A neat addition carried over from the P10 is using gestures on the fingerprint sensor in place of on-screen Android navigation controls. Pressing to go home or back and swiping to open the recent apps page is surprisingly natural, and it opens up even more usable screen space.

The software here is less of a visual change and more additions of so-called AI smarts. New layers of artificial help will hopefully unveil themselves to us in full testing, something that doesn't happen in quick hands-on testing.

  • 5.4in 2244x1080 18.7:9 LCD
  • Android 8.1 with EMUI 8.1
  • Kirin 970 CPU
  • 4GB RAM
  • 128GB storage 20- and 12Mp dual-rear cameras
  • 24Mp front camera
  • 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.2
  • 4G LTE
  • Nano-SIM (Dual-SIM in some regions)
  • GPS
  • NFC
  • 3400mAh non removable battery
  • 7.65mm thick


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