Huawei P20 Pro Review: A Low-Light Photography Master
The Huawei P20 Pro is Huawei’s most ambitious phone yet. The company has been steadily climbing the ranks of Android device makers, to the point where it is now the world’s third-largest smartphone vendor. In China, the company is in first place, while in Europe, it is a rising star. Despite experiencing trouble competing in the US smartphone market, Huawei remains in a very comfortable position in other international markets.
The Huawei P10 series was an incremental upgrade for Huawei back in 2017, but the substantial change came with the Huawei Mate 10 and the Huawei Mate 10 Pro. With the introduction of 18:9 displays and glass back plates in Huawei’s Mate series, the stage was set for these features to come to the mainstream P series.
The Huawei P20 is Huawei’s mainstream flagship, but the P20 Pro is the real star of the company’s lineup. With an ambitious triple camera setup, a controversial notched display, and a sizable battery, the P20 Pro is a flagship contender with a price to match. Indeed, it is the company’s most expensive phone yet. I have the Indian variant of the Huawei P20 Pro (CLT-AL00), so let’s see how the phone performs in the highly-competitive flagship smartphone market of 2018.
In this review, we will take an in-depth dive into the Huawei P20 Pro. Rather than listing specs and talking about how the experience felt, this feature attempts to provide a thorough look with contents relevant to our reader base. At XDA, our reviews are not meant to tell a user whether a phone is worth buying or not — instead, we try to lend you the phone through our words and help you come to the decision by yourself. Before getting started, let’s get the specifications out of the way:
|Device Name:||Huawei P20 Pro||Price||Varies depending on market|
|Software||EMUI 8.1 on top of Android 8.1 Oreo||Display||6.1-inch Full HD+ (2240×1080) AMOLED with an 18.7:9 aspect ratio, 408 PPI|
|Chipset||HiSilicon Kirin 970; Mali G72MP12 GPU||RAM and Storage||6GB LPDDR4X RAM with 128GB UFS 2.1 storage|
|Battery||4000mAh; Huawei SuperCharge (5V/4.5A)||Connectivity||USB 3.1 Type-C; Bluetooth 4.2 + LE; NFC; Dual nano-SIM slots|
|Rear Camera||40MP primary RGB camera with 1/1.7″ sensor, f/1.8 aperture, 27mm field-of-view, LED flash, and 4-way autofocus|
20MP monochrome camera with 1/2.7″ sensor, 27mm field-of-view, f/1.6 aperture
8MP camera with 1/4″ sensor, 80mm telephoto lens, OIS, 3x optical zoom, 5x hybrid zoom
|Front Camera||24MP front camera with f/2.0 aperture and Light Fusion tech, Video recording in [email protected]|
|155.0 mm x 73.9 mm x 7.8 mm, 180g||Bands||CLT-AL00 Dual SIM model:|
FDD LTE Bands: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 12, 17, 19, 20
Disclosure: The Huawei P20 Pro review unit was provided by Huawei India.
Huawei has promoted the P20 Pro on the basis of its design. At first glance, the P20 Pro’s design does not appear to be anything too special. The adoption of current smartphone trends has meant that Huawei said goodbye to metal unibody phones with the Huawei Mate 10 last year. The company has fully adopted the glass back, and the P20 Pro is naturally an incremental design update over the Mate 10 Pro, which was launched only six months before its cousin.
The front of the phone is dominated by the 18.7:9 6.1-inch notched display. The display notch contains the 24MP front-facing camera, a circular-shaped earpiece that doubles as a speaker, and the proximity / ambient sensors.
Despite the presence of the notch, there is a sizable chin on the bottom of the front. This is because Huawei has placed the fingerprint sensor on the front this time around. I will talk about the performance of the sensor in the Performance section. The placement of the sensor may seem strange, but I did not experience any problems with it. The advantage of a front fingerprint sensor means that you can use EMUI’s fingerprint gestures to navigate the phone without using the on-screen navigation bar. This ensures that display estate isn’t wasted, and essentially cancels the drawbacks of the fingerprint sensor placement.
On the top of the device, we find an IR blaster, something which has become increasingly rare in flagship devices. The microphone is also found on the top. The right-hand side of the P20 Pro contains the power and volume buttons. I found the buttons to have a satisfying degree of feedback and had no complaints about them.
The left-hand side contains the SIM tray. The P20 Pro comes in both single SIM and dual-SIM variants. The SIM tray contains a single or dual nano SIM slots, depending on the variant. The phone does not have a microSD card slot.
On the bottom, we find the main speaker and the USB Type-C port. The P20 Pro does not have a 3.5mm headphone jack — more on this later. On the back, the Leica Triple Camera setup is placed on the top left with Leica branding, and a Huawei logo placed on the bottom left.
The frame of the phone is aluminum, polished to look and feel like glass. It provides structural rigidity, and the glossy finish means that there is plenty of grip. The frame seamlessly curves to the glass back, which has a mirror finish. Huawei promotes the Twilight dual-tone variant as the flagship variant of the P20 Pro, but I have the Midnight Blue variant as this is the only color that has been launched in India.
The Midnight Blue color may not be as eye-catching as the Twilight color, but it most certainly isn’t understated. The back has a mirror finish, which makes the phone hard to photograph. It is also a fingerprint magnet, as expected. Thankfully, all variants of the phone have a black front, which ensures that the bezels aren’t distracting.
As I said before, the design looks premium, but thanks to the prevalence of glass in 2018 smartphones, the P20 Pro’s design doesn’t stand out in a sea of phones with similar designs. This is not meant to be criticism, as smartphones are converging towards the same design trends, for better or worse. Durability is questionable because of the glass back, but the same criticism can be made for practically every 2018 flagship device. As it is, the P20 Pro is a good looking phone that manages to stand out on the basis of its color options.
In terms of ergonomics, the phone is comfortable to hold despite the flat glass back. The glossy metal frame is thick enough to allow sufficient grip, and in general, I didn’t have any issues with the size of the device. Users accustomed to using 5.5-inch to 6-inch devices should have no problems with handling.
The phone has an IP67 rating for water and dust resistance, unlike the regular Huawei P20.
In the box, Huawei bundles a transparent plastic TPU case as well as the USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter. On-ear Apple EarPods-style USB Type-C earphones are also included. In many regions, a Huawei SuperCharger (5V/4.5A) comes in the box, but this is not the case in India, where the box contains only a normal fast charger that operates at 9V/2A or 5V/2A.
The Huawei P20 Pro has a 6.08-inch Full HD+ (2240×1080) notched AMOLED display with an 18.7:9 aspect ratio and 408 PPI. Because of its 18.7:9 aspect ratio, the display is actually taller than a 6-inch 18:9 display, and is slightly narrower (139 mm x 67 mm) than a (notchless) 6-inch 18:9 (136 mm x 68 mm) display, which itself has the same width as a 5.5-inch 16:9 display.
The display does not have Gorilla Glass protection. Instead, it has unnamed tempered glass. Huawei applies a factory installed plastic screen protector on the display. The screen protector is fitted well.
At this price range, the Samsung-sourced display’s Full HD+ resolution is arguably too low, even though QHD+ AMOLED displays supplied by Samsung are few and far between. EMUI 8 has a Smart Resolution feature that can dynamically adjust between HD+ and Full HD+ resolution.
The PenTile subpixel matrix means that the effective color resolution of the display is lower than that of competing Full HD+ LCDs. For the most part, this isn’t a major issue in the real world thanks to subpixel rendering, but it should be noted that the text rendering of the display is visibly inferior when compared with Quad HD displays.
The maximum manual brightness of the P20 Pro display is bright enough, and it’s on par with other modern AMOLED displays. The display also has auto brightness boost which is activated in sunlight. Thanks to the high auto-brightness, sunlight legibility wasn’t an issue.
“However, Huawei’s implementation of manual brightness suffers from a major flaw that affects all other EMUI 8 phones. When selecting the brightness manually, the phone dims brightness gradually after opening any app. The brightness isn’t reduced for the system UI, but whenever an app is opened, there is a gradual but substantial decrease in perceived brightness.
This behavior can’t be disabled. The manual brightness of the display is drastically reduced even when auto brightness is disabled, although the position of the brightness slider does not change. When using an app such as Google Chrome, Play Store, Gmail, etc, the brightness gets reduced by a significant amount, even though the brightness slider will remain in the near maximum brightness position.
This makes manual brightness incredibly annoying to deal with, to the point where it can be termed as a deal-breaker. The brightness isn’t affected in manual brightness mode only if the slider is placed at 100 percent brightness, but this doesn’t help as 100 percent manual brightness is far too bright for indoor usage. Setting the display at 80 percent or 85 percent brightness, on the other hand, results in a dimming of perceived brightness, which means that the perceived brightness of the display will, in fact, be much dimmer when compared to almost any other display that uses a proper logarithmic brightness slider.”
The workaround, in this case, is to use auto brightness. Auto brightness works well in sunlight, where it activates high brightness mode. However, Huawei’s implementation of auto brightness is different from Google’s adaptive brightness in stock Android. When using auto brightness, display brightness is changed far too frequently. There is also the fact that the phone will default to keep the display with 25 percent brightness on the brightness slider in indoor conditions, which again makes it far too dim. This could be a result of the automatic brightness algorithm being biased towards lower brightness. I found myself frequently having to adjust automatic brightness to a higher level indoors to make the display readable.
Phones which use Adaptive Brightness, on the other hand, don’t suffer from this issue as the user’s preferences regarding brightness are taken into account. This is one area where Huawei’s changes have led to a regression in user experience as compared to stock Android.
Black levels, on the other hand, are predictably excellent, thanks to the basic characteristics of AMOLED. Viewing angles are good too, with excellent brightness fidelity at various angles. The angular color shift is noticeable, but it’s about the same as competing Samsung-sourced AMOLED displays. The display exhibits the ‘rainbow out’ effect at extreme angles, which is a characteristic of Samsung-sourced AMOLED displays. In this area, Samsung’s own flagships are equipped with superior displays.
With regards to color accuracy, Huawei hasn’t had a great track record in this field in the past. The phone’s default color mode uses Default color temperature and Vivid color mode, which targets the DCI-P3 color space. Unfortunately, the Vivid mode isn’t accurately calibrated to the DCI-P3 gamut, and oversaturation is visible right from the home screen. Sadly, the phone does not use Android Oreo’s native color management system and instead sticks with color profiles.
The Normal color mode, on the other hand, acts as a sRGB mode. It corrects color temperature back in the general region of 6504K, which is the ideal target, whereas the Vivid color mode is visibly colder than 6504K. Vivid mode’s coverage of the DCI-P3 color gamut is of limited use in color accuracy without the application of color management. The user is better off changing the color mode to Normal to ensure color accuracy.
Huawei also provides a color temperature circular chooser for manual adjustment of the white point, along with presets for Default, Warm and Cold. The Default white point is a good balance, but users are provided choice to make their own adjustments as well.
Overall, the assessment of the P20 Pro’s display is mixed. The display has its high points, such as excellent black levels, high brightness mode, and good viewing angles. However, it stumbles badly with brightness dimming in manual brightness, an issue which affects all other Huawei phones running EMUI 8 as well. The issue has been present for months, but the company still hasn’t fixed it as of yet. (It’s unknown whether they are aware of the problem or not.)
Other shortcomings with the display include the relatively low resolution and the lack of adoption of Android Oreo’s color management system.
Then, we have the display notch. From the beginning, we can see that the P20 Pro’s notch is one of the smaller ones out there. The presence of the notch has been controversial in many of 2018’s flagship phones, with valid points being raised on both sides of the argument.
The notch is supposed to increase display estate. Its detractors argue that having a notch combined with a bottom chin makes no sense. The response of OEMs to this is that currently, it’s not cost-effective to do what Apple did and have a phone with a negligible chin (Apple achieved it with a curved display driver). Detractors of the notch also argue that it visibly breaks symmetry and that it looks distracting. Proponents argue in their turn that having a notch is better than having symmetrical bezels.
My view is that the notch is fundamentally a compromise. The status bar is cut off in the middle, which means that many important status bar icons are small, or are no longer visible. There is no way to bring back a normal full-sized status bar.
Huawei does allow the user to hide the notch, which helps in getting rid of the distracting look. This option makes the status bar black in each and every app as well as the system UI. Thanks to the deep blacks of the AMOLED display, the illusion can be carried off a secondary display (it’s worth noting that LG has adopted the “new second screen” branding in the G7 ThinQ). The only time where the illusion is broken is when the user swipes down the notification drawer, at which time the notch becomes visible. Also, the middle of the status bar remains empty because obviously there is no display there.
The advantage of the hide notch option is that it allows users to get the best of both worlds. Users still get a taller display, but the shape of the display now appears as a normal rounded rectangle instead of having a cutout at the top.
In landscape, Huawei also hides the notch by default. This is a good move as it ensures that media content is never cut off by the notch. In general, a visible notch in landscape mode is a poor design decision, so Huawei made the right choice here.
I prefer using the phone with the notch hidden, as the cutout can appear distracting. Can users get used to it? That depends. Is it optimal? No. Device makers are already looking for ways to remove the notch, as we see in new phone launches like the Vivo NEX and the Oppo Find X. It may well be that the notch could disappear in phones launching a few years from now. As it is, I didn’t find its presence on the P20 Pro to be a deal-breaker, but I wouldn’t call it a great feature either.
System performance benchmarks
The P20 Pro is powered by the HiSilicon Kirin 970 SoC. The SoC was used in last year’s Mate 10 series as well, so there is no upgrade in terms of performance. It has also been used in the Honor View 10 as well as the Honor 10.
The differentiating feature of the Kirin 970 is the presence of dedicated hardware for AI. Huawei calls this the Neural Processing Unit. The NPU’s role as dedicated hardware for AI means that the Kirin 970 can perform AI operations much faster than the Snapdragon 835 with its dedicated compute Hexagon DSP, for example.
In terms of timing, the P20 Pro arrives in the market with an obvious theoretical performance disadvantage against phones launching with the newer Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC. In terms of CPU performance, the Kirin 970 competes head-to-head with the Snapdragon 835, as we will see in the benchmarks below. This means that Snapdragon 845 phones do have a fairly significant 25-30 percent performance advantage in CPU performance. The gap increases even more in GPU performance, where the newer Adreno 630 manages to handily beat the Mali-G72MP12.
I ran the P20 Pro through Geekbench (the standard CPU performance benchmark), PCMark Work 2.0 (the standard system performance benchmark), and through Speedometer (the recommended web performance benchmark) and the results are noted below. Results from a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 device are also included for comparison purposes:
|Benchmarks||Huawei P20 Pro (HiSilicon Kirin 970)||OnePlus 5T (Qualcomm Snapdragon 835)|
|Geekbench Single Core||1900||1960|
|PCMark Work 2.0 performance score||7104||6667|
|PCMark Web Browsing 2.0 score||7395||6321|
|PCMark Video Editing score||5178||5146|
|PCMark Writing 2.0 score||6625||6604|
|PCMark Photo Editing 2.0 score||12944||11060|
|PCMark Data Manipulation score||5509||5543|
The P20 Pro’s Kirin 970 chipset performs roughly on the same level as the Snapdragon 835, with no clear victor being visible from the benchmarks. PCMark is a holistic system performance benchmark, as it emphasizes a real-world test workflow. The P20 Pro performs well in PCMark 2.0, and competes closely with the Google Pixel 2, one of the most performant phones in the market. Newer Snapdragon 845 devices are ahead as expected, but the P20 Pro performs respectably and outperforms the Exynos 9810 in the international variant of the Samsung Galaxy S9.
Real world performance
Real-world performance is a difficult thing to judge. We have objectively shown how the Google Pixel 2 remains one of the smoothest devices on the market, outperforming even newer Snapdragon 845-based competitors. In this area, the P20 Pro performs very well as expected, but doesn’t challenge the Pixel 2. While the Pixel 2 is almost always smooth all the time, the P20 Pro still exhibits some stutters sometimes in heavy apps such as the Play Store and Google Maps.
The system UI runs with no clear dropped frames nearly all the time, with the exception of one odd bug in Huawei Launcher. There is a visible — and highly distracting — stutter which happens every time the user swipes to the left of the home screen for the Google Feed. This bug, too, has been present for months but hasn’t been fixed. The workaround is just to disable the Google Feed home screen panel.
App opening speeds are good. The P20 Pro isn’t the fastest performer in the market, but that’s expected because it was always going to be outperformed by newer Snapdragon 845 devices. Against last year’s Snapdragon 835, the implementation of the Kirin 970 is done well in the P20 Pro. Subjectively, apps open quickly to the point where differences are in the milliseconds.
In terms of unlocking speed, the phone’s fingerprint sensor does a phenomenal job. It’s not a stretch to say that it’s one of the fastest, if not the fastest, fingerprint sensors on the market. Recognition is nearly instantaneous, and the accuracy rate is high. The speed of the fingerprint sensor means that users never really have to see the lock screen, as they can quickly arrive at the home screen instead.
The P20 Pro also has software-based face unlock. Face unlock works quickly and reliably in almost all situations except for extreme low light, where it becomes slow and unreliable in terms of accuracy. I still prefer using the fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone, but face unlock acts as a good backup solution. Huawei has also provided an option to combine face unlock with raise to wake. I kept it disabled, but users can enable it for a more seamless unlocking experience.
Overall, in the real world, the P20 Pro doesn’t have the blisteringly-quick response of OnePlus devices, and it isn’t as fluid as the Google Pixel 2. However, it is a reassuringly-consistent performer. Huawei states that the phone uses “AI” to keep the phone run smoothly even after long-term usage, but we have no way to verify this.
There are no slow-downs, and the presence of very few stutters along with fast app opening times means that the P20 Pro is one of the more well-rounded phones out there when it comes to performance. Thermals are excellent as well. In day-to-day use, the phone perceptibly doesn’t heat up, even when ambient temperatures are as high as 33 degrees Celsius. Heavy use will make the phone warm, yes, but heating is not an issue just like most phones that were released in 2017 and 2018.
The P20 Pro has 6GB of LPDDR4X RAM. Some phones now have as much as 8GB of RAM, but 6GB is still plenty for the Android ecosystem in 2018. In the past, EMUI had a reputation for killing off apps in the background, but EMUI 8 thankfully doesn’t exhibit the same behavior. Indeed, RAM management is great for the most part, with multiple apps and browser tabs all being open in the background without needing to refresh. Users can have multiple games open in the background as well.
Android’s memory management limitations ensure that apps do get killed off after some point in time, but for the most part, multitasking is a great experience on the P20 Pro. The number of apps and services that are allowed to operate in the background are more than some flagship phones that have only 4GB of RAM.
The HiSilicon Kirin 970 uses Arm’s Mali-G72MP12 GPU. This is a faster-clocked, narrower variant of the Exynos 9810’s Mali-G72MP18. In terms of peak performance, the Mali-G72MP12 is slower than the Snapdragon 835’s Adreno 540 GPU, and Qualcomm continues to enjoy a significant lead when it comes to GPU efficiency as well over its competitors.
The P20 Pro’s benchmark results in GFXBench and 3DMark are noted below, along with the results of the Snapdragon 835 device for comparison:
|Benchmarks||Huawei P20 Pro (HiSilicon Kirin 970)||Qualcomm Snapdragon 835|
|GFXBench 1080p Car Chase Offscreen||Not available||25 fps|
|GFXBench 1440p Manhattan 3.1 Offscreen||N/A||21 fps|
|GFXBench 1080p Manhattan 3.1 Offscreen||N/A||42 fps|
|GFXBench 1080p Manhattan Offscreen||N/A||62 fps|
|GFXBench 1080p T-Rex Offscreen||N/A||117 fps|
|GFXBench Car Chase Onscreen||N/A||24 fps|
|GFXBench Manhattan 3.1 Onscreen||N/A||38 fps|
|GFXBench Manhattan Onscreen||N/A||54 fps|
|GFXBench T-Rex Onscreen||N/A||60 fps|
|3DMark Sling Shot Extreme – Open GL ES 3.1 Overall score||N/A||4107|
|3DMark Sling Shot Extreme – OpenGL ES 3.1 Graphics score||N/A||4513|
|3DMark Sling Shot Extreme – OpenGL ES 3.1 Physics score||N/A||3013|
|3DMark Slingshot Extreme – Vulkan Overall score||N/A||2401|
|3DMark Slingshot Extreme – Vulkan Graphics score||N/A||2359|
|3DMark Slingshot Extreme – Vulkan Physics score||N/A||2610|
On the basis of the unrealistic benchmark figures, I originally wrote:
“Suffice it to say that the P20 Pro’s GPU performance is still good. Some of the GFXBench results are oddly lower than expected, but it’s likely that any driver issues will be fixed in an update. The state of Android gaming has somewhat stood still for the last three years, which means that the vast majority of Android phones are able to play popular freemium games without any problem. The P20 Pro will be able to max out most games on the Play Store with high graphics and will struggle only with the most demanding games or games that have not been optimized for the Mali GPU.”
The corrected benchmark figures that have now been posted by AnandTech and UL (3DMark) show that the P20 Pro’s GPU performance is the best among the affected Kirin 970-powered phones. However, both peak and sustained performances are significantly behind Snapdragon 835-powered devices. It should also be noted that Qualcomm Snapdragon 845-powered devices are in another league here, as the Adreno 630 GPU is much better than the Mali-G72MP12. Here’s hoping that HiSilicon achieves its targets with the Mali-G76 in the Kirin 980.
The Huawei P20 Pro comes in a single storage variant with 128GB of dual-lane UFS 2.1 NAND. This is as cutting-edge as it gets in the market, and the results are predictably great. Benchmark results of AndroBench are noted below:
As expected, the phone’s storage performance is excellent. It should be noted that this is one area where flagships continue to enjoy a significant advantage over budget phones that still come with eMMC 5.0 NAND.
This has an appreciable impact on real-world user experience as well. Apps install quickly, 4K video recording is not an issue, and file transfer operations are handled competently. To be clear, though, UFS 2.1 is not a particular strength of the P20 Pro, as nearly all 2017 and 2018 flagship phones make use of it.
The P20 Pro’s most obvious differentiating factor is its camera setup. The Leica Triple Camera consists of three cameras. The first is a 40MP RGB camera with a huge 1/1.7” sensor, 27mm field-of-view and a f/1.8 aperture. The second is an 8MP telephoto camera with 1/4″ sensor, optical image stabilization (OIS), f/2.4 aperture and 80mm field-of-view. The third is a 20MP monochrome camera with 1/2.7″ sensor, f/1.6 aperture and 27mm field-of-view.
The triple camera setup uses 4D autofocus: contrast detection, phase detection, laser detection (using a laser that works at up to 2.4m), and depth detection. A single LED flash and a light temperature sensor complete the camera hardware.
The P20 Pro’s camera setup is quite complicated. The 40MP RGB camera has a huge sensor in smartphone terms. It’s only a bit smaller than the sensor of the Nokia Lumia 1020 (released in 2013), which had a 41MP camera. It also uses a Quad Bayer filter instead of a standard Bayer filter, which means that it has less color resolution in comparison to a camera that uses a Bayer filter.
Despite having 40MP resolution, the P20 Pro takes 10MP photos in 4:3 ratio by default. Users can still take 40MP photos, but the recommended choice is to use the 10MP default option. Why? It’s because the 10MP option uses pixel binning to enhance clarity and remove noise. We will see how this plays out in the image quality assessment section.
The role of the 8MP telephoto camera: The 8MP camera has a 80mm field-of-view, which means it has effective 3x zoom. Huawei provides 3x and 5x zoom options in the camera app. Photos were taken with 3x zoom or 5x zoom don’t have 8MP resolution, however. This is because the telephoto camera works in combination with the 40MP primary camera to take 10MP photos (the two are mounted in the same camera module on the back of the phone, while the 20MP sensor is placed below the other two sensors). 5x hybrid zoom uses both the 40MP camera and the 8MP telephoto camera, while the 3x zoom option uses the 80mm field-of-view of the telephoto camera for 3x optical zoom (it also still works in tandem with the main camera). Spoiler: Both options work incredibly well.
The role of the 20MP monochrome camera: Huawei has used an RGB + monochrome dual camera setup since the Huawei P9, and the monochrome camera returns in the P20 Pro. It has a 27mm field-of-view and a f/1.6 aperture. As it doesn’t have a Bayer filter, it can let in a lot more light than the other cameras. Therefore, it’s used in combination with the 40MP RGB camera to take brighter photos with less noise.
The takeaway is that the P20 Pro takes photos combining the output of at least two cameras. The 40MP RGB camera works in combination with the 8MP telephoto camera as well as the 20MP monochrome camera. With 4D autofocus, the P20 Pro is, therefore, quite prepared when it comes to camera hardware.
Camera app and user experience
The camera app of the Huawei P20 Pro is filled with a lot of settings. The mode selector is placed in the bottom of the screen, but the text remains in portrait position even after rotating the phone. The visible camera modes are: Photo, Video, Pro, Portrait, Night, and Aperture. The More option contains Monochrome, HDR, Slow motion, Time lapse, Document scan, Panorama, and other modes.
Pro mode is a fully featured implementation of manual mode, with options for ISO, shutter speed, exposure compensation, white balance, and metering. On that note, it should be noted that the P20 Pro can go up to an astonishingly high ISO of 102,400 in auto mode. In Pro mode, the maximum ISO which can be chosen is ISO 6400.
Huawei continues to include different Aperture and Portrait modes. Aperture mode is a general wide-aperture mode that lets users simulate apertures between f/0.95 all the way to f/16. The aperture and focus point can be changed after the photo has been taken. Portrait mode, on the other hand, is intended for taking photos of people. It allows users to enable or disable the background blur effect, and it also has simulated lighting effects to compete with Apple’s 2017 iPhones.
Night Mode is one of the most important modes in the camera app. It uses stacking of photos with long exposures of up to 5 seconds (!), and it manages to mostly avoid camera shake thanks to AI-assisted stabilization. Spoiler: The results in low light are phenomenal.
Moving on, HDR is still a separate mode as Huawei continues to skip on providing an auto HDR option. HDR photos are slower to capture than normal photos, and the difference in quality is minor. The validity of a separate HDR mode can be questioned when it could be easily combined in the main photo mode with auto HDR.
The Document scan mode negates the need to download a third-party document scanning app. The Monochrome mode uses the 20MP monochrome camera to take monochrome photos. It has limited use as a separate mode, but it does its job. We will discuss the slow-motion mode in the video quality section.
Camera user experience
For the most part, the P20 Pro uses its 4D autofocus to focus quickly and take photos in quick succession. However, in many cases, when a photo is taken, the camera app displays the message “Sharpening the photo… Please steady your device.” This adds to the shot-to-shot time of taking photos, as there is a tangible delay after taking such a photo. This message is predominantly displayed in low lighting conditions, but strangely, it’s displayed sometimes in daylight as well.
There is no need to display the message in daylight conditions, as it has a negative impact on the speed of taking photos. Huawei is advised to change this behavior.
The camera preview has a high frame rate for the most part. However, the preview isn’t high-resolution enough, which results in problems when taking photos in low light. The camera preview may show a preview of a photo with negligible detail, even when the actual photo itself may be much better in terms of image quality. To put it simply, the camera preview and the photo itself are not the same in quality, and it is a minor issue.
Master AI is a big part of the P20 Pro’s camera experience. It can identify 500+ scenes and dynamically switches to different scenes without the need for user intervention. This means that in low light, the camera automatically switches from Photo mode to Night Mode to improve photo quality.
However, the implementation of Master AI isn’t without flaws. Sometimes it can misidentify a scene. It can take its time switching between scenes. There is a delay of around two seconds between Master AI deciding a scene and actually switching to it. This means that users can inadvertently take photos in the “incorrect” scene as photos are taken before the camera app switches to the mode decided by Master AI.
A similar delay can be observed when Master AI decides to switch back from the scene mode back to the default mode. Again, users can inadvertently take photos in the chosen scene mode even when the scene mode is no longer applicable.
On a related note, it’s worth noting that users can manually exit any scene mode automatically chosen by Master AI. Sometimes this is the recommended choice as Master AI can go overboard with regards to color saturation and exposure. Master AI can also be switched off entirely.
The proof is in the pudding, so let’s see whether the P20 Pro’s triple camera setup measures up in the assessment of its image quality:
Image quality assessment
How does the P20 Pro’s camera match up? To put it simply, it does very well. Note: All samples were taken at the default 10MP resolution, with Master AI enabled. Most samples were taken in Photo mode. Some low light samples were taken in Night Mode because Master AI automatically changed the scene mode. A few low light samples were also manually taken in Night Mode.
In daylight, the P20 Pro’s photos show great exposure, dynamic range and color accuracy. The only part of the equation which is not competitive enough is detail. The 10MP samples benefit from pixel binning as they have no noise at base ISO. Huawei also uses fairly aggressive noise reduction to eliminate noise.
The result of this is that fine detail is not as competitive as it should be. The P20 Pro’s samples still show respectable texture detail, but they also have an “over-processed” look. The areas where the camera suffers the most is in capturing natural detail such as trees, plants, etc. In this respect, it’s still in the top-tier level of smartphone cameras, but it falls below the Google Pixel 2, which uses less heavy-handed noise reduction to retain more detail.
In all other respects, the P20 Pro’s photos are great. In particular, shadow detail is retained competently because of high dynamic range, despite the lack of auto HDR. Autofocus works well, and taking photos of high-contrast scenes didn’t result in exposure problems.
The image samples were not affected by corner softness or oversharpening. If Huawei used less aggressive noise reduction for the goal of retaining more detail, the daylight photos of the P20 Pro would probably be among the best daylight photos captured by a smartphone camera.
Moving on to zoom, the phone does a great job here. Most flagships have secondary telephoto cameras with 2x optical zoom, but the P20 Pro’s telephoto camera has 80mm field-of-view which lets it provide 3x optical zoom. Moreover, the telephoto camera works in combination with the primary camera to take photos in 10MP resolution (and not its native 8MP resolution). This lets it provide 5x hybrid zoom as well.
Image samples taken with both 3x zoom and 5x zoom turned out surprisingly good. 3x optical zoom is already one step ahead of all smartphone cameras, while 5x hybrid zoom is an unparalleled territory. The two zoom options enable creative framing to get photos that would otherwise just not have been possible with only a single camera. The P20 Pro’s triple camera setup proves its worth here.
It should be noted, however, that 5x hybrid zoom photo samples do show more loss of detail compared to the 3x optical zoom samples. This is expected, and even so, the 5x hybrid zoom samples have better quality than we would expect.
Moving indoors, the P20 Pro’s photos share the same characteristics: good colors combined with above average detail. However, the camera starts running into underexposure issues in low-light indoor samples.
Night Mode helps in this respect, as it takes photos with brighter exposures. However, in terms of detail, the situation is reversed as samples taken with Night Mode show less detail (and more of the oil painting effect) than samples taken with the regular photo mode.
Samples taken with Photo mode indoors can vary when it comes to detail. Sometimes the camera will do an incredible job, while at other times, it will fail to capture enough detail. Overall, the camera’s output indoors is still great, but it has the potential to become even better.
Low light image samples
The P20 Pro takes competent photos in daylight, but it shines in low light. This is because of a combination of multiple factors, such as pixel binning, the contribution of the monochrome camera, and Night Mode (which allows users to take long exposure low light photos without a tripod).
The P20 Pro is the best smartphone camera for taking photos in low light. It easily beats its predecessors and beats the reigning Android smartphone cameras, the Google Pixel 2 and the Samsung Galaxy S9.
Low light photo samples in Photo mode show great detail, incredible exposure, great color accuracy and phenomenal dynamic range. The triple camera setup has no problems with exposure. The camera even tries its best to retain shadow detail, and suffice it say that it captures an incredible amount of light.
The downside is that shot-to-shot time does increase significantly, which means that there is a risk of camera shake or motion blur. Also, a fairly substantial amount of luminance noise is present in low light samples (as expected). Thankfully, the samples do not show any chromatic (color) noise even in extremely low light situations.
Then, we have Night Mode. Night Mode takes 4-5 seconds to take photos with multiple exposures and stacks them. We would expect all such samples to be blurred because of their long exposures, but using AI-assisted stabilization, Night Mode does a fine job minimizing camera shake. However, users are still required to have a reasonably steady hand, and blurred samples can be fairly common if the user’s hands are not steady. Motion blur, too, is a problem because of the multiple second long exposures.
However, the long exposures do prove their worth. In some photo samples, Master AI automatically switched from Photo mode to Night Mode, while other samples were manually taken in Night Mode. Night Mode samples, without question, have the brightest exposures taken by any smartphone camera so far in 2018. Even the Google Pixel 2 and the Galaxy S9 cannot match the P20 Pro when it comes to the amount of light being captured by the latter’s Night Mode.
The downsides and limitations of Night Mode? As mentioned previously, Night Mode samples have less detail than photos taken in Photo mode. The exception to this is when Night Mode samples show more detail than Photo mode samples purely because of the brighter exposure. Users can’t use it to take photos of moving objects because it uses long exposures.
The single LED flash of the P20 Pro works well enough. It has limited use because of the P20 Pro’s ability to capture a lot of light, but in pitch dark situations, it comes in useful. The detail in samples taken with the flash is competitive, and the illumination is also even. It should be noted that the LED flash is disabled when the phone reaches a battery percentage of 15 percent.
Overall, the P20 Pro has a great camera for photos. It has the potential to be even better, mainly dealing with the aggressive noise reduction which leads to degradation in fine detail. In daylight, its photos are competitive in most respects, but it is in low light where it excels. Night Mode is a unique strength of the triple camera setup, allowing the phone to take extremely bright exposures that no other smartphone camera can match.
There is no doubt about the fact that the phone is one of the best smartphone cameras in 2018 for taking still photos.Download full-resolution image samples from the Huawei P20 Pro
Video quality evaluation
The Huawei P20 Pro can record 4K video at 30fps, and 1080p video at 30fps and 60fps. Huawei provides an option to record videos with the standard H264 encoder or the new HEVC (H265) encoder, but there is a minor difference in file sizes between the two encoders. Using the standard H264 encoder, [email protected] videos have a variable bitrate between 8-14Mbps, while [email protected] videos have a bitrate of 38-40Mbps and [email protected] videos have a bit rate of 19Mbps.
Unfortunately, electronic image stabilization is only present in [email protected] videos. 4K videos and [email protected] videos don’t have EIS. This means that camera shake is highly visible in both [email protected] and [email protected] videos.
The [email protected] videos have a great amount of detail in daylight. Colors are reasonably accurate. Exposure and dynamic range are fine as well. However, the lack of EIS is disappointing, as all videos containing movement are affected by camera shake.
In low light, the 4K videos still retain plenty of texture detail and maintain a 30fps frame rate. Color accuracy remains good, and exposure is excellent. Once again, the video quality as such shows good potential, but it is severely let down by the lack of EIS.
The [email protected] videos, on the other hand, do have EIS. Users can also choose to disable stabilization completely. Doing so will increase detail in videos, at the cost of highly visible camera shake.
In daylight, the [email protected] videos show a competitive amount of detail, even though EIS reduces quite a bit of it. They share most characteristics with 4K videos, with the exception of stabilization. EIS is highly effective, as it minimizes camera shake in panning and while walking. It is also noticeable in the camera preview itself.
The [email protected] mode, therefore, is the only suitable mode for videos that contain any movement. In low light, detail levels drop significantly in [email protected] videos, and a substantial amount of luminance noise is also introduced. The overall quality still remains competitive, however.
Moving on, the [email protected] videos have an odd 51fps frame rate even in daylight. They show a competitive amount of detail (in comparison with [email protected]). The lack of EIS is a problem here as well, as cameras shake remains visible.
In low light, the [email protected] videos show a significant loss of detail, which simultaneously results in a lot of luminance noise. They also suffer from underexposure, a problem that [email protected] and [email protected] videos are not affected by. In low light, I would recommend using the other video options unless the frame rate is a priority.
Overall, the evaluation of the P20 Pro’s video quality is mixed. It has potential to achieve more. The lack of stabilization in [email protected] and [email protected] videos is disappointing, despite the highly detailed nature of [email protected] videos.
EIS itself is quite effective in [email protected] videos for both panning during recording and while walking during recording. It has a negative impact on detail, though. It also crops the field-of-view, but this is expected behavior.
When it comes to slow-motion video recording, [email protected] slow motion recording is good as a tech demo, and has decent quality in daylight. It has limited use because the recording is limited to 0.2 seconds, and the 0.2 seconds of footage recorded is then played at 32x. The 960fps mode also loses its quality in low light, as expected.
In summary, the P20 Pro is not the best smartphone camera for video recording. In my view, Huawei should give an option to enable stabilization in 4K and [email protected] videos. As it is, video quality is good for the most part, but it falls below the best Android smartphone cameras in a few key respects.
The 24MP front-facing camera has a f/2.0 aperture and a fixed focal length. It would have been nice to see autofocus, but as it is, the camera has good fine detail and exposure. The front-facing camera can take video at up to 720p resolution.
The P20 Pro has stereo speakers. The main speaker is placed on the bottom of the phone, while the earpiece doubles as the secondary speaker. I would say that speaker loudness is fine, without being spectacular. The speaker quality is also good for phone calls, videos, etc.
The phone uses the HiSilicon Hi6403 audio IC. It has Dolby Atmos, which can be configured in EMUI. Dolby Atmos is persistently enabled in speaker mode.
The problem with respect to audio is that the phone does not have a 3.5mm headphone jack. The cons of removing the headphone jack outweigh the pros, yet we see companies competing to remove it.
Is it too late to return to the 3.5mm headphone jack? In my view, that is not the case, and the industry should suspend the move to a “wireless future” until the ecosystem as such is ready for it. Also, other device makers that have kept the jack in their phones so are advised not to remove it in their future devices.
Audio quality from the 3.5mm to USB Type C adapter is fine, and I don’t have any complaints. Huawei persistently recommends users to use its own bundled digital USB Type C earphones. Thankfully, that notification can be dismissed permanently.
Overall, the audio experience on the P20 Pro is mixed because of the absence of the headphone jack. Speaker quality, on the other hand, is fine.
Software: EMUI 8.1
The P20 Pro runs EMUI 8.1 on top of Android 8.1 Oreo. The CLT-AL00 model came with the April 1, 2018 security patch. I have not received any update in the review period, even though owners of the CLT-L29 model have started receiving the June security patch.
EMUI 8.1 is the closest EMUI has ever been to AOSP. This does not mean, however, that it’s a close-to-stock experience. The UI is a derivative of Material Design, but it still arguably looks dated in a few areas. The best example here is the notification drawer, where the blue text on black toggles doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing as compared to AOSP Android Oreo.
By default, Huawei Launcher doesn’t have an app drawer, but it can be enabled in the settings. The launcher itself comes with options to change the transition animation, change the home screen app grid, disable the Google Feed panel, etc.
The Recents app switcher is the same as the one found in stock Android Oreo. The Settings app also follows the Android Oreo-style categorization of settings menus. On the P20 Pro, EMUI includes a dark theme in the Settings app as well as Always on Display. Always on Display is disabled by default, likely for battery life concerns.
EMUI 8.1 contains many features that are not found in AOSP. These features include a network status indicator, pie gesture navigation, and more.
I like the inclusion of fingerprint gestures in EMUI 8. The fingerprint gestures benefit from the front location of the fingerprint sensor. The gestures are: tap on the fingerprint sensor to go back, long press for home, and swipe in either direction for the Recents menu.
Activating the fingerprint gestures makes the onscreen navigation bar disappear, freeing up valuable display estate. The implementation is well thought out. Other gestures include double tap to wake, flip to mute, raise to answer, and knuckle gestures (powered by Qeexo). I found most of them to be quite useful.
Other features include dual apps (having separate installations of the same app), eye comfort mode to cut down on blue light, and privacy/security features such as PrivateSpace.
Overall, EMUI 8.1 is mostly a pleasant user experience on the P20 Pro. Fans of stock Android will most likely be confused by the addition of extra features, but many of the additions (such as fingerprint gestures) are genuinely useful. Some of the aesthetics (such as the icons and the notification drawer) are in need of a revamp, but functionality wise, I am satisfied with the feature set of the software.
Battery life and charging
The Huawei P20 Pro is powered by a 4000mAh battery, which is unusually large for a flagship smartphone battery in 2018. All other things remaining constant, a smartphone with a larger battery capacity will get more battery life than a smartphone with a lower battery capacity.
The implications play out, and the P20 Pro gets great battery life, without being spectacularly excellent. To get numerical data, I did a full run of the PCMark Work 2.0 Battery Life test, with brightness set to 100 percent automatic brightness. The P20 Pro ran constantly for 6 hours and 31 minutes, which is a good result for a flagship phone.
Considering that maximum auto brightness indoors results in a perceived display brightness of 400+ nits, users are more likely to keep the (logarithmic) brightness slider at 80-90 percent. The 6 hours and 31 minutes figure is, therefore, achievable in day-to-day use. However, users expecting 8 hours of screen-on time on the basis of the 4000mAh battery figure are advised to keep their expectations in check.
Anecdotally, I have been getting 5-7 hours of screen-on time with the P20 Pro on LTE and Wi-Fi, with unplugged time varying from 36-60 hours (the long unplugged time is because of the frugal standby of the device).
In comparison, I can get better battery life on Wi-Fi (around 7 hours of screen-on time) from a budget phone such as the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3, which also has a 4000mAh battery. On LTE, the situation is reversed as the P20 Pro goes ahead. (Screen-on time comparisons should not be made across different users, because such comparisons are pointless due to the fact that different users have different usage patterns).
In summary, the P20 Pro gets respectable battery life. Light users can expect to charge their phone every 2-3 days because of the low idle battery drain. Moderate users can get 1.5-2 days, while even the heaviest users should be able to get a full day of usage.
Moving on to charging, the P20 Pro supports Huawei’s SuperCharge standard for 22.5W fast charging. As mentioned before, the SuperCharge charger isn’t bundled in Indian units of the P20 Pro, so I was unable to test it.
The phone also supports USB-C Power Delivery for fast charging. The Indian units have a charger in the box that operates at a maximum of 9V/2A, although most of the time it seems to be operating at 5V/2A. It takes more than 2 hours to fully charge the P20 Pro using this charger.
Odds & ends
- Call quality was fine in my experience. The P20 Pro has support for dual 4G VoLTE, which means that in India, users can have two Jio SIMs active at the same time. The cellular signal reception was competitive as well.
- The vibration motor of the P20 Pro is one of the better ones out there. The haptic feedback on the keyboard is well implemented.
- Audio recording for voice notes is also good.
Development on Huawei phones has always been a tricky subject. For the most part, AOSP custom ROMs on past Huawei devices were a rarity. This was because of the unavailability of the required sources, as well as the lack of popular developer interest. The unavailability of the required sources refers to the unavailability of source code like framework branches, HALs, and more as HiSilicon does not release them like Qualcomm does on the CodeAurora Forums.
Thus, even if a developer managed to boot AOSP on a Kirin device, the result was often a mixed bag in terms of functionality. Without the adequate sources, it would be rather difficult for a developer to fix any bugs related to video, audio, RIL, etc. Plus even if the necessary sources were made available, the documentation was often in Mandarin which made it difficult for non-Chinese developers to work with. The experience was not stable, and AOSP/LineageOS and Huawei tended not to go well together.
All of that changed with the arrival of Project Treble. Project Treble improved the development of custom ROMs, and it’s worth noting that Treble development started with Huawei devices. Huawei was one of the few device makers that actively updated older devices with Project Treble support.
It meant that bringing AOSP to phones such as the Huawei Mate 9 or the Huawei Mate 10 was now a matter of days or weeks, instead of being a matter of months. A single Generic System Image (GSI) of AOSP Android Oreo/custom ROMs such as LineageOS/ResurrectionRemix could be flashed on multiple Huawei devices (as well as devices made by other OEMs), and most of the major functionality would work (barring features such as VoLTE and the EMUI camera app). This was a major development.
It meant that for the first time, Huawei devices were a preferred choice for development. In fact, Huawei devices were the some of the biggest beneficiaries of Project Treble. An OEM such as OnePlus was not affected by Project Treble so much because OnePlus devices were already thriving in terms of development. For Huawei devices, on the other hand, Project Treble made a night and day difference.
This was not to say that the Project Treble experience was as good as the stock EMUI experience. We have previously described the Project Treble experience on the budget Honor 9 Lite, which brought its own strengths and weaknesses.
Recently, OpenKirin, a team of developers dedicated for development on Huawei devices, opened a website to support custom ROMs for many Huawei/Honor phones. Development has already started for the P20 Pro, with LineageOS being available. The stock EMUI camera app on the P20 Pro has also been ported to AOSP — although it’s not free from its share of major/minor bugs. The mere fact that it works, though, is another major development.
This series of good news has been sadly interrupted, however. Huawei has announced that the company will stop providing bootloader unlock codes from July 22, 2018. The official bootloader unlock codes are the only way to unlock the bootloader of Huawei devices. If/when the codes are no longer available, there won’t be any way to unlock the bootloader of these Huawei phones. As bootloaders won’t be unlockable, users will no longer be able to flash Generic System Images, custom ROMs, or make any modifications in /system. This also means the end of Magisk for Huawei devices — root will not be possible to achieve.
P20 Pro users who are interested in making any modifications in their devices are advised to request the bootloader unlock codes from Huawei before the July 22nd deadline.
Huawei P20 Pro – Conclusion
Before making final remarks about the Huawei P20 Pro, let’s take a step back and conclude the individual areas of assessment.
The P20 Pro’s metal-and-glass design is good and stands out on the basis of its color options. In terms of ergonomics, I didn’t experience any issues thanks to the high screen-to-body ratio and the thick glossy metal frame. The IP67 rating is also good to see for water resistance.
The phone’s display is the area where I am a tad disappointed. On one hand, it’s a high-quality AMOLED panel that has auto brightness boost, excellent black levels and viewing angles. The Normal color mode is also accurate with respect to the sRGB gamut. The Vivid color mode targets the DCI-P3 gamut, but ends up being oversaturated. On the other hand, the PenTile subpixel matrix coupled with the Full HD+ resolution means that text rendering is not as clean as it could be, while the brightness dimming issue in manual brightness mode is disappointing to see. The latter issue forces users to use auto brightness, which itself has a flawed algorithm.
Despite using a generation old chipset, performance is one of the strong points of the P20 Pro. This is because of software optimization and other factors that are often opaque at first glance. In the real world, the phone is one of the faster, smoother ones out there, although it is neither the fastest nor the smoothest. It isn’t placed in first position in any particular field except for AI operations (which currently see very limited usefulness to end-users), but it manages to be consistently in the top-tier.
The Leica Triple Camera setup is the USP of the P20 Pro. The phone takes competent photos in daylight, and photo quality from the 3x zoom and 5x zoom options is better than the competition. In low light, the P20 Pro is unparalleled as it uses a combination of pixel binning, high ISO, long exposures and Night Mode to capture some truly brilliant photos. Even in extreme low light, the phone’s photos retain detail where other smartphone cameras would give up.
The same excellence isn’t carried forward to video recording, unfortunately. [email protected] video samples show a lot of detail but are let down by the lack of EIS. [email protected] videos also don’t have EIS, and they suffer from loss of detail and underexposure in low light. The [email protected] mode is the suitable mode for capturing movement as EIS is highly effective, but EIS does reduce some amount of detail while also cropping the field of view. OIS would have been nice to see on the main camera. As it is, only the telephoto camera can record optically stabilized videos.
In terms of audio, the P20 Pro falls short of posting a solid showing on the account of the absence of the 3.5mm headphone jack, despite having decent speaker loudness and clarity, as well as audio tweaks such as Dolby Atmos.
EMUI 8.1 is one of the better derivative Android skins out there and is getting closer to AOSP with each iteration. The feature additions are good enough to be adopted by Google in stock Android.
Battery life is excellent on the account of a big battery capacity and low idle battery drain. Users having access to a Huawei SuperCharger should have no problems with charging speed as well, but unfortunately, Indian users don’t get it bundled in the box.
In terms of development, the P20 Pro started off with a promising note, but the recent announcement of the July 22nd deadline means that users have less than three weeks to get bootloader unlock codes from Huawei.
Finally, we arrive to pricing, which varies depending on market. In India, the P20 Pro was launched for ₹64,999 ($950), and it hasn’t received a price cut since launch. In Europe, its launch price tag was €899, but it is now available for around €820 on Amazon Germany. In the UK, it costs £780 on Amazon UK, while in other locations such as the Middle East, it costs the equivalent of $760.
Undeniably, the P20 Pro is a very expensive smartphone. In India, it is priced the same as the Samsung Galaxy S9+, which also has not received a price cut since launch. Both phones have different strengths and weaknesses, so it’s better for readers to try them out and decide which one is better for their needs.
Other competition for the P20 Pro includes Huawei’s own cheaper Mate 10 Pro, the Google Pixel 2 XL, the LG G7 ThinQ, the Sony Xperia XZ2, and others. The cheaper OnePlus 6 and the Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S are also formidable competitors, on the basis of price and value for money.
In summary, the P20 Pro’s strengths are its best-in-class camera performance, excellent battery life, and feature-rich software. It manages to post competitive results in most fields, but ultimately, it deserves to be known as a low light photography king of 2018.