Huawei P20 Pro: Stunning camera and competitive price make it a contender

Let’s face it, in the Android camp, no smartphone maker has really come close yet to challenging the dominance of Samsung’s Galaxy.

Google’s Pixel has potential but isn’t available here. Nokia and Motorola, after disruptive ownership changes, have a hill to climb to reclaim the glory of their early years. Sony is struggling and LG has disappeared from New Zealand stores.
That leaves Chinese phone maker Huawei, which tops the market in China and is expected to ship 150 million phones this year. But it hasn’t made a blip in the all-important US market.

It’s latest flagship phone, the P20 Pro and less advanced P20, could serve to change that. Huawei’s design aesthetics and hardware features really started to come together in 2015 with the arrival of the P8. Last year’s Mate 10 Pro was seriously impressive, the build quality of the phone in particular, taking Huawei to a new level.

Now we have the P20 Pro which has the mark of quality of the Mate 10 Pro but features a remarkable camera configuration that will satisfy those who want high-quality photography with the convenience of a mobile.

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Pixel fusion

Like Samsung did with the Galaxy S9+, Huawei has gone all out on developing the camera, or should I say cameras – there are three on the rear side alone and a selfie camera on the front. The raised camera housing has moved from the middle on the P10 Mate Pro to the top left-hand side, making landscape mode photography the priority.

The bump houses a 40 megapixel camera along with an 8-megapixel telephoto lens. Then there’s a separate 20 megapixel monochrome lens, which delivers crisp black and white photos.

Dual camera phones are reasonably common these days, so why does Huawei feel the need to include three camera lenses? The cameras work together, sharing information about the scene in front of them, choosing the best lens for the job to cover all the bases and performing clever processing tricks to share and merge pixels.

The 40 megapixel camera sounds grand, and while you can shoot 40 megapixel photos on the P20 Pro, you won’t be able to zoom in and out. What the camera does is work with a technology called Pixel Zoom to add pixels together to make bigger ones. This lets the colour camera sensor absorb a lot of light – four times the amount a standard camera sensor of the same size would, according to Huawei. That means more information in the images and ultimately richer, more accurate colours and better performance in low light settings.

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The cameras are also enhanced with artificial intelligence, which for amateur snappers, takes most of the work out of composing a great-looking shot. Point the P20 Pro around you out in the garden and it will flash up “blue sky” or “greenery” adjusting the settings for what it sees. There is 3x optical zoom, after which 5x “hybrid zoom” using both the monochrome and colour telephoto camera sensors to stitch together smooth zoomed-in colour images. Camera shake at full zoom didn’t appear to be an issue.

It all works pretty seamlessly to give you slick photos and when it comes to video, 4K shooting and the same 960fps (frames per second) video capability for slow-motion shots built into the Samsung S9+. You can swipe between shooting modes easily or delve into “pro” to tweak settings.

I’ve taken hundreds of photos in the last week, using my bike trip around Marlborough as part of the annual Graperide to try lots of different types of photos. From close-ups of grape vines to landscape panoramas to food selfies in dimly lit restaurants, the P20 Pro seriously impressed.

Design elegance

I’ve lingered on the camera as it is such a strength of the P20 Pro, but elsewhere there is much to admire too. The phone, complete with glass body and steel chassis comes in several colours, including the elegant twilight blue model I’ve been using.

Like the iPhone X, the P20 Pro has a “notch” at the top of its bright 6.1 inch AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) screen, dipping into the screen real estate and housing the front-facing. It seems to be a gimmick that is catching and you can eliminate it with a setting that adds a black bar along the top of the screen. But I quite like the notch and the expansive look of the screen. There’s a fingerprint reader at the bottom and super-fast face recognition to unlock the phone as well.

There’s no 3.5mm headphone jack, you plug in via the USB Type-C jack and pair of headphones and converter dongle for your old headphones, are included in the box.

The P20 Pro runs Android Oreo and Huawei’s user interface is fairly unintrusive.

Staying power

The P20 Pro runs on Huawei’s Kirin 970 chipset, which is the same as in the Mate 10 Pro. It serves my needs well and handled video streaming and mobile games with ease. It benchmarks well against its rivals, though may not be quite as good a performer as Samsung’s Snapdragon 845 which powers the S9+, There is 6GB of RAM and128GB of onboard storage, but no expansion slot, so that will your lot.

The battery is bigger (4,000mAh) than most smartphones in its class and it shows in outstanding battery life for the P20 Pro. I get a full two days of use out of it between charges with moderate use of the phone.

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Little downside

The only surprising omission is wireless charging capability, which is available on the Porsche Design Mate RS version of the P20 Pro which sells for around US$2,000, but not on the standard models.

I asked Huawei New Zealand executives about this and they told me that their customer surveying suggests fast-charging is a much more desirable feature, so that is where they’ve put their focus. Still, wireless charging has been a feature of the Samsung Galaxy line for several years and it will surely need to feature in the P20 Pro’s successor as wireless charging pads allow more smartphone owners to cut down on cable clutter.

Bottom line

With smartphones inching closer to the $2,000 mark it is great to see a phone maker offering tremendous value at the top end of the market. The P20 Pro debuts for $1299, which compares to $1599 for the Samsung S9+ which has standard storage of 64GB. At this price, the P20 Pro, given the sophistication of the camera, the P20 Pro is a seriously competitive option for those who want a high-performing, versatile phone.

The smaller P20 has many of the same specifications as its big brother but the latter exclusively has the three camera set-up, which is worth paying the price premium for.

Three camera set-up
Great battery life
Excellent value for money

No wireless charging
Camera bump makes phone uneven on flat surfaces

P20 Pro $1299
P20 $1099
Rating: 9/10