Price When Reviewed: £799
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The Huawei P20 is the phone you want in your life. For creatives, I’d say it’s a better choice even than the more expensive iPhone X – and this is coming from someone who’s been a die-hard iPhone user since the first 3G model.
The reason for this is the Camera – not just the physical hardware and optics of the three cameras that are huddled in one corner of the phone’s glass back (and the one on the front), but the way Huawei has used machine learning-based image processing to interpret (and improve) what it captures in a way that largely works very well. Sometimes it goes too far, with results that look fake – overly ‘HDRed’ or plastic – but its relatively easy to turn this down.
The three cameras on the rear serve different purposes. One has a 40-megapixel colour sensor that captures an absurd amount of detail. The next is a 20mp black-&-white camera that we're assuming Huawei is using to reduce noise. The last is an 8mp colour sensor with optical image stabilisation. The smart stuff is how Huawei's tech combines the three to let you capture 10mp images with up to 5x zoom - with results that at first glance you'd have thought were shot by an SLR. The vain among us should be aware there's a still-very-good, if less capable selfie camera.
The results have been so good, in fact, that we've left our SLR behind when visiting recent grad shows looking for the next generation of design, illustration and animation talent - including New Designers, Central Saint Martins and Middlesex. The main reason for this isn't that the P20 Pro is capable of taking incredible shots under perfect conditions - but that it's able to take great-looking photos under the less-than-photogenic lighting of your average exhibition space. Those bright lights create a yellowy glare and patches of dark shadow where the depth and detail of what you're trying to capture is lost - but when used wisely, this phone produced shots that were more than usable in our stories (and were ready to post on social media instantly).
Under better, natural lighting - whether the middle of a British summer's day or Stockholm twilight - the P20 Pro produced beautiful, super-detailed photos.
The level of detail captured under good indoor lighting - or a combination of indoor and natural light as in the shot below from The Beekman Hotel in New York's stunning atrium - is incredible.
Even at 100%, details are crisp and there's little noise.
The P20 Pro is also very capable with things in motion. A traditional test of this for SLRs is to shoot running water coming out a fountain, so here's the results.
The camera has a selection of modes that you swipe between in the usual manner. Full-auto is the mode you'll use most of the time. The P20's 'Master AI' - ok, machine learning-based algorithms, pedants - analyses the scene and automatically selects what processing it thinks works best, from Portrait to Greenery. Its selections are generally pretty accurate, but when it goes wrong it inevitably goes horribly wrong - though thankfully it's easy to tap an X to take off the mode. The worst offenders here are Greenery - which makes every shot of the natural world look like a badly faked HDR photo - and Document Scan, which tries to scan any artwork or print with a lot of type, so you end up with what appears to be a bad photocopy. It's a shame you can't tell its AI to never, ever use that mode ever again, thanks.
Aperture and Portrait modes - which you can select by swiping as well as seeing them appear automatically - generally give you a nice depth-of-field effect. Aperture, as the name suggests, gives you more manual control, while Portrait is more automated. Portrait also has automated skin-smoothing that you really need to turn down - or off if possible - unless you like your subjects looking like mannequins.
In prosthetic artist MaximalFX's studio. the results were less subjectively beautiful - but impressive nonetheless.
As Aperture mode's photos are calculated based on multiple shots, you can adjust the level of depth-of-field and position of the focal point afterwards in the Gallery app. Sadly there's no way to adjust this using Photoshop, Lightroom or other desktop software apps.
Pro mode gives you full control over autofocus type, ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, exposure and more - controls you associate more with an SLR than a phone. More experienced SLR users - ie, not me - will appreciate these more.
And that's the Huawei P20 Pro's appeal. It's for those of us who want to take incredible photos, but who don't have the skills of someone like Tigz Rice; who often have to take photos quickly, under poor lighting.
That this phone is all about the camera is inherent in its aesthetics. Even the Huawei logo on the back runs lengthwise, so as to be seen the upright when taking photos. To its left – and almost as large – is the mark of a brand likely better known to you than a Chinese phone maker of whom previously only Android enthusiasts would have more than a passing knowledge.
Beyond this, there’s little to differentiate the P20 Pro from similar ‘premium’ models from Samsung, Honor and OnePlus (or Apple, frankly). It’s an elegantly curved, slim block with a glass back that swiftly slides off surfaces with even the slightest of incline – though without cracking at the first fall onto carpet (I’m looking at you here, my iPhone 8 Plus).
Like most phones with six-inch-ish screens – the iPhone X or Samsung Galaxy S9 – it’s still a little large for most pockets, but it’s doesn’t easily topple out of your shirt or dig into your stomach like the bevel-heavy 8 Plus. If you’re used to older phones – or any iPhone except the X – it’s longer and thinner than you’re used to, but reaching the top wasn’t too much of a stretch.
The screen has a fingerprint sensor beneath it and a ‘notch’ at the top around the front-facing camera and speaker. A lot of people seem to hate notches, whether on the iPhone X or Android copyists – but it’s a neat way to tuck the clock and network icons and the like around the camera. And once I turned it to having a black background, the design has a nice balance against the fingerprint sensor below.
Some apps offer a full-screen mode, which allow them to use the notch space for buttons and the like. You’re supposed to be able to turn this off if, like me, you prefer a black notch – but some still persist in moving up into this space. Posting photos on Instagram requires going through screens where Next and Post are half-hidden against the black bar. It’s a minor thing, but as the rest of the UX is oh-so-slick, it’s rather unsatisfying.
The rest of the screen is, to the frank, bloody lovely; a richly detailed, 2,244 x 1,080 display. But then so does the Honor 10 and the OnePlus 6. The iPhone X’s has a slightly higher resolution (2,436 x 1,436), while the Samsung S9 pushes it further (2,946 x 1,440).
If this sounds like a whole bunch of numbers to you, it kinda is. With a designer or artist’s eye, you’ll probably notice the S9 screen being a little more crisp – but in real terms there’s little between them in terms of levels of detail. All of the Android phones’s screens are, by default, a little over-saturated compared to Apple’s in an attempt to seem more pleasing to consumers – but you can turn this down in the phone’s settings by switching ‘Vivid’ colours to ‘Normal’.
You can adjust the colour temperature further to ‘Warm’ or ‘Cold’ or by selecting a point in a colour wheel – which is great for the kind of designer who tweaks their monitor’s colour settings manually (or anyone with certain medical conditions or work a lot under colourd lighting). Conversely, if you prefer to let the phone do its thing, an Eye Comfort mode adjusts the colour temperature to your surroundings.
The 18.7:9 aspect ratio is nearer to that of cinema that of widescreen television. Annoyingly, the phone shows full-screen, 16:9 video from Netflix, Amazon and YouTube at full-width with the top and bottom cropped off – and I couldn’t find a way to make it full-height with black bars to the left and right (something a simple tap will do on iOS).
UI and UX
Huawei’s flavor of Android – EMUI – is essentially stock Android 8.1 with some tweaked apps and a home screen that’s been redesigned by splicing and cross-breeding parts of Android and iOS. There are also a few nifty custom features that help save you battery power – including warnings that popup if an app’s using lots of power when not being used (yep, that’s you, Spotify) and an ‘Ultra Power Save’ mode for when you’re down to 5% that limits you to a few apps
As a long-term iOS user, there were certain things about Android I found annoying. Some things are just different rather than being better of worse – and just take time to acclimatise to – such as the way you move between tabs and apps. One thing I really did miss was having to tap the small button at the bottom to go back, rather than just swiping right.
Most annoying of all was the placement of the home button just below the space bar. I’ve lot count of the number of times I’ve hit home by accident when typing – and its especially annoying in the Gmail app, which saves your message as a draft at this point, so I often had to switch back to that app, scroll down the message thread past an epic number of email signatures and reopen the draft to continue. And then accidentally hit home again and repeat. And again. And again.
I’m slowing gaining the muscle memory not to do this, but in the first few weeks with the P20 Pro I was close to ditching it and returning to my iPhone just due to this.
That aside, using Android on a daily basis is – whisper it – just like using iOS. The apps you use daily are essentially the same, though games have a tendency to come out on iOS a lot earlier, and some never appear on Android. Purely in my experience, Android apps on the P20 Pro seem to crash or otherwise show bugs more than on an iPhone – the bottom half of Gmail regularly disappeared, requiring restarting the app.
Like the iPhone X, the Huawei P20 Pro offers face detection to unlock the phone – and just as with Apple’s model I immediately turned this off. This could just be me, but if I pull my phone out of my pocket and glance at it, at least four times out of five I’m reading notifications, not unlocking it to do something. ‘Face Open’ hides these notifications from me, so it’s many times less useful than unlocking it with a fingerprint.
Android’s notifications system is far, far worse than iOS’s. I thought Apple’s version is bad, constantly telling you irrelevant information – but Android’s bombards you with ‘helpful’ information. Sports fans who want to watch the match later are going to find it hard to avoid being notified of scores in real-time. I’m going to see Hereditary tonight. I’m surprised this phone hasn’t already notified me what the ending is.
Most annoying, there seems to be no communication between apps and the notifications system. If instead of tapping on a Twitter notification directly, you unlock your phone, go to Twitter and see who’s replied to you, the notification persists on the lock screen until you swipe it away. Talk to each other people (ok apps)!
Both need a simple way to say ‘only show me notifications when someone sends me a DM, email from a few people I choose (my bosses, Mum) and for apps I’m actively using right now’.
These days, one phone is pretty much the same as another - and it takes something truly special to stand out. The P20 Pro's camera is that truly exceptional feature that makes this the phone of the moment.
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