Huawei P20 Pro Review: The Compromised Camera-centric Flagship

One complaint about general phone reviews has been that they focus(!) too much on the cameras – most of us only take a handful of photos per day, yet quite often a third of a phone review is talking about its camera. However, remember that you may only take a few photos and use your phone for a few minutes each day, but the shots it produces are memories and will stay with you for years to come, while the hours you spend in Twitter and Facebook are utterly ephemeral. 

So of all the things, your smartphone can do, in the long run its camera output is the longest-lasting and the function that makes the most difference, arguably, to your and your family’s lives. And this is, in theory, never more true than for this, the Huawei P20 Pro, the spiritual successor to the old Nokia 808 PureView and the Lumia 1020, with a 40MP main camera. Unsurprisingly – Huawei’s head of imaging is Eero Salmelin, the co-creator of the PureView concept while at Nokia back in 2012.

P20 Pro

In fact, the idea has been extended using modern multi-camera, multi-exposure technology. You’ve got a 40MP 1/1.7” sensor – smaller than that in the 808 and 1020 but still large by today’s slim-phone standard. On its own, this could still be very interesting when coupled with the Kirin 970 chipset and a powerful GPU, but Huawei tries to take it further, bolstering its output with an extra 8MP 3x telephoto lens and a 20MP monochrome sensor.

P20 Pro cameras

The output from all three sensors, in low light across multiple exposures, is then massaged in software to deliver decent but over-processed shots in good light, plus night time handheld shots which are incredible, thanks to some clever multi-shot, frame-based software stabilization.

Eero’s new vision for a large 40MP sensor isn’t being used as cleverly as on the old Nokia PureView devices, but it’s still unique – a quad Bayer filter means that the 40MP sensor is effectively a 10MP sensor with super-large pixels and zero Bayer colour uncertainty. While the data from both the 40MP sensor and the 20MP monochrome sensor help add detail and purity into zoomed output from the OIS-stabilised 3x telephoto output.

Well, that’s the theory anyway. In practice, it seems that Huawei’s camera team has a lot of work to do on the imaging front, with photos nowhere near as pure and artifact-free as they should be, with the much-hyped zoom not as clean and clear as that on the Galaxy S9+, to name but one 2018 competitor.

Here are some photo samples, as-is and then variously zoomed, to give you an idea of quality and operation – in each case, the shots are followed by 1:1 crops, etc.:

Full photo, note the exaggerated green grass, that's the 'Greenery' AI effect kicking in!
Full photo, note the exaggerated green grass, that’s the ‘Greenery’ AI effect kicking in!
1:1 crop from the full scene...
1:1 crop from the full scene… Even here you can see some artifacts if you look closely. But aside from the greenest greens, it’s not a bad shot.
And now the same scene shot at 3x, i.e. with the telephoto f/2.4 lens...
And now the same scene shot at 3x, i.e. with the telephoto f/2.4 lens… Of note is that the AI effect doesn’t kick in here, so the grass is its proper colour. Also note that the sky is paler – this is because I deliberately tapped on the hotel to set the exposure for detail on that, see the crop below…
1:1 crop from the 3x zoom image...
1:1 crop from the 3x zoom image… Plenty of processing and sharpening artefacts, though the straight edges of the hotel’s design help disguise the worst.
Finally, a 5x hybrid zoom shot, again exposed for best detail on the hotel...
Finally, a 5x hybrid zoom shot, again exposed for best detail on the hotel…
And a 1:1 crop from the 5x zoomed image...
And a 1:1 crop from the 5x zoomed image… There IS extra detail here, supplied by the other sensors (40MP and 20MP) and all the data is massaged together, yet somehow the result looks like a water colour painting more than reality. Clearly further updates are needed to the image processing algorithms.
Another example photo... Prime for zooming!
Another example photo… Prime for zooming!
1:1 crop of the photo above...
1:1 crop of the photo above… Note the oversharpening, down here at the pixel level. It lends an artificial nature to images.
And the same scene, but using the P20 Pro's 5x 'hybrid' zoom....
And the same scene, but using the P20 Pro’s 5x ‘hybrid’ zoom….
And now a 1:1 crop from the 5x zoom....
And now a 1:1 crop from the 5x zoom…. it’s clear that you don’t really get much more than extra interpolation and ‘painting’ colour effects and artefacts once you go beyond the telephoto 3x zoom – but it’s still fun to see just how far you can zoom on a phone this thin!

For many more photo samples, see my piece on AAWP, in which I go into exhaustive detail.

I also didn’t like the AI camera modes and turned them off early on. In short, imaging is often an artefact-strewn, over-processed, over-sharpened mess when you look beyond photos on the phone screen. It’s just software, of course, I’m sure the hardware is fine, meaning that – in theory – Huawei can fix all this. 

Snapping a portrait....
Snapping a portrait…. The algorithms leap into action and provide extra bokeh. With a stunning result. If I’m critical in this review it’s only because I know the phone camera threesome has the potential to be incredible. Rather than just ‘very good’.
AI effects in action
AI effects in action, here spotting that I’m shooting a waterfall (well, kind of) and – in theory – optimizing the shooting settings and image processing for the subject. It’s all automatic and, in theory, could work really well.

Video is pretty good though, a more standard software stabilized 1080p at 30fps, with stereo audio. You can zoom during video, but be aware that there are stutters when you go past 3x, while the main camera gets switched out to the telephoto lens. If you choose to shoot at 60fps or go to 4K then you’re out of luck for stabilization – which seems a little disappointing for a 2018 flagship – just about every other device in this price bracket has physical OIS on all lenses.

Huawei P20 Pro

Hardware

But enough of the imaging, what about the rest of the Huawei P20 Pro? It’s a fairly standard 2018 phone, though with a number of design compromises that were totally unnecessary in my opinion.

The 6.1” AMOLED display is very nice – not up to that on the Samsung Galaxy S9+, but still good, extending up around the front camera and sensors, but don’t worry, it’s trivial to turn the ‘ears’ black and have the status information in white, hiding the notch completely – you’ll forget it’s there.

Notched top or no notch - it's up to you! Apple and others could learn a few things from the way the notch is handled here.

Sadly, the display isn’t taken to the bottom of the front face – for no accountable reason Huawei has put the fingerprint sensor on the front of the phone! It’s so low that it’s not natural, awkward to use without dropping the phone, and takes away space which could otherwise be allocated to more display. Come on, we know that Huawei makes great rear fingerprint scanners, so this makes no sense. At least you can optionally use the scanner as a navigation control, mitigating the space use very slightly.

P20 sensor

Just as mysteriously, despite the P20 Pro’s oleophobic glass back, there’s no Qi wireless charging, which is a missed opportunity. I think Huawei hasn’t mastered this tech yet – they’ve concentrated instead on their proprietary high current wired charging, up to 4.5A at 5V, i.e. 22.5W!

Not that you’ll be able to use wired headphones while you charge because of yet another design oversight – Huawei has sadly omitted a headphone jack here, despite having masses of space on the phone’s bottom for one. Yes, an adapter from USB Type C is included in the box, but you’ve got to not lose this and you also can’t charge while jacked in. Gah. Surely the only beneficiaries of this no-jack trend will be the manufacturers who keep it, i.e. Samsung, LG, Motorola, OnePlus?

But there’s more. Despite being marketed as all about the camera, the P20 Pro doesn’t have card expansion. Yes, there’s 128GB, but you can’t help but feel that you’re then at the mercy of cloud uploading – anyone with a photography bent will tell you that even in 2018 a card slot, for expansion and also photo removal to another device is a facility worth seeking out. And you’ll need the expansion because the default image processing is so messed up that serious photos have to be taken in RAW mode for post-processing later, which then uses up at least ten times space as each JPG.

Then the display is only 1080p – yes, this is the sweet spot for general phone use, as I said in the previous Phones Show, but given the degree to which you want to see what you’ve captured here, I’d have thought that QHD, i.e. 1440p on a 6.1 screen would have made much more sense, and you’d expect it at the whopping price tag here – £800 or so.

It all adds up to an imbalanced device – with Qi charging, a 3.5mm jack and card expansion, the P20 Pro could have been quite a few peoples’ camera-centric smartphones. As it is, you have to compromise… quite a lot.

Software notes

You also have to compromise a little on the software side – the P20 Pro runs Android 8.1 but with Emotion UI 8.1 on top – yes, yes, a trivial renumbering of the UI to match core Android that doesn’t really fool anyone. EMUI has gotten much better over the years and I could absolutely live with it, all other things being equal – there are plenty of launcher options, themes, myriad of settings, most of which you’ll want to investigate, but it can be utterly tamed and made your own.

There’s Huawei Health, tracking steps and body stats, though without the help of onboard heart rate and oxygen sensors, as on the Galaxy S9 range. And a bunch of Huawei utilities – Weather, Sound Recorder, Torch, Mirror, Smart Controller – for infrared reaming – Compass, and Quik, a video montage tool.

What else? I can’t test the DAC or headphone output as… they don’t exist. I know, I know, even on a £800 phone. The faux stereo speakers are pretty good though, thanks to the built-in Dolby Atmos, which makes average components sound better – and you can’t see or hear what difference it makes since the Dolby Atmos can’t be disabled for speaker use! Oh well, the upshot is that the stereo sound produced is decent enough for most people.

Easy Projection - Huawei's Desktop mode, is here, though it's not really advertised widely. Still, handy to have.
Easy Projection – Huawei’s Desktop mode, is here, though it’s not really advertised widely. Still, handy to have.

Battery life is terrific though – the 4000mAh battery is larger than you’d expect for the slim form factor here – how do they do it? And two days on a charge is possible as long as you opt for night modes and dark themes and don’t go too crazy on cranking up the auto brightness.

Verdict

Battery life aside, almost everything about the Huawei P20 Pro disappoints, at least for the very high price. And it hurts me to say this – I had such high hopes for its camera arrangement, in particular. The immature image processing can be fixed with updates, of course, so perhaps this is one device definitely worth revisiting in a few months. Then we come to (literally) missing components on the hardware front and a few bizarre design decisions.

Overall, despite the imaging hype, there’s absolutely nothing about the Huawei P20 Pro that really screams ‘Buy me’ over a competing flagship.