Huawei Mate 20 Pro Review: Sleek and Futuristic, but with Compromised Imaging

This is a futuristic smartphone with many highlights…and also a single significant disappointment. This is the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and is arguably the highest specified phone the company has ever made. In theory it ticks every box, in the hand it feels like a million dollars, yet its biggest Unique Selling Point – its imaging – is, I argue, currently fundamentally flawed.

There’s a gorgeous 6.4” QHD AMOLED screen, albeit with a slender notch containing Face ID style face scanners in the same way as in the iPhone X range. A blazingly fast Kirin 980 backed by 6GB of RAM. Dual SIM in most (but not all) markets with one of the slots also able to take the new NanoMemory (NM) expansion card ‘standard’.

Huawei Mate 20 Pro Review

A triple camera package on the back looks amazing on paper – a 40MP sensor with f/1.8 lens as the primary, then a 3x telephoto at f/2.4 and an ultra-wide-angle at f/2.2, combine to span the gamut of every shot you’ll ever need to take…in theory.

Huawei Mate 20 Pro - cameras

While all the other modern phone traits are here too: USB Type C, stereo speakers, Qi charging, a huge 4200mAh battery – there’s a lot to like.

Mate 20 Pro Twilight!

Biometrics

And quite a bit that’s just… different. And on which the jury’s out. For example, this is the first Huawei phone with a fingerprint scanner that’s under the display, two third of the way down. The idea is to have less on the back of the phone (which already has the large camera island) but the in-screen scanner is ultrasonic and, as with the Honor 10’s scanner, pressure is needed to make proper contact. The Honor 10’s implementation was dreadful and this is miles better, but it’s still much slower than a traditional capacitive fingerprint scanner.

However, it doesn’t matter if you don’t like the ultrasonic thumbprint solution – as there’s an Apple-like face scanner up top in the extra width ‘notch’. And this works really, really well – you can just pick the phone up from a desk and it’s automatically authenticated from your face in a split second, you don’t usually even need to press the power button. Making the ultrasonics for fingerprints somewhat moot.

Imaging

The rear of the Mate 20 Pro is where the biggest selling unique selling points are though – at least in theory. The triple camera should be the most capable set-up ever put into a phone and it is…and it isn’t. If you don’t look too closely at the snaps it can pick up, from wide angle shots of both landscapes and macro subjects, through low light arty shots with the main 40MP sensor to optically stabilised 3x and even hybrid 5x zoom photos, then they are tremendously impressive. It’s a camera for all occasions and all in your phone.

Mate 20 Pro rear with cams

See the samples below, with an overview and then a 1:1 crop in each case, with comments. However, note that down at the pixel level, which I think you will see, since we’re only talking about 10MP at 4:3, so the slightest crop and you’ll get hit by this, there’s far too much edge enhancement, creating ugly artefacts where there should – by all rights, with a huge 1/1.7” sensor and Leica optics – be pure and natural, perfect images.

Sample photo
Sample photo on a sunny day with loads of detail
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, note that the subtleties of leaves and greenery are slightly lost in the drive for sharp edges…
Wide angle version of the same scene
The same scene with the dedicated wide angle camera – results can be jaw dropping!
Sunny church scene
Another sunny example with even more ‘texture’, this time mainly man made…
1:1 crop
1:1 crop from the photo above, the Huawei algorithms fare much better with sharp and pointy edges, as with the stone work here.
Wide angle version of the scene, admittedly with an extra few steps back, but it gives a good idea of what's possible!
Wide angle version of the scene, admittedly with an extra few steps back, but it gives a good idea of what’s possible!
Example 'people shot'
By popular request, a ‘people’ shot, though it’s just me – no one else wanted to pose!
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above – Huawei’s algorithms sharpen facial details too, so aren’t always flattering. Still, better than a smoothing ‘beauty’ mode?
Overcast landscape
More of a lighting challenge, it was very gloomy on this day, with a nice aviation landscape…
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, note that the Huawei algorithms look for texture and edges even where there really aren’t any, so the plane’s fuselage ends up blotchy and the greenery behind rather artificial….
The same scene, but zoomed x3
However, everything gets better once you start using the excellent zoom facility, here using the 3x telephoto lens…
1:1 crop from the zoomed scene
1:1 crop from the zoomed scene, with great detail and less artefacts than when shooting at 1x, interestingly!
The same scene, but zoomed x5
The same scene, but zoomed x5, a ‘hybrid’ zoom borne of the telephoto and the main 40MP sensor, pitching in together.
1:1 crop from the zoomed scene
1:1 crop from the zoomed scene, with some artefacts and enhancement showing through at 5x – understandably.
Wide angle version
And, for completeness, under the same lighting, here’s the wide angle version of the scene.
Night time example
Shooting at night – not in Night mode, which makes things look a little artificial (if great for special effects). This is on full Auto, but exposure and crispness look great here.
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, with ‘OK’ details, but the combination of edge enhancement AND noise reduction mean that any greenery, for example, becomes an ugly mess.

It’s all down to Huawei’s image processing algorithms for producing consumer JPG files and you’ll have guessed one workaround – shoot in ‘Pro’ mode in RAW, which this supports, albeit, for the main lens, at 76MB per image(!) If you do this, outputting a JPG/DNG image pair, you’ll find that the JPG is only minimally processed – which is absolutely what you want  – but surely only die hards will put up with using up storage space at 80MB per photo just to get a ‘purer’ 5MB JPG? 

Or you can go all in and process the RAW file yourself, usually on a desktop computer. It’s super-geeky, but you can get far better results – and I have proof, which will have to wait for a future article. Still, Huawei should have known all of this and made the standard JPGs better for regular users. Again, maybe this will get fixed in an update, but the six-month-old P20 Pro still produces clumsy JPGs, so don’t hold your breath.

Hopefully, at the very least, Huawei will fix the configuration so that merely shooting in ‘Pro’ mode bypasses all the ugly edge enhancement, without having to have RAW enabled as well, unnecessarily.

There’s also a strange bug whereby flash photos can come out almost completely black – this is the sort of issue which will get fixed in short order, mind you, since a lot of people will complain about it very quickly.

Media

The stereo speakers are, as is often the case, actually a beefy bottom speaker, pushing sound out of the Type C port, unusually, and a ‘tweeter’, i.e. driving higher frequencies for the left channel out of the earpiece. They work pretty well, with decent fidelity yet not much volume. Closer inspection reveals that Dolby Atmos is forced ‘on’ all the time, presumably Huawei realized that its choice of components just wasn’t going to be loud enough without software overdriving help, hence the inability to disable Atmos. It’s fine though, not everyone wants to have top volume from phone speakers, and I personally would rather have better fidelity.

Headphone audio is via either USB Type C earbuds, supplied in the box or, with Huawei covering all bases, via a Type C-to-3.5mm dongle, so you just plug in your favorite in-ears or over-ears. Which then work very well, plus I also tested the Mate 20 Pro with Type C-to-3.5mm DACs (e.g. those supplied with the Google Pixels and Razer Phone) and these also worked. So options aplenty, even if I personally still mourn the loss of a 3.5mm jack in every phone. And you have to admit that the Mate 20 Pro ends up sleeker and more futuristic by not having either a headphone jack or a speaker grille.

Android and EMUI

Away from hardware USPs, we’re looking at a fast Android smartphone. Huawei’s EMUI lets you black out the notch background, which helps the phone’s appearance and lets you enjoy the huge display, with all media applications that I tried avoiding the notch area and delivering a wide experience that’s not compromised.

EMUI is what it is – Huawei’s skin over Android 9, with just about everything recognizable but different from, for example, a Google Pixel 3. The gesture system works well to leave the whole screen available for content –  a swipe up takes you home, a swipe up and hold gives you the multitasking carousel, and a swipe in from either side takes you ‘back’. It’s intuitive and I preferred it to Google’s Android 9 implementation on the Pixels, which involve an always-shown ‘pill’ and, ultimately, wasted screen real estate.

You get the usual Huawei own-brand applications, so Email, Music, Video, Gallery, Calendar, all taking the place by default of the usual Google apps. But it’s trivial to use the ones you want and hide the ones you don’t, plus the look of the launcher is attractive and familiar. You don’t get an application drawer by default, but it’s easy to add this back in.

There’s plenty to like on the cosmetic front – ‘Darken interface colors’ in Settings takes everything that’s white, even after you’ve selected a darkish theme, and makes it white on black, instantly improving the look on the AMOLED screen and saving power to boot. While the Magazine Unlock system presents different wallpapers every time you turn the screen on – I loved this, though I imagine some people will want to turn this off.

Screenshots
Notch handling works 99% perfectly, just a few panes don’t work with the darkening of the ‘ears’. It’ll get there. And (right) ‘Darken interface colours’ is hidden in Battery settings, but well worth seeking out!

As usual with EMUI, there are two power saving modes, regular and ‘ultra’, with an extra ‘performance’ mode that disables any processor optimizations for battery life – I’m guessing this will really only apply to gamers struggling with specific titles. Plus EMUI ‘manages’ your background applications, though you can set any to ‘run in background’ if you’re worried that they’ll get canned when you’re jogging or downloading something important.

All very flexible and I felt no need to install a third party launcher.

Battery and power

Battery life has been great during my first week of tests, Huawei’s default optimizations might annoy Android purists, but they preserve charge very well. Though when you do need to charge, the use of a proprietary 40W dual circuit ‘Super Charge’ wired system means that it’s  a doddle to get charged up again in a hurry. And Qi charging means that you can top up through the day on any convenient pad as well.

In fact, you can go further, and supply charge to another Qi-compatible phone by merely resting the Mate 20 Pro on it, back to back, a first in the phone world and something that should really catch on, even if the charge transferred is relatively slow, so it’s really only for emergencies, to get someone else home with an hour’s calling standby.

Twilight

Verdict

Overall, there’s so much to like in the Mate 20 Pro, it’s Huawei’s vision of a 2019 flagship, effectively, with only the one multi-function opening in the bottom and everything else glossy, sealed, waterproof and ultra-premium, here shown in the popular Twilight finish, debuted in the P20 Pro six months ago. It’s compelling and addictive, but questions do remain about its biggest USP, the rear cameras, which currently over-process and underperform – in my opinion – unless you go down the hugely geeky ‘Pro/RAW’ route.

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