At a reasonably lavish event in London in the middle of October 2018, Huawei launched their latest flagship device, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. Offering upgrades galore over their last gen as well as a new triple camera setup, and reverse wireless charging option, Huawei were not holding back, throwing shade at the other flagships available (most notably the iPhone range) as well as pointing to their internal lab tests showing huge increases in performance and efficiency. Lab tests and event claims are one thing, but just how does the Huawei Mate 20 Pro perform in the real world? That’s the question we’ve been answering for the last few weeks.
- Gorgeous aesthetic
- Under-screen fingerprint scanner technology
- Great optical setup
- Excellent battery life
- Decent speaker quality
- Higher resolution Video has many issues
- Fingerprint scanner performance can dip
- No native 3.5mm audio jack (if you care)
Disclaimer: Huawei provided us with a Mate 20 Pro to review, and for at least 1 of our 2-3 weeks of reviewing the device, it was running a pre-release version of the firmware. Subsequently, a retail version of the firmware has been used, and where required, these differences will be outlined in the review.
Update: After seeing the exported 4K footage on a larger screen rather than during recording, I reached out to Huawei who provided me with a replacement unit to test the video footage. The last video available below is from the new unit.
Overview & Unboxing – Huawei Mate 20 Pro
Let’s start by pointing out that on paper, this could be one of the most powerful Android devices ever to grace your palm, should you stump up the near-£900 starting price for the 6GB RAM/128GB internal storage option. This might seem cheap for those used to recent generations of devices afflicted with the Apple Tax, but for Android users, we’re still struggling to get to grips with devices that can be similar in terms of Hardware, yet cost almost twice as much (OnePlus vs Samsung Galaxy Note ranges for example).
That’s the hurdle to get over in terms of entry here. It’s a big one, but it’s perhaps the only one of any real note, as you’ll find out as we go through the review. A number of carriers have options on how to lower this cost however on monthly and contract deals so shop around to get the best deal.
Opening the box, you’ll note the usual 2018 fair here with the handset front and centre as well as a plethora of manuals and warranty papers, along with a Huawei Super Charger, USB Type-C cable, SIM eject tool as well as a USB-C to 3.5mm headphone jack dongle. Yup, Huawei has done away with the direct wired audio connection here but do have the good grace to at least include a dongle.
My first thoughts when looking at the device in the box was that it looked like a 2018 version of a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge due to how the left and right edges of the glass fall away to the sides of the phone. There’s no clever second screen technology here though; it doesn’t slope that much, but it does lend to a premium aesthetic that Huawei is going for, as well as feeling as such.
Thanks to the included under-screen fingerprint scanner the front is largely a slab of Gorilla Glass, aside from the notch portion at the top of the QHD+ display that houses the ambient light sensor, earpiece, as well as the 24MP wide-angle selfie shooter. Flipping the unit over is where things get interesting. The triple camera setup here is housed in a squared off central optics hub, along with the LED flash. There are a 40MP, 20MP and 8MP lens here with wide, ultra wide and telephoto capabilities respectively.
On the top edge is an IR blaster, a Huawei staple now, along with a pinhole microphone and antenna lines. To the right edge is the volume rocker, as well as a red accented power button which sets the phone off in my opinion. It’s very sleek. Down the bottom, there seems to be no speaker, but Huawei is using the USB-C port as a sound chamber of sorts to spit out audio. Alongside the USB-C port are more antenna lines, a few more pinhole microphones as well as the dual SIM card slot which is this year capable of using one of those SIM trays to expand storage courtesy of their new storage platform, Nano SD Card.
The entire unit is glossy on the black version, however, the Emerald Green and Twilight versions have a slightly grippier texture on the rear. All units house the same Kirin 980 chip which Huawei has spent a lot of marketing time and money on. They point out the improvements over the last generation as well as versus big boys such as Apple and Samsung. They pulled no punches at their launch event. The Kirin 980 is paired with either 6GB RAM and 128GB storage or 8GB RAM and 256GB storage, with both variants delivering IP68 dust and water resistance and the latest EMUI version running on Android Pie (9.0).
Performance & Use – Huawei Mate 20 Pro
I could take a long time here to tell you what should be a very simple conclusion. The performance on the Mate 20 Pro is up there with the slickest you can achieve on any device. If I had to put it somewhere in a top 5 of devices in terms of smooth transitions and app load times, I’d probably put it second to the OnePlus 6T, but only probably due to the slightly lighter touch of Oxygen OS on the OnePlus device. That said, the Samsung Galaxy S9 does achieve better synthetic benchmark results in 3D Mark. EMUI here is much improved from earlier versions, and whilst memory management issues do exist still due to the over-aggressive background activity closing down messaging applications willy-nilly, these are easily whitelisted and dealt with during part of a users initial setup process. Just remember to do it!
Silicon-wise the Kirin SoC has also improved over the last few generations to not only deliver great performance when pushed but also efficiency that was previously the bedfellow of Samsung and Apple. Based on the 3 weeks of testing this device, my usage sporadic usage hasn’t caused the Huawei Mate 20 Pro any issues at all, achieving respectable screen on times of around 4 hours average whilst also delivering the standby time I need when not using it, of up to around 36 hours. You can get two days of use out of this device, but you do have to work a little hard to conserve the juice in the 4200 mAh battery, in those edge cases. Those used to any 2017 generation device or earlier should see a dramatic improvement in their battery life.
Equally the 6GB of RAM here is more than adequate in delivering the multitasking experience that many will have come to expect from Android devices. A slight caveat here, however, is that aforementioned EMUI memory management. Whilst the 6GB of RAM is more than capable of keeping a number of applications running in the background ready to be jumped back to at any point without a reload, EMUI airs on the side of caution and your battery life conservation and will, invariably kill a long-standing application in the background regardless of RAM utilisation. Just bear that in mind when choosing what programs to manually manage the battery conservation for. Messaging applications and games might be worthwhile looking at.
Speaking of EMUI, now in its 9th iteration, we’re seeing something a little more mature from Huawei. Yes, there’s still bloat with Phone Manager, their own Email, Calendar and Dialler applications (although their Calendar app is superior in my opinion), as well as the absolutely inexplicable “Mirror” application (I just don’t understand the inclusion of this), but the skin seems more refined and nippy. The silicon might have something to do with this, but it just seems a little cleaner. The interface for accessing new themes seems a little more intuitive; it just feels nicer than older EMUI versions. There is still some work to be done here though. Memory management as I’ve already expressed is still aggressive, and the duplication of services and requirement for a Huawei account to access certain aspects of the software (HiCare, etc) might irk some.
Once you stop setting the unit up and get it in hand, you’ll fall in love. The sleek feel, aspect ratio conducive to one-handed use, and the new under-screen fingerprint scanner all scream premium. Focusing on that fingerprint scanner is probably wise as this is perhaps one of the first mainstream devices to ship with such technology. The fingerprint scanning layer sits just beneath the glass and requires a little more pressure on it than conventional scanners in order to actuate successfully. A number of pixels light up in the scanning area (about one third up from the button of the screen) to illuminate your fingerprint before the scanner kicks in. Due to this, there is a split second that is noticeable versus the previously ubiquitous front/rear facing scanners. In my use when it works, it works very fast and accurately, however, I have noticed that there are times when the unit simply fails to recognise any of my enrolled fingers. I’m putting this down to this still being an early generation of technology, and strangely a reboot usually solves this issue. The fingerprint scanner is specifically prone to negative inputs in cold weather in my experience too. Still, from the users I’ve canvased, including myself, I’d prefer to have a clean aesthetic on the front of the device and deal with a slightly slower biometric reader than have the alternative. If you would prefer the alternative there is one included on the device in the shape of Huawei’s Face recognition. I have never had a recognition issue here and it’s incredibly fast so if you’re that way inclined, use that instead (or as well!).
There’s so much else to talk about here from the Smart Screen Resolution settings which control what resolution your device should be displaying to conserve more power (can be toggled), to Qi wireless charging, accessibility functions for those requiring them and their Digital Balance controls which help you understand how often you’re using your device and regulate your phone usage. Perhaps one of the most gimmicky-yet-cool options on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, however, is the Reverse Wireless Charging. You read that right. Have a friend in need of some juice? Do they have a Qi-enabled device? Good; simply enable Reverse Wireless Charging in the settings and then lay their device atop yours and share some of that 4200 mAh from your device’s battery. Very cool if seldom used for some.
Camera – Huawei Mate 20 Pro
The camera is one of the biggest selling points of the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. There are three individual optical options here, with an ultrawide 20MP, wide 40MP and telephoto 8MP lens to give you what I believe to be the best of all worlds. Some might disagree and look for a monochrome lens, but I honestly prefer the versatility that this setup provides.
As you can see from the samples above, I’ve managed to utilise the 3x optical zoom, as well as the 5x hybrid zoom which is surprisingly good, to good effect as well as the numerous other modes. Dotted throughout the samples are HDR shots, AI-processed shots and Selfies. Interestingly, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro does have the ability to help the novice smartphone photographer quite a bit thanks largely to its include AI. In “photo” mode, the AI can be enabled and will recognise scenes and pick the best settings to provide the most vibrant shots.
As above, the AI has kicked in here in both circumstances, recognising the tree as “Autumn Leaves” and presumably upping the vividity of the colours and utilising HDR for those shadows, whilst on the plane, AI is suggesting I might be better off switching to my wider lens to capture this view. The AI is here is a step above anything we’ve seen previously, even stretching into macro shots. Move to within a few centimetres of an object and the AI will switch to “Super Macro” mode to capture more detail and add a bokeh effect. Very nice and a joy to use.
The Mate 20 Pro makes use of pixel binning, a technology that effectively combines pixels under certain circumstances to produce better SNR (signal to noise ratio) results. This is typically most useful in low light shots where the noise and grain you see in a photo creeps up as the ISO level increases. Due to the levels of megapixels involved here, the result is actually really good, and will only improve in future generations of sensors and image processing units.
If in any doubt, switch to saving RAW files and you can edit in post-processing to your heart’s content!
There are your usual plethora of photo modes here including portrait mode for all your bokeh needs, now with customisable bokeh effects. There are modes for night shots, aperture for those low depth of field shots, food, HDR, monochrome, watermarking, time-lapse and many more, including a fun AR lens, which acts just like Apple’s Animoji. There’s a lot to play with here. You’ll notice that a few of the selfie shots I have taken are taken with the portrait mode and the post-bokeh effect. It actually does a reasonable job even in iffy light.
Video on the Mate 20 Pro is also an interesting affair with lots of effects and modes as in photo mode. For starters, you have a number of resolutions to play with here up to and including 4K 30fps. Some effects, such as beautification, and slo-mo modes are only available at lower resolutions, however.
In the current firmware, there are issues, however. The edges of videos display a jelly effect and is consistently visible. Upping the resolution above 1080p 30fps will result in no electronica image stabilisation and as such a poor experience unless you have a very steady hand. Interestingly there were a few quirks I didn’t expect. Primary of these was poor auto-focusing. Again this seems to be much more prevalent the higher the resolution gets. Dynamic range is good, and the fade from light to dark subjects is handled well at 1080p though, which is thanks in part to the incredibly fast autofocusing at this resolution too.
We expect these issues to be resolved in a future update, but whilst the jelly effect doesn’t detract too much from the quality of the resulting recording too much, the others are almost show-stoppers currently. Luckily you can drop down to 1080p 30fps and get a great experience, but Huawei need to fix the other issues in a timely fashion (read, now!) before consumers start rage posting online. In 2018 there is no excuse to drop a phone with these levels of issues, especially when the review devices are displaying the same issues.
Huawei provided me with a replacement unit just to see if the 4K video recording picked up any in terms of focusing, the jelly effect, stabilisation overall and colour accuracy. This was the result – frankly not really. It’s rather disappointing, but I remain hopeful this can be tweaked in future software updates.
Two of my favourite video features are Huawei’s version of the Pixel 3’s Playground AR mode with a bit added on, and AI colour. The former requires an app, not yet launched (mid-November 2018 according to reports) that allows the raw power of the Huawei Mate 20 Pro to create a 3D scan of an object (the example we saw was a Panda) and then to place it within a video with you. Yes, you can be dancing around with your childhood teddy bear in just a few minutes! The other mode, AI Colour, will lock on to an individual in a scene and whitewash all other colour to make them stand out more. This is great fun to play with and gives content creators something additional to focus on.
Overall I don’t have enough nice things to say about the Mate 20 Pro’s optical package when it comes to photography. Artistic shots can be obtained with ease and the plethora of settings, filters and choices to play with make it a joy to play with. It’s one of the best I’ve used on an Android phone, possibly only second to the Pixel line in terms of a pure “point-and-shoot” option, however there is so much more to play with here in Pro mode and with the level of filters available that one could get lost for several days in the features of this device’s camera. I’m certainly going to continue to do just that.
Unfortunately, the video package on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro is really a step backwards from what I’ve seen on the P20 Pro. Video recording at 1080p 30fps is acceptable, but as soon as you dial up the resolution, poor focusing, washed out colours, and stabilisation errors creep in which, in extreme cases, can make the resulting video unusable. As I said earlier, I remain quite hopeful that these issues can at least be improved by future software updates, however, there have been a few already and there has been little improvement.
Conclusion – So Very Close But Some Work To Do!
I’ve tried to keep this short and sweet because I know that we’d be well into the 10,000-word mark had I covered everything new, or unique with this device. Instead, I’ll sum up this device in a few words.
The issue Huawei has to contend with in 2018 is that those words could equally relate to a number of other devices. The Pixel 3, of course, is one of those, but even 2017 flagships such as the Samsung Galaxy S9 range fits into that, with the aesthetics and the optical package still holding up.
Huawei has clearly thought about this, opting to stuff the Mate 20 Pro with every feature that they can, without making the device feel bloated, and focused on a few key areas to make them stand out. The sheer performance they are getting from the Kirin 980 stands out. I’m almost positive that the Snapdragon 845 and Exynos 9810 both have the core clock speeds to stand up to the Kirin’s attempts to usurp them, however the integrated AI unit and the efficiency that Huawei claim they can deliver with this SoC (and, in our testing those claims are largely correct) might make it the most well-rounded package available in a smartphone currently. Next up there’s the optical package. I still believe the Pixel 3 delivers better one-touch shots for normal consumers, but the fact Huawei have combined what is, in my opinion, the best suite of lenses into their package means that the versatility rivals anything else on the market.
Finally, Huawei’s pricing structure, whilst still expensive, is still more than competitive with that of their Google, Apple and Samsung competitors. The MAte 20 Pro can be had for £899 unlocked, with a similar GB and internal storage combination from the Pixel 3 XL sits at £969 and the entry-level iPhone XS Max starting at a smidgen under £1100. Those are all scary numbers frankly, which is why OnePlus is still going to be the best bang for your buck for many, but Huawei is clearly at the more affordable end of that flagship spectrum currently.
The pricing, along with the value adds on offer here and the fact that their software is continuing to improve, albeit a little slower than some would like, makes the Huawei Mate 20 Pro not just the best Huawei device to date, but perhaps the Android device that stands on its own merits as a top tier device and something others will actively be looking to not just keep at bay any longer, but emulate.
A word of caution is required here, in spite of the glowing praise above, where the video recording is concerned on the Mate 20 Pro. There are some very obvious flaws at higher resolutions and Huawei are aware of them. My gut tells me that these will be improved with software updates, but as a reviewer, I’ve received a few of these already and none of them have fixed the issues. You have to bear this in mind when thinking about whether the Huawei Mate 20 Pro will deliver the levels of value you want, and the conclusion for you will differ depending on your use case. Suffice to say here that something must be done about the poor performance, especially at 4K, and if it does this review might well be sitting at 4.5 stars as opposed to the 4.