By Ajay Joseph
The Android phone market for several years now has been quite lackluster. While every year brands release top-specked flagship successors and gimmicky midrange variants, it’s been ages since a truly exciting device with something worth talking about has hit the market. While some releases did create a stir, such as the Google Pixel devices, and the Samsung Galaxy 6 with its edge display, even they weren’t really game-changers.
During this uninspiring period in Android history, Huawei announced its P20 Pro device in March of 2018, and for the first time in years, there was a buzz in the industry.
Finally, there was a device to be excited about that wasn’t as a result of brand fan-boy culture or a premium price-tag, but rather capability, and practical usable features/specs. The big draw being the triple camera setup featuring renowned Leica optics.
Design and Ergonomics
On first unboxing, it’s evident that Huawei paid attention to detail, and ensured the completeness of kit, for a premium product such as the P20 Pro. The inclusion of a pre-fixed screen protector and a clear phone case are thoughtful. Though some other brands include clear cases now, it was a first with the Huawei.
The three initial colors during release were a limited edition Twilight, which is a gradient of pink and blue that changes and shifts depending on how the light hits it, a similarly glossy single tone blue, and a more subdued black. Subsequently, more colors were announced. I opted for the blue, as the widely popular Twilight was a little too girly for my liking.
The styling is classy, premium feeling, and elegant. The design is a flat bar measuring 7.8mm in thickness, with fully rounded edges, and curved gorilla glass on both sides. It’s very comfortable to hold and take out of the pocket. The edges are chrome-looking polished aluminum, with the rear being the aforementioned glossy blue. The rear though quite a fingerprint magnet is well-laid out.
The triple camera setup and flash are in a neat vertical line, with the Leica optics branding below it. This design trumps even that of the newer Mate 20 Pro unit, with its awkward centered square box for the cameras. Worth mentioning is that the overall design of the P20 Pro is very similar to the iPhone X, which is likely not a coincidence.
Power and volume buttons are on the right side, with the power button having a red-line through it. Again, a subtle yet thoughtful design inclusion. The lower edge has dual speakers with a USB-Type C connector in the middle. Atop is an IR Blaster and an NFC module, and on the right side is the SIM tray that can house two nano-SIM cards. Note that there is no expandable micro-SD card slot, nor a 3.5mm audio jack. In-place, a USB to 3.5mm dongle is included as part of the kit.
Specs and Performance
Huawei is one of the few handset manufacturers that also has its own semiconductor company, namely HiSilicon. The Kirin 970 is a 64-bit quad-core ARM SoC, featuring the now common big-little architecture. The SoC also includes the Mali G72 GPU and a new Neural Network Processing Unit (NPU) designed for AI acceleration. The unit being tested is the variant with 6GB of memory and 128GB of storage; also available is an 8GB memory with 256GB storage variant.
Performance is top-notch, and even with several apps open, the user experience is smooth. App installs are quick, and for all given purposes the P20 Pro behaves like what you’d expect from a flagship device in 2018/2019.
The display is a 6.1 inch full-HD AMOLED screen, with great black levels and very good colors. The aspect ratio is even wider than other phones at 18.7:9 (versus the more common 18:9). The P20 Pro offers a stereo speaker experience with the earpiece doubling up as a speaker when consuming content. In terms of quality, the dialog during Youtube videos was respectable, with good tone.
That said, music playback was just about acceptable. Frequency range and response seemed okay, but nowhere near the fidelity of the speakers on the Sony Xperia XZ2 device.
Battery and Fast-Charging
The massive 4000 mAh battery on the P20 Pro is another big draw of the package on offer. It trumps that of most 2018 flagships, and the phone is surprisingly small and lightweight given the big battery.
With moderate use, the device easily lasts two days, and even with a lot of screen-on time, getting through the day is an ease. Also on offer is fast charging, getting from 0% to 100% in a mere 1 hour and 25 minutes.
Battery Stats when New:
Using included charger: 0% to 100% in 1 hour and 25 minutes
Using included charger: 0% to 70% in 50 minutes
Using included charger: 25% to 47% in 20 minutes
Using Power-bank Fast-charge port: 3% to 100% in 2 hours and 13 minutes
Battery Stats after 2 Months:
Using included charger: 2% to 45% in 35 minutes
Using included charger: 45% to 71% in 30 minutes
Using included charger: 2% to 90% in 1 hour and 29 minutes
As with most fast-charging, the last 10% is slow, with it being the slowest nearing 100%. During the initial month, the phone analyzes usage patterns to optimize power saving.
With respect to discharge, when the battery gets to 20% battery, the user gets the first warning, the second at 10% battery, with shutdown being initiated at 2%. Wireless charging is not supported.
While everything so far has been pretty superlative, the software is perhaps the P20 Pro’s Achilles heel. The device was released running Android 8.1 Oreo, and the update to Android 9 Pie became available in Dec 2018. Atop of Android is Huawei’s skin or user interface EMUI, which feels both dated and clunky compared to stock Android.
In terms of the first impression after powering-on the device, the home screen is blah, with too many old-school icons.
There are multiple options for Navigation, the three common Android on-screen buttons, an on-screen dock, gesture-based navigation, a single on-screen button-based navigation, or the single-hardware button-based navigation with different gestures to provide the three options. I opted to use the latter, and though I’ve been using three on-screen buttons for years, it was an easy switch. This single hardware button at the base of the screen also serves as a fingerprint scanner.
Typing in the stock EMUI keyboard wasn’t the best, with light touch presses being missed, and the vibration feedback not being the most satisfying. To make matters worse, if you used the 3 onscreen buttons for navigation, often times accidentally hitting the downward arrow was common, minimizing the app altogether.
The stock SMS app automatically categorized messages sent to multiple recipients under MMS. That needed some settings tweaking to fix.
When playing music the UI dips the volume to notify you when messages are received; but this became annoying when people are constantly sending messages on IM, making for a poor audio listening experience.
Huawei allows for multiple user profiles which is pretty cool, similar to different users on a computer. You could create different accounts and tie them to different people via different fingerprints. Though I don’t use this, and mobile devices are largely for single users, it has a lot of practical uses; say a work profile for daytime and a leisure one for other times, mapped to different fingers respectively.
One of the benefits of the NPU and the supposed AI at play was that based on the frequency of use, some icons layouts get modified, which was both smart and practical. For example, when on holiday I was checking email less and using IM more, and the UI automatically moved the WhatsApp icon to a more prominent location, swapping it with the email app icon.
If the software felt like a bit of a letdown, the camera setup will easily make up for it, with the Leica triple camera setup being the highlight of the P20 Pro.
There are three lenses, the primary being a 40-megapixel RGB sensor, a secondary 20 megapixel black and white sensor for added detail, and an 8-megapixel telephoto lens with 3x optical zoom. And if that wasn’t enough a 24-megapixel selfie camera with software beauty enhancement.
With all that hardware under the hood, the P20 Pro does not disappoint. The images have phenomenal detail. And if you’re a photographer and want to shoot at 40 megapixels with RAW image file output, it’s doable. Add to that, the low-light or night mode pictures are hands down the best; allowing for hand-held long exposure pictures yielding great natural lighting and reflections, where other devices would just fail. Portrait shots are also superb, with great lighting and depth of field effects.
Then there’s the Master AI, another NPU chip based offering that detects scenes and accordingly amps up images, making for some Instagram-ready masterpieces. For example, a scene detected with blue skies, auto saturates blues, making for a more dramatic photo.
There are instances when it doesn’t work well, for example when people are present with bright colors around them, and the skin tones become too dark. But it’s easy to toggle the use of Master AI scene detection onscreen while shooting pictures on the fly. Kudos to Huawei for acting quickly based on user feedback, as initially Master AI could only be turned on or off from inside the settings menu.
One of my favorite image enhancement features is the added sharpening of photos; when clicking you are prompted to hold the device steady, during which time the camera optics take several additional pictures to gain more detail. The output is then stitched together with the resulting image being stunning.
The downside though is this feature kicks in based on some parameters, and cannot be set on by default for all photos.
The selfie camera is pretty ample as well, with softened, clean faces thanks to beautification at work. Lighting is quite impressive, with well-lit faces even with less than ideal evening lighting. In addition, the front camera also supports face-unlock, and is super snappy in terms of face identification and screen unlocking.
The P20 Pro was originally released at P44,999 and was subsequently reduced to P40,999 four months later. Now in 2019, following the release of the Mate 20 Pro and other devices from competitors, Huawei has further dropped its price, in an effort to be aggressively competitive. On doing a Web search, I found various online retailers advertising it for as low as P35,000.
If you are looking to buy a flagship device now, for the solid specs on offer and ridiculously capable camera hardware, the P20 Pro makes for a superb value proposition.
After six months with the Huawei P20 Pro, it’s no surprise that this device set the Internet ablaze. There are probably more reviews and comparisons of the P20 Pro on Youtube than other recent devices. Not to mention all the accolades its camera optics have garnered.
Aside from the boring EMUI software out of the box, if you’re willing to configure and tweak the device a little, the P20 Pro is a phenomenal mobile phone to own. The super impressive camera with its mind-blowing low light prowess, coupled with the solid specs in terms of memory, storage, and massive battery with fast-charging, make it easily one of the best devices to get your hands on.