Adrian Weckler review: Huawei P20 Pro appears to have muscled its way to the top of the camera phone podium
A couple of years ago, phones killed off compact cameras.
2018 looks like the year where they’re coming for ‘better’ standalone cameras.
We’ve already seen some new ground broken on handsets from Apple and Samsung.
But Huawei’s newly-launched P20 (5.8-inch LCD, €649, 128GB) and P20 Pro (6.1-inch Oled, €899, 128GB) phones look like going even further.
The Chinese company, now number three in the world, has crammed a lot more camera technology under the hood to help produce photos you’d barely believe weren’t from a bigger camera.
As an enthusiastic camera buff that counts photography as a primary hobby, I don’t say this lightly. I shoot with DSLRs and mirror-less cameras every week.
The launch model I’m using is the higher end P20 Pro, so this post is really about first impressions of using that. But some of what I’m talking about also applies to the lower-end P20, which for a €649 phone, is absolutely loaded with high specifications.
There are two main camera differences that P20 Pro has.
The most obvious of these is that it has three camera lenses on the back of the phone, going one better than the the two on the iPhone X, iPhone 8 Plus and Samsung S9 Plus.
The rearranged lenses boast some insane specifications (for a camera phone). Huawei has placed a 40-megapixel (f1.6) sensor on there, meaning that the amount of detail you get in each shot should be off the scale in relation to what you’d normally expect from a phone. The two other lenses on the back of the device are an 8-megapixel (f2.4) telephoto camera and a 20-megapixel monochrome (black and white) lens, for zooming in and adding more detail, respectively.
That telephoto lens has a 3x optical zoom, which brings it beyond the 2x zooms of the iPhone X or the Samsung S9 Plus, which are this phone’s main competition.
Without wanting to get too technical, the P20 Pro has also somehow managed to put in a larger camera sensor under the hood (1/1.7-inch), meaning that it can outgun any of its rivals for physically letting more light into the camera.
But all of this raw pixel power is one thing. Making it easy to use is always at least a big a challenge.
Our first impression is that Huawei has done a decent job, here. The camera automatically detects what sort of a situation you’re in (whether it’s landscape or people or low light) and adjusts its capabilities to maximise the potential for the shot.
For example, if it detects blue sky, it enhances that (usually making it a deeper blue).
Similarly, it appears to boost dynamic range in low-light shots.
Over the last few days, I’ve managed to capture photos from it that I’ve had to look twice at because of their quality.
The ‘night’ setting is most startling. You point and hold the phone at something for a few seconds in dark conditions. If there’s any light source at all -- a window, neon sign or street light -- the camera builds on that light. It also appears to take several photos, stacking them into one shot that includes way more detail than you’d normally get from even the best phone cameras up to now.
(I’ve included some sample shots I took with it in this night mode from over the last few days - they are unedited, right out of the phone.)
Granted, some can look a little over-processed, depending on your sensibility. But I think that’s a trade-off that most people won’t mind for the sharp detail and impressive lighting the photos bring.
There are the other expected modes too, ranging from ‘panorama’ to ‘time lapse’ to a new, beefed up 960 frames per second slow motion video standard.
And if black and white photos is your thing, one of the three rear lenses is a dedicated monochrome camera.
For those who care, the ‘selfie’ camera on this phone is 24 megapixels, an unheard-of level for a front-facing camera. Personally, I think this may be overkill: so far, I can’t discern much of an advantage to the 24 megapixels over, say, an 8 megapixel or 12 megapixel lens when shooting your own face from such a close range.
It’s worth mentioning again that it’s not all software-related advancements driving the phone’s camera improvements. As noted before, Huawei has stuck a bigger physical sensor into the device. Its 40-megapixel 1/1.7-inch sensor is around a third bigger than the 1/2.5-inch sensor you’ll get in Samsung's S9 or Apple’s iPhone X. You might argue that it needs it, with all those megapixels. But the upshot is that this is a physically superior camera apparatus than any other smartphone out there.
The photography-rating analyst company DXO Mark appears to agree, giving the P20 Plus its top score among phones for still photos, video and as an overall combination cameraphone. (It should be said that DXO isn’t accepted by everyone as the ultimate arbiter.)
One thing that’s noticeable immediately about the P20 Pro is that resembles the iPhone X more than a bit. This is mostly because it incorporates a ‘notch’ at the top of the device. (Huawei even boasted at the launch that their notch is “more beautiful” than the iPhone’s notch, in a slightly odd bit of the presentation.)
The notch is there ostensibly to facilitate facial recognition. I haven’t tested this feature enough yet at this point to say whether Huawei has reliably pulled it off, but I’m betting it will be a challenge for them without the additional sensors that Apple has in its (larger) notch. My experience with other cameras’ face recognition features is that they’re very hit and miss. (The iPhone X is the exception, where it’s fairly flawless.)
The other physical attribute which is worth noting is its top-end Oled screen, which is gorgeous. The difference between Oled and LCD screens is subtle but once you’re used to an Oled screen, LCDs looks a little harsh. It’s generally better at rendering colours and blacks and is easier on the eye. The 6.1-inch size is a sweet spot, too: big enough to watch videos comfortable but just about compact enough to be relatively ergonomic in your hand.
Other things I’ve noticed on the P20 Pro so far? The battery life is excellent. Huawei has imported the long-lasting 4,000mAh battery from its Mate 10 Pro line and the results blow most other phones out of the water. For comparison, the Samsung S9 Plus (which itself has good battery life) has a 3,500mAh battery and the iPhone X (which has a smaller screen, admittedly) has a battery of under 3,000mAh. This is genuinely an all-day battery experience. For people like me, who snap a lot on their phone, that’s pretty important.
The one partial negative I can find at this point is that it doesn’t have a headphone jack. Then again, no top-end flagship phone does these days. (There’s a headphone adapter in the box.) So you’d better just get used to wearing wireless headphones from here on in.
I’ll post further thoughts on this phone as I progress with it. But for now, Huawei appears to have muscled its way onto the top camera phone podium.
- The Huawei P20 and P20 Pro are available in Ireland from April 13