Monday 26 August 2019

Tech review: Huawei P30 Pro

€999 (128GB)

Wow factor: the unprecedented addition of a separate 5x optical zoom lens puts the P30 Pro in a class of its own
Wow factor: the unprecedented addition of a separate 5x optical zoom lens puts the P30 Pro in a class of its own

Let's just call it what it is: the ultimate cameraphone.

While the P30 Pro's 6.5-inch all-screen Oled display is nice, the styling superb and there's loads of power and storage, it is the camera that really sets this device apart from any other flagship phone on the market.

What makes it so good is the zoom. Even as a wizened, veteran reviewer, I've been fairly astonished by it.

Before I delve further into that, my test model had 256GB of storage and 8GB of Ram (as well as Huawei's own Kirin 980 chip) - high quotients by any standard.

The phone's battery is the biggest and best on the Irish market, with its 4,200mAh capacity easily lasting all day.

With a slightly narrower 19:5 aspect ratio, that 6.5-inch display is marginally easier to hold in the hand than other 6.5-inch phones, although its resolution isn't quite as high as the screen on the Samsung S10+.

There are one or two niggling software and interface issues which I outline in a bit more detail below.

But, in general, Huawei has nailed it. You cannot ignore this phone from consideration if you're in the market for your next flagship handset, whether it's for business or pleasure.

The most important single element is the camera.

By some distance, the P30 Pro has the most flexible camera now available on any phone.

That's because it has added a separate 5x optical zoom lens to sit alongside the standard camera and the wide-angle (16mm equivalent) camera on the back of the device.

This is unprecedented for a phone - nothing else comes near it.

Objects far away are now well within capturing distance. The phone's optical image stabilisation also means that you can push the zoom far further than the optical 5x limit and still get relatively sharp, clear shots.

I've tested this extensively and 20x zoom shots (roughly a 500mm equivalent focal length) are absolutely doable in decent light.

Indeed, the digital zoom goes right up to 50x, although at that point the shots get a little milky, even in bright daylight.

For video, the zoom won't let you go any further than 15x (around 375mm focal length equivalent).

But even pushed to this range, I found the stabilisation really decent with video snippets quite usable.

Again, this is incredible: no other smartphone I've tested remotely compares to the quality at this focal length.

But how is a 5x optical zoom possible on a flat phone?

Anyone who knows anything about photography knows that zoom lenses need physical space for the magnification process to occur. This is why sports and wildlife photographers' lenses are so huge.

Huawei came up with a clever way of tackling this. It turned the lens on its side so that it would get that necessary space for the zoom magnification, with a mirror reflecting the light down the barrel underneath the back of the phone.

I would expect to see this method taken and used in lots of other phones in the coming years.

In short, this is a bit of a game-changer when it comes to phone cameras.

As for the standard camera focal length, it roughly matches the other flagship phones, although its portraits aren't quite as well balanced as those from the latest iPhone Xs.

One other camera feature to mention is the P30 Pro's 'night' mode.

This is similar to the night modes on the previous P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro. It makes you hold the camera for a few seconds while it shoots a number of shots, fusing them to give you a clear, bright, sharp image, even in dark, night-time conditions.

I'm a huge fan of this feature, which is only elsewhere found in Google's Pixel 3 phone. It's especially useful in cities use at night or at dusk.

The P30 Pro isn't perfect.

Its EMUI interface, which sits atop Android on the device, isn't yet quite as polished as Samsung's.

And Huawei hasn't completely nailed some of its newer interface tricks.

For example, its navigation option of swiping instead of tapping can be a little temperamental.

There is where you swipe from the side to return to a previous screen instead of tapping the 'back' button or, to toggle through apps or windows, you swipe up and hold your finger in position in the same way you do on a new iPhone.

It just doesn't work as well as it does on an iPhone. It's not as a fluid and sometimes requires a second attempt.

If you're coming from a lower-tier Android phone, you may not notice this. But you will if you're switching from a recent iPhone.

The other issue is similar to something I used to experience with Samsung's 'Edge' phones.

Because the screen goes right to the side of the device, where the glass curves slightly, you'll sometimes mistakenly activate taps just by holding it with your fingers. This happens across a range of functions.

And it's not just mistaken taps - it sometimes acts as a block on attempted taps, because the phone thinks you're already touching the screen in that area (and hence stops whatever tap you wanted to do).

It's most irritating when you're operating the camera. In fairness, this is worst when you're first getting used to the phone - it subsides a bit when you acclimatise to holding it.

One challenge that the newest flagship phones have is how to incorporate biometric security features on a phone where the screen covers the entire device.

Apple did away entirely with fingerprint scanners on its recent iPhones, but Android phones are sticking with them.

Like others, the P30 Pro puts it below the screen. A symbol lights up on the spot you place your finger. It's an optical reader unlike Samsung's ultrasonic one, but I have found that it generally works fine.

Unlike Samsung's most recent high-end Galaxy phones, the P30 Pro is sticking with facial recognition as a way of unlocking your phone.

But because it's operated from the single selfie-camera on the front, it only works in good light (unlike the iPhone's Face ID, which works in the dark because of its multiple sensors). I'm still grateful for it, as I find facial unlocking fast and useful when you're frequently looking down at your phone.

It's worth pointing out that there is a smaller P30 model also launched, with a 6.1-inch screen instead of the 'Pro' model's 6.5-inch display.

This phone has a 3x optical zoom instead of a 5x zoom and foregoes the Pro's depth sensor.

That's still better than any other phone's zoom, but doesn't match the P30 Pro.

It's also a little lighter on Ram (6GB instead of 8GB), has a smaller battery and isn't quite as waterproof.

And it only comes with 128GB, compared to the 128GB, 256GB or 512GB options in the 'Pro' line.

However, one feature it does have over the P30 Pro is a headphone jack.

The phone goes on sale this Friday.

If you buy it by or before this weekend, Huawei says it will give you a Sonos One wireless speaker (which costs about €200 in Irish shops) free with it.

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