Huawei P20 Pro review: not the sum of its cameras

Huawei P20 Pro review

A certain Gene Jiao, Huawei’s president of MEA, once told me that it’s not the number of lenses you stick on a smartphone that’s important, it’s how you use the cameras you have.

If this were true the Huawei P20 Pro would still have two lenses, like the P10 before it. Hell, it would have a single lens like the P8.

So when the Huawei P20 Pro debuted with three cameras at the back, I raised an eyebrow.

When it landed on our bench for review, I was dealing with a mild bout of smartphone fatigue. Nokia just had a local launch. Samsung unveiled its new Galaxy. And the world was still reeling from the industry’s latest fad: the notch.

Thanks Apple.

Huawei P20 Pro review

So prior hype for the P20 Pro simmered into general appreciation. After all, on paper, the phone is arguably the most exciting of the year.

Yes, it does have a notch, but Huawei’s gone for a taller OLED screen than the likes of Apple. It’s not the best or the densest panel available, lacking more than 100 pixels per inch when compared to Samsung’s Galaxy S9+. It’s also less crisp, often not doing images snapped on the camera justice. But it suffices, and the OLED tech does help the phone manage its battery well.

It also allows disgruntled users to hide the notch with a software solution (because manufacturers definitely don’t have other problems they need to solve, like battery durability). And unlike an LCD screen, the OLED panel can switch off individual pixels in the notch area.

To drive another nail into the notch’s pointlessness, the P20 Pro’s chin is needlessly thick, but houses a fingerprint reader. Arguably, this sensor placed on the rear would’ve made sense, but may have also corrupted the phone’s aesthetic.

Huawei P20 Pro review

And yes, this phone is all about the aesthetic. The Huawei P20 Pro is a visual stunner.

It’s available in four colours, but Twilight in the undoubted star, boasting a glazed purple-to-blue fade across the rear glass back. My blue review unit wasn’t too shabby either though, and the phone’s notably photogenic itself, with Leica and Huawei labels proudly aligned along the device’s flank and paparazzi of cameras.

Two of those cameras protrude from the device, while another — sunken into the frame — sits below the ovular housing. It’s odd that Huawei didn’t simply bundle these three sensors into one design structure, but this oddity does draw attention to the phone’s third camera.

Adding to its sleek, modern facade is its slimness in depth and weight. It’s 7.9mm thick — not the thinnest device on the market — but weighs 180 grams — some 50g lighter than Sony’s massive upcoming XZ2 Premium.

Internally, it’s as impressive.

Huawei P20 Pro review

6GB of overkill RAM is mated to Huawei’s HiSilicon Kirin 970 chipset. There’s also 128GB of storage standard — a welcome benchmark that more manufacturers should adopt sooner rather than later. This does come in lieu of a microSD card slot though.

Huawei P20 Pro specifications:

Dimensions: 155mm tall, 73.9mm wide, 7.8mm thick
SIM type: Single Nano SIM or Dual Nano SIM
Weight: 180 grams
Screen: 2240×1080 | 6.1-inch | AMOLED | HDR10 | 18.7:9 aspect ratio | 408 pixels per inch | 82% screen to body ratio
CPU: HiSilicon Kirin 970 | octa core | 4 2.4 GHz ARM Cortex-A73 cores and 4 1.8GHz ARM Cortex-A53 cores
GPU: ARM Mali-G72 MP12
Battery and power: 4000mAh fixed | Huawei SuperCharge fast charging support | no wireless charging
Storage: 128GB
Rear camera: triple camera array | 40MP colour sensor with f/1.8 27mm lens | 20MP black and white sensor with f/1.6 27mm lens | 8MP colour sensor with f/2.4 80mm lens | Optical Image Stabilisation, 3x hybrid zoom, phase detection autofocus, laser autofocus
Selfie camera: single camera array | 24MP sensor with f/2.0 lens | autofocus
Video support: 2160p at 30 frames per second | 720p at 960 frames per second
Radios: Bluetooth 4.2 LE | dual band WiFi 802.11 ac | 4G LTE | NFC | A-GPS and GLONASS | no radio
I/O: USB Type-C 3.1
OS: Android 8.1 Oreo
Other features: IP67 water and dust resistance | front fingerprint reader
Colours: Black, Pink Gold, Midnight Blue, Twilight
RRP: R15 499

There’s also no 2160p recording at 60 frames per second. The latter’s becoming the gold standard of flagship smartphones, and the Huawei just can’t compete in this regard. It does however support 720p slow-motion capture at 960 frames per second

In total, this phone is home to 92 megapixels’ worth of camera sensors. It’s ridiculous.

The selfie camera, as big as its sensor is, is a massive disappointment. Boasting 24 megapixels and an f/2.0 lens, it’s Huawei’s beautification software that’s both horrid and insulting. Smoothing out any possible blemish, snaps look artificial and shopped in every light scenario. Note, this was even if beauty mode was switched off entirely.

Huawei P20 Pro review

Around the back though, the hardware and software perform a more harmonious symphony. Each of its three cameras performs a specific duty when snapping a picture in a given mode. The phone then takes the data accrued, and stitches it together to form a detailed snap.

Sure, it takes the romance out of photography, but hasn’t your Instagram selfies done that already?

Reminiscent of the days of the forgotten megapixel war, Huawei’s using a 40MP primary camera. It also attaches a 20MP black and white only camera to its device, and an 8MP camera with a telephoto lens, to simulate optical zoom.

The result? Underwhelming, at least when not zooming in to subjects.

In day to day usage — that is, snapping impromptu pictures of random objects — it’s like every other camera you’ll use this year, at least in daylight. I saw minimal difference between snapping with an S8 and the P20 Pro on a sunny day.

When the sun goes down, the P20 Pro comes out to play. The black and white camera excels when light declines, boosting the dynamic range potential of the camera array by providing more specific detail in both dark and light subjects. It’s quite clever, but it’s not anything astoundingly new. We’ve seen this before on Huawei phones.

Huawei P20 Pro out and about Cape Town
left right

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

Snapped in relatively low indoor light, you'd never achieve snaps like this just a few years ago.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

The selfie camera scoops up light, and smooths any surface. I'm surprised my beard isn't smudged into oblivion.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

The standard snap of rain on the office door. Arguably, the Sony Xperia XZ Premium did a better job (in our previous review).

Another selfie, same old story. Washed out, but at least this particular snap has more definition.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

Generally a fun capture, the Baxter Theatre roof is a bit underwhelming in this shot.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

Huawei's AI recognised this as a stage even when my data was disabled. Brilliant. But the shot isn't amazing.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

Even when snapping into the sun, dynamic range is stellar. Even the darker patches at the bottom of the shot have detail.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

The Nokia banana phone's screen is dastardly dim, but the P20 Pro could capture what little light emanated from it.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

Compare this shot...

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples this one. Taken just a few seconds apart, I'm not completely sure what was going on here.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

Plenty of detail in this shot.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

This helicopter was landing across the bay, but the Huawei P20 Pro captured it as if it were right there. The zoom functionality can be pretty unbelievable.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

But it can also be pretty ordinary too. Still, quite impressive for a smartphone.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

Snapped a picture of my knee to test the focal length.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

Another focal length test shows how Huawei's snapper doesn't quite saturate images as much as Samsung's. That's a good thing for editing though.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

It's not adverse to capturing colour though. I used the P20 Pro to snap review images for the Hisense Infinity F24. Not bad at all.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples


Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

This signal is a good 200-odd metres from the edge of the platform, but it's easy to spot when you zoom in. Incredible.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

This snap was notably pixelated and jagged,


In daylight, the P20 Pro isn't useless. It'll keep pace with the likes of Apple, Sony and Samsung.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

The amount of detail in this snap - especially in the leaves - is astounding.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

Another zoomed snap, possibly the best.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

Obligatory Table Mountain snap.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

See those two rhinoceros statues in the bottom left?

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

I zoomed into one. This was the result.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

Note the detail in the clouds.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

I've never used a smartphone camera that enjoyed snapping pictures like this, indoors, busy architecture.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

This was snapped indoors. The P20 Pro's low light performance is pretty good.

Huawei P20 Pro Camera Samples

And an even better example. This snap was only edited to remove the cars' license plates. Otherwise, this is what the P20 Pro's capable of.

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Annoyingly, my review unit was slow to focus in automatic mode, which increased time between snaps. This had a knock on effect too, as each subsequent snap I took with ever shakier hands.

Huawei’s AI savvy — which recognises subjects and chooses camera settings accordingly — didn’t add much beyond saturation. It generally didn’t add anything I’d want to images I could capture in Huawei’s relatively good professional mode.

Nevertheless, I didn’t find the pro mode as responsive and rewarding as I’d like, and phones to this day languish behind the LG G4’s sprightly, almost mechanical pro mode that made it a pleasure to spend time adjusting settings for the satisfactory shot.

But using pro mode for daily, sudden snaps isn’t advisable. And the more I used the P20 Pro’s automatic camera mode for casual snapping, the less I wanted to use the camera itself.

It’s not all doom and gloom though.

The 8MP telephoto camera — the third camera at the rear — provides some cheer.

Thanks to its sharper 80mm lens (and the additional cropping potential of the 40MP camera), the Huawei P20 Pro can zoom into objects like a DSLR. No, it doesn’t compete with dedicated cameras at all, but it’s the most brilliant attempt we’ve seen on a smartphone to date, at least beyond Samsung’s cucumber-sized K Zoom from 2014.

Sitting on the elevated freeway in Cape Town, I could zoom into Table Mountain’s upper cableway station. From the office balcony, I could zoom into nearby nesting birds. Or from the train station, I could zoom into a faulty signal some 200 metres away.

Huawei P20 Pro review

The images aren’t clear, sharp or blessed with natural definition through. Glossing through them on a PC, they resemble impressionist artistry. But for practical reasons — like taking a picture of a menu too far for you to see — the zoom has its uses.

If this phone was all about its camera technology, it would be hugely underwhelming. (Well done marketing team). But thankfully, it has a few other tricks up its sleeve.

For one, raw performance is stellar.

The Kirin 970 is a great chip, never hitching when loading apps, transitioning through menus, or browsing Instagram — seemingly the toughest non-gaming test for the modern smartphone. This is also largely thanks to its abundance of RAM — more than my laptop, mind.

It also balances performance with efficiency too, and never lost its cool when juggling multiple apps, streaming media or playing games for extended periods.

Huawei P20 Pro review

And in a first for Huawei, its tweaks of Android Oreo is excellent too. I know. Huawei making good software? Is this a dream?

Although the common sense department lost its argument against the notch, they won when they added a dark mode to the phone’s settings and overlays. It’s something Google daren’t do natively, but makes using the phone at night is a pleasure.

The phone’s 4000mAh battery is also generous, especially considering the device’s remarkably sleek size. Forget the cameras, shoving a battery the size of a car into a device this svelte is the real feat of engineering. And it’s lasts for more than a day of regular use too, something Galaxy S9 users haven’t been able to say, I hear.

I achieved a day and a half of heavy camera and Instagram usage, Reddit and Twitter. This is thanks to its chips’ architecture (those lightweight ARM Cortex-A53 cores in particular), in addition to that 2240×1080 screen. Sometimes, fewer pixels are better.

Huawei P20 Pro review

So what are some of the other negatives then? For one, you’re getting Bluetooth 4.2 LE and not 5.0. That means less coverage and slower transfer speeds. It’s not a massive issue, but it’s a curious omission for a phone that doesn’t have a headphone jack.

USB Type-C plays three roles as a data connection, your only physical audio out, and charging port. Thankfully, the latter does support Huawei’s fast charging technology, but wireless charging is also omitted. For those Apple users jumping ship and used to breaking cables, this may be a deal breaker.

So. How do I conclude this one?

I like the Huawei P20 Pro. The Chinese company didn’t simply copy Apple this time around. It pushed the limits of design and industry, and created a block of functional art capable of slaying the top tier American and Korean devices. Very few manufacturers can lay claim to this nowadays.

Huawei P20 Pro review

The results, however, may not be as far beyond its rivals as it or other people had hoped though. This goes for the camera performance especially. But’s clear that Huawei has made giant strides forward from the days of the first foray into South Africa.

Ultimately, it’s the phone’s price that’s the real winner.

Debuting at R15 499, it’s the cheaper than both the Samsung Galaxy S9+ and the iPhone X by some margin. And that, as unintentional as it may be, is its biggest selling point.

I was also skeptical when the company called the phone the P20, not the P11. Marketing reasons aside, the device is a leap beyond the P10. In fact, it’s likely the marque’s most accomplished smartphone to date (in the basic earner’s world where Porsche Mate RSes don’t exist).

Verdict: With its excessive camera setup, the Huawei P20 Pro will embarrass your Samsung, Sony and Apple devices in a nighttime street brawl. But during the day, you’d need a keen eye to spot the difference between its shots and those taken on other flagship smartphones. Beyond this single feature though — that arguably gets too much airtime in marketing material and general conversations — it’s a stellar, gorgeous smartphone that offers astounding value for money.

Score: 8/10

All images: Andy Walker/Gearburn

Andy Walker, former editor


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