Huawei P20 Pro Review: There’s a new camera sheriff in phone town

Pricey no doubt, but whattay camera

by: - Last updated on: June 7th, 2018

Let us get one thing clear at the very outset – the Huawei P20 Pro is basically all about camera muscle. Yes, the design is very eye-catching in its own right, with the glass front and back, the notched (some would say “botched”) AMOLED display, and the specs are impressive (flagship level HiSilicon Kirin 970 chip, 6 GB RAM, 128 GB storage, 4G connectivity, Android 8.1, etc.), but the biggest reason for any person to invest in this device, in our opinion, would be those cameras. Yes, you can get a very good DSLR for its princely price, but then, as we keep pointing out to a lot of worthies – if you love DSLRs, you are unlikely to be looking at a phone for photography.

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Betting on cameras again…

Cameras have been at the forefront of Huawei’s recent flagships, alongside some rather eye-catching design, especially in the P series. The P9 and P10 came with dual cameras with a Leica tie-up, and the P20 Pro takes the camera stakes a notch higher in numerical terms – claiming to be the first smartphone to come with three cameras. In fact, on paper, the P20 Pro packs in four cameras with a total of 92 megapixels between them – at the back, there is a 40.0-megapixel RGB sensor with f/1.8 aperture, a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor with f/1.6 aperture, and an 8.0-megapixel telephoto lens with f/2.4 aperture for 3X optical zoom. In the front, there’s a 24-megapixel camera with f/2.0 aperture for selfies. The three cameras on the rear come with a Leica tie-up for good measure.

It is a heck of a lineup. And guess what? It delivers. In spades!

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We are not sure about what tech wizardry goes behind those three sensors on the rear – and to be honest, it did not always work a treat – but more often than not the results that it delivered were brilliant. Yes, color reproduction erred on the site of over saturation: browns, greens, and reds, in particular, got almost fluorescent at times. We are not at all convinced by the “Master AI” setting that Huawei claims identifies scenes and accordingly tweaks settings, and recommend turning it off and sticking to auto, but it cannot be denied that the cameras are capable of delivering results that pretty much put the P20 Pro on top of the camera pile in phone town. Yes, we are going to go out on a limb and say that all things considered, the P20 Pro even takes out the Pixel 2 XL and the Galaxy S9+.

…and pulling it off

We know that statement is going to raise some hackles, so allow us to elaborate. Image for image, there will be times when the Pixel 2 or the Galaxy S9+ will deliver better snaps. But by and large, our experience often indicated better detail and color representation on the P20 Pro, as compared to that awesome duo. Unlike some devices where the camera statistics seem to be so much hype, here you can actually see the effects of all that camera goodness packed into the P20 Pro. There are three color options – standard, vivid and smooth – for different options. We would recommend standard as that is the most realistic, although the fans of more saturated snaps would prefer “vivid.”

The secret weapons of the P20 Pro’s cameras, however, are the 3X optical zoom and 5X lossless zoom, which make a massive difference in day to day usage. We would recommend not depending too heavily on the 5X lossless zoom as some smudging does creep in thanks to what we suspect could be a rather aggressive smoothening element in the software, but in most cases in decent lighting, the 5X zoom does make a massive difference, letting you get really close to a subject without actually moving towards them. We can see street photographers in particular warming up to it, considering the amount of unobtrusive shooting potential it offers to users. In best EMUI app tradition, there are plenty of shooting options here so you can actually tweak a number of settings as you seek your perfect shot.

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Of course, there is a portrait mode here. And unlike some devices which kind of make you move back and forth until you are in the perfect position for the snap, here you have greater liberty of movement and can get a portrait snap from pretty much any position as long as the subject is clearly defined and not too far away. And if they are a bit distant, you can actually use the 3X optical zoom to get closer to them (making this the first device we have used which offers optical zoom even in portrait mode). You can opt between normal bokeh or artistic bokeh which adds just a more classic bokeh shapes to the backdrop – although you will not always be able to tell the difference between the two. Speaking of portrait mode itself, the cameras did a very good job, even though the edges of the subject occasionally got smudged.

Monochrome and low light magic

Something we WOULD recommend using a lot, on the other hand, is the monochrome mode which uses the dedicated 20-megapixel sensor to take some brilliant black and white pictures and also has its own portrait and pro modes. Mind you, you will have to spot in the “More” section of the camera app settings, a curious location when you consider the magic it is capable of weaving. We daresay Leica’s legendary expertise in monochrome photography is at play here, although it has not been promoted to the same extent as it was in the P9. Instead, the monochrome sensor this time around has been touted as the one that adds details to the snaps taken by the main 40-megapixel sensor (the default setting, however, is for 10-megapixel shots and we would recommend leaving it there), especially in low light conditions. And it excels there.

Note: Click here for the Flickr album with full resolution images of all the sample pics below

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The cameras take good low light shots even in normal mode, handling glare well. But if you really want to turn on the magic, there is a dedicated Night mode which keeps the shutter open for about four seconds, takes a series of pictures (with different exposure levels and settings), and then delivers a final snap that seems to deliver much more realistic detail and color and a lot less noise than what we have seen from any camera on a phone. Yes, that includes the likes of the Galaxy S9+ and the Pixel 2XL. No, you will not always get the kind of jaw-dropping detail that you sometimes get from those two in low light conditions, but you will get some very realistic shots that do not seem to have been artificially brightened, and in our book, that counts for as much (if not more) than software enhanced shots that reveal details one did not even notice or was trying to capture. If you are the kind of person that loves taking pictures of city lights in the night, then this is a device you are going to love.

Note: Click here for the Flickr album with full resolution images of all the sample pics below

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The 24.0-megapixel front-facing camera is a good performer too, even when you turn off the beauty mode (and we really recommend doing so, as it makes things unreally snow white). We generally liked the results we obtained, although after the performance of those rear cameras, we would be lying to say we did not expect a bit more. Portrait mode and Portrait Lighting worked well enough, though, especially Portrait Lighting.

A feature-rich camera app, but remember to go to for “More”

Aiding and obstructing the cameras is the camera app. Yes, we know that is a strange statement, but hear us out. We have not been massive fans of the stock Android camera app and have generally preferred more feature rich apps for cameras that enable users to do more with the camera, without depending on third-party apps. The Pro P20 Pro’s camera app cannot be accused of not giving enough shooting options – there are shooting modes aplenty (although interestingly, these are fewer in number than on the Honor 10), with options ranging from a Pro mode to a Night Mode to a Portrait Mode (complete with Portrait Lighting mode too) to an option that lets you play with aperture settings exclusively. And they all work pretty well too – Portrait Lighting is available for both front and rear cameras, and the results are very striking, and in our opinions, comparable with the iPhone X. There is support for 4K video and also super slow motion at 960 fps (although that is at 720p and limited to a few seconds, just as in the S9+, making it necessary you know exactly when you want it!) – and once again results are excellent.

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The problem is that the app at times can seem over complex, and actually hides some of its best features. For instance, slow motion does not come under the video options but instead is in “More.” Actually, that “More” option deserves thorough exploration – that monochrome mode is in there too, as are the live filters, rather than in the main menu. Similarly, the main menu remains the same for the selfie and main camera – the only problem is that all the options are not available in selfie mode. So if you are in the Selfie mode and choose aperture, night or pro mode, you will find the view suddenly switching to the rear camera, which can be a little disconcerting. It would have been simpler for those options to not be selectable or available when one is in selfie mode, we think.

And a damn good smartphone too!

Allied with all that camera wizardry is some very good hardware. The Huawei P20 Pro comes with a very good 6.1-inch, 2240 x 1080 pixel resolution AMOLED display. It is a brilliant display and hits the middle ground between the eye-popping brilliance of the Samsung Galaxy S9+ (Samsung has some secret sauce out there) and the more realistic iPhone X – it is markedly superior to the displays we have seen on the OnePlus 6 and the Pixel 2 XL. It comes with 6 GB RAM and 128 GB storage (not expandable) and is terrific for watching videos and playing games. Notch haters have the option of turning it off, although honestly, we have got used to it. Also on board are all the connectivity options you would expect from a high-end device (4G, infrared port, NFC, Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth). You can even project the device’s content to a notebook or desktop computer using a USB Type C to HDMI connector (none in the box alas), and it actually works. There is the matter of what we consider to be the device’s secret weapon – the 4000 mAh battery which is not just numerically one of the biggest we have seen in a flagship level device, but can also last close to two days of usage with careful handling (and a day and a half of heavy use). Round that all off with stereo speakers and support for Dolby Atmos and sound quality that is comparable with the excellent speakers on the S9+, and you have a multimedia maestro in your hands.

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It is not all roses, though. Although Huawei insists that the HiSilicon Kirin 970 processor on the device is one of the most powerful around, there will be those who will point out (with some validity) that the same chip is seen on the much lower priced View 10 (which is a 2017 device) and Honor 10, from Huawei’s sister brand, Honor. No, we encountered no performance issues – the phone handled multitasking and heavy-duty gaming very well indeed, but the eagle-eyed might notice a slightly lower level of performance when compared to the likes of the OnePlus 6 and Galaxy S9+. That said, we felt that the device was very brisk when it came to handling image editing apps. No, we are not saying that speed will be a dealbreaker here, but yes, those sitting with stopwatches and noting loading times might feel they would be better off with a device with a newer (read Snapdragon 845) processor.

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Another divisive factor is Huawei’s EMUI 8.1, which runs on top of Android 8.1 on the device. Although Huawei has been constantly cutting down on bloatware and making the UI smoother, we doubt stock Android lovers (or Oxygen UI fans, for that matter) will appreciate it. Speaking for ourselves, barring the rather confusing camera app and the usual complex settings, we found it better than Samsung’s skin but still a slight bit slower than Xiaomi’s MIUI, which is rapidly emerging as the gold standard in manufacturer UIs on Android. There is still an audience out there that likes more colorful interfaces and additional tools, like using gestures to navigate the device and dumping the navigation buttons, as well as dodging the notch. EMUI is not perfect, but we think it does a much better job than the interfaces we have seen on other brands, Xiaomi apart. And for the most part, works very well indeed.

Finally, the device lacks that one feature that is becoming increasingly expected (by reviewers, if not users) – wireless charging. This is not a deal breaker but definitely puts it a step behind some of its competitors in the premium segment.

Worth that price?

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At Rs 64,999, the Huawei P20 Pro is unabashedly high-end and premium priced, going right alongside the Samsung Galaxy S9+ which starts at Rs 64,900 and the Pixel 2 XL which starts at Rs 61,000. And it holds its own. Comfortably. We think it more than matches those two worthies when it comes to camera performance, batters them in matters of battery, and is not too far away in other departments. All of which makes that price tag appear a lot less extravagant or over-the-top as it did at the launch. In fact, we would say that this is perhaps the best Android camera phone in the Indian market at the moment – as an all-round package, it edges out the Galaxy S9+ (we think that its superior battery life and cameras counter the better display and water resistance on the S9+) and the Pixel 2 XL (great camera, but a rather inconsistent device otherwise).

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The biggest challenge the P20 Pro in fact faces is the relative lack of brand equity that Huawei has in the premium segment of the Indian smartphone market. While its sub-brand Honor has a following (it is among the top five brands in the Indian smartphone market), its success has been built on value for money mid-segment devices rather than high-end premium ones. Indeed, there are already people pointing out that the P20 Pro costs more than the Honor View 10 and Honor 10 taken together, even though those devices sport similar processors and displays that are of largely similar resolutions. Then, of course, there is the shadow of the OnePlus 6 that looms across the fate of just about every Android flagship out there – it might not have the same sort of battery and camera muscle but it compensates with a processor that is perceived as being newer and better and a much lower price tag (almost half that of the P20 Pro). The P20 Pro has won the performance wars in our books, but to succeed, it would need to score on perception in that most difficult and unpredictable of battlegrounds – the mind of the Indian consumer.

It is pricey, no doubt, but for all those bucks you get perhaps the best set of cameras a phone has out there at the time of writing.

There is a new camera sheriff in smartphone town, fellas.

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