Anyone who has watched the razor market will recognise what’s going on with phones. First phone makers added a single camera to handsets. Then it was two; one front and rear. In recent years premium phones had two rear cameras making three cameras in total. With the P20 Pro, Huawei has upped the ante. It has three rear cameras for a total of four.
Adding extra cameras has a remarkable effect on the way the phone shoots images. Phones are too small and too thin to have big lenses and image sensors. So instead of going that route, phone makers use software to combine camera output.
Huawei stretched that idea from two to three rear Leica cameras plus one on the front.
The three work together in a multilayered way. It could go wrong, but doesn’t. That it doesn’t fail seems more like alchemy than science. The P20 Pro hardware and software keeps everything together.
Camera number one is a large, 40-megapixel colour camera with an f1.8 lens. A 20-megapixel monochrome camera with a f1.6 lens and a f2.4 telephoto lens acts as support.
Huawei has used a secondary monochrome camera in earlier phones. It adds extra light to the image, which means more detail and depth information. You can take crisp pictures with the two lenses. The telephone lens is there to handle zooming.
Photos that don’t look like they came from a phone
In practice you get shots that don’t look like they came from a phone. When conditions are right, which is not all the time, the results are amazing. The combination works well in low light conditions too thanks to image stabilisation.
Like most other premium phones, the P20 also has image stabilisation. Huawei seems to have this working well with the three camera arrangement.
What will surprise anyone who has bumped up against the limits of camera phones in the past is the way the P20 Pro handles zooming. It’s a hybrid zoom, which combines optical and digital zooming. You’ll find the optical 2x and 3x zoom pictures are excellent. Even the hybrid 5x zoom pics are, on a good day, impressive.
All phone makers like to tell us their premium models include artificial intelligence. What they use often isn’t AI in the sense that systems learn how to do their tasks better over time. But it sounds good in marketing.
Huawei’s Master AI technology attempts to identify what you are shooting in a picture. It then adjust the various parameters to suit the subject and the conditions. There are 19 options.
This works well up to a point. On the whole the AI does a good job with colour balance. That’s something phones often struggle with.
Sometimes Master AI makes a poor guess at the subject or maybe it makes the right guess but odd choices of setting. At times images look tinted or otherwise filtered with Photoshop or similar software.
In practice, you usually get good results if you let the camera make all the decisions. When that doesn’t work, turning all the settings off and clicking often fixes things.
Moving away from these options and using manual adjustments is possible. But it means work. By the time you’ve got on top of the camera software it will be time to upgrade your phone. It’s easier to take lots of shots and sort through them afterwards.
Something similar applies to the AI system that helps you frame shots. It takes time to get use to it in the first place and it takes time to use when you take a picture. If you’re unhurried, say taking a landscape picture, this can be OK. If you need to move fast and capture something that won’t last, spending time tinkering could lose the shot.
And anyway, you can frame things afterwards with decent photo software.
There are many options and settings available. Anyone interested in photography will have a ball. Prepare to lose an afternoon or a few days if you want to try everything.
My favourite is the monochrome mode, this feels more like real photography.
Long exposure at night
A standout is the camera’s ability to take long exposure night pictures. It works best if you can use a stand to keep the phone still. Yet, thanks to the image stabilisation even handheld shots are impressive.
In normal use the P20 Pro takes 10-megapixel images. You can, if you wish, crank this all the way up to 40-megapixels.
It says a lot about the Huawei P20 Pro that at 700 words into this review, I have only written about the camera. That’s because, in a sense, the P20 Pro is more camera than phone.
Phone makers use cameras as ways of differentiating their premium models from rivals. At the Auckland event to launch the phone Huawei almost didn’t mention anything other than its camera.
P20 Pro feel
Away from the camera, the P20 Pro feels like a premium phone. It is better finished than, say, the Galaxy S9. It feels more on a par with the iPhone X.
The smoothness that feels so good in your hands can be troublesome if you park the phone on a soft surface, say a sofa, where it will slide away.
At the launch the face recognition software impressed the journalists. It’s fast and can recognise the same face even when the person wears glasses. While it works for me, I’m uneasy about this being the phone’s main security feature.
Also impressive is the battery life. I manage to get two days between charges, although these are not two heavy use days. If I push hard all day I find there is still enough there to get me home late at night.
One quirk is the Apple iPhone X-like notch. Huawei was quick to point out its notch is smaller than Apple’s. It seems to have made the choice to have a notch as a nod toward’s being more like an Apple phone than, say, a Samsung Galaxy.
Android phone software is often disappointing. It’s rare for anything added by the phone maker to improve on raw Android. That’s still true with the P20 Pro, but less so than in the past.
The EMUI 8.1 software runs on Android Oreo 8.1. That’s up-to-date now. Yet Huawei has a poor history upgrading its software, so don’t expect much change. EMUI attempts to make Android more like Apple’s iOS. This says something about Huawei’s intent. You can choose to make it act less iOS-like.
Verdict: Huawei P20 Pro
It may not be as pretty as the Samsung Galaxy S9 , but the Huawei P20 Pro is at least its match. I found I liked it more. That’s for two reasons, first it feels better in my hand. This is a subjective measure. Less subject is the camera. Not only does it outperform the Galaxy S9 camera, but it is easier to get good results. Battery life is good too.
For these reasons, the P20 Pro is the best premium Android phone on sale at the moment. The fact that, at $1300 it costs $300 less gives it a bigger lead over its rival. You’d have to be a Samsung fan to think otherwise.