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More a pocket camera with phone features than a mobile with a camera, the Huawei P30 Pro pushes the Android handset envelope further than any rival.

Huawei’s P30 Pro is the first phone with 5x optical zoom. It’s also the first to feature four cameras on the back. That’s five cameras all up when you also count the front facing selfie-camera. You get a lot of camera.

This should not come as a surprise. Cameras have been the key battleground for premium phone makers in recent years.

That’s because it is an area that has, until now, remained ripe for further improvement. Most other aspects of phone design are starting to look like dead-ends. One notable exception to this is Huawei’s Mate X folding phone.

All phone makers emphasise their camera prowess. Huawei pushes its skill a little harder than its rivals. The company has two main premium phone ranges; the business-oriented Mate series phones and the P series which is all about photography.

Huawei P30 Pro – everything up-to-date

When it comes to photography, the P30 Pro is, in effect, a physical compendium of all the latest digital camera trends in a phone-size box.

This year’s standout feature is the 5x optical zoom. It is more than any rival can offer. The most I’ve seen to date on a phone is 2x optical zoom.

Huawei P30 Pro periscope
A periscope makes better use of space inside the phone.

Adding 5x zoom to a phone relies on a complex periscope arrangement. To get that kind of zoom you need some depth, that’s hard to find in a phone that’s only a few millimetres thick, so Huawei used a prism to build a periscope through the inside of the phone.

The optical technology took me unawares. Periscopes are hardly new, but they are often big. Who even knew it was possible to fit a useful one inside a handheld phone and still leave enough room for everything else?

Leica

Less surprising is the Huawei P30 Pro’s array of four Leica cameras. Anyone who saw what happened to the razor blade market will know that was always on the cards from the day phone makers all had three camera models. It’s a more-is-more philosophy.

Lens number four is smaller than the others. It’s a depth-sensing time-of-flight camera. It should give better results with portrait images. The depth maps do a better job of separating the subject of a photo from the background. You get a better, more natural looking bokeh effect.

Huawei says it also plans to use this camera later with augmented reality applications. At this point I should offer a few words of caution. Phone makers are often not good at delivering on “we’re going to add this feature later” promises.

The main camera has 40-megapixel and there’s also a 20-megapixel ultra wide angle camera.

Super spectrum

Huawei adds what it calls a SuperSpectrum sensor. Most sensors divide light into red, green and blue. The SuperSpectrum sensor adds yellow to the mix. This lets in a lot more light, Huawei says up to 40 percent more. More light means better performance in low-light conditions.

The 5x optical zoom does what the name tells you. But it enables more zoom options. You can work the cameras together to get a 10x hybrid zoom mode. Push things further and there’s a an option to go all the way to 50x digital zoom.

Software

What amounts to a considerable amount of advanced camera hardware is neatly topped off with a serving of clever photography software. All phone makers talk about their devices using artificial intelligence. That’s not strictly true, not in the sense that the phones are smart enough to learn how to take better picture.

Huawei P30 Pro screenWhat the clever software can do is determine what the camera is pointing at. This could be a face, or a scenic shot with mountains in the background.

Armed with a rough idea of what is in the frame, the software can then adjust the exposure and other parameters. The whole adds up to a new level of phone camera sophistication.

It means in practice that you can often get stunning photos with the P30 Pro. Of course you can still get some naff ones too. But that’s generally down to the talent pushing the shutter button. Mediocre photographers have fewer excuses.

Screen, notch

Away from the cameras, the P30 Pro is a decent premium phone. There’s a 6.5 inch OLED screen. I can’t think of the last time I saw a premium phone screen that wasn’t ‘beautiful’, but this one also qualifies. Huawei has opted for a much smaller notch to house the front camera.

Huawei P30 Pro face recognition and fingerprint reader
Huawei face recognition and fingerprint reader

Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro has 3D face recognition. It’s fast but not a patch on the version Apple uses with the iPhone XS Max. Instead of going down that path with the P30 Pro, Huawei has opted for an in screen fingerprint reader. Maybe I could warm to this over time, but in testing, I found it hard to use and spoiled the overall user experience.

There’s an interesting approach to sound. Instead of an earpiece the front of the front of the phone turns into a speaker. To me this feels like showing off more that genuine innovation. But there you go.

Battery

At the launch function Huawei talked of getting two days battery life from the phone. Well yes, that’s possible if you don’t actually use it.

Realistically you’ll get a long, long working day from it with enough juice to order a cab home late at night. It may still turn on the next day.

In reality you’ll be charging it every night just like every other phone. The good news is that it charges fast. Half an hour gets you to about 70 percent.

Should you forget to turn the power on overnight, you can give it a solid charge while you eat breakfast. Make an extra pot of coffee and go in late if you need 100 percent power.

Huawei P30 Pro verdict

At NZ$1500, the P30 Pro is a big investment for most people. It could be worth the money if you want to spend time mastering the cameras and plan to take a lot of pictures.

If that’s not you, then you’ll find better value elsewhere, including elsewhere in Huawei’s range. You might consider the cheaper and smaller NZ$1100 non-Pro P30. It has a 6.1 inch screen, the same fingerprint scanner and less storage. There are also fewer cameras, only three on the back. It can only do 3x optical zoom.

Expect talk about devices like the P30 Pro putting the final nail in the coffin for standalone digital cameras. When it comes to consumer cameras, that happened a while ago.

The P30 moves the bar a little higher for other cameras. While I’ve found it’s still easier to get better pictures on my digital SLR, I can’t stick that in my pocket. In practice it means I pack the SLR less and less often. We’re quite not at the point of rarely using it yet.

Postscript

When I reviewed the P30 Pro, I charged the phone with a USB-C cable that I already had set up for other devices. In part that was because the phone was supplied with a Chinese power supply.

While packing the phone up to return to Huawei, I tested the supplied USB-2 to USB-C cable. It doesn’t work. This is an example of sloppiness that you wouldn’t expect to find with rival brands and goes some way to explain why Huawei’s core mobile network business faces problems.

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