Huawei P20 ProThe Huawei P20 Pro is 2018’s top Android phone by a healthy margin. You won’t find a better combination of camera, hardware, performance and value for money.

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.

Multilayered cameras

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.

Artificial intelligence

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.

Less work

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.

Software

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 subjective 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.

Also on:

phone cameras

Every recent high-end phone launch has focused, sorry about that, on the camera. Likewise, every phone promotion or marketing campaign pushes cameras to the fore.

Samsung launched the Galaxy S9 in Auckland last month. The company invited journalists to an open plan restaurant. There, Samsung invited journalists to photograph the chef preparing food.

The menu included a dish with a viscous pour-on sauce. This was a clever way of highlighting the S9’s very slow motion video function. The results were impressive.

Samsung hired a video professional to take slow motion footage of bees entering a hive. Shown on a giant TV screen, the pictures were crystal clear and, at times, had stunning clarity.

When phone makers show journalists new devices, they devote at least half the time to cameras.

Apple and Huawei have the same emphasis on photography.

Phone makers with smaller budgets push camera features to the top of their press releases.

Camera talk

During technical presentations company insiders talk at great length about phone features. At least a third of allotted time is camera talk. You can come away with the impression that’s all they want to talk about.

Every phone maker mentioned so far and some others will tell you they have the best phone camera. In a limited sense most of them are right, although it depends on your terms of reference. No phone costing, say, $800 or more has a bad camera.

In the last year or so, every phone maker used the word ‘bokeh’ at least once in their launch presentation. It would not be hard to make a cliché bingo card for phone launch attendees.

If this sounds like ‘me too’ marketing, well, it can be at times. Every phone maker thinks a fashion parade is an original idea.

There are important difference. Each company’s best camera excels at something else. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 does well in low light and can do very slow motion video. Huawei’s Mate 10 is best for black and white photography.

Most phone makers can point at unique camera hardware features. They can all point at unique software.

The quality of still and moving pictures from high end phones is remarkable. If you know what you’re doing — we’ll come back to that — you can take wonderful images. This is even more impressive when you consider how small the lenses are. Phone lenses are prone to finger smudges and camera shake is a given.

A point of difference

So why do phone makers put so much emphasis on cameras? An obvious reason is cameras differentiate what are otherwise me-too products.

Telephony and connectivity are much the same on all phones including cheap ones. Screen resolution is higher than the human eye can perceive. Few high-end phones struggle with processing power. These days they all look alike.

While there is a huge and obvious software difference between Apple’s iPhone range and Android handsets, you couldn’t say the same for Android models. Phone makers add their own software skins to stock Android. In almost every case this detracts value, at least from the customer’s perspective.

This leaves cameras and camera software as a playground for creativity and innovation. Which, in turn, brings us to the second reason phone makers place so much emphasis on photography.

Phone hardware designs and specifications have stabilised. With the move to remove bezels, that is the borders around screens, there’s little left to tinker with. Samsung struggles deciding where to put its fingerprint scanner. Otherwise, physical phone design has reached a cul-de-sac, at least for now.

The Galaxy S9 looks so much like the S8. Samsung had to come up with a new case colour for people wanting to show off their new phone.

Room for improvement

Over the last few years phone makers found room for improvement in their camera hardware and software. It’s likely this will soon reach another dead end. The laws of physics mean there’s only so much you can do with a tiny lens and sensor array.

The last big innovation was the move to dual lens cameras. This hasn’t played out yet. Meanwhile, at least one phone maker, Huawei, is talking of a triple lens camera.

There’s a danger this could become like the disposable razor business. There, for a time, adding an extra blade gave the appearance of innovation to an otherwise evolved product. It could be like tail fins on 1950s American cars. In effect we’re talking innovation for the sake of having an innovation talking point.

Another danger is that customers are loosing interest in phone cameras. Or, more likely, customer interest in phone cameras is not in alignment with phone maker hype.

Take, again, the Samsung Galaxy S9 slow-motion video feature. As mentioned early, the results are impressive, but how many Galaxy S9 buyers will use it?

Or, more to the point, how many will continue to use it beyond playing around with it when they first get their phone?

You can ask the same question about many of the camera innovations phone makers promote. Is the beauty mode, which attempts to make people look better, anything more than passing fad. How many phone owners have taken more than a handful of bokeh shots with blurred backgrounds?

Are people buying cameras or phones?

Slow-motion video is nice-to-have, but it’s unlikely more than one phone buyer in 20 will use it often. Similar reasoning goes for all fancy high-end phone camera features.

The flip side of this logic is worth considering. High-end phones with fancy camera features sell at a considerable premium. You may pay NZ$500 extra to get that super camera in your hands. If you only use it a dozen or so times, that feature has cost you $40 a shot.

Skeptical readers might see the industry’s obsession with camera phones as a way of forcing up handset prices. It also repairs margins in a business where only Apple and Samsung make decent money.

Of course, you can use phone cameras for serious work. If you need to take pictures in your job, the extra cost can be a smart investment.

Yet, in general you can’t take pictures of the quality you’d get from a SLR or any decent camera with a much bigger lens and sensor array. Phone cameras are handy, we carry them with us all the time. And the quality is so good that at times it is hard to tell if an iPhone or a Canon took the shot.

Hard to use

One phone camera drawback is they are hard to use in a hurry. Sure, all the phone makers tell us how easy their products are to use. Even so, the software can be confusing.

Phone camera interfaces are often tiny and you need to hunt around to find controls. Almost everyone uses the default mode for every shot. What’s more, stabbing at controls on a phone screen is not the best way to steady your hand to take pictures. Adjusting and using a digital SLR is easy in comparison.

There is still some room for improvement with phone cameras. Among other things Huawei’s third lens could do the trick. There is scope for yet more innovation in the software and, yes, a better user interface.

No doubt other improvements are in the works. At best we may see one or two more cycles. In the meantime some phone makers are switching their marketing attention to what they call AI or artificial intelligence.

It’s questionable whether this is real AI in the sense that the software learns things from use. There’s also a big question over whether phone buyers give a toss for this approach. We’ll see.

End of the golden age

Phone makers face a far bigger problem than competition with each other. It appears phone sales have faltered and now may be about to end the same kind of fall that has plagued the PC sector.

People are hanging on to phone longer. Research companies like IDC and Gartner put this down to consumers not being so enchanted with new feature that they feel a need to upgrade.

Given the marketing emphasis phone makers put on cameras, that can be evidence they are out of sync with what customers want. Whatever that is, it’s unlikely to be a way of taking better photographs or videos.

Also on:

apple iphone 7 plus

Forget all the nonsense you’ve read about the missing headphone jack. It isn’t important. The key to the iPhone 7 Plus is that it carries a second camera with a telephoto lens.

Every new iPhone comes with a camera that is better than the last iPhone. Apple has been relentless when it comes to increasing camera speed, pixel numbers and camera performance.

This time both the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus have a 12-megapixel camera with the means to collect a wider range of colours. It also has optical image stabilisation.

New everything

Apple upgraded everything in the camera. There’s a new lens system, updated sensors.

The flash is brighter and delivers a wider range of colours. All this adds up to better pictures than you can get from earlier iPhones. The camera performs better in daylight and in poor light conditions. You’ll get better skin tones and more realistic colours all round.

While these tweaks are a step forward, they are only incremental changes from last year.

Second camera

The big difference is on the iPhone 7 Plus. Here Apple added a second camera with a zoom lens and half the field of view of the first camera. In effect, you get two different looks at the same image.

This gives you 2X optical zoom. That’s a useful hardware addition. It  brings the camera experience closer to what you might find on mid-price standalone digital cameras. Being able to zoom like this means the iPhone can do something other phone cameras are unable to do. At least for now.

Digital zoom is often disappointing. On the iPhone 7 Plus images from the two lenses combine so that you can get up to 10X digital zoom. The processing all happens in software. The effect is closer to what you might expect from optical zoom.

The iPhone 7 Plus 2X optical zoom appears as a button at the bottom of the screen when taking photos. If you press and hold this button you can crank up the digital zoom.

Portraits, close-ups

Two lenses mean you get better quality portraits and close-ups. That’s something other phone cameras struggle with.

Software updates are in the pipeline that will extend the dual lens camera. Apple says an iOS update later this year will do this. Example photos taken with the camera and the new software show a bokeh effect. The subject in the foreground is in sharp focus while the background is a blur.

Apple isn’t the only phone maker to add a second lens. The Huawei P9 features a dual camera that is co-engineered with Leica. Unlike Apple, Huawei uses one lens for colour and the other for monochrome. This works to improve shots in low-light conditions.

Until now you needed to buy a mid-range or better digital camera to get this kind of photographic effect. A bigger physical camera with a larger lens and more depth between lens and the sensors can still take better photos. Yet, having a good camera in your pocket all the time trumps having a great camera in a cupboard. There’s something else too.

Turning point

With the iPhone 7 Plus we are at a turning point. Earlier waves of camera phones wiped out the digital point and click camera market.

Since then some consumers have bought digital SLRs because they can get better pictures than phones. Despite the sophistication of dSLRs, most people never get much beyond the automatic settings. They want to take better pictures. That’s all.

There will always be demand for digital SLR cameras from professionals and enthusiasts. Yet most everyday photographers now have all they want from a camera in the iPhone 7 Plus. Expect more devastation in the camera market.

To use a camera well, you need a good quality display. It’s subtle, but the iPhone 7 Plus has a better screen than earlier iPhones. You have to see two iPhones side by side to notice how much better the display is on the 7 Plus.

The difference is most noticeable indoors. It’s brighter. Colours look more saturated. The effect isn’t as eye-catching as on a phone with an OLED display. In particular, blacks don’t look quite as black.

Other changes

While the headline says the iPhone 7 Plus is all about the camera, there are other important changes.

Some folk are going to miss the headphone jack. In the long-term we’ll all get over this. It’ll be like getting rid of floppy discs or optical disc drives on Macs.

For now there will be holdouts who will either hang onto old iPhones longer or buy another brand of phone.

Apple demonstrated AirPods to journalists at a product briefing. They are far more impressive than you might assume and have a whiff of magic about them. Bluetooth pairing is better than normal. Apple has tweaked standard Bluetooth to make it work better at this task.

Their small case is about the size of a TicTac packet. It carries about 20 hours of charge. The AirPods themselves have about five hours charge. So on, say, a long flight, you can recharge them enough to listen all the way to Europe.

Magic

When you take an AirPod out of your ear, perhaps because someone wants to talk, the audio track pauses. This, again, feels a little like magic. Built-in microphones at the bottom of the AirPods mean you can make phone calls.

A lot of people are critical of AirPods and the way they look. There is something nerdy about them. Yet this is Apple, they are not going to become unacceptable like, say, Google Glass. This time next year people will be wearing them on buses and trains like it is no big deal.

Apple hasn’t made a lot of noise about the iPhone 7 Plus processor. It’s not something that will make or break the buying decision for most users. Yet, the processing power inside the phone is off the scale. Throw what you like at it and it will cope. More than cope.

Elsewhere the new home button design with haptic touch is big step forward in phone usability. While the button doesn’t move, it feels like it does. When you put pressure on the button, there’s a kick as the phone vibrates. You get these haptic feedback kicks all over the place. At first it feels odd, within an hour or so phones without haptic feedback feel odder.

Should you buy the iPhone 7 Plus?

If you’re an iPhone fan looking to upgrade, you’ll get a lot moving straight to the iPhone 7 or 7 Plus. If you like smaller phones, then the iPhone SE will be a better choice.

Most Android fans won’t like the iPhone 7, but you wouldn’t expect them to. Someone switching to an iPhone 7 from Android might find not being able to tinker with every aspect of the phone frustrating. Android users who prefer not to fiddle will find a slick alternative. Once they’ve adjusted, is easier to master and be productive on.

The question of iPhone 7 or 7 Plus is down to the screen size and the importance of having the far better camera. Both are big phones, but the Plus model is giant-sized.

Some Apple critics have described the iPhone 7 Plus as boring or lacking creativity. If that’s the case, you could say the same about every new phone in 2016. Putting the camera aside, it’s a steady-as-she-goes upgrade. You should get at least two years of value from the iPhone 7 Plus. It won’t look tired or jaded in 2018.

Canon’s EOS 1300D is an affordable low-end digital SLR camera.

From the marketing material looks like an ideal choice for people who have grown up with phone cameras and want to move to the next level without committing to expensive professional gear. It is a beginner’s camera.

The EOS 1300D has an 18-megapixel sensor. There are phones that can capture more pixels. What they don’t have is size.

This makes a huge difference to your pictures.

Pixels, sensors

Even the best phone cameras squeeze a huge number of pixels onto a tiny sensor, then expose those pixels to the world through a small lens a few millimetres from the image plane.

A larger sensor makes it possible to capture more detail. You get better colour.

Larger lenses also mean you can get depth of field. Phone pictures tend to have a flat feel, with a digital SLR you can bring people to the fore.

Print on the go

Canon has a companion portable, battery-powered photo printer to go with the EOS 1300D: The Selphy CP1200. The pair communicate by Wi-Fi so you can get instant prints while on the move.

There are phone apps so you can send images to your phone using Wi-Fi or NFC which is also built-in.

Other specs may be modest by modern standalone camera standards but trump any phone camera.

The sensor chip is an18-megapixel CMOS (APS-C). There’s a Digic 4+ image processor. The EOS 1300D has a high ISO of 12,800 and can handle 3-fps continuous shooting. If you want video you can record 1080p videos at 24, 25 and 30 fps, or 720p at 50 and 60 fps.

Canon EOS 1300D
Canon EOS 1300D

For most of us, most of the time, the cameras in our phones are good enough.

As the saying goes: the best camera is the one you have with you. As a journalist I find it helpful to snap an image on the fly without carrying extra hardware.

Apple says more pictures are taken with iPhone cameras than with any other device.

Phone pictures can be great. Modern phones have resolution to burn.

Poor light

Yet even with optical image stabilisation and heavy duty software, they struggle to deal with poor light conditions. And guess what? As a journalist I often have to take shots in poor light.

Phone camera zoom is almost always digital. In effect you’re choosing a subset of the captured pixels.

Again this is often unsatisfactory. And again, zoom is important for a journalist. Often I have to sit at a media table at the back of a conference venue where my phone sees only tiny remote figures.

You’ll notice I rarely use my own photos to illustrate stories on my site. When I do, the image is a mere record of events, not a work of art.

Where possible I use photos taken by professionals at the event. But that’s not always possible.

Which explains why I’m always on the lookout for an affordable real camera.

I’ve long been a fan of Canon’s affordable digital SLR cameras. There are professional models and consumer models. I sometimes use a Canon PowerShot SX60 HS for work, when I can prise it from the hands of family members. The pictures are good enough to use in printed newspapers and magazine.

Canon is coy about the New Zealand price of the EOS 1300D, that is left to dealer discretion. Going by overseas prices the basic camera plus a lens kit will leave change from what you’d spend on a premium phone.

Nokia Lumia 1020 and Lumia 920
Nokia Lumia 1020 and Lumia 920

Photography sits at the core of Nokia’s Lumia 1020. You can’t avoid the phone’s picture taking abilities even if you try.

Take at look at how the lens and camera sensor electronics bulge out of the usual smartphone case. It’s a constant reminder that you’re dealing with a call-making camera, not a picture-taking phone.

Under the lump there’s a 41-megapixel camera, Xenon flash, 6x zoom in 720p, optical image stabilization and a  Zeiss wide-angle optics lens. Flip the phone over and you’ll see a gorgeous 4.5-inch Amoled display. Inside the case there is 32GB of storage and 2GB of ram.

Nokia Lumia 1020 oversamples

As you’d expect, the phone takes great photographs. The huge number of pixels and the optics mean you can take a wide shot, then crop it tight to get the most interesting image. The huge amount of pixels means the phone oversamples, this matters when you want to zoom in tight and crop a small area of the image.

I haven’t seen a phone that comes within a country mile of the Nokia Lumia 1020 when it comes to photography. It is in a different league to the Samsung Galaxy S4 in this department. The only device that comes close is the Nokia Lumia 920.

As I mentioned in my earlier look at the Lumia 920, being able to take decent shots while on the move is something of a holy grail for a freelance journalist.  It also helps that the phone is robust – it can take the kind of rough and tumble that often happens when  gathering news.

What makes the Lumia 920 especially good from my point of view is the image stabilisation. It means clearer, crisper images even in relatively poor light conditions. You can even squeeze out tolerable images in appalling light conditions. I haven’t had time to push the Lumia 1020 to its limit, but at first sight it seems to function the same way.

Movies too

On paper it looks as if the Nokia Lumia 1020 can also do a great job shooting short movie clips – I’ve only had the phone three days and have been too busy to test this. If it works, I may even try capturing parts of press conferences.

By now you’ll have picked up the main theme, Nokia has packed more camera into a phone than anyone has managed before. We’re not talking of something to compete with digital SLRs, but the Lumia 1020 is better than most compact digital cameras and knocks the other phone cameras out of the park.

A fine phone

It’s also a fine phone. In many ways it resembles the Lumia 920 which was last year’s finest phone. The 1020 has the same system chip, processor and graphics processor. There’s the same amount of system memory and built in storage. The display dimensions and pixel count are the same but the newer phone’s screen is a little brighter.

The Nokia Lumia 1020 is 30 g lighter than the 920 – that’s a good thing the Lumia 920’s weight is at the top of the acceptable scale. Battery life is slightly better. I get a good day’s of fairly intensive use out of both phones on a single charge.

We liked: the camera (obviously). It’s great for a working journalist. Nokia’s build quality is excellent. Windows Phone 8 is also a good thing and there are some nice bundled camera apps which we plan to look at more closely later.

We’re less keen on: the odd noises that sometimes come from the phone when using the camera. Nokia warns about this, but it can still be off-putting. The fact that 41 megapixel images take a second or two to process.

We’re not sure about:  The bright yellow case. There are other choices, but this looks like something emergency service workers might use in a disaster zone.