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Huawei Mate 20 Pro review: screen, camera and performance


The Huawei has the best from Apple and Samsung in its sights with its powerful, full-featured flagship – and it's worth the cost, if you can stomach a four-figure pricetag.

When every new phone raises the bar a bit higher, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro has just enough premium features to stand out from the crowd. It’s a powerful smartphone with three rear cameras and a distinctive yet reserved style, but its bold signature is a handful of neat tricks (like a fingerprint sensor) that phones released in 2019 are just beginning to sport.

In many ways, the Mate 20 Pro is a superlative device that rivals the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, Google Pixel 3 and iPhone XS. But its top-tier specs and features demand a top-tier price: the Mate 20 Pro costs £899 (AU$1,599, €1,049, about $1,150), making it one of a couple this year to break the four-digit price point in the US.

Screen

Mate 20 Pro’s OLED 6.39-inch screen is gorgeous, plain and simple. It helps that the Mate 20 Pro ditched the Mate 10’s bottom-front button for a seamless display. Its bezels are pretty thin, especially without a lower speaker grille: instead, sound comes out of the bottom-facing USB-C port. (Don’t worry, its output isn’t dampened much when something is plugged in.)

 

The display has an impressive 19.5:9 ratio 2K+ resolution (3120x1440), which is about 537 pixels per inch. That puts it ahead of the Google Pixel 3 at 439ppi and just past the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 at around 514ppi. While there’s not too much content that makes full use of this resolution – and, sadly, there’s no out-of-the-box option to split the screen between two windows –  it’s still a sharp and vibrant display.
 


If you want to shift the color temperature or ditch all the harsh blue light, there are options in the settings to tweak those to your preference. If you want, you can even downgrade the Mate 20 Pro resolution to full HD or lower, which reduces battery drain, though that feels like a Harrison Bergeron-level injustice. Even dialed down to HD+, the expansive screen looks good.

The Mate 20 Pro display’s edges curve down in a this-looks-expensive style straight out of Samsung’s playbook. Even if it doesn’t come with any interactive elements (like the squeeze-to-activate HTC U11 Edge Sense), the curved screen admittedly gives the Pro a classy, if unoriginal, look.

Speaking of following trends – yes, the Mate 20 Pro has a notch. It’s about as wide as the iPhone XS for the same reason: to fit in the front-facing camera and sensor package. If you find the notch hideous, you can hide it with an effect that shifts the ‘ears’ into dark mode, which decently simulates a full black bar at the top.

It’s a good bet that the OLED screen is brighter than the 820 nits its less-powered sibling, the Mate 20, is capable of, but we don’t have an official word from Huawei. Suffice to say, it can get bright. Very bright.

The in-screen fingerprint sensor does work, and pretty reliably... so long as your finger is placed in the small target area. A fingerprint zone pops up when the screen activates, which means you’ll either have to tap the display ‘awake’ to find your target or guess where the sensor is. That’s much harder to do by feel when grabbing your phone from a pocket.

Even then, it’s not perfect at recognizing fingerprints, and is so-so at reading portions of fingers. While the in-screen sensor certainly makes the Mate 20 Pro easier to unlock than a back-mounted sensor or facial recognition when it’s resting flat, the feature is more cumbersome than a dedicated physical button.

Still, Huawei is ushering in the age of in-screen fingerprints, which deserves praise for keeping the front screen lean and clean.



Camera



Let’s face it: if you’re considering a top-tier smartphone, you have high expectations for cameras – and little tolerance for underperformers. The good news is that the Mate 20 Pro will satisfy your thirst for great photos.

Credit where credit is due: the P20 Pro ushered in this era of great Huawei cameras, and the Mate 20 Pro inherits its 40MP wide-angle f/1.8 lens and 8MP, f/2.4 3x telephoto with OIS. Once again, the rear cameras all have Leica lenses, though unlike the P20, the front ones do not.


Rounding out that trio of rear-facing cameras is the new star, an ultra-wide 16MP, f/2.2 lens. It expands the phone’s toolbox, letting us take a wider array of photos from limited positions. Even for casual shooting, it made life easier when trying to fit a bunch of far-flung elements in the same photo.

The ultra-wide-angle lens isn’t without drawbacks: the edges of shots can be slightly warped, and it doesn’t seem to benefit from the semi-HDR contrast effects that benefit shots taken with the other lenses. The LG V40 wide-angle lens largely lacked this distortion, had less noise and had a bit better color mix, though LG has had more experience with wide-angle lenses.

Otherwise, the Mate 20 Pro takes good-to-great photos. In a comparative test between half a dozen top smartphones, the Mate 20 Pro held its own, though its standard photo mode struggled with contrast, resulting in blown-out bright spots in the background. 

Expect to lose a little light contrast and background nuance if you’re shooting in gray or low-light situations. In this niche, the Google Pixel 3 and iPhone XS are better. But the Mate 20 Pro's overall low-light performance is superior to that of most other smartphones we tested, especially with its seconds-long-exposure Night Mode. This isn't too surprising given how much the P20 Pro's monochrome sensor improved its low-light photos.

As with the P20 Pro, the cameras excel with depth-of-field. Forget portrait and go for the Aperture mode, which lets you dramatically shift focus around so long as your subject is within five or ten feet. As before, light contrasts between foreground and background probably won’t look great. It’s worth toying with focal length for a bit, especially up close: we found the camera can focus on objects even a few inches away (hint: use the manual focus in Pro Mode).

The phone’s 3x telephoto does a great job of snagging distant shots, and the hybrid 5x zoom adds a digital blend to give you a bit more reach. It’s not perfect, but in our comparative testing, it outdid some digital-only zooms like on the Google Pixel 3.

Optics aren’t the only thing helping out the Mate 20 Pro cameras. The new Kirin 980 chip has two neural processing units (NPUs) that use AI to help you when the camera app is open, like detecting objects and automatically applying filters. This culminates in a toggle-on Master AI mode that automatically picks the best mode to shoot in, though we didn’t find that it improved our shots.

Otherwise, the camera suite has plenty of extra modes, including a document scanner and HiVision, the Google Lens-like feature that recognizes things in the real world. The Microsoft-powered mode takes a bit of time to function and, at this juncture, isn’t quick or accurate enough to do more than take a stab at an object’s identity - or where you can buy something like it. The translate function is clever but likewise unrefined.

Predictably, Huawei introduced its own Animoji-style animal overlay for faces (nestled in the camera app’s AR mode), which is fine but not nearly as precise as the real deal on iPhone X and XS.

The Mate 20 Pro has something even more novel in store, though it hasn’t been added to the device yet: on stage at the Mate 20 Pro launch event, Huawei used the phone’s cameras to scan an object and generate a 3D model of it to place in photos. Not something terribly useful, but fun if you wanted to bring your neighbor’s lawn gnome with you on a world tour without, y’know, lugging around a real gnome.



Performance
 


The Mate 20 Pro runs Android 9.0 Pie out of the box, which gives it a welcome edge over other Android phones still clamoring to get the latest version of the OS.

Of course, it’s also runs Huawei’s EMUI OS over that. If you’ve picked up a Huawei phone in the last couple years, you know what that means: all your apps are splayed consecutively out on the home screen, iOS-style.
 


The lack of an app drawer on Huawei phones has annoyed Android traditionalists, and that hasn’t gone away here. But the interface is clean enough, and there are plenty of settings to customize your interactions, from gesture control to Huawei-standard tricks like knocking to take screenshots or, bizarrely, knock-and-slide to split the screen.

Huawei is confident that its brand-new Kirin 980 chip will outperform Apple’s A12 Bionic chip, and its benchmarks are impressive.

The Kirin 980 is the second 7nm processor released for phones (after the A12), and that smaller size may provide more efficiency, if not better performance.

The chip takes a more nuanced approach to the latter. It has eight cores, just as many as the Kirin 970, but instead of an even split between high- and low-power, the Kirin 980 has four low-power, two medium and two high-power cores. In theory, this lets the phone spin up more combinations of cores to increase its efficiency. It’s hard to tell just how much battery life this saved on its own.

But in terms of sheer performance, the Kirin 980 appears to have leapfrogged the Snapdragon 845 chip, which is slotted into this year’s other leading Android phones. In a Geekbench 4 test, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro had a multi-core score of 9,792, outstripping the Samsung Note 9 by nearly a thousand, yet still sliding below the 11,000-plus points of the iPhone XS.

But wait! Huawei reached out to tell us that the Mate 20 Pro got updated with a hitherto-unannounced feature, Performance Mode, which we promptly turned it on to run another Geekbench test. Lo and behold, the boosted mode managed a Geekbench 4 score of 10,041. Be forewarned that toggling this mode will drain more battery and heat up the device.

You can see the speed, or at least lack of hangups, in the phone itself when cruising through and between apps without a hitch. This likely has as much to do with the 6GB RAM the Mate 20 Pro packs, and we experienced minimal hang-ups and app load time.



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