Huawei P20 review: Good but not great
The Huawei P20 isn’t the most interesting phone of 2018 – that honour belongs to its more expensive sibling, the P20 Pro, with its triple-rear camera array, slightly larger screen and higher price – but that’s not to say you shouldn’t consider it.
As an alternative to the Samsung Galaxy S9 and other expensive flagship phones, the Huawei P20 has a lot going for it, on paper. It’s very pretty, is astonishingly compact for a phone with such a large display, has a great camera with some unusual talents, and the price is pretty tempting for such a high-end phone.
Best Huawei P20 contract and SIM-free deals
Huawei P20 review: Design and key features
The question is, is it good enough? In terms of the quality of its fit and finish, certainly. Despite the notch (more on which later), the Huawei P20 is a handsome-looking phone. It’s finished with smooth glass on the front and attractively coloured glass on the rear.
The main photos here show it in its two-tone Pink Gold gradient-finish, which looks stunning with its mother-of-pearl sheen. However, it’s also available in gradient-finish “Twilight”, which is just as eye-catching, while those who prefer a slightly less ostentatious look can go for black and dark blue.
All models have colour-matched, iPhone X-alike curved chrome edges, softly curved edging to the front and rear glass panels, and a front-mounted fingerprint reader below the screen. The volume and power buttons sit in their customary places on the right-hand edge, and there’s a USB Type-C connector on the bottom edge alongside a pair of speaker grilles. So far, so normal.
A couple of things to note here, though. First, the speaker output is merely mono – cover up the right-hand grille with with a finger and all the sound goes away. Second, the Huawei P20 lacks microSD expansion. I have the dual-SIM version in for review and – where previous Huawei and Honor phones had a dual-purpose second SIM slot, allowing you to add either a second SIM or a microSD card – on the P20 it’s purely dual-SIM.
It’s also worth jotting down on your smartphone wishlist that the P20 doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack. That’s just mean. And that its weather-proofing isn’t great, either. All you get is IP53 dust and water resistance, which means the phone is protected from dust ingress but not submersion in water – only a light spray. So you’ll be okay taking the P20 out in a rain shower, but it won’t survive being dropped in the bath or toilet.
Huawei P20 review: Display
Another point against the Huawei P20 is that, just like the iPhone X, there’s a notch eating into the screen at the top. This isn’t as wide as the iPhone’s, occupying perhaps 20% of the width of the screen instead of around 60%, but it’s there and it’s noticeable. Whether this bothers you depends on your outlook, but if you do object to it, there is an option in the settings to hide it with a black strip along the top.
The quality of the screen is good. The Huawei P20 doesn’t use an OLED panel like its sibling the P20 Pro – it’s a 1,080 x 2,244, IPS RGBW panel instead – but it’s perfectly bright and colourful and, to the eye, there’s nothing terribly wrong with it.
It even has some nice extra features, including the ability to automatically set the white balance of the screen depending on the ambient light, just like on an iPhone or an iPad. You can switch between normal (sRGB) and vivid (DCI P3) modes, plus, if you want to eke out a little extra battery life, you can bump the resolution down to 720p.
Technically, it’s pretty good, too. There’s plenty of brightness (456cd/m2), ensuring decent readability in bright ambient light, although it’s not the brightest we’ve tested. Contrast is as good as most other phones with IPS displays, colour gamut coverage is excellent, and colour accuracy is okay.
It’s not quite a match for the best smartphone displays: the Samsung Galaxy S9 is technically more proficient, as is the screen on Apple’s iPhones, but these are subtle differences you won’t notice in normal use.
Huawei P20 review: Specifications and performance
Performance-wise, the Huawei P20 is perfectly competent. It’s fast and responsive in all the right ways, and this extends across all the phone’s functions. The fingerprint reader on the front is lightning-fast, as is the phone’s face-unlock feature. The camera software feels nippy, and its ultra-snapshot feature allows you, with a double-tap of the volume-down key, to take a snapshot in as little as 0.3 seconds from standby.
Powering all this is the same octa-core 2.4GHz HiSilicon Kirin 970 chip as found in the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, and this is backed up by 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. It’s a quick phone, although not quite the fastest, as evidenced by the benchmark numbers in the graph below.
Interestingly, while the Samsung Galaxy S9 clearly has more powerful silicon than the P20 (especially for graphics processing), its overly high screen resolution holds it back. That’s why the S9’s onscreen (native resolution) frame rate is so much lower in the GFXBench tests than the P20’s, while its offscreen (1080p) frame rate exceeds it.
Battery life is fine but, likewise, is somewhat middling. In our video-rundown test – in which we play a full-screen video on loop at a set screen brightness with the phone in flight mode – the P20 lasted 13hrs 16mins. That’s not bad. It’s behind the Huawei Mate 10 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S9, but not by much.
This translates to solid, all-day battery life with moderate use. However, so far I haven’t been able to regularly get more out of it than that. For my first week of use, the GSAM battery monitor reported an average time between full charges of one day and two hours. In contrast, the Huawei Mate 10 Pro was nearer two days in my early days of using it.
Huawei P20 review: Camera
I kicked off this review by reiterating that the P20 doesn’t have the three cameras of its sibling – as if that was some kind of negative thing. Of course it isn’t and shouldn’t be. A good camera is a good camera, whether or not you have an extra one offering zoom, wide-angle or X-ray vision.
In fact, the P20 isn’t that far behind the P20 Pro on lens count because it still has two and, for what it’s worth, they’re Leica branded as well. What it doesn’t have is the P20 Pro’s 40-megapixel camera, with only a 12-megapixel colour snapper on the rear. This is paired with a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor, used to apply depth-mapping to portraits, to capture detail-rich black-and-white photos, and to improve the appearance of colour photos as well.
The specifications look fine. You’re getting a 12-megapixel camera with a 1/2.3in sensor – that’s larger than you usually get on a smartphone – and with pixels that are 1.55um in size. Again, larger than most. The sensor is, in fact, 22% bigger than the one in the Samsung Galaxy S9, which has smaller, 1.4um pixels. Samsung counters this with a much brighter maximum aperture of f/1.5, though.
All this combines with an aperture of f/1.6 on the mono camera, plus 4-in-1 hybrid focus (contrast and phase detect, laser and stereoscopic), and promises to deliver stunning results. In practice, however, the P20 falls significantly short.
My test shots were mostly shot during the greyest, dullest Easter weekend in living memory, so apologies for the rather dull exposition, but at least the conditions provided a good test of a camera’s ability to reliably capture good-looking photos in low or marginal light.
And, for the record, I found myself consistently underwhelmed with the photos the P20 was able to capture. I found images soft, lacking in sharpness, underexposed and overprocessed in comparison to the same scenes captured on the iPhone X (which has a good camera, but not the best). This isn’t something that’s even particularly subtle. You’ll see it the instant you look at the photos on any screen other than the Huawei’s own display. Here’s a couple of close-up, side-by-side photos just to ram home the point.
The camera’s video camera is equally disappointing, not so much for the level of quality on offer, or a lack of features (although that’s not great either), but because you can’t employ all the video camera’s best tools all at once. The P20’s camera is capable of shooting 4K footage at 60 frames per second and applying some of the best video stabilisation I’ve seen. But can it do this all at once?
In 4K you can only shoot at 30fps, unstabilised. To get 60fps, you have to drop to 1080p, but you still won’t be able to shoot stabilised in this mode. In fact, to enable stabilisation, you have to drop to 1080p at 30fps. It’s a huge shame.
Huawei says another benefit of the AI stabilisation that works so well for video is that you can handhold the camera for up to four seconds without the need for a tripod, thus producing noise-free, low-light, long-exposure photographs. Sounds good but the results are, once again, somewhat unimpressive. Pictures captured in this way look fine on the small screen of a smartphone, but are terribly smudgy and soft once inspected with a critical eye.
Even the impressive-on-paper 24-megapixel, f/2 front-facing camera is bad. It produces soft and smeary, pale-looking selfies, and Huawei’s rather transparent attempt at aping Apple’s dynamic exposure feature produces laughably amateurish results.
Huawei P20 review: Verdict
The Huawei P20 looked like it might have been a belter at first, especially given the £599 price point, but in fact it turns out to be a big disappointment. The camera produces lacklustre results, the battery life is only middling, the weatherproofing is behind the times and it isn’t as flexible as previous Huawei flagships, with no storage expansion or 3.5mm headphone jack.
If the P20 has piqued your interest this Easter, do yourself a favour, spend a bit more and get yourself a Huawei P20 Pro. That’s genuinely different, looks just as attractive, takes brilliant photographs and has superior battery life. Or, if the budget won’t stretch that far, take a step back and opt for the Mate 10 Pro instead.
Huawei P20 specifications
|Processor||Octa-core 2.4GHz Hisilicon Kirin 970|
|Screen resolution||2,244 x 1,080|
|Rear camera||12-megapixel, 20-megapixel|
|Memory card slot (supplied)||N/A|
|Dimensions||149.1 x 70.8 x 7.7 mm|
|Operating system||Android 8.1|