Some six months after launching its late-2017 flagship, the very capable Mate 10 Pro, Huawei took to the stage in Paris at the end of March to show off the new P20 series. The spotlight was, of course, on the P20 Pro with its unusual third camera, but the little sibling was not to be left out. Though it lacks the tertiary sensor that's present in its larger brother, the "regular" P20 sports most of the same features.
There are a few differences between it and the Pro, like cameras, IP67 water-resistance, and an OLED panel. But at €649, it's hitting a different market than even the cheaper Mate 10 from a few months ago; and for that price, it's a very good phone. But at the end of the day, I can't quite shake the feeling that the P20 is just boring; nothing about it is spectacular or innovative. To me, it perfectly represents the cliché "Just shy of greatness."
The P20 is definitely a significant upgrade in nearly every regard from last year's P10, though it's difficult to figure out what Huawei is trying to accomplish here. With such a strong focus on the Pro, the P20 almost seems like an afterthought, thrown in just because it should exist.
|Display||5.8" 2244x1080 IPS LCD|
|Software||Android 8.1 Oreo; EMUI 8.1|
|Cameras||12MP RGB+20MP monochrome rear (AI-EIS), 24MP front|
|Battery||3,400mAh; Huawei SuperCharge|
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band|
|Misc||USB Type-C 3.1, fingerprint sensor, Bluetooth 4.2|
|Performance||The Kirin 970 carries the P20 along at a blistering pace, allowing it to fly through everything I could throw at it.|
|Fingerprint sensor||Despite its odd placement, the fingerprint sensor is as fast as ever.|
|Camera||With similar performance to the Mate 10 Pro, the P20 puts out photos with excellent color reproduction and sharp detail. It can take great pictures in most lighting conditions.|
|Battery life||The P20 lives up to Huawei's reputation for outstanding battery life without much harm to the user experience.|
|Design||Though I would not consider myself a lover or hater of the notch, I find the design of the P20 to be uninspired, especially the fingerprint sensor shoved into the bottom bezel/chin. The P20 also collects dust and smudges worse than the Mate 10 Pro.|
|Hardware||The P20 lacks a headphone jack, any real water-resistance, and wireless charging.|
|Lockscreen||EMUI still has a terrible way of handling the lockscreen and notifications.|
|Camera (again)||The auto mode itself works extremely well for most scenarios, but the Master AI setting often gets in the way and can ruin perfectly good shots.|
Design and build materials
Many of us have come to expect outright gorgeous design from Huawei, especially after the Mate 10 Pro, and the P20 is a damn fine-looking device. Before we get too far, let's address the elephant in the room: yes, from the back, the P20 looks an awful lot like the iPhone X. Continuing to mention this striking similarity would be to the detriment of this review, so let's move on.
Unfortunately, I received the plain black unit instead of any one of the other gorgeous colors—this isn't to say that the black looks bad, but certainly not as good as some of the other options. In my use, however, I noticed that P20 picks up dirt, dust, fingerprints, and grime a whole lot easier than the Mate 10 Pro (itself managing to get quite dirty very quickly). At one point, I wiped off the back, and in the time it took to get from the hem of my shirt (where it was clean) to my desk, it had already collected many noticeable dust particles. Beauty is easily masked, it seems.
In both photos, left: P10, right: P20
While I have no problem with the back of the phone – I especially like the vertical Huawei logo along the left edge – I think that the face is less appealing. Many of you, dear readers, are likely to get vocal with regard to the notch, so I think we should address this controversial element here and now. In theory, the cutout at the top of the display should allow phone manufacturers to create near bezel-less devices, such as the iPhone X. Now, I don't mind the notch, finding it neither particularly attractive nor offensive, but my tolerance for this trend ends when I don't get the benefits of the cutout. In short, I can handle the notch so long as the rest of the bezels are minimal. The P20 is not like that. In fact, the other three edges are not symmetrical, with the top being thicker than the right and left.
This brings us to my biggest gripe with the design of the P20. Not only does this phone have a chin (i.e. a bottom bezel despite the existence of a notch), but Huawei decided to shove the fingerprint sensor right below the display, à la the Honor View10. Up to this point, I have made it clear that I much prefer rear-mounted fingerprint sensors. My initial reason for the preference came down to ergonomics, but with the rise of taller displays, there's an aesthetic argument as well. The design of a phone is cleaner with the sensor on the back rather than under the screen in the now much slimmer bottom bezel.
With an overall design so striking, I find the P20's face to be somewhat jarring, and I have not been able to shake that assessment. I didn't like the smaller, crammed sensor on the View10 and I do not like it here.
Besides creating phones with (usually) great designs, Huawei also builds sturdy ones. The P20 feels solid and very premium. Each seam where the pieces meet each other is nearly invisible. However, being a glass sandwich, the P20 is very slippery and likely quite fragile, though I haven't dropped my unit and I don't plan to do so anytime soon.
The vibration motor feels strong, better than many Android phones out there. Its feedback is solid, but not hollow. The P20 is one of the rare devices that didn't make we want to disable all system and SwiftKey haptics. Both the power button and volume rocker provide satisfying tactile feedback. The plastic is nice and feels like it's on the higher end of things, and the power button even has the orange accent like the P10's (though it's on the key this time, versus surrounding it).
Overall, the P20 is a well-built, svelte device, which should appeal to those who liked the smaller P10 last year or the 5" Pixel and Pixel 2.
The P20 has an IPS LCD whereas the P20 Pro has an OLED. I prefer the latter, finding the true blacks immensely helpful for my dark theme obsession. Nonetheless, the P20's display is quite good, marginally better than the View10's (which is also an LCD). By default, the color calibration is vibrant and saturated, which is most apparent in apps like YouTube, where the header is a burning, bright red. Since it's IPS, the P20 has excellent viewing angles and fantastic outdoor brightness, visible even in the brightest Colorado sun.
Thanks to the notch, the aspect ratio is an odd 18.7:9, coming in at a resolution of 2244x1080. The cutout, from the display's standpoint, is rather inoffensive. It's quite small, though not as much as the Essential Phone's, and Huawei includes the option to choose between the notch and no notch. This is a fantastic compromise, allowing users who aren't quite on board with the change to ease into it or skip it altogether.
However, a slight hiccup here is that LCDs like this one don't have perfect black levels. Therefore, the "black" status bar surrounding the notch isn't totally black. The dark pixels can be seen in dimmer areas and direct light. I imagine that the P20 Pro, with its OLED panel, looks a bit more "realistic" in hidden notch mode.
Normally, I find that LCDs don't get dim enough for full nighttime usage, but the P20 was able to come close to what I want. With the blue light filter active and the brightness slider all the way down, the P20 wasn't as eye-searing as I anticipated and instead proved to be quite usable in the wee hours of the morning.
Left: Notch on; Right: Notch off
With fantastic colors and a great brightness scale, the P20's display is definitely one of the phone's stronger elements. Even so, it lacks the luster and sense of clarity that the Mate 10 Pro offers.
Audio and connectivity
Audio on the P20 is rather good, getting loud while offering decently clear sound. For many, however, the P20's lack of a headphone jack will be irritating. Huawei does include a USB-C-3.5mm adapter, but it's kind of flimsy. I typically keep one in my backback and in my glove box (my car doesn't have Bluetooth audio), so I've somewhat adjusted to not having a headphone jack.
In the case of the P20 – with its mere IP53 splash resistance – I think that leaving this port off is more of a design decision rather than a practical one.
Bluetooth performance was good; my Gear S3 Classic, LG Watch Urbane, and various headphones stayed connected without any problems. EMUI thankfully doesn't automatically cut off Bluetooth devices when it goes to sleep or when recent apps are cleared (unlike MIUI).
I used the dual-SIM P20 (EML-L29) on Simple Mobile, a T-Mobile MVNO. I never had problems with coverage or data speeds in my area (where Tmo is strong). Call quality was great, both on my end and from the other person's. If you live in the U.S. and decide to import one of these, it should work fine on AT&T's network, too.
Huawei has rather rapidly become one of the top players in Android photography in the last year. The Mate 10 Pro takes fantastic pictures in most conditions, pushing into Galaxy S9 and Pixel territory. With the P20, Huawei is continuing its upward climb inch by inch, and while not vastly superior to the Mate, it definitely outmatches its predecessor.
Before we get into that, let's break down what makes this camera great. The P20 sports a 12MP RGB (f/1.8)+20MP (f/1.6) monochrome setup. The latter handles the 2x hybrid zoom and capturing extra details to create sharper photos. It also takes native black and white pictures if you so choose. Unlike the Mate, however, the P20 lacks OIS, instead relying on an AI-based EIS system, and the 12MP sensor has 1.55μm pixels (versus 1.25μm) to absorb more light. All of that to say, the P20 puts out some great pictures, though hardly better than the Mate outdoors. Photos come out looking sharp, with high dynamic range and excellent color reproduction, and even pretty good performance in dim scenarios.
In the last year or so, Huawei has pushed AI really hard. Huawei talks up the AI at every opportunity and has made efforts to provide tangible evidence of its real-life utility. I said in my Mate 10 Pro and View10 reviews that I was dubious of any sort of real efficacy, but the P20 tries its hardest to convince skeptics like me.
Left: AI Master "Blue Sky" enabled; Right: Disabled
The AI is stronger here than on the Mate 10 Pro, recognizing more scenes and doing so quicker. It not only adjusts itself for the scene, but it can help with composition. During my use, I found that the AI was really helpful... most of the time. AI Master is hit-or-miss. Sometimes it works well, and I like having it; other times, it gets in the way and can downright ruin photos. Its two biggest problem areas are with Greenery and Blue Sky detection, where it grossly over-saturates the greens and blues, respectively, to create pictures that look like someone cranked an Instagram filter up to the max. In the end, I decided to turn off AI Master because whenever I wanted to take a photo with the sky in it, the mode would kick in and it takes about a second or two to tell the camera to go back to normal. It turns itself back on if you close the app or turn off the screen, by the way.
One of biggest differences between the P20's and Mate 10 Pro's cameras is the Night Mode. It's basically a different form of HDR specific to dark scenes. It takes multiple photos over the course of five seconds, which can produce some awesome or not-so-awesome shots, depending on how much light is available. One thing I noticed when using the Night Mode, however, was that the image stabilization appeared to be weak, often leading to photos that had impressive amounts of light and detail, but also noticeable blur. It's also worth noting that this is due, in part, to the very aggressive noise reduction algorithm that Huawei uses.
Overall, the P20's camera is basically an incremental step above the Mate 10 Pro's, albeit with noticeably better low-light performance. It's truly a bummer that the unorthodox third lens is only on the P20 Pro.
Left: Auto; Right: Night mode
The 24MP front camera is pretty good, taking pictures that are reasonably sharp with good color, though it falters a bit in dimmer conditions. Details are a bit soft, much like on the Mate 10 Pro, but this is usually okay for selfies. Huawei also tried to copy the iPhone's studio lighting feature, but it often flops so hard that I had a laughing fit at one point. Even if the images from it don't come out looking straight up bad, they will look very weird and often alien.
One step backward, I think, is the camera app. While full of excellent functions and modes, Huawei made the main viewfinder feel cramped. The top bar is a bit more trimmed since the Portrait and Adjustable Aperture modes and front camera switcher moved, but my problem is with the dial-style selector above the shutter button. This is where you'll find everything, like manual, portrait, aperture, video, and night functions; there is far too much going on here. Oh, if you leave the phone in some other mode (like Portrait) the app stays in there the next time you open it (so switch back to auto before you close out). Finally, HDR is still its own separate function, and like the Mate 10 Pro, using it disables the 20MP monochrome sensor's added depth and detail.
The P20 supports video recording up to 4K at 30 frames-per-second, which is just shy of the Galaxy S9's 4K60. Stabilization is still limited to 1080p, however, which is a massive disappointment since it works so well.
Performance and battery life
The Kirin 970 has proven to be an excellent SoC, offering very high performance and great energy efficiency. I first had the opportunity to test it in the Honor View10, followed by the Mate 10 Pro. Both phones were impressive, and the P20 continues that trend. It has no trouble opening multiple apps and switching between them, playing graphically-intensive games, and getting through large file transfers.
Animations and transitions are buttery smooth, more so than the Mate 10 Pro/View10 with EMUI 8. Even with 4GB of RAM – a number that seems paltry when compared to the 6GB or 8GB that you can find in other high-end phones – the P20 doesn't struggle with memory issues. Rather, EMUI 8.1 has gotten to a point where background task management is handled very well, only causing a few apps to go into too deep of sleep (I struggled with Telegram X, but that app doesn't seem to behave well on many devices). I love not having to babysit my apps to make sure that I get notifications.
Huawei has almost always excelled at battery life, even back in the darker years of EMUI. These days, however, the company has discovered a balance between excellent performance and battery/task management. Though it has a 3,400mAh cell (smaller than the Mate 10 Pro, View10, and P20 Pro), the P20 regularly made it through days of heavy use with about 40% remaining, thanks in part to the extremely efficient Kirin 970. And on standby, the already impressive longevity climbs to several days.
Despite this being a glass phone, the P20 lacks wireless charging for some reason. While I realize this isn't a big deal to most people, it's still odd. However, Huawei's SuperCharge is insanely fast and can easily top you off when you need it.
Huawei ships the P20 and P20 Pro with EMUI 8.1, which is based on Android 8.1. This is similar to last year's P10 series, which were the first to launch with EMUI 5.1. Back then, the version bump brought a couple of notable changes: Ultra Memory and Ultra Response. These two tweaked how EMUI performed, improving the user experience immensely in some cases. I reached out the Huawei to see if EMUI 8.1 has any similar changes over 8.0, but at time of writing, I have not received anything concrete. The jump to the latest Android version adds Netflix picture-in-picture and neural processing unit (NPU) APIs so that apps can take advantage of the AI capabilities. One of Huawei's examples is Prisma, which runs natively on the phone and is much, much faster than the normal way.
Otherwise, the software feels almost the same as what you'll find on the Mate 10 Pro and View10. At the same time, EMUI feels snappier this time around, easily matching the responsiveness of OxygenOS on my OnePlus 5T (and surpassing it in some cases). The aesthetic still has the Holo/Tron vibe, with most of the UI feeling like a bunch of Nougat and Marshmallow design remnants smashed together. Don't get me wrong — it looks fine but compared to the cleaner look that we see in stock Oreo and OxygenOS 5.1, it's beginning to feel a bit dated.
On OLED devices such as the P20 Pro and Mate 10 Pro, Huawei includes a native dark theme in the Battery section of the settings. On the P20 with its LCD, that feature is missing. Although, EMUI still has pretty good theming support. Considering that Huawei classifies the dark mode as a battery saving feature on OLED phones (a fair assumption) I can't say that I'm too surprised that the P20 lacks this option.
EMUI retains a lot of its extra stuff from years past like knuckle screenshots, changing the screen resolution to save on battery, face unlock, and all the camera goodness. The only options that are new with the P20 are the one to disable the notch (like I talked about earlier) and navigation options. With the P10, you had the choice to use the soft keys or the fingerprint sensor. The P20 continues that, letting you go Meizu-style for getting around the OS if you wish, but it also includes an onscreen key — it's almost like a cross between the single physical button model and gesture nav. For the sake of testing, I tried to use it, but it often misread my input, going back when I wanted home, going home instead of opening Assistant, etc. I gave up out of frustration after a few hours.
EMUI 8.1 finally addresses the long-standing lockscreen issue, at least in part. In v8 and earlier, you could not expand or act upon your notifications if your phone was locked, except for swiping them away. Now, each one can finally be expanded, allowing you to delete or reply as needed. Unfortunately, every notification only appears once and disappears from the lockscreen the moment you turn off the display. They're still in the shade when you unlock again, but the fact that we have to deal with this still is annoying nonetheless.
The P20 also includes the Easy Projection option, which projects a desktop-like or mirrored phone UI onto a display via USB-C to HDMI. This, of course, could allow you to "be productive" with your P20 as a hub instead of an actual PC. We saw this on the Mate 10 Pro, and the P20 Pro also has it. The problem is that most apps don't work all too well, so while this is neat and all, I don't see much real-life practicality.
The biggest change in EMUI's interface is the status bar. Thanks to the notch, the icons are split. On the right are the time, battery, Bluetooth, sound, and NFC indicators, while signal statuses have been moved to the left edge. So the cell and Wifi bars sit right next to your notifications, which is fine, I guess. I don't like change, but I got used to it quickly enough. The one oddity was when I started setting up the phone and hadn't put my SIM in it yet. The scrolling "Emergency Calls Only" text took up most of the left side of the status bar, with the no SIM and Wifi icons shoved next to it. This meant that only one notification showed, while the others got pushed into overflow. Annoying, but disabling "Display carrier name" cleaned up the left side of the notch.
Pre-installed apps, i.e. bloatware, exist here, including the usual culprits like Booking.com, Facebook, and the slew of Huawei's stuff, but the amount is greatly diminished compared to what we saw with the P10 last year. I wish that they weren't included, sure, but you can install a custom launcher and hide them.
Huawei is due credit for improving EMUI in the last year and a half. The software remains heavily modified – including some weird cosmetic decisions like how music notifications pull colors from the app icon instead of from the album art – but it's still one of the better and faster Android skins out there, and v8.1 is the most stable and polished version yet.
Conclusion and value
Like last year, Huawei impressed me with the P-series. A lot of the changes since then set the P20 well above its predecessor, though the AI Master in the camera makes the photography experience a bit more arduous than the P10. Even so, this phone has excellent performance overall and excellent battery life.
EMUI still has its annoyances – for the love of god, Huawei, just use AOSP lockscreen notifications – but it's starting to become a tolerable experience with room for improvement. EMUI 8.1 feels more polished than any version prior, but despite the animations and transitions feeling smoother, there are some noticeable framerate drops on occasion.
Huawei could be poised to challenge Samsung's dominance and for the sake of healthy competition, I hope so. The U.S. woes are rather unfortunate for Huawei, but its international presence seems like it's continuing to grow. And though the company tends to take a lot of hardware and software design cues from Apple, I think it has a lot of its own ideas to offer to the betterment of the Android ecosystem.
At €649 (the same price as the P10 when it launched), the P20 has a ton of value on paper: a Kirin 970, 128GB of storage, 4GB of RAM, a fantastic camera setup, and a gorgeous design. Its size appeals to those who like smaller phones, and it has great real-world performance. At this price, it's one of the best Android phones you can get, despite it encroaching on the Pixel 2's territory. While the latter remains a better phone thanks to its stronger camera performance and software support straight from Google (and no notch) it's reached the six-month point. If you want the latest and greatest, then the P20 is certainly worth looking at.
I'd take the P20 over the Galaxy S9, and with the camera performance nearly neck and neck, I think the P20 inches ahead of Samsung's smaller flagship. The S9 does have the display advantage since we have yet to see anyone beat Samsung's OLEDs. But for raw performance's sake, the P20 is an absolute champ, outpacing almost everything I've tested. Just goes to show how big of a difference software optimizations can make. Anecdotally, Huawei phones don't seem to suffer the same slowdown issues over time that Samsung's do, either.
For my money, I'd say the best bet is the P20 or Pixel 2 (if the latter is available or comparatively priced in your country), with the real difference coming down to how you like Android. Google remains the camera king, but the P20 is almost there. As for the P20 versus the P20 Pro, the choice comes down to price and feature set — how important are a dedicated telephoto lens and better low-light performance to you? Is that worth a few hundred extra dollars/pounds/euros? Your answer will determine which one is right for you.