Huawei Mate 20 Pro Review
A stunning phone with the most flexible camera you can buy. It has flaws, but is still a terrific Android option.
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro comes agonisingly close to being the best Android phone, bar none.
That’s saying something when you look at the competition, with this month alone seeing the release of the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL (see p70 and p72).
So what lifts it from the pack? One, its camera, which is truly magnificent. Two, its combination of power and battery life. It’s the fastest Android phone out there and almost matches the OnePlus 6 for stamina.
Built for speed
That speed comes courtesy of Huawei’s own silicon. While most smartphone makers use Snapdragon 845 chips in their flagship phones, the giant Chinese company can use its own-designed chipset called the Kirin 980.
Huawei made bold claims about its performance at IFA this year and, unusually for bold claims about speed, they’re mostly true.
If you’re looking for power, whether for compute performance or 3D acceleration, reach for your credit card now.
The graphs overleaf show how the Mate 20 Pro compares to the Pixel 3 and iPhone Xs in benchmarks, and it’s notable that Apple still retains its lead. But that’s a totally different platform, and what matters is the difference such speed makes in everyday use.
Naturally, it’s incredibly slick. With Android 9 sitting underneath Huawei’s own EMUI 9 interface, moving between programs and navigating through the OS is silky smooth. It makes going back to lesser phones difficult, because you constantly notice the stutters and false starts in comparison.
That said, the Snapdragon 845 powering Android 9 on the Pixel 3 proved just as smooth in day-to-day use. In fact, there are only a few scenarios when you might notice the difference.
The first is in games where Huawei has worked closely with the developer so that its “GPU Turbo” technology can boost frame rates.
The obvious example is PUBG Mobile, where the Mate 20 Pro holds a 20% advantage over the Snapdragon 845. It also claims a similar lead in the basketball game NBA 2K17. More games that support GPU Turbo will follow, but many of Huawei’s speed advances come from its switch to a 7nm manufacturing process.
The Snapdragon 845 uses a 10nm process, but its 7nm successor, the 855, will be available early in 2019.
This is likely to match the Kirin 980 in many areas, and may even beat it for gaming.
The second area where the chipset makes a difference is when it applies its AI skills.
Huawei includes a dual NPU (neural processor unit) in the Kirin 980, which comes into its own when combined with the camera to recognise what it’s seeing.
For an example of this, see the snapshot from a video I took using the “AI colour” function in the video app (below left). It’s clever enough to detect that Heather was the subject of the video and applied a colour to her, and her clothing, while keeping the background black and white.
And this was all done in real-time. Some might respond “so what?” but it shows what the Kirin 980 is capable of in partnership with smart software, and what all our phones will be capable of in the future.
- For now, it’s a bit of fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
In combination with the 3D depth sensing camera on the front, the Mate 20 Pro is also the best phone I’ve used when it comes to facial recognition.
It’s been the most successful at recognising me in the dark – most phones simply can’t cope with that. It doesn’t work all the time, though, which is when you might need to call on yet another first for this phone: an in-screen fingerprint reader.
This allows Huawei to fill almost the entire front of the phone with a screen and not stuff the fingerprint reader round the back.
Personally, I would have been happier with the fingerprint reader kept on the rear of the phone. Yes, it’s clever to place your thumb on the front of the screen and unlock it, but I found it less successful than normal readers.
There were times when it worked first time, and other times when it wouldn’t work at all. Was my thumb a bit grubby? Or the screen? I don’t know.
All I do know is that I had to press my six-digit PIN into the Mate 20 Pro more frequently than I’d like.
That brings me to other minor irritations I have with the Mate 20 Pro.
The first is storage. While it’s great to have 128GB built in, the expandable storage is via Huawei’s proprietary NM (nano memory) card technology.
- The question is: why?
The world needs another storage standard in the same way it needs more celebrity chefs, and when you have a micro SD standard that’s so ubiquitous that prices are now affordable – a 128GB SanDisk card costs around £20, for instance – it actively hurts the consumer to create a new standard.
Right now, you can’t even buy NM cards. The only comfort is that the SIM tray can hold two nano SIM cards or one nano SIM and a nano memory card.
Effectively, then, you’re buying a dual SIM phone with the possibility of expandable memory for an unspecified price in the future. Then there’s the notch, which eats into the 6.3in screen.
In practice, I didn’t find this a problem. In fact, I now barely notice it: there’s still plenty of space for notifications at the top, and with such a big screen it’s almost a non-issue.
A bigger annoyance is one it shares with so many flagship phones: there’s no 3.5mm jack.
Huawei includes a pair of competent USB-C earphones in the box, along with a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter, but this means the only way to listen to music and simultaneously charge the phone is to switch on the loudspeaker.
Again, Huawei salvages credibility by making it incredibly quick to charge the Mate 20 Pro.
Using the so-called Super Charge adapter in the box, my Mate 20 Pro went from 8% to 58% in only 20 minutes. That’s quite incredible.
It takes a couple of hours to fully charge, but having such a quick turnaround makes a big difference compared to normal phones.
Huawei has also joined the Qi wireless charging throng, but you’ll either have to pick one up as part of a bundle or pay around £60 for a charger separately. One nice feature, though, is that you can use your Mate 20 Pro to wirelessly charge other Qi-supporting phones, simply by placing them back to back.
Huawei couldn’t resist showing a Mate 20 Pro charging an iPhone Xs in this way during its launch presentation. The reason it’s so bullish is that it includes a 4,200mAh battery inside the 20 Pro.
Compare that to the Pixel 3 and its 2,915mAh battery and you can see why the Mate 20 Pro lasted 15hrs 20mins in our battery rundown tests (using a looping video) compared to 12hrs 22mins for the Pixel 3.
Notably, the iPhone Xs only lasted for 23 minutes longer than the Pixel.
In short, if you’re looking for a phone that will last for well over a day away from a power supply, and that can be quickly recharged when it runs low, then the Mate 20 Pro is an excellent choice.
My only caveat is that it’s fussy about power sources: lower-power chargers, especially with third-party cables, may not charge your phone at all.
Body of evidence
It says something about the Mate 20 Pro that it’s taken me this long to talk about its design.
And this is a gorgeous phone, especially in its Twilight incarnation that catches the light to create a spectrum of colours.
Even in black, as with the phone I tested, it’s one of the most attractive phones I’ve seen, with the nice touch of a red power button for a splash of colour.
I’m just as taken by the way it feels in the hand, with the all-glass finish, rounded edges and reassuring weight making it feel like a true premium phone. This may sound trivial, but after a year this is what reminds you it was money well spent.
There’s Gorilla Glass to protect it from drops, and an IP68 rating that shows it’s both dust proof and water proof up to 2m – there’s even a snorkeling case that allows you to take photos in waters 5m deep.
The screen, naturally, is just as lovely. Tuned to the DCI-P3 colour gamut favoured by Netflix, and with OLED technology to ensure vibrant colours and rich blacks, watching brooding films is a pleasure.
A 1,440 x 3,120 resolution means a ludicrously detailed 538ppi and it flew through our technical tests, covering 100% of the sRGB gamut, 99.4% of the DCI-P3 gamut and with an average Delta E of2.37. It’s bright, too, hitting a peak of466cd/m2.
Time to buy?
This is a truly excellent phone. I can’t fault the camera, the design, the performance or the battery life.
And it’s packed with so many features that it arguably justifies the £899 price. It’s such a shame that Huawei chose to hamper it with a proprietary storage card, but at least it offers expansion.
For now, this is the best Android phone money can buy. But it isn’t the best value: the OnePlus 6 and Samsung Galaxy S9 are both superior on that front.
Whether it can stay at the top of the tree in the face of2019’s Android onslaught is a different matter.
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