Huawei P20 Pro review: The best phone you’ll never buy

For the past few months, Huawei has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons — the US government warned against buying the company’s phones, which led to the breakdown of near-final deals with AT&T and Verizon. Then Best Buy, one of its few US retail partners, backed away too. We’re not sure if the concerns hold any weight, but one thing is clear: It sucks to be Huawei right now.And in the midst of that turmoil, Huawei revealed its new P20 Pro, a remarkably well-built device with a triple camera system and loads of style. I doubt that would ever win over a Sinophobic bureaucrat though, so there’s a strong chance no one in the US will ever be able to walk into a store and buy one. That’s a shame because after using it as my daily driver for a while, I’m convinced it’s one of Huawei’s all-time best, and one of the year’s great Android phones.

Engadget Score

POOR

UNINSPIRING

GOOD

EXCELLENT

Key
Huawei
P20 Pro
87
Pros
  • Stunning design and build quality
  • 2+ day battery life
  • Impressive Leica triple camera system
  • Solid performance
Cons
  • Not for sale in the US
  • The notch will bug some people
  • No headphone jack
  • Camera’s Master AI can be overzealous

Summary

Huawei is dealing with its fair share of trouble in the US, but that doesn’t mean it forgot how to make a great phone. From build quality to design to camera performance, the P20 Pro is every bit a first-rate flagship smartphone. That doesn’t mean it lacks quirks, though: the AI powering its ambitious triple camera is a little overzealous at times, and since it uses a chipset from last year, the P20 Pro isn’t as outright fast as some devices we’ve recently tested. That said, its potent blend of style, solid software and a great camera experience make the P20 Pro one of the year’s great Android phones.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Hardware

Huawei’s build-quality has been top notch for some time now — just look at last year’s P10 and the more recent Mate 10s. I’d argue style is just as important as overall build, though, and in that respect, the P20 Pro sits in a league of its own. No phone we’ve tested this year has turned as many heads on the streets of New York City. And that’s all because of the fantastic Twilight finish. (There are also black, blue and pink gold models if those are more your speed.) You can’t exactly call it subtle, but the glossy blue and purple gradient is unlike anything else you’ll find on a smartphone, and I don’t know that I can give it up.

That said, I’ve been using the P20 Pro for a few weeks and its body has started to pick up some pretty gnarly nicks. That’s true of me and any phone with a mostly glass body, but what can I do? There’s no phone that deserves to be obscured in a case less than this one.

The P20 Pro’s back might grab all the attention, but there’s a lot going on up front, too. Huawei went with a 6.1-inch OLED screen that runs at 2240×1080 — for those of you keeping track, that’s a 18.7:9 aspect ratio, which means the screen is a little more than twice as tall as it is wide. 18:9 screens are much more common, but the company’s decision here has ensured two things. First, the phone never feels unwieldy or uncomfortable. And more important, that slice of extra space up top offers some flexibility when it comes to the notch.

Yeah, yeah, the notch. Going off everything we’ve seen so far, it seems safe to call 2018 the year of the notched smartphone screen. The cutout here provides space for the earpiece and the 24-megapixel front camera, and after those first few moments, the notch is easily overlooked. If you hate them on principle, though, there’s an option to obscure the notch entirely with a black bar — since that leaves us with a standard 18:9 display, you’ll still get to see everything you need to on-screen.

Otherwise, the display doesn’t leave us with much else to talk about. Colors were vivid and punchy, and despite being spoiled by 2K screens, I have few complaints. I do wish the screen was a bit brighter, though: It’s finally starting to get nice in New York City, and the screen is sometimes tough to see in broad daylight.

A few more things worth pointing out: The P20 Pro is rated IP67 for water- and dust-resistance, and it survived a couple runs through the rain with no trouble. There’s also no headphone jack, and while that’s not as big as a deal as it was last year, it still stings. The pack-in earbuds are nicer than I expected, but the real surprise was the P20 Pro’s main speaker — it can sound a little hollow, but it’s among the loudest on a smartphone.

The cameras

As handsome as the phone is, the P20’s design isn’t the star here — it’s the insane Leica triple-camera system. At first, the idea of combining a 40-megapixel RGB camera, a 20-megapixel monochrome camera and an 8-megapixel telephoto camera seemed like overkill. Ultimately, the way these three come together is seriously special. Note the word “special,” not “perfect”. There are some shortcomings here, but I honestly cannot remember the last time I had this much fun shooting photos with a smartphone.

While the “Pro” moniker might suggest otherwise, you don’t need to know your ISOs from your apertures to start capturing great images. (But there is a Pro mode with all usual fine-grained settings.) In general, the P20 Pro takes fantastic, detailed photos with great dynamic range even if you leave everything on Auto — the f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilization on that main 40MP camera do a phenomenal job of sucking up light and keeping things crisp. Color accuracy is good too, even in lower light, thanks to the color-temperature sensor baked into the flash module. Note that while you have the option of shooting at that full, 40MP resolution, you’re probably better off avoiding it because the sensor’s very small pixels can’t capture as much light. By default, that 40MP camera shoots at 10MP, and that’s where the best results occur because the camera is pixel binning, or treating four pixels as one in the final photo.

The thing about the P20’s camera is that you don’t have to shoot alone — you have an assistant called Master AI. Think of it as an artificially intelligent Auto mode: The company trained the Pro to identify different scenarios and adjust the camera’s settings accordingly. After all, a photo of a sunset shouldn’t be treated the same way as a portrait or an urban landscape.

The Master AI is on by default and it’s impossible to miss. Let’s say you’re getting ready to shoot the New York City skyline. Once everything is lined up just right, a bubble might pop up indicating that the camera sees blue skies — it’ll fire up the right preset and you’ll suddenly see the buildings take on more contrast and the sky turn a more vibrant shade of blue. If you’re just milling around with friends, on the other hand, pointing the camera at someone’s face fires up Portrait mode. It’s a lot like LG’s approach to camera modes in the V30S ThinQ, except Huawei’s version works much faster.

More often than not, I appreciated the help Huawei’s camera AI gave me — it tended to paint the world around me in a more generous light. The Master AI’s persistence raises an interesting question about the value of cameras, though: Should it just shoot what it sees or should it try to improve on objective reality? Just about every AI-chosen camera mode results in a photo of a flower or a sky or a plate of food that looks a little better than the real thing. For people constantly trying to show off the best versions of their lives, the P20 Pro is an incredible tool. Purists who’d rather see things just as they are, however, will be glad to know that the AI can be disabled. (By the way, Huawei, it would’ve been nice to be able to toggle it right from the viewfinder screen.)

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