My home is, don’t judge me for the phrase, an Apple ecosystem. As a graphic designer and photographer for many years, my career pushed me towards Apple back when it was the only choice for graphics. Well, now I’m stuck.
I even tried by adding a Google Home but it proved to be just an annoying puck that told bad jokes and remained as an open path to my home network. As a terrible analogy, you can’t cross over to join the Bloods if you’re born a Crip. All our computers are Apple (apart from a couple rarely-used PC laptops). We use Home for automation, Apple TVs for entertainment and we rock 5 iPhones for 4 humans. After some nameless Samsung flip phone, I’ve been using an iPhone since the 3G came out. Always a couple of generations behind, I just got an 8 Plus. I try not to extend emotions I reserve for living creatures for technology but I do love the latest iterations of iPhones in form and function. As a life tool, the ways I use it is a long list. Making actual phone calls with it probably 52nd on that list.
This being said, I also do keep an eye on the competition. Innovation isn’t a single lane or one-way street, so I like to see what the other phone manufacturers are doing. So, when I was asked to take the new Huawei Mate20 Pro for a spin, I jumped at the chance. I was eager to sink my teeth into what seems like the flagship hardware running Android OS. I’ve heard about the excellence of the camera(s) and eager to see what each can do. As a photographer, I’d love to truly have a camera and the software to match on my pocket supercomputer that makes me question if I need to bring my street camera out with me every day, as I often do. I’m aware that technology isn’t at a place where a phone camera has a sensor large enough to threaten this, but I’m sure that’s just a matter of time. If you don’t want to read all these words and just see the results, scroll down to the gallery of street photos I took with the Mate20 Pro.
So, for this review, I’m not going to go deep into every menu of every app and report what you can and cannot do. I used the Mate20 Pro as an everyday walkaround device. I didn’t have it set up to make or receive phone calls, but seeing as I sometimes go a week without that functionality, that didn’t affect my opinions. I’m sure phone calls sound great and never drop. Let’s face it, hardly anyone reading this is really that interested in how a smartphone works as a phone, am I right?
I begin with this caveat. I’m more an enthusiast than a professional technology reviewer. I won’t be running benchmark processing tests, getting out my torque drivers to open it up or anything of the sort. My observations are on conventional use as I would operate a device I used daily. While I am much more adept with Apple products, I have only handled a couple of Android OS devices. So, I say that anything I couldn’t do I will assume is due to user error or ignorance. And I will add the asterisk stating that I think we all have an expectation that any set of software and hardware defaults for a device has been determined to be as close to how a baseline user would set it up. Finally, I apologize in advance if too many of my comparisons are to iPhones opposed to previous Huawei phones. Best I can tell, the Mate20 Pro is positioned as direct competition to the latest iPhones.
Unboxing the Mate20 Pro, the first thing I loved was the iridescent back and sides. Set apart from a space grey or a rose gold, the shimmering gradient is lovely. It’s a small thing, but if you’re feasting with your eyes, it’s really pleasing. Holding the Mate20 Pro in one hand and my Phone 8 Plus in the other, it’s remarkable how much easier single-handed operation is despite the difference in width being less than a centimetre in the Mate’s favour. I have a finger ring on my iPhone so I don’t drop it. I feel less of the need for one holding the Mate20 Pro. Plus, I can reach across from one end of the screen to the other without feeling like my overall grip is being compromised.
The next thing I noticed before even turning on the phone was how thoughtful the inclusion of a bumper case was. It’s simple and for those who shudder in fear and wrap their new phones in whatever is handy to protect them until they get to a store to buy a ‘forever’ case, it’s at a minimum, a great stop-gap. The supplied case is clear and roughly a millimeter thick but feels much better than nothing – protecting from scratches, at the very least. Also supplied are the usual suspects, earbuds, a USB-C charging cable and a mammoth power block. The lack of a quick-start guide leads me to believe that there’s an expectation of being in the hands of upgrading users opposed to converts. Powering it up, I saw that setup was actually easily presented. I liked that the power button was bright red but it’s proximity to the volume controls was something that I didn’t like at all. I’m sure that through continued use, this confusion would vanish, but while taking photos with the volume buttons, I kept turning the phone off. Not a huge thing until I attempted to take low-angle candid photos, where I couldn’t see the screen. Upon review later, I realized that I hadn’t taken a single photo and instead accidentally kept hitting the power button instead.
Turning on the phone, it was up and running quickly, especially since I had no previous experience setting up an Android device and didn’t have a backup to run to get it as my old one worked. The simplicity of logging in to my Google account took care of half the setup immediately. The rest was tweaking a few preferences here and there. The controls were easy enough to figure out. At a glance, picking the app I wanted was easy due to the icons being very similar to what Apple uses. The Setting, Health and Contacts icons are almost identical to iOS.
I’m going to start with my own priorities, likely a strong reason why someone is buying this phone. The fanfare rung out long before the release of the Mate20 Pro that this new device would contain a whopping four cameras. One is the front-facing selfie camera, while the other three are part of a 2×2 array of lenses and flash called the Matrix Camera. As always, in partnership with German high-end camera and lens manufacturer, Leica, the cameras include a 20MP ultra-wide angle that doubles as a macro (veering to the standalone macro lens, it blows any ultra-closeup attempted on my iPhone), a 40MP RGB camera for everyday photos and an 8MP telephoto camera. The system is named the Vario-Summilux H f1.8-2.4/16-80 ASPH. The numbers as they pertain to photography are sort of all over the place. While the aperture range given in this system’s name say ƒ1.8-2.4, the aperture numbers in aperture mode range from .95 to 16. I have to assume that this is a digital re-creation because I doubt the lenses have aperture blades. In layperson’s terms, a point nine-five aperture would give such a narrow point of focus (known as depth of field) that a photo of someone’s nose at this setting would render the rest of the face in near total blur. When I go into the camera’s aperture mode, this is not the case. In fact, I can barely see a change from the lowest to highest value. One astounding aspect of the camera app are the AI functions. While we’re not seeing commercial products containing AI raising our kids and representing us in court, on this phone, it’s making assumptions of how you want your pictures to look or what setting is best for what it sees through the lens. In most cases, it’s pretty spot-on. I’ll mention what work is handled by AI that impressed me. The camera options are Aperture, Night, Portrait, Photo, Video, Pro and More. More includes Slow-mo, Panorama, Monochrome, AR lens, Light painting, HDR, Time-lapse, Filter, 3D Panorama, Watermark, Documents, Underwater and Download. Night is self-explanatory and when used in low light, didn’t produce great photos. The HDR process creates an unusual look to the photos. The pixels look, for lack of a better term, smeared or dragged. Instead of seeing jagged edges on objects, the shapes as I described. Portrait Mode is the ultimate vanity mode, allowing you to thin your face, smooth skin, sharpen eyes, adjust skin tones, remove dark circles under the eyes and sculpt the face with light like studio lighting may. The AI running the editing modes for Portraits is impressive. I would never use a ‘Beauty’ function on a selfie, personally. But when I took one in decent light and made the edits mentioned previously, the photo actually looked somewhat better (apart from the application of way too much sharpness on my eyes), but more importantly, as someone who has retouched thousands of photos professionally, it was difficult to catch where the retouching took place. Granted, I retouch on a 27” Retina monitor, not on a phone screen. This is a good time to remind you that photos taken on this phone look fantastic. On this phone. When I pulled many of the photos off and brought them into Adobe Camera RAW or Photoshop, it didn’t require zooming in to see that currently this camera isn’t rivaling my mirrorless or DSLR cameras in image quality. And while I wanted it to, I didn’t really expect it.
These opinions aside, your quick Tinder photos have never looked better. Portrait Mode on the Mate20 Pro put the iPhone’s comparable to shame. While both share the simulated studio lighting, there’s no five taps to beauty on the iPhone. Photo mode is a general setting that uses AI to make a best guess on exposure settings as well, it knows when you’re shooting a closeup and will switch to macro mode. Not all modes allow for 10X zoom, but the results at this zoom aren’t great, just as any digital zoom pushed out to the max. When testing a 10X shot of my eye, the Huawei Mate20 Pro took a MUCH better photo than my iPhone 8 Plus. I’m not sure how the comparisons are versus the iPhone Xs Max, but the accompanying handbook contained side by side shots that say much the same as my sample photos. The crop sizes are your standard 4:3, 1:1 square and the almost panoramic-sized 18.8:9. The later crop annoyed me to no end and surprised me that it was the default landscape crop size.
Colour settings, shown as a piece of film, are standard, vivid colors and smooth colors. The saturation level of the vivid setting was a bit over the top, but smooth colors did add a touch of pop to not only colours, but also riched up the blacks. Video isn’t something I often use on my phone but I’m impressed with my tests. Yes, you can use a beauty mode on video, but a quick few shots didn’t reveal much difference to me. Maybe no amount of AI can help me. Having the option to shoot, not only in 4K UHD at 3840 x 2160 or in a cinema ratio of 21:9 in 1080p FHD+ is impressive. While you can add the same filters and film effects as in photo mode, beauty video is only available at 720p. Pro mode had me most excited to try, but for a few reasons left me switching back to auto or the ‘More’ modes. Pro mode allows for manual adjustments of metering, ISO, shutter speed, focus mode, white balance and exposure compensation. I found it very difficult to get a decent setting while shooting on the fly. Making little tweaks to settings is challenging. I did like having the horizon display to ensure a straightened photo and being able to shoot RAW files. Pro mode switches to video shooting as well, but with less adjustable options. Lastly, ‘More’ mode had a few tricks, but also contained my favorite shooting mode. While this mode is full of the usual tricks like HDR, panoramas, multiple filters and time-lapse, adding to this is light painting, AR lens and my favourite, monochrome. I know, whatever, old man, who cares about black and white photos? That’s what came out of the camera when the dinosaurs walked the Earth. But there’s something in this setting that produces lovely photos. The contrast is great and the dynamic range is very good, in average lighting. In my several weeks of testing the Mate20 Pro, I kept coming back to the monochrome camera setting again and again. Unfortunately, and again, likely my fault, it seems that the default setting when you go to the camera app is plain ol’ regular Photo. I’d love to be able to set my own style preference as well as my own default settings for the camera. A feature like this would also make the manual Pro setting a lot more useable. While I’m griping, as well, likely in a battery saver mode that I haven’t found to change, the camera goes into a light sleep mode after only a couple of minutes of downtime. As a street photographer, I sometimes will camp out in a spot waiting to catch a moment. Having to wake up the phone to do this meant missing moments. In the same vein, some modes aren’t quick to snap a shot, delaying a capture by a half to a full second, meaning LOTS of lost snaps. I couldn’t figure this out and just put up with it.
There are elements of the Android OS that I love and wish iOS would include. Coupled with the lovely edge-to-edge Fullview screen, the little things stand out. Screen transitions while swiping, subtle movements and scaling of icons, together with the fast processing of the 7nm mobile AI chipset, Kirin 980 make the user experience highly pleasing. One thing I wish my iPhone had was the feature packed yet clean home screen. The time, location and weather appears at the top of the screen with more than enough room for the main screen icons, plus a handy Google search bar. At a glance, even my old eyes can easily read the time. A tap on the time brings up the clock app and touching the weather launches the weather app. I appreciate not having to search among the 24 icons and folder on my home screen for these two very basic bits of info. The haptics are a bit more fine than on my iPhone, which is a matter of taste. A left swipe of the home screen is much like the iPhone, taking the user to a widget screen, however, this screen also contains all my latest Google searches from any device I’ve ever used. Which brings me to a personal point.
I know that for Google to do its job to make my life easier, it needs to know and remember what I’ve done, what I do and what I search for. But it’s still a bit creepy that these things, no matter how benign or innocent haunt me from computer to device to tablet. I’d be okay if Google knew just a little less about me. Or at least pretended it didn’t know so much.
I generally like more bass and a bit more high-end and will usually EQ anything I’m listening to in such a way. I don’t expect the quality of any phone’s speakers to fall into the category of truly listenable and would never undertake any serious listening that way. But while I’m splitting hairs about something I’d never do, the iPhone beats out the Mate20 Pro in this ignorable category. When it comes to their individual earbud designs, the iPhone again wins for me. Primarily because I found the Huawei earbuds not quite as comfortable. But the big point, that perhaps is another point of preference, is the stem connecting the wire to the earbud extends above the bud. I found myself inadvertently knocking it around. I’d also say this is probably due to muscle memory from years of Apple EarPod use. Audio quality-wise, I couldn’t find enough difference when playing the same track as A-B on each device. Both sounded fine. The Mate20 Pro is one of thirteen mobile phones boasting the inclusion of Dolby Atmos. I played with all the audio modes within Atmos. They sounded fine to me. However, a lot of music I listened to on the Mate20 Pro sounded better without Atmos. It was a bit flatter, but the midrange was pushed way too much for my tastes when it was activated. Listening to Chairlift’s Moth to the Flame, the high-end gain was noticed when I turned it off and I could hear the distance between the instruments much easier. Audio settings are a matter of taste, even if most people don’t really care. In terms of video, I stopped using the iOS video app soon after it became the TV app. It was, by far, the buggiest app I had ever used on an iPhone. I have been using Infuse (the Android OS icon for the Video app looks an awful lot like the Infuse icon) by Firecore ever since and I think it’s a tremendously feature rich app when you’re using your phone to watch videos. Yet, among all those features, the Mate’s video app has one that’s missing from Infuse. A simple method to lock all the controls so an inadvertent touch doesn’t scrub the video far in advance to boost the volume up way too loud. Again, it’s these little touches that make the most noticeable differences for me.
OTHER COOL FEATURES SOON TO BE COPIED
All things power based on this smartphone are pretty great. Using the large power block, I charged the phone from 7% up to full in just under an hour. As well, the battery life is long-lasting. I went several days where I didn’t touch the phone and the loss of charge was likely somewhere around 10% a day. I shot a ton of photos while testing and was impressed that with days between charges and hundreds of photos taken, it really held a charge. That you can also use this phone to charge another is one of those life-engineer-type solutions that impresses me a whole lot. While I can’t tell what most people would use it for, the idea of dual SIM card slots is thoughtful. I assume it’s good if you wanted to take personal calls from one number and business calls from another. In terms of security, like other phones, it has face recognition to unlock in addition to a fingerprint scanner on the screen. Huawei used 3D Depth sensing to map the user’s face with more than 30,000 points. When it works (it has issues in low light and at other times for no apparent reason), it’s very fast to ID a face and unlock the phone.
Going back to the first point I made way up there at the top, ultimately, this phone is not for me, as a deeply imbedded Apple user. I don’t feel like I could move from iOS to Android OS, not without significantly making changes to not only how I use this type of all-encompassing technology, but also to what I use. There’s no pulling everything up at the roots at home, in the office and while on the move anymore. And to be honest, I’m a little envious of those who can live so nimbly. The Huawei Mate20 Pro has a number of thoughtful and well-designed features to the phone and the operating system that really should be implemented in iOS and iPhones. Features that have existed for a while that are strikingly absent. Yet, for me, the fluidity and familiarity of iOS on the iPhone is where my comfort zone is. As a premium Android device in the hands of one of its people, this phone will, no doubt, dazzle and become a quick favourite. I could see myself enjoying the daily use of this device. As a springboard for the future of Huawei smartphones and as the ideal hardware for Android OS, the Mate20 Pro excels in both form and function.