Huawei P20 review

The P20 is one of two new Huawei phones launched in Paris on 27 March 2018 along with the P20 Pro

After a succession of quite-good but not-quite-there P series phones, this is the best phone Huawei has made in ages. It has excellent design, outstanding cameras and is well priced. The P20 not only improves on the P10 but challenges the Galaxy S9 on quality and the OnePlus 5T in price.

It’s one of the best Android phones you can buy in 2018.

Price and availability

  • £599 in the UK (no US release)
  • £140 less than the regular Galaxy S9
  • Contracts from Carphone Warehouse

Huawei has priced the P20 excellently at £599 SIM free in the UK. This is less than we expected but is cause for praise – it means it’s £100 less than the company’s own Mate 10 Pro and undercuts the Galaxy S9 (by £140) and Sony Xperia XZ2 (by £100).

It’s available to buy now at Carphone Warehouse for £599 or on contract

You can also get the P20 (and P20 Pro) from networks including EEO2Vodafone and Three

Given Huawei’s ongoing problems in the US market, the phone will not go on sale there, though you may be able to import it. This is a real shame for US consumers as this phone is a winner.

See how the P20 compared to the iPhone XR.

Design and build

  • Optional notch at the top of 18.7:9 display
  • Metal and glass sandwich
  • No headphone jack

The P20 is a radical design departure from last year’s P10. Where there was once sandblasted aluminium there is now glossy colourful glass. Our review unit is in a striking pink gold colour, and we also photographed the blue version for this review.

It also comes in an awesome gradient twilight colour that shifts between purple and blue. You can also find plain black or plain gold in some regions.

Gone also is the headphone jack in favour of USB-C audio, though Huawei puts USB-C headphones and 3.5mm headphone jack adapter in the box. It’s a flagship feature we’ll have to get used to.

There’s also a notch in the top of the 5.84in display – yes, like an iPhone X, but also like the Essential Phone and the Asus Zenfone 5. Like the absence of a headphone jack, notches are here to stay for 2018, with the OnePlus 6 also rumoured to have one. 

Until manufacturers can put earpieces and cameras in slimmer bezels, then notches are the workaround in order to give the most screen to body ratio possible. Some will ask why more don’t ape the Galaxy S9 design which does seem to manage without a notch pretty impressively, but clearly Huawei has preferred the ‘eared’ design here.

Huawei has kept the fingerprint sensor on the front of the device. With so many so-called bezel-less phones moving the feature to the rear, it’s refreshing to see it on the front in a place that many prefer it.

The button is a slim pill shape to save space and makes unlocking on a table possible. This means less hand acrobatics in general to find a button you can’t see on the back.

The phone has a great in hand feel and a premium air about it that eluded the P10. The glass, while fragile no doubt, is lovely and the in-hand feel makes this a desirable piece of kit where Huawei design was once overly practical and utilitarian. And the pink gold unit hardly showed any fingerprint smudges given it’s lighter hue.

Huawei has changed the typeface of its branding and doesn’t use its flower logo on the phone at all. The branding is subtle and belies the phone’s desire to be used as a camera as all the writing on the back is landscape.

The dual cameras are housed in a slight camera bump but, as we’ll get onto, when they’re this good we don’t care (but it does mean the phone rocks if typing when placed on a table).

Straight up, the P20 feels awesome and is firmly in the premium camp. If not quite there, it is genuinely not far off the premium feel of the iPhone X, in a phone that costs £400 less. Some might insist this is down to Huawei’s blatant copying of Apple’s design, but when the phone looks this good, it doesn’t matter too much and it doesn’t bother us.

Features and specification

  • Kirin 970 processor with ‘AI’ smarts
  • Crisp LCD (not OLED)
  • Incredible cameras, particularly in low light

For a £599 phone, the regular P20 more than holds its own with its specs and performance. There are top features on show here, and apart from some nice-to-have features that aren’t present, there’s not much missing.

Display

The display you view everything through is a 2244x1080 18.7:9 LCD (bit of a mouthful), and although the OLED display is saved for the more expensive P20 Pro we have no complaints here.

The aspect ratio is great in the form factor being easy to hold in one hand though you’ll need two to reach the top of the screen. There’s a notch up there, you may have noticed.

The notch houses the earpiece and the front facing camera, and will be a mainstay of phone in 2018 like the OnePlus 6 and the LG G7

Viewing angles are excellent – really excellent – and we only noticed much of a brightness difference from OLED when placed right next to the P20 Pro. Video displays very well and means you can stream HD content. It’s pleasing to see such a quality LCD display when some manufacturers are getting OLED wrong, like with the blue tint and burn in on the Pixel 2 XL.

Processor, memory and storage

We first used the Kirin 970, Huawei’s answer to the Snapdragon 845, in the Mate 10 Pro and it is here again in the P20. It has what Huawei calls a neural processing unit (NPU) which can perform AI feats.

We are still dubious of any smartphone manufacturer claiming its products have AI capabilities. All that ‘AI’ really means in this instance is situational software tweaks on top of apps like the camera.

Huawei says the camera app will intelligently select shooting modes for you (and in our testing does), and you can image search Amazon from anywhere within the UI. Cool tricks, but not game-changers - and we've seen it before.

A great improvement from the P10 is that you get an impressive 128GB storage. The P20 has to make do with 4GB RAM, with the P20 Pro getting 6GB. It’s worth noting that the phone doesn’t have expandable storage, but instead has dual SIM as standard.

Cameras

Even though it only has two lenses compared to the P20 Pro's three, the P20's camera set up is very impressive.

There are 12Mp and 20Mp lenses (colour and monochrome, f/1.8 and f/1.6 respectively) though there's no OIS in sight - a shame on a flagship device in 2018.Only the 8Mp telephoto lens on the P20 Pro has OIS.

Despite this, the cameras on the P20 are phenomenal. The three-camera P20 Pro might have got the headlines, but ignore this regular model at your peril. It has many of the same features including the brilliant night mode and 960fps slow motion video recording.

Photos in auto mode are sharp and saturated to our taste, though images are sometimes incredibly sharp to the point of over-processing. Huawei opts for dual cameras with portrait mode, a monochrome sensor, and 2x zoom (achieved using sensor interpolation, not an optical zoom). This is a great combination, giving you many options when shooting.

The AI features are fine, but unnecessary. The camera app can select modes automatically for you and to be fair it works better than on the LG V30S. The night mode is the real draw here – the phone keeps the shutter open for four seconds to take in as much light as possible and the results are excellent.

In our tests, the P20 gave the best night shots of any phone we’ve ever used, bar none. It beats the Pixel 2 XL and the iPhone X for the level of detail it can capture in low light. It’s awesome to see Huawei succeeding in this respect - look at the night shot of the Eiffel Tower in the below carousel.

The selfie camera has also had a bump to an impressive 24Mp - just remember to turn off Huawei's still-annoying beauty mode unless you want to come out airbrushed. Even with it off, we found the photos not true to life which is a shame considering how good the rear cameras are.

Click on the arrows on the below photo to view an album of sample images:

Huawei P20 camera test

Battery

Huawei has stuffed a 3,400mAh battery into a phone that's only 7.65mm thick. That's impressive, and with Huawei's super-charger in the box you can easily keep topped up if you're a heavy user. The phone charges stupidly quickly - from 0 to 60% in 30 minutes.

Huawei claims you can eke two days of use on the battery and we didn’t find this, though even in heavy use we got from 8am to 11pm with 30% left – very good for a phone with a battery under 4,000mAh. Its Geekbench 4 battery test score was 3170, lower than some rivals but our daily usage is what counts and the P20 hasn't let us down.

Unfortunately, like the Mate 10 Pro, the P20 does not support wireless charging - despite the glass back that can technically allow it. It's not a deal breaker and likely is a reason the phone costs less, but Huawei is behind the pack now in this regard. But we reckon it doesn’t care, and neither should you.

Other stuff

The P20 is only IP53 water resistant, unlike the IP67 P20 Pro. Like the LCD instead of OLED display, this can be seen as Huawei stripping back costs on the regular model to meet a price that appeals to the floating purchaser - the extra saving compared to some rival phones could nudge a few people into Huawei purchases this year.

The company claims the face unlock feature on the P20 is 100% faster than the iPhone X at 0.5 seconds and works in the dark. It’s fast but isn’t great in the dark unless the brightness is high, but the fingerprint sensor on the front is a fine fall-back.

Without the sensor array of the iPhone X, the P20 struggles in low light with face unlick as other Android phones do. It's also less secure when relying on image only, hence the fingerprint sensor again for securing private apps.

One minor downside is the single downfacing speaker. It is quite loud, working fine for podcasts without headphones, but would have been better with a stereo set up.

Blue Huawei P20 (left) and twilight Huawei P20 Pro (right)

Benchmarks

The phone was lightning quick thanks to top end silicon and Android Oreo, but we ran benchmarks nonetheless to compare raw numbers.

The P20 is just as powerful as the P20 Pro, so you don’t lose anything in this respect for plumping with the regular model. It’s also practically neck and neck with the Snapdragon 835 in the Pixel 2 XL and only a tad under the 845 in the Xperia XZ2. You won’t notice much difference between all the devices.

The iPhone X is exceptionally fast in benchmarks as well as real life use, but in terms of Android phones the Huawei P20 more than holds its own.

Software

  • EMUI is still clearly modelled on iOS
  • Less cluttered than previous versions
  • Android Oreo incredibly slick and smooth

The P20’s good performance is largely helped by improvements made to EMUI, its Android skin. It ships with EMUI 8.1 based on Android Oreo 8.1. It's an improvement, though each incremental version of EMUI generally is.

Menus are clearer, and the interface is relatively intuitive, though the skin is still heavy to the point of change for change's sake, particularly in some features like the share sheet that are blatantly copies of iOS.

But the notification shade is still good to use, and the granular controls within the camera app bely Huawei's continued focus on photography and the company's partnership with Leica.

Its decision to install the Android Messages app rather than its own is also a positive embrace of Google's often superior stock apps where before Huawei crammed the phone full of duplicate apps. You still have that in Email and Calendar, but unlike Samsung, the P20 is easy to customise around Google apps out the box.

A neat addition carried over from the P10 is using gestures on the fingerprint sensor in place of on-screen Android navigation controls. Pressing to go home or back and swiping to open the recent apps page is surprisingly natural, and it opens up even more usable screen space. We used it the whole time we tested the phone with hardly any learning curve.

The software gently reminds you to fit apps to screen if they are still in 16:9, and it worked every time. Face unlock is also a treat and Huawei lets you granularly control many options much easier in its improved, clearer settings menus.

Huawei P20: Specs

  • 5.4in 2244x1080 18.7:9 LCD
  • Android 8.1 with EMUI 8.1
  • Kirin 970 CPU
  • 4GB RAM
  • 128GB storage 20- and 12Mp dual-rear cameras
  • 24Mp front camera
  • 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.2
  • 4G LTE
  • Nano-SIM (Dual-SIM in some regions)
  • GPS
  • NFC
  • 3400mAh non removable battery
  • 7.65mm thick
  • 5.4in 2244x1080 18.7:9 LCD
  • Android 8.1 with EMUI 8.1
  • Kirin 970 CPU
  • 4GB RAM
  • 128GB storage 20- and 12Mp dual-rear cameras
  • 24Mp front camera
  • 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.2
  • 4G LTE
  • Nano-SIM (Dual-SIM in some regions)
  • GPS
  • NFC
  • 3400mAh non removable battery
  • 7.65mm thick

SHOULD I BUY HUAWEI P20?

The Huawei P20 is a phone we can recommend with hardly any reservations. It lacks a headphone jack and waterproofing, but aside from that is one of the best phones of 2018.

It holds its own thanks to outstanding cameras, excellent battery life and the most premium design on a Huawei phone ever. It has a notch, but you can hide it in the software settings, making it no issue.

At £599, we can recommend it alongside the Samsung Galaxy S9 – helped by the fact that EMUI is much less of a mess than it once was and the superb performance of the Kirin 970. Huawei just joined the top table of the smartphone world.

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