Huawei Mate 20 Pro hands-on preview: The phone that does everything

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Huawei’s bold new flagship aims for nothing less than being the best at everything.

Deciding which Android phone is the best is not a simple task. We should know— we regularly try to answer this question here at Android Central. For some of us, it’s the most beautiful design, the latest software, or the most powerful specs, or the most impressive camera, or the longest battery life.

These are all important pieces of the puzzle, and most of the big flagships we cover have at least one of these things going for them. But Huawei’s latest device tries to do all of them at once: This is the Mate 20 Pro, and it could be the most advanced Android phone of the year. It boasts a 7nm CPU with a laundry list of technical firsts, the latest Android 9 Pie software, the most advanced biometrics, a camera even better (on paper) than the current DxOMark champion, and a battery so big it’ll actually wirelessly charge other phones.

Oh, and it also looks pretty nice on the outside.

But first, a bit of housekeeping: There is also a regular Mate 20 version, which like last year is bigger, flatter and slightly lower-specced than the Pro model. The Mate 20 has the core experience, but the Pro adds the gravy — the extra technology and features that make it one of the year’s most exciting phones.

Huawei has been drifting away from the boxy aesthetic of phones like the Mate 9 for the past couple of years, and the Mate 20 Pro abandons this look altogether. It’s got curved glass on both sides, a comfortable rounded metal trim. Even the screen is slightly curved around the sides. It’s all very rounded and symmetrical, right down to the angles of the unique new squared-off camera protrusion around the back.

Huawei is known for taking the standard smartphone materials everyone else uses — metal and glass — and putting a unique twist on them, and that’s exactly what we have again in the Mate 20 series. There are traditional polished glass offerings in pink gold, black, and my personal favorite twilight gradient, which is a sort of reverse version of the same color in the P20. Where the company mixes things up is with its new "hyper-optic pattern," which is available in midnight blue and emerald green.

A couple of the new colors add a grippiness to the glass that should make it much less slippery.

This is a striped pattern etched into the surface of the glass itself, giving it a subtle ridged texture. If you’ve ever held a vinyl record, it feels a little like that, only softer. And in addition to catching the light a little differently than your standard glass-backed smartphone, it makes the Mate 20 Pro a bit grippier, and less prone to collecting fingerprints.

The display on the Mate 20 Pro is a gorgeous curved 2K OLED panel equal in quality to the other high-end phone displays. To my eyes, it looks on par with the Pixel 3 XL’s excellent panel, though Huawei isn’t making any bold claims around its colors or brightness. There’s a sizeable notch up top to house a camera array for 3D face unlock, which works similarly to the iPhone’s Face ID. Face enrolment is speedy, and unlocking speeds were significantly quicker than what I’ve experienced from the Galaxy Note 9.

That’s not the only way to unlock the Mate 20 Pro, though. Huawei’s shipping an in-screen fingerprint sensor in the Mate 20 Pro, and unlike its previous effort in the Porsche Design Mate RS, this one is actually good. There’s a tiny but perceptible delay when unlocking compared to the very fastest traditional fingerprint scanners, but it’s an enormous improvement upon the first generation optical sensors that shipped in some phones earlier in the year, thanks to a new DPS (dynamic pressure sensitivity) sensor.

As you’d expect from a Mate series phone, Huawei has crammed all its latest technology into the Mate 20 Pro. As a result, the spec sheet for this thing reads like a wish list of everything you could possibly want in a smartphone. (Except, possibly, a 3.5mm headphone jack.)

It’s all built around the Kirin 980 processor, which was announced back at the IFA conference in Berlin. There’s a ton of new stuff in the 980, but in brief: It’s the among the first 7nm smartphone chips (the only other one at present is Apple’s A12), the first to use ARM’s Cortex-A76 cores in its CPU, and the first with Mali-G76 GPU. All these firsts add up to a chip with more horsepower than pretty much anything in any other Android phone, while also being more power-efficient.

Is the 4,000mAh battery of earlier Huawei flagships not enough for you? How about a cheeky bump to 4,200mAh, plus 40W quick charging through Huawei’s new, second-gen Super Charge, which the company claims can get you from zero to 70% in 30 minutes.

The Mate 20 Pro can wirelessly charge other phones because its battery is so big. Your move, Samsung.

The Mate 20 Pro is also the first Huawei flagship to include Qi wireless charging — but not only to charge the Mate itself. Huawei has brought a reverse wireless charging feature to this device, so that 4,200mAh battery can actually charge other Qi-compatible phones. Doing this is probably going to be wildly impractical because of the shape and slipperiness of phones in general. (In a meeting ahead of the launch, I just about managed to balance a Note 9 on the back of it and get it charging; with smaller, curvier phones your mileage may vary.) Regardless, it’s a very clever bit of marketing. Huawei clearly wants Mate 20 Pro owners out there charging their friends’ flagging iPhone batteries.

Software has traditionally been one of the major weaknesses of Huawei phones, and the company’s EMUI interface has generally taken a bit of a beating in reviews. The new version, 9.0, still looks like EMUI, but offers improvements across multiple fronts. It’s based on the solid foundations of Android 9 Pie, with all the new features and benefits that brings. And Huawei has worked to make it its interface simpler, cleaner and more attractive. I feel like I’m repeating myself a little in saying that. The company has been moving, slowly, in this direction since its software stopped looking objectively terrible in 2016. But Huawei is a big ship to steer, so we’re still dealing with baby steps here.

Animations, in particular, feel a lot snappier, which is important since you can now use full-screen gesture navigation. (The old-style three-button setup is available as an option, but the newer Google Pixel-style gesture controls are not.) In other areas, Huawei has trimmed some of the cruft from its menus, made its apps lighter and more one-handable, with tabs and menu items down at the bottom. And fullscreen artwork is shown for incoming calls, alarms, as well as in some areas of Huawei’s bundled apps. (Though not all of this was ready in the early firmware we used.)

Yes, EMUI 9.0 still looks too much like iOS, but it’s also a much better experience for long-time Android users in general.

EMUI 9 still looks a lot like iOS too, and that’s reflected in its approach to gestures. Like the iPhone X and XS, swipe up to go home, or swipe and hold for recent apps. To go back, swipe inwards from the left or right bezel. Mostly this works fine, but it can cause problems in apps with slide-out menus, like Gmail. Fortunately, you can escape back to the familiar territory of on-screen keys if you find the gestures unpalatable.

Huawei has also built its own version of Google’s Digital Wellbeing features, called Digital Balance, which can help you track screen usage and take a break from the flood of notifications on your off hours. We’ve only played with it for a limited time ahead of launch, but it seems to be a faithful recreation of Google’s app.

There’s a lot to see in EMUI 9, and we’ll take a much closer look in our full review.

The Leica triple camera was a central part of what made the P20 Pro great, and the Mate 20 Pro builds upon those foundations. Huawei takes the 40-megapixel main sensor and 8MP 3X telephoto of the P20 Pro and leaves them largely unchanged. Meanwhile, the monochrome sensor has been retired, and replaced with a new 20-megapixel ultra-wide-angle camera.

What that means is you get standard and zoomed photos at least as good as the P20 Pro, with the added versatility of a wide-angle camera the likes of which I’ve loved using in LG’s phones over the years. Unlike LG, though, Huawei’s wide-angle has autofocus, so you can also capture some striking macro shots with it. Huawei’s Master AI will actually switch to the wide-angle lens when the camera is placed very close to its subject.

4K video recording is also supported across all three cameras, with AI stabilization enabled by default, which represents a serious improvement from previous generations of Huawei cameras. (The P20 series and earlier models maxed out at 1080p if you wanted to use that software stabilization.)

Speaking of AI, the new dual Neural Processing Unit in this phone now offers more advanced object and scene detection — more than 1500 scenes now, up from 500 on the previous gen. One area where this is apparent is pet photos. The Mate 20 Pro can recognize 27 different breeds of dogs. So, in theory, it can not just tell that "this is a dog and this is a cat," but "this is a Great Dane and this is a Schnauzer." That’s one small example of how Huawei’s hoping to make AI scene detection less of a blunt implement — by understanding granular detail in photos and videos, it can fine-tune camera settings for the best results in more situations.

Huawei already had the best low-light performance with its ridiculously impressive handheld night mode on the P20 — and arguably the best telephoto too, with 3X optical and 5X hybrid zoom. Adding a really great super-wide-angle into the equation is just the icing on the cake, and I can’t wait to see what these cameras are capable of.

Mate 20 vs Mate 20 Pro

The Mate 20 Pro is the real flagship here, but the standard Mate 20 offers similar features and the same core technology for what should be a lower price. A quick breakdown of the main differences between the two:

Category Mate 20 Mate 20 Pro
Notch Teardrop Regular
3D Face Unlock No Yes
In-screen Fingerprint No Yes
Display 2244×1080 RGBW LCD, 6.53-inch 18.7:9 3120×1440 curved OLED HDR, 19.5:9
Battery 4,000mAh 4,200mAh
Wireless charging No Yes
Super Charge 22.5W 40W
IP Rating IP68 IP53
Cameras 12MP f/1.8 regular, 16MP f/2.2 ultra-wide, 8MP f/2.4 telephoto 40MP f/1.8 regular, 20MP f/2.2 ultra-wide, 8MP f/2.4 telephoto

The standard Mate 20 has a smaller teardrop notch, but loses the fancy camera modules for 3D face unlock. And it has a plain old rear fingerprint scanner instead of the in-screen module. The screen is slightly larger, but lower-resolution, and uses a flat LCD panel with an RGBW configuration for extra brightness.

You’ll also have to deal with "only" a 4,000mAh battery, and the older-generation 22-watt Super Charging, plus no wireless charging. The rear cameras also take a small downgrade, specifically the regular and ultra-wide modules.

It’s clear Huawei wants to hit a lower price point with the standard Mate 20 for people who just want a large, high-performance smartphone without any of the extra-expensive goodies. As it has been for the past year or so, the Pro series is the real jewel in Huawei’s crown, and the far more interesting device for enthusiasts. Whether you value a high-quality, versatile camera setup, the biggest battery of any mainstream phone, the latest Android software, or being able to save your iPhone X-owning friends from battery anxiety, you’ll find Mate 20 Pro a formidable piece of technology.

And if you weren’t already, it’s also a big reason to start paying attention to Huawei.

See at Huawei

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October 16, 2018 at 04:31AM