Huawei Mate 20 Pro review

When is a phone a phone, and when is a phone a camera? Can the two meet?


We call them phones, but when is the last time you heard anyone talking about the telephony capabilities of new mobile devices?

It's been a while, right? Today, it seems that all anyone wants to discuss (sometimes ad nauseum) is the camera.

I have no objections to devices with good cameras – in fact the one I'm looking at rivals many single purpose photographic devices. I'm just wondering – why the heck do we still call them phones?

Consider the device in question: the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. It's Huawei's cutting-edge flagship, containing the company's newest technology including its shiny new Kirin 980 chipset with AI processors. And that technology includes, as usual, stellar cameras thanks to Huawei's partnership with Leica.

Leica, for those not into photography, is a century-plus old company that makes optics for everything from binoculars to ophthalmic lenses, which also sells high-end cameras (one of its top-of-the-line models sells for a mere $6000 on Amazon.ca!). My Mate 20 Pro, sells for considerably less ($1200 - $1300 without contract, depending on carrier), offers 6 GB memory, 128 GB storage, and a gorgeous 6.39 inch OLED screen with a resolution of 3120 x 1440. Oh, and three rear cameras with those coveted Leica optics and 40 MP, 20 MP with ultra-wide-angle lens, and 8 MP sensors. The front camera is 24 MP to make those selfies look spectacular. The device weighs 189g, the same as the Samsung Galaxy S9+, and the dimensions are roughly the same (the Mate 20 Pro is a hair smaller). It runs Android 9 (Pie), and the latest version of Huawei's EMUI.

It's a gorgeous phone, too. Like many other flagships today, it features virtually no bezel, with the screen wrapping around the edge of the device. However, those of us with long fingers find this a royal pain – when I grasp the device, I sometimes accidentally touch an icon and launch apps unexpectedly.

The infamous notch at the top of the screen (it wraps the top of the display around the lens of the front camera) is a good size. It's not something that bothers me, but many reviewers seem obsessed with it. If it's a concern, change one setting and it goes away, replaced by black bars flanking the lens.

Another thing that has gone away is the headphone jack. That I'm not so sanguine about. Yes, there's a USB-C to headphone jack dongle in the box, but that's not a decent substitute. For one thing, I detest dongles – they're always getting lost, forgotten, or breaking. And, personal preference aside, with that configuration, you can either charge your device with the a/c adapter or listen to music, but not both. Of course, a Bluetooth headset is an option - unless you're on a plane, where they still insist that all radios (except, in some cases, WiFi) be disabled while inflight.

Although the Mate 20 Pro supports wireless charging (it uses the de-facto standard, Qi, accepting up to 15W with Huawei's Wireless Quick Charge), for a quick top-up nothing beats the plug-in route, which gives you up to 70 percent charge in half an hour using Huawei's SuperCharge a/c adapter (which comes in the box).

Speaking of quick top-ups, your friends and colleagues who use other phones may become your best buddies when they discover Huawei's reverse charging feature. Place your Mate 20 Pro back to back with another device and it can donate power to it. With its 4200 mAh battery, the Mate usually has juice to spare, lasting over a day (sometimes two) without blinking.

Is the reverse charging super-speedy? Not really, and wireless charging is wasteful – you lose more power than the other device gains. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and if your iPhone-toting spouse is down to 1 percent, you can save the day.

One quirky feature that may cause annoyance is the supposedly expandable memory. Most phones today use an inexpensive and easily obtainable micro SD card, but Huawei has come up with its own proprietary card, the NM card, that's the same size as a nano SIM and offers up to 256 GB storage. I have yet to see one of these elusive beasts, or to hear what they cost; they're not listed on the Huawei Canada website, or even on Amazon. For the time being, I'd assume that the storage in the Mate 20 Pro is not expandable. Luckily, the Canadian model has 128 GB of built-in storage, so it shouldn't be a critical issue.

I can't complain about the Mate 20 Pro's audio, though. The speaker is in the USB-C slot on the bottom, which sounds weird, but works nicely.

We're used to fingerprint readers on our phones, but not one like this – it's embedded in the screen. All you need to do is press a digit on the spot conveniently indicated by an image of a fingerprint (which is invisible when not needed), and you're in. It's fast and reliable. The Mate 20 Pro also offers password and PIN protection, plus facial recognition, so all of your security bases are covered.

Okay, okay – we'll get to the cameras now. Yes, they're great. Even shooting in dim environments or during conference keynotes, the photos were clear and brighter than expected, even without engaging night mode. The 10X hybrid zoom actually works; I got some gorgeous shots in environments I didn't expect to be able to capture. And at the other end of the spectrum, the macro capabilities were a pleasant surprise. The Mate will capture images from as close as 2.5 cm. Add in the ultra-wide-angle lens, and you have a camera setup that covers all the bases.

On the video front, quality is equally good, with image stabilization and the ability (believe it or not) to identify, say, a runner, remove just that person from the video, and plonk him or her nto a different environment. Practical? Maybe not, but it's a great demonstration of the chipset's power.

Although like most of today's flagships, Huawei offers AI assist to photographers, it's sensibly turned off by default. I've had mixed results with AIs, which in theory identify what you're trying to photograph and enhance the settings for the best image. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they hilariously misidentify the subject (my cat was a dog to one AI, while another decided a rose was a cabbage). They're getting better, but I still see them as mainly comic relief.

Aim the camera at a plate of food, and Huawei's HiVision app will tell you how many calories you're looking at. The app also provides information about products (and links to shopping sites – sigh) and gives you information about things like locations and famous paintings.

There are a few other gimmicky things: a3D scanner that lets you scan objects like teddy bears and interact with the animated images, and the almost mandatory animated emojis, both of which will likely be played with briefly, then forgotten.

More useful is the IP68 rating for water and dust resistance. The Mate 20 Pro doesn't worry about getting rained on, though Huawei does recommend a proper housing if you want to take it swimming.

Overall, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro is worthy of its flagship designation. It's one of the best phones of the year.

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