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Huawei P20 Pro review: Now you have my attention

By James Lu & Alvin Soon - 1 May 2018
Launch SRP: S$1148

Camera Features & Performance

Camera performance

I know these reviews are long, so I’ll give you the short answer first. You’ll be happy with the photos you get from the P20 Pro. They’re full of life and light. Master AI can overdo the processing, so turn it off if you find the shots gaudy.

4K videos look dizzy because there’s no optical image stabilization (OIS). Shoot at 2,160 x 1,080, however, and you’ll find the electronic stabilization does wonders. Night Mode, when it works, is as astonishing as most people say, although it doesn’t work well all the time.


The details

Huawei is ambitious. The P20 is the first smartphone to feature a triple camera combo, and those cameras come with serious specs. The main camera has a 40MP sensor with a f/1.8 lens. At 1/1.7-inch that sensor is twice the size of sensors on flagship competitors like the Samsung Galaxy S9/S9+

Installing such a large sensor comes with a price though: the main camera doesn’t have optical image stabilization. Only the telephoto camera does (well, that’s what Huawei says. But iFixit’s teardown has revealed OIS on all three camera modules). The telephoto camera has an 8MP sensor with a f/2.4 lens. The telephoto provides 3x optical zoom. That means it shoots at three times the focal length of the main camera, not that it can zoom thrice.

The P20 also offers a 5x ‘hybrid zoom,’ which it says combines optical zoom, digital zoom and a dash of AI to cook a better-looking zoom.

The 20MP monochrome sensor with a f/1.6 lens is there to provide extra detail, which is digitally composited into the final image. Even the front-facing camera is over-specced; it shoots at 24MP with a f/2.0 aperture.


That 40MP, though

A 40MP sensor on the P20 won‘t equal 40MP on a large sensor, because size still matters. The Sony RX1R II, for example, ships with a 42MP full-frame sensor. That sensor resolves our resolution chart perfectly, the P20’s doesn’t.

40MP isn’t the default though, 10MP is. The P20 ‘bins,’ or combines information from four pixels into one for a final composite. As mentioned, it’s also taking details from the monochrome sensor and merging it into the final picture.

There is some advantage to shooting at 40MP. A 40MP raw file from the P20 provides slightly more resolution than a 10MP JPEG, but it’s not a significant leap. There’s vignetting and no digital image stabilization when shooting in raw. I’d stick with 10MP and let computational photography do its thing.


Whoa, those JPEGs

f/1.8 at 3.95mm, 1/900 sec, ISO 200.

Computational photography (SLYT), in case you’ve missed it, is a Very Big Thing now in smartphone photography. It’s been around for a few years, but for my money, the Google Pixel 2 XL and the Samsung Galaxy S9/S9+ are the phones that have taken it to the next level. And you can now add the Huawei P20 to the mix.

There’s a lot the P20 is doing computationally with its JPEGs. This is especially obvious when comparing raw and JPEG files of the same scene. The JPEGs have richer tones and more vivid hues that aren’t just the result of aggressive processing. There’s an impressive lack of image noise, even at high ISOs. It’s likely that the P20 is doing what the Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy S9/S9+ are doing — bracketing a series of images and then compositing them into a final image. And the final results are very, very good.

f/1.8 at 3.95mm, 1/350 sec, ISO 50.


Whoa there, Master AI

The P20 comes with a ‘Master AI’ feature that’s supposed to suss out what you’re shooting and apply its favorite filters to it. For example, when I’m shooting grass, it applies a ‘Greenery’ filter, which looks overly contrasty and saturated to me.

f/1.8 with 3.95mm, 1/900 sec, ISO 100. With ‘Greenery’ filter applied via Master AI.

Some of you will prefer the first shot, with the ‘Greenery’ filter applied, compared to this ‘normal’ shot.

If you like your photos heavily seasoned — and in this age of hyper-saturation people do — then you’ll be fine leaving Master AI on. If you want to turn it off, you can simply tap the ‘X’ next to it when a filter appears.


Whoa, Night Mode!

Night Mode lets you capture photos in low light that would otherwise be impossible without a tripod and post-processing. The P20 does this by grabbing a series of exposures, both long and short, then compositing them into a final image. This is HDR (High Dynamic Range) taken to a next handheld level.

f/1.8 at 3.95mm, 0.3 sec, ISO 64. A normal shot that accurately captured how this scene looked to my naked eye. The tree to the right was dark with minimal light.

f/1.8 at 3.95mm, 4 sec, ISO 640. The same scene with Night Mode and it’s astonishing how the shadows have opened up. At the same time, the highlights have been maintained. If you squint closely, though, you’ll see that Night Mode results in a loss of fine detail.

When it works, the effects are astonishing. Details in shadows are revealed, and dark scenes come alive. It even reveals darkened details that I couldn’t see with my eyes.

You can also use Night Mode in daylight as a sort of ‘hyper-HDR,’ but it tends to favor lifting shadows over saving highlights. If you’re shooting in good light, I’ve found that plain old HDR mode works better.

Night Mode isn’t always successful. Sometimes details have double images. Night Mode also has a price. While dynamic range is increased, details are sacrificed and image noise is introduced.

f/1.8 at 3.95mm, 1/50 sec, ISO 400. One more, for the amazes. Once again, this shot accurately captures how the scene looked like in real life.

f/1.8 at 3.95mm, 4 sec, ISO 400. Night Mode is capturing more detail than what I could see with my eyes. But artifacts are more prevalent in this shot. Notice how the leaves in the mid-ground and details in the background have double images.


Oh, videos

4K video looks dizzy because there isn’t any optical image stabilization. Unless you bring your own gimbal rig I wouldn’t suggest shooting in 4K.

At 2,160 x 1,080 however, the digital image stabilization is eerily good. If you move around too much, you’ll see wobbly distortions, especially around the edges. But go slowly, or hold still, and it’s almost like you’re shooting on a stabilizer or tripod. For some odd reason, there’s no zoom button when shooting video.


Half in the bag

3x optical zoom is great. It’s more useful than the 2x zoom you’d get with other dual-camera smartphones. The 5x hybrid zoom (basically digital zoom) is fine. I get more shaky shots with it in low-light. That’s not a surprise, because the longer your focal length, the more susceptible to camera shake the lens is.

Here are more notes from other aspects of the P20's camera performance:-

  • Portrait Mode is harder to engage than any other Portrait Mode I’ve used.
  • You might get a shaky image when shooting raw, but a sharp one when shooting JPEG. It’s the electronic image stabilization at work, which seems to switch off when shooting in raw.
  • You can only shoot raw with the main camera, not with the telephoto.
  • There’s no zoom button in Pro Mode.
  • Video footage in low light is noisy.
  • Panoramas are good. They’re well-stitched — well, there was a headless dude in one and half of a woman in another — but the inanimate detail is seamlessly joined.
  • The HDR mode is excellent too. But it’s difficult to engage, as it’s hidden on the ‘More’ menu.
  • The front camera is fine.


The P20 is a giant leap forward for Huawei

f1.8 at 3.95mm, 1/17 sec, ISO 1,000. Night mode wasn’t even on and the P20 rendered this dark scene beautifully. Image noise is kept to an impressive low and the scene is sharp even without OIS.

The Huawei P20 is surprisingly good. Surprisingly, because I wasn’t that impressed with the P10. The P10’s shots looked good on the P10’s display, but bring them to a bigger screen and their flaws became clear.

Huawei has taken a massive leap forward with the P20 — and just in one year. The JPEGs are astonishingly good, and when Night Mode works it’s magical. But the lack of OIS for 4K video is a sticking point. If you’re fine with shooting videos at 2,160 x 1,080, which offers solid electronic image stabilization, then the P20 has a lot to offer.

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  • Design 9
  • Features 8.5
  • User-Friendliness 8.5
  • Performance 8
  • Value 8.5
The Good
Beautiful metal and glass IP67 build
Triple lens Leica co-engineered rear camera
Useful AI photography features
Great battery life
Super-fast Face Unlock
The Bad
Benchmark performance could be better
No expandable storage
No wireless charging
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