Huawei Mate 20 Pro review: the best phone America can’t getOctober 24, 2018
This time last year, Huawei was laboring behind the scenes to secure its first carrier deal in the United States for its freshly unveiled Mate 10 Pro flagship phone. The plan was that Huawei would re-announce the device at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, with AT&T as its star partner. Except, at the very last moment, pressure from the US government convinced AT&T to pull out of the deal, leaving Huawei embarrassed and frustrated. Things got worse a month later, when the FBI, CIA, and NSA collectively warned US citizens off Huawei phones, arguing they pose a security and privacy risk due to the company’s ties to the Chinese government.
Whether you invest faith in the unproven allegations against Huawei or not, the fact is you won’t be able to buy the company’s new Mate 20 Pro at all in the United States, not even unlocked. Which is a damn shame, because it means Americans will be missing out on one of the most powerful, fully featured, and fascinating devices of the year. The Huawei Mate 20 Pro isn’t the best overall Android smartphone, but some aspects of it are indeed the best anyone can get right now.
In Europe, this super-specced Android device costs a knee-wobbling €1,049 (around $1,200, including tax), which puts it at the very top of the premium phone pile. For comparison, the Galaxy Note 9 has already been discounted from its €999 starting price, and Amazon is currently running a deal that offers it with a 128GB microSD card and 128GB of onboard storage for €799. So I’m going to forgive absolutely no follies with this Huawei phone. Only a couple of years ago, Huawei was the budget alternative to Samsung and Apple, and the shortcomings of its devices could be justified by a lower price. Today, Huawei wants to fight its biggest rivals on the same, expensive playing field.
As the most expensive mass-market Android flagship right now, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro needs some unequivocal wins to justify its positioning. I count two such victories: battery life and performance.
Firstly, about that 4,200mAh battery. I’ve never known a phone to have a battery this big and yet feel this light and easy to use. Huawei is doing some marvelous power optimization work, too, because I can’t do anything to run down this battery quickly. Two hours of constant gaming in Alto’s Adventure cost me only 18 percent of the battery, which suggests I’d need a truly marathon session to drain the phone completely. And the times when I leave the Mate 20 Pro idling, the battery percentage barely moves.
With convenient wireless charging off Google’s Pixel Stand, I basically never dropped below 50 percent charge during my testing of this phone. A typical day would include dozens of photos, regular messaging and email, some video, plenty of gaming, and I wouldn’t once worry about whether the Mate 20 Pro would last into the evening. This is meaningfully better than both the Google Pixel 3 XL and Samsung Galaxy Note 9, and it absolutely embarrasses smaller phones like the Pixel 3. Huawei’s little gimmick with this generation is that the Mate 20 Pro is capable of reverse wireless charging, so I guess one way to live with the Pixel 3 might be to have the Mate 20 Pro as my (ultra expensive) second phone slash external battery.
On the performance front, Huawei’s claims about the Kirin 980 being recognizably superior to the Snapdragon 845 stand up to scrutiny. The speed and responsiveness of the Mate 20 Pro are iPhone-like, with apps launching quickly, the camera exhibiting zero delay, and gesture animations displaying smoothly and fluidly. Huawei’s multitasking system rips off the iPhone X system wholesale‚ and you can criticize that plagiarism all you like, but I appreciate how close Huawei has come to truly replicating, not merely imitating, the smoothness of the iOS experience.
In games, the Mate 20 Pro has given me the best performance I’ve yet come across on Android. (Worth noting: I have yet to try the Razer Phone 2 for myself). Back in Alto’s Adventure land, both the Galaxy Note 9 and Pixel 3 XL would stutter at predictable points, typically around the culmination of a big combo where the character gets a speed boost, and the Mate 20 Pro just doesn’t suffer from that issue. I would gladly endorse this phone as an Android gaming powerhouse, even without the light-up logos or chunky design.
Huawei has really committed itself to checking off every wishlist item you can think of with the Mate 20 Pro. From the 7nm processor with 6.9 billion transistors, faster LTE, and a bag of world-first achievements, to the fast wireless charging, huge battery, waterproof design, in-display fingerprint scanner, 3D face unlock, high-resolution OLED display, multi-camera system, and tons of RAM and storage, it’s an absolute waterfall of check marks.
Even the notification LED, which is being abandoned at a rate that’s only eclipsed by the headphone jack, is still around on the Mate 20 Pro. A headphone jack, however, is not present. Huawei includes a dongle and a pair of decent USB-C-connected Apple EarPods lookalikes in the box. Now that Google has released the excellent Pixel USB-C earbuds for $30 and wireless headphones have improved dramatically, I’m less worried about the missing 3.5mm jack than I was when Apple rushed into the idea with the iPhone 7 in 2016. Still, the Mate 20 Pro is a super expensive phone, and the stuff that Huawei’s bundling with it is merely okay. The Pixel 3 XL and Galaxy Note 9 (with its AKG earphones) are ahead of Huawei’s new flagship here.
Google and Samsung’s big-boy phones, along with Apple’s iPhone XS Max, are the most recent and direct competition that the Mate 20 Pro is going up against, but since I’m less familiar with Apple’s latest phone, I’ll primarily compare against the Pixel 3 XL and Note 9. The 6.4-inch Mate 20 Pro feels dainty in their presence. It’s a sliver shorter than the Pixel 3 XL and about the same thickness, but it’s much narrower, which makes it significantly easier to use with one hand. The Note 9 is in a whole other class of size and ergonomics. Where the Mate 20 Pro can just about get away with being thought of as an enlarged phone, the Note 9 feels much more like a shrunken tablet. In Pixel terms, Huawei’s new phone has the width of the smaller Pixel 3 and the height of the larger Pixel 3 XL, so if you’ve found neither of those two quite ideal, this phone represents a happy medium.
The green and blue Mate 20 Pro colorways replace the smooth glass finish common among current flagship phones with a subtle texture Huawei calls Hyper Optical Patterns. It’s just some grooves cut into the glass, but the result is that the surface refuses to pick up fingerprints and even entices you to scratch it by producing a vinyl-like sound on contact. I can’t say I find the Mate 20 Pro any less slippery than other glass phones, but I also haven’t dropped it once in the week I’ve had it for review. Huawei’s placement of the power button helps the ease of using this phone: it sits below the volume rocker (rather than above, as with Google’s Pixels) and is within natural reach for most humans.
The display on the Galaxy Note 9 is amazing, and the Mate 20 Pro is right up there alongside it in terms of sharpness, brightness, and vividness. But Huawei has an extra trick up its sleeve with a so-called Natural Tone mode, which works exactly like Apple’s True Tone, gauging the ambient light and adjusting the color temperature of the screen accordingly, giving “a paper-like viewing experience.” I love that feature and keep it on all the time, even if it might cost me some color accuracy when reviewing and editing photos.
My only gripe with Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro display are its curved sides, which remind me of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S7 Edge. Because the front curve is symmetrically matched by a rear-glass curve, the sides of the Mate 20 Pro narrow down almost to a point. That’s obviously not ideal for a comfortable grip, and I find myself wishing for the Pixel 3 XL’s doughier sides. When watching video in landscape, I also notice the distortion caused by the curvy edges of the Mate 20 Pro, which is especially prominent with sports broadcasts where the scoreline graphics get warped.
You’ll have noticed the notch on the Mate 20 Pro looks a lot like that on the iPhone X series, and there’s good reason for it: Huawei’s using the same technique as Apple’s Face ID in a new system the company calls 3D Face Unlock. You know the drill by now: the phone uses a combination of an IR sensor and more than 30,000 invisible dots projected onto your face to get a three-dimensional picture and identify authorized users. Huawei’s system works swiftly and reliably, especially compared to Samsung’s combination of iris and face recognition, which I find is slower and more easily confused. Only hoodies posed a problem for the Mate 20 Pro’s face unlock feature.
If you look under the cover of Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro notch, you’ll see practically zero room to spare. Everything is crammed in tight. The other biometric ID system that Huawei adds here — the pressure-sensing fingerprint reader built into the display — also contributes to this space efficiency by removing the need for a discrete space to install a separate scanner. I wasn’t particularly wowed by this fingerprint reader, which is nowhere near as fast as the more conventional ones Huawei puts in its other devices, but it’s still good and accurate enough. Most of the time, Huawei’s 3D Face Unlock had recognized me before I had even laid my finger on the screen.
Joining LG and Samsung with the “more cameras are better” mantra, Huawei now has three cameras on the rear of its flagship. Gone is the monochrome sensor of the P20 Pro and previous Huawei phones. Huawei claims image sensors have gotten so good that it no longer needs the help of the secondary sensor to deliver sharpness and detail in its photos from the main camera. Still, some will miss the excellent black-and-white photos that Huawei allowed users to take with that dedicated sensor.
With a choice of an ultra wide, a conventionally wide, and a telephoto camera, the Mate 20 Pro is rich on creative flexibility. The ultra wide lens, equivalent to a 16mm focal length, will come in handy for group photos, landscapes, and when you’re up close to something big and want to capture its entirety. That camera also doubles up as an extreme macro shooter, which is a cute and unusual feature — and works well. Huawei automatically eliminates the distortion in processing the image, and the results are really good.
The main camera on the Mate 20 pro has a 40-megapixel sensor, which combines four neighboring pixels into one to deliver 10-megapixel shots with enhanced detail. I compared it extensively against the Pixel 3 XL and Galaxy Note 9, and I found that Huawei’s hardware just doesn’t have the dynamic range of the other two. In situations where Google and Samsung’s phones were able to both expose a dark foreground and retain a blue sky, the Mate 20 Pro accurately judged I wanted a brighter foreground, but couldn’t restrain the sky from blowing out.
Huawei’s photos, like Samsung’s, come out looking very crispy. Sometimes, that ends up making them look crunchy. I know I’m using highly technical jargon here, but basically there’s an ideal amount of crispiness to a photo, and crunch is the stage just beyond that. It’s where the detail and sharpness start to appear brittle.
Without Huawei’s Master AI processing enabled, Huawei’s camera is substantially noisier than either the Pixel or the Note. That means the Mate 20 Pro sometimes produces the most detail of the three, but that noise needs reining in, and that’s why I prefer to keep the AI turned on. The trouble is that Huawei’s AI still feels too aggressive in its supposed optimizations of a given shot, and where it gets things wrong, I have no fallback, because Huawei doesn’t shoot a second, unprocessed picture for redundancy. Until I can fully trust the AI, Huawei should either make the edits reversible or allow me to apply them after taking the shot. Still, Huawei is close, and it doesn’t have the disastrously bad HDR that Samsung’s Note 9 exhibits when dealing with trees and skies.
The selfie camera on the Mate 20 Pro, on the other hand, is disappointing all around. It’s got a wild 24-megapixel resolution, but that’s meaningless when everything coming out of it is ultra soft and lacking in detail. Even with beautification and the offensive “thinner face” option (there’s no corresponding “fatter face” toggle, it assumes you’ll only want to go in one direction) turned down to 0, my face invariably looks like it’s photographed through foggy glass.
Currently, I think Huawei’s rear camera system is good and competitive, however it doesn’t blow me away the same way that the Pixel camera does. The Pixel 3 made a few nice improvements over the already outstanding Pixel 2 camera, whereas I’m not entirely certain the Mate 20 Pro camera has improved much on the P20 Pro. There are so many similarities between the two that you should revisit my P20 Pro review to get a fuller sense of how the Mate 20 Pro shoots.
For all my praise about Huawei’s excellent hardware and performance, I have little good to say about the company’s software. The new EMUI 9 is built atop Android 9 Pie with Google’s latest October 1st security patch, which makes for a great foundation. And the gesture-based multitasking is nice, better than Google’s incoherent new gestures in the Pixel launcher. Samsung’s simplified Android settings menu tends to end each section with a “Looking for something else?” helper, and now Huawei has copied that with its own “Looking for other settings?” Having a dark mode is also nice, especially for use with an OLED screen — and, oh yes, the color temperature adjustments are well implemented and a welcome bit of user control.
But Huawei’s software is something you suffer through rather than enjoy. One aspect of that is bugs. Google Keep would continually crash for me within two seconds of launching it on the Mate 20 Pro, and I had to uninstall it, restart the phone, and reinstall. SwiftKey is the preloaded keyboard on this phone, and at one point the animation gesture trail while I was swipe-typing turned into a highly pixelated mess. Again I had to reboot the phone. My lock screen wallpaper changed by itself one time, then returned to my chosen image on the next occasion. I know this is marketed as an AI-rich phone, but I need that artificial intelligence to be predictable rather than spontaneous.
Huawei makes some unwelcome tweaks to the basic way Android works. Its sharing sub-menu is a poor effort at copying the iPhone’s, downgrading from Android’s default. I can’t do anything with lock screen notificaitons on the Mate 20 Pro other than swipe them away. I didn’t realize how many useless emails I deleted directly from the lock screen of my Pixel until Huawei denied me that ability. I’ve enumerated more of these annoyances in my earlier P20 Pro review, so in lieu of repeating them I’ll just say that you’ll encounter plenty of these small bits of UI friction with EMUI. I’m really not sure whether these downsides overwhelm the upside of the Kirin 980 processor’s quickness and efficiency. You’ll have to decide where your own tolerance threshold lies.
With the Mate 20 Pro, Huawei set itself the goal of beating the Galaxy Note 9, and I’m a little surprised to conclude that Huawei has succeeded. The Mate 20 Pro has a more reliable camera, more human dimensions, better performance, faster face unlock, and, in my judgment, a more pleasant display. But the Mate 20 Pro is quite a bit more expensive than Samsung’s phone today, so that complicates matters.
Even if you only agree with me to the extent of seeing the Mate 20 Pro as a viable competitor to the Note 9 and Pixel 3 XL, that still makes this phone’s absence from the American market a real loss. This year has seen LG and HTC extend their fade from relevance, and the American consumer is increasingly picking between the Apple or Samsung flavor of flagship smartphone, with Google’s Pixels and maybe OnePlus devices showing up as outsider choices.
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro is a good phone, with some great and unique features, and once its price falls to become more attainable, it’ll be a real contender. As of the present moment, it’s a hugely indulgent purchase for those who are (a) outside the US and (b) absolutely convinced they need its extensive list of good features and desirable specs.
Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge
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