Embracing Huawei’s new flagship smartphone, the P20 Pro, is this reporter’s first time stepping out of Apple’s walled garden in years. Ever since puchasing the iPhone 3G, when the time came to upgrade, the process was always the same—nod and accept the next iteration without question. It was time for a change.
Last month, China’s Huawei put on a show with the launch of its latest P-range device, teasing DSLR-like quality from its 40-megapixel camera to a conference in the heart of Paris, France. It was obvious the firm—which has struggled to gain traction in the U.S.—was now aiming to compete with the top-of-the-line phones from Apple and Samsung, but can it even make a mark? Newsweek put the trusty iPhone back in the drawer and, for just over a week, endeavored to find out.
Out of the box, the P20 Pro feels premium. It comes bundled with what you would expect—wall charger, headphones and an adapter to help those still not courageous enough to ditch the 3.5mm—but has an Apple-like minimalism from the offset thanks to its white box color scheme. Within seconds, the back of the smartphone, a purple “Twilight” gradient that quickly catches the light, hits you. For someone who is accustomed to the typical iPhone tints, it definitely stands out from the crowd.
The interface, thankfully for anyone making the jump to the Android 8.1 operating system (OS), is largely similar to iOS. Option menus for features like fingerprint scanning, facial recognition, apps and gesture assignment are all where you would expect them to be. Screen layouts have, for the most part, become ubiquitous across most high-end smartphones. One niggle you will notice on the P20 is the notch along the top, this year’s trend which kicked off as other companies followed Apple’s lead. In a move to silence notch-haters, on Huawei’s device it's optional.
Money money money
Let’s get cost out of the way. In the U.S., the smartphone is priced online for around $1,000. Just don’t expect to find it at some retailors, including Best Buy, any time soon because of the Huawei's current conflict with the government. It does come unlocked and is supported by GSM carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile. For direct comparison, Apple’s iPhone X is approximately $1,000 and Samsung S9 is around $750. Some recent eBay listings have the P20 Pro priced at just over $850.
The P20 Pro feels big, and some button presses while you are on-the-go—changing volume levels for example—can demand two hands.
The device comes in at 6.1 inches (Apple’s iPhone X is 5.8 inches) and boasts a pin-sharp organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screen, with a resolution of 2240 x 1080. For someone used to holding an iPhone 8 model, it took a while to get used to the change, but once adapted it’s difficult to imagine going back. There are technical run downs galore online, but for the general consumer there’s one clear plus: playing the mobile version of PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds on the smartphone’s screen is a treat. The P20 Pro has 128GB of internal memory but, in one potential downside for those shooting video or images in high resolution, has no external card slot.
You may be thinking: But we have an iPhone, we have a Samsung. What makes the Huawei device stand out? What on earth is the fuss about?
Well, the USP is sitting on the back of the smartphone. There’s three of them. Yes, it’s the camera set up that at least one benchmark test—by DxOMark—now claims is industry leading, beating rival models from Samsung, Apple, Google and Xiaomi. And using the camera, including on the wet streets of Paris, shows it is pretty spectacular. The Leica specifications speak for themselves: 92 MP when combined, with a 40MP f/1.8 camera, a 20MP f/1.6 monochrome camera and an 8 MP f/2.4 telephoto camera. For selfie-lovers, there a 24 MP front facing camera, too.
It can use artificial intelligence (AI) to recognize what’s in the view and adjust the settings automatically and is able to shoot super slow-motion video at 960 frames per second.
The night mode is stunning, ramping up sensitivity to up to ISO 102400, meaning that it captures images in extreme low light surroundings, innovating in the field and for the first time exceeding its competitors in this area. Under the "Pro" tab, the options for tinkering easily blow the iPhone out of the water. Under "Aperture," it lets users blur the background and get that "artsy" look that makes snaps look appealing (although the master AI on the front cam can go way overboard on filtering). In some tests, it appears to be slightly worse in daylight than Google’s Pixel 2 XL.
The marketing around Huawei’s P20 Pro’s triple camera set up was loud and clear. And the technology, in many ways, has proven to be very special indeed.
One of the biggest gripes with modern smartphones, especially the iPhone, is battery life. This, at least during Newsweek’s time with the review device, was ultimately what was most surprising: the 4000 mAh battery is a beast. It easily lasts for a day and half without needed a fresh boost, and that’s with considerable app use including Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp. It doesn’t have wireless charging, but the longevity is too good not to warrant a mention.
Watch out Tim?
Is it an iPhone killer? Huawei clearly wants it to be, but it is still unlikely to make a dent in Tim Cook’s tech goliath until it can operate in the U.S. without restriction. The firm’s CEO, Richard Yu, told Newsweek at the launch that his company can compete with Apple by focusing more on the global market. That remains to be seen. After time with the device, it is obvious that for the first time the major players in the U.S. have a very real competitor sneaking in from the East—though Cook may not be worried just yet.
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