I’ll start this review by saying that the Huawei P20 isn’t going to be as simple to buy as most other current phones in the United States, and that’s a shame. You can’t just walk into AT&T or Verizon and get one with an easy payment plan, and let’s be real, that’s going to turn the typical cellphone buyer off.
If you have to buy a phone outright on Amazon or from another site, and you can’t just walk into a store to fondle one in person first before making a purchase, then why not just buy something else. Right? Maybe not.
What’s the story behind that?
Long story short, and for whatever their reasons, the US government has decided that phones made in China — specifically by Huawei and ZTE — aren’t to be trusted.
When prompted during the hearing, all six [intelligence agencies] indicated they would not recommend private citizens use products from the Chinese companies. “We’re deeply concerned about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks,” FBI Director Chris Wray testified. “That provides the capacity to exert pressure or control over our telecommunications infrastructure,” Wray said. “It provides the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information. And it provides the capacity to conduct undetected espionage.” – source
The six intelligence agencies’ fear is that Huawei is too cozy with the Chinese government. Perhaps it’s true that the US Government is afraid of how big and successful Huawei has become in a relatively short amount of time. Even though there hasn’t been any evidence of spying by Huawei (or ZTE, for that matter), and even though most (if not all) US brands’ phones are made in China, by Chinese workers, and with Chinese parts — we are to believe that there is a greater threat posed by a phone made in China by a Chinese company versus a US phone made in China, by Chinese workers, and with Chinese parts. I mean, if you want to put on a tinfoil hat, why not then go ahead and believe that any phone made in China — or that any phone made by Chinese workers and with Chinese parts — is tainted?
The nature of these concerns has not been clearly documented, and public evidence of spying still hasn’t emerged. Regardless, a follow-up report by Reuters indicates that there has been pressure applied on U.S. telcos to avoid doing business with Huawei, with companies like Verizon and AT&T being told they risk losing their lucrative government business contracts if they strike deals with the massive Chinese multinational. – source
So, it appears Huawei (and ZTE) are being blackballed by the US Government and by US carriers based on no known evidence that they are actually spying on their customers. This doesn’t pass the smell test; you know what I mean? If you want to read another take on this subject, you should check out Sascha Segan’s excellent article, Don’t Be Afraid of Huawei and ZTE, and Jason Perlow’s article, Paranoia will destroy us: Why Huawei and other Chinese tech is not spying on Americans.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a look at one of the finest phones available for purchase at this time.
Because this is a non-US model, the Huawei P20 package includes the phone, a Type-C to USB charging cable, an EU wall charger, a pair of headphones, and a Type-C to 3.5mm headphone adapter. The P20 comes with a screen protector already applied; I found that the screen protector was soft and quickly showed scratches, so soon after I received the review unit, I removed it. The P20 has a hardy Gorilla Glass 5 display, and tempered glass protectors that will fit it are inexpensive on Amazon.
The phone itself measures 5.9″ long by 2.8″ wide by 0.3″ thick, and it weighs 5.7 ounces. The FHD 1080 x 2244 LCD screen is 5.8″ (measured diagonally) with 428 PPI. The phone has a curved glass body with aluminum sides; it feels solid yet silky in hand, and it doesn’t creak or flex when torqued.
At the bottom of the screen, there is a fingerprint sensor that acts as a home button when pressed. On the bottom of the phone, there are matching sets of five holes; the left side holes hide the microphone, and the right side holes act as a speaker. In the center of the holes, there is a Type-C sync & charge port. You’ll note that there is no headphone jack, so you’ll either need to use a Bluetooth headset or the included dongle for wired headphones.
On the left side, there’s a tray that can either hold up to two nanoSIM cards.
At the top of the screen, there is a round speaker (it also puts out sound when playing media, but to a lesser degree than the bottom speaker), various sensors that don’t show up in my photos, and a front-facing 24-megapixel (f/2.0 aperture) camera. At the top of the device, there is another microphone. If you’ve looked at the iPhone X, then you’ve seen the “notch” on the screen that people either loathe or have learned to live with. The presence of the notch on the P20 means that you get a much larger screen in a smaller phone; unfortunately, the display doesn’t go all the way to the bottom of the device because of the button on the bezel.
The P20 is available in Black, Champagne Gold, Twilight, Pink Gold, and the Midnight Blue I was sent. The blue back is gorgeous, shiny, and an absolute fingerprint magnet; you’ve been warned. Huawei has this to say about the finish:
The Twilight and Midnight Blue HUAWEI P20 has a high-gloss finish made via a ‘high-hardness’ vacuum protective coating and nano-vacuum optical gradient coating. This surface is just as robust as those on other HUAWEI products, but its high gloss sheen can show slight signs of wear over time. If you are concerned about this, we recommend pairing your phone with a fitted case attached with your mobile phone or any other suitable protective case.
The P20 has dual cameras on the back; the first camera is a 12-megapixel (RGB, f/1.8 aperture) and the second is a 20-megapixel (Monochrome, f/1.6 aperture). Both support autofocus, and “photo pixels may vary depending on the shooting mode.” Sensors built into the phone include a gravity sensor, an ambient light sensor, a proximity sensor, a hall sensor, a gyroscope, a compass, and a color temperature sensor. The optics are made by Leica, and the P20’s camera scored an excellent 102 on DXO Mark. For comparison’s sake, the iPhone X scored a 97; obviously, the higher the number the better the performance.
In other words, if the phone in your pocket is the only camera that you usually carry, you should be pleased with the Huawei P20 — even if you are shooting everything in automatic mode (aided with AI) versus using the manual settings. We’ll talk more about the camera later.
You can unlock your Huawei P20 with the usual pin or design, and you can also use your fingerprint. But if you are interested in 2D facial recognition, the P20 can do that, too.
The P20 is powered by Huawei’s own Kirin 970 processor with built-in AI-powered NPU (neural processing unit). As Helena mentioned in her Huawei Mate 10 review, “The AI learns from a user’s behavior and adapts to it. So for example, the [phone] is able to learn your about how you use your phone and adjust the phone’s settings for the best possible battery life.” The P20 does the same. The Huawei P20 is fast, smooth, and never lagged in my testing; the Kirin 970 processor delivers whether you have 40 apps open or you are playing an intensive game.
The display on the P20 is LCD rather than the OLED that you’ll find on the P20 Pro; while it’s true that OLED seems to be the gold standard, the LCD is still bright, crisp, and beautiful. I am used to using an iPhone X, so I don’t see the notch that I used to think would be so glaringly obvious and obnoxious. It’s funny how we can grow used to things, isn’t it? But even with the notch, the P20 screen is a joy to use. With that said, if you aren’t coming from an iPhone X, and you can’t make yourself live with the notch, there is a setting that will turn it off — effectively putting an uninterrupted black bar at the top of your screen.
The Huawei P20 runs Android 8.1 (Oreo), so it has all the bells and whistles of that operating system. The P20 also has EMUI 8.1, which we were first introduced to last year. I covered it a bit more in my MediaPad M5 review, but on the P20 it basically means that you have a responsive, feature-laden phone that comes with a built-in launcher you’ll actually want to use.
Watching Media on the P20 is a pleasure. Colors are fantastic, the sound is excellent, and I haven’t got a single complaint.
The P20 comes with 128GB user memory and 4GB RAM; you can add a microSD card to extend your memory up to 400GB if you’ve got that particular microSD card. I just have a 256Gb card, but it’s still pretty impressive to have so much memory on a phone.
Battery life on the Huawei P20 is excellent; it has a 3,400mAh Lithium-Ion battery. Huawei doesn’t have any theoretical times listed for how long the battery will last, but with my use, I typically got through a day and a half before I had to charge. This is helpful when you forget to charge overnight, and you don’t get to charge again until you are sitting at your desk. If you play a lot of games or watch a lot of videos, it will still last all day. And when it is time to charge, the P20 has Huawei SuperCharge built-in for faster charging — it takes about 30 minutes to go from less than 50% to 100%.
The camera is very good, and it’s fast. Due to the Ai and NPU, the camera knows what you are pointing it at, and it will automatically adjust itself accordingly to take the best picture. I’ve tried it in low light, inside, outside; it is simply excellent. In the headings below, all you have to do is click a photo to open a gallery and see it in full.
Low Light / Night Mode
I should note that the P20 has “AI image stabilization [which] allows you to capture incredible blur-free, handheld shots in low-light using Night Mode.”
Outside (overcast day)
When you have the camera in Automatic, the AI will figure out what you are taking a picture of — anything from 19 different categories which include the following …
All you do is take aim and let the AI do the rest. The AI will stabilize your photo, recognize what you are shooting, and take the best photo possible.
Perhaps the only two cons I can find to the Huawei P20 are that it doesn’t include Qi wireless charging, and it’s not water-resistant. That’s a shame because both are features I would have loved to have seen in this flagship device.
Huawei sent a couple of cases with my review device, which I appreciated. There’s nothing worse than accidentally dropping a review phone, and if it’s going to happen to anyone, it will be me. 😛
I was immediately interested in the car kit; it includes a black soft-touch silicon case and a metal and plastic magnetic mount that will clip to your car’s vent. The car kit sells for £29.49; I found it on Amazon UK but not on the US version.
I’ll admit that I get a little thrill when I have something special that not everyone else has. I like thinking outside of the box and trying something new. Sometimes, the experience is pretty much awesome; that’s how I’d like to describe my last month with the Huawei P20.
The Huawei P20 retails for £599/649€, and it is available directly from the manufacturer if you are out of the US; if you are in the US, you can find it on Newegg, and it is a bit less on Amazon.
Source: Manufacturer supplied review sample
What I Like: Sleek phone with an excellent build and in-hand feel; Fast processor, very good camera with Leica optics; Excellent sound for watching videos and listening to music; Ability to “remove” the notch if it bothers you; AI recognizes what you are photographing and adjusts the camera to take the best shot; Great Huawei branded accessories
What Needs Improvement: No Qi charging capability; Not water-resistant; No headphone jack