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Huawei P20 Pro one-ups Galaxy S9 with three rear cameras

Huawei P20 and P20 Pro take on the GS9 in every way -- we go hands on.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's time for the Galaxy S9 to watch its back. Huawei's new P20 and P20 Pro are coming up fast, with enough camera tricks and hardware specs to put Samsung's premier phone smack in the middle of the Huawei P20's target. 

With a total of three camera lenses on the back, the Huawei P20 Pro deserves your attention. A triple-camera array is an industry first for photography (they've been used previously for depth sensing or AR), but Huawei also crams the P20 Pro with the same super slow motion video you see on the Galaxy S9, extreme zoom and a feature that promises to take exceptionally even night shots.

The regular Huawei P20 gets many of the P20 Pro's tools, but not all. Stick around to see all the camera features in both P20 phones.

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The Huawei P20 Pro, left, has three rear cameras while the P20 hangs on to two.

Josh Miller/CNET

Meanwhile, here are the most important things you need to know about Huawei's new phones:

  • The Huawei P20 has two camera lenses on the back and the P20 Pro has three
  • Yes, there is a notch, which you can turn off in the settings
  • The P20 and P20 Pro are very different: the P20 is not just the same phone, minus a camera lens
  • Huawei made a "unicorn" phone. I'll explain everything below
  • Neither the Huawei P20 or P20 Pro will sell in the US (scroll down for the backstory) -- but you should still care because the P20 Pro especially has features you could see on other future phones 

Huawei P20 and P20 Pro prices

The P20 costs 649 euros for 4GB of memory and 128GB of storage. That converts to about $800, £570 or AU$1,050. The P20 Pro is 899 euros for 6GB of memory and 128GB of storage. That converts to about $1,115, £790 or AU$1,450.

Huawei P20 and P20 Plus: What's the difference?

The Huawei P20 is a bit smaller and cheaper than the Huawei P20 Pro. It's got a different screen (LCD instead of OLED), a smaller battery, and -- importantly -- it "only" has two rear cameras on the back, instead of three. The cameras it does have also have a different megapixel mix (fewer megapixels, but that's not necessarily a bad thing).

However, other key P20 characteristics, such as the processor and the storage size, match up to the P20 Pro. Scroll to the end for a full specs comparison in a handy chart.

Now playing: Watch this: Huawei P20 Pro is the first phone with 3 rear cameras
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Huawei totally made a 'unicorn' phone before this rival

Teal to purple, shifting to teal again. When you hold the mesmerizing, iridescent Huawei P20 or P20 Pro phones in Twilight, it's hard to focus on anything other than the way the color changes in the light.

So why am I calling it a unicorn phone? Because fellow Chinese phonemaker OnePlus held a color contest for its next phone, and "Unicorn" was the winner. OnePlus never made its pinkish-blueish-purplish color, but with the Twilight shade, Huawei just did. Thunder, stolen.

If you don't want a phone that looks like the phone version of a Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino, both the P20 and P20 Plus also come in black, midnight blue and pink gold (this also has the same cool gradient effect). The smaller P20 also comes in champagne gold.

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I can't tear my eyes away.

Josh Miller/CNET

About the notch: Now you see it, now you don't

The P20 and P20 Pro come with a notch by default. That's the black cut-out you see on the iPhone X and so many other real and rumored Android phones right now.

But put down your pitchforks. If you decide you don't like it, Huawei makes it easy to flip it off with a quick trip to the settings. 

Read also: The Huawei P20 and P20 Pro beat the iPhone X this way

Huawei P20 Pro camera has three camera lenses

No, the P20 phones don't have the Galaxy S9's dual-aperture lens for taking clearer low light shots, but the P20 Pro has its own first for phones: three camera lenses on the back.

Huawei says its P20s will shoot faster, zoom in farther, and take clearer photos with richer color. As with many past models, Huawei co-engineered the P20's cameras with Leica, a company known for making high-end cameras.

You get the usual color lens, a monochrome lens for adding richer detail and a telephoto lens for zooming and taking portrait shots.

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Don't like the notch? You can kiss it goodbye.

Josh Miller/CNET

There's also a front-facing camera, which brings the total up to four. 

Here's the P20 Pro camera breakdown:

  • 40-megapixel main RGB (Aperture: F1.8)
  • 8-megapixel telephoto (Aperture: F2.4; has OIS)
  • 20-megapixel monochrome lens (Aperture: F1.6)
  • 24-megapixel front-facing camera (Aperture: F2.0)

And here's the Huawei P20 camera sitch:

  • 12-megapixel main RGB (Aperture: F1.8)
  • 20-megapixel monochrome lens (Aperture: F1.6)
  • 24-megapixel front-facing camera (Aperture: F2.0)

P20 and P20 Pro camera tricks

Camera specs are well and good, but what's important is what you can do with them. Here are the highlights.

Automatically picks camera mode: Both P20 phones can pick the "right" settings and mode for your pet, dinner, a group shot, a close-up and so on. You can dismiss the mode or opt out of the whole thing.

3x optical zoom: The P2O Pro's telephoto camera makes this happen.

5x hybrid zoom: On the P20 Pro, a combination of the optical camera and digital zoom make it possible to zoom in very close.

Super slow motion video: Like the Galaxy S9, both P20 phones add a 960fps super slow motion mode that takes video in 720p resolution. There's also a regular slow-mo option that takes 240fps video at a 1080p resolution.

Portrait shots and portrait selfies: You can take photos with that blurred bokeh effect from either side of the phones. Huawei also includes portrait lighting effects that mimic the iPhone X's portrait lighting modes.

Assisted composition: When you're taking a group shot, the P20s will automatically zoom out so you won't have to step back.

Low light "long exposure" mode: Huawei combines multiple shots into one well-exposed image. It can solve the problem of handshake when you're trying to take night shots without a tripod. (We'll have to see how well it works if the subject is moving.)

Ultra snapshot: Whiles the screen's off, you can shoot a picture in 0.3 second by double clicking on volume down --  but you can't frame your shot.

Predictive focus: This feature guesses where the focus area will be on the subject at any given moment and keeps the autofocus point in sync, like the motion like flower blowing in the wind. This should make photos and videos more in focus.

A quick note for camera geeks:

The Huawei P20 Pro's telephoto lens is the only one that uses optical image stabilization. The rest use electronic image stabilization. The P20 Pro's image sensor grabs low light images with up to ISO 102400.

Huawei boasts that the sensor used on its 40-megapixel camera is 223 percent larger than the iPhone X and 170 percent larger than the Galaxy S9, but it's also got way more pixels crammed onto it, so this isn't necessarily a good thing -- long-term tests will tell us what we need to know.

Wait, why won't the Huawei P20 Plus and P20 sell in the US?

It's been years since Huawei has sold any of its phones through a carrier, but it does sell some through retailers like Amazon and through its own site. So if the P20 and P20 Pro are so cutting edge, why not sell them in one of the world's most important markets?

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You can't buy these in the US.

Josh Miller/CNET

That's a thorny one. While Huawei phones are generally rated well, the Chinese company faces sharp criticism from the US government over fears that Huawei intends to spy on the US through its products -- it also makes networking infrastructure equipment.

In February, the heads of the FBI, CIA and NSA all expressed concerns over the company's smartphones. Since then, AT&T and Verizon reportedly torpedoed plans to carry Huawei's Mate 10 Pro because of political pressure, and Best Buy, the nation's largest electronics retailer, has dumped Huawei as a customer.

There's some history here, too. In 2012, the US government banned the sale of Huawei equipment. No other country has banned the Chinese company, although Australia blocked Huawei from working on its national broadband network.

Huawei, for its part, champions its relationships with major carriers and companies in over 170 countries. "We have earned the trust of our partners across the global value chain," a spokesman said.

The saga continues.

Read also: Why some of the flashiest Android phones won't sell in the US

Huawei P20 and P20 Pro specs versus Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

Hauwei P20 and P20 Pro specs versus Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus


Huawei P20 Huawei P20 Pro Samsung Galaxy S9 Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus
Display size, resolution 5.8-inch; 2,244x1,080 pixels (LCD) 6.1-inch; 2,240x1,080 pixels (OLED) 5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels 6.2-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 428ppi 408ppi 570ppi 529ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.9x2.8x0.3 in 6.1x2.9x0.31 5.81x2.70x0.33 in 6.22x2.91x0.33 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 149.1x70.8x7.65mm 155x73.9x7.8mm 147.7x68.7x8.5 mm 158.1x73.8x8.5 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.8 oz; 165g 6.3 oz; 180g 5.75 oz; 163g 6.66 oz; 189g
Mobile software Android 8.1 Oreo Android 8.1 Oreo Android 8.0 Oreo Android 8.0 Oreo
Camera 12-megapixel RGB, 20-megapixel monochrome 40-megapixel RGB, 20-megapixel monochrome, 8-megapitxel telephoto 12-megapixel Dual 12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 24-megapixel camera 24-megapixel camera 8-megapixel 8-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor 2.3GHz octa-core Kirin 970 2.3GHz octa-core Kirin 970 Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor (2.8GHz + 1.7GHz), or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7 GHz + 1.7 GHz) Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor (2.8GHz + 1.7GHz), or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7 GHz + 1.7 GHz)
Storage 128GB 128GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM 4GB 6GB 4GB 6GB
Expandable storage None None Up to 400GB Up to 400GB
Battery 3,400mAh 4,000mAh 3,000mAh 3,500mAh
Fingerprint sensor Below screen Below screen Back Back
Connector USB-C USB-C USB-C USB-C
Headphone jack No No Yes Yes
Special features Super slow mo video (960fps), splash-resistant (IP57) Three rear cameras, super slow mo video (960fps), 3x optical zoom, 5x hybrid zoom, water-resistant (IP67) Dual-aperture camera, water-resistant (IP68); super slo-mo video; wireless charging; iris scanning Dual-aperture camera, water-resistant (IP68); super slo-mo video; wireless charging; iris scanning
Price off-contract (USD) TBA TBA Varies: $720-$800 Varies: $840-$930
Price (GBP) TBA TBA £739 £869
Price (AUD) TBA TBA AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (256GB) AU$1,349 (64GB), AU$1,499 (256GB)