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Huawei Mate 20 Pro is outrageously innovative

If the Samsung Galaxy S9 and iPhone X had a phone baby, this is it.

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Three cameras and a flash dominate the rear of the new Huawei Mate 20 Pro.

Josh Miller/CNET

So, say you, phones are boring. They don't do anything new. Well, good news: The new Huawei Mate 20 Pro is ready to bring some crazy ideas to the table. Huawei's latest flagship phone was just unveiled in London and -- like all Huawei phones -- it won't be widely available in the US, thanks to the Chinese company's ongoing friction with American security services. 

But the Mate 20 Pro has a handful of unique features that totally set it apart from the rest of the market, which increasingly seems to blur together. It's a promising smartphone that actually offers something new. Let's run down the features, starting with the craziest.

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This phone wirelessly charges other phones

The Mate 20 Pro has contactless fast charging, but in settings the charge can be reversed, and other phones can piggyback on top and vampire a charge from it. I tried it with an iPhone XS... and it seemed to work!

The idea of using one phone as a wireless charging pad for another is a bit of madness, but also genius -- especially if the Mate 20 Pro can juice up from a wall outlet, while simultaneously wirelessly charging your friend's phone, too. Just be wary of friends sneaking around and vampiring your charge when you're not looking.

It has an in-screen fingerprint sensor… and a Face ID-type camera

Face unlocking? Fingerprint inside the display? Why not both? The Mate 20 Pro has what looks to be an equivalent to Apple's TrueDepth camera, adding an infrared dot array that can scan a face in 3D and enable what the company calls "3D Face Unlock." I tried using it on a test phone, and it seemed to work. I have no idea how secure it is, or isn't, but Huawei promises that this information is encrypted on a secure element. The Mate 20 Pro also has an in-screen fingerprint reader, much like the upcoming OnePlus 6T

Scanning my fingerprint happened somewhat effortlessly, and when my finger neared the display again as the phone was locked, a glowing indicator appeared to guide me to where to place my finger down. Which unlock method is best? Huawei's software seems to offer no indication, and both methods work independently. For anyone wishing, as I often have, that Apple would add Touch ID back to Face ID iPhone X models, this feels like a bit of wish fulfillment. Password unlocking can be enabled through fingerprint or face-scan, too.

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Use your finger (or your face).

Josh Miller/CNET

There are three different rear camera lenses

Smartphones are all about their cameras, and the industry seems to be going two ways at once. Some companies are adding more physical cameras -- four from Samsung's new Galaxy A9, and a rumored five-camera shooter coming from Nokia at some point -- while Google is going all-in on one rear camera with the Pixel 3, relying on sophisticated computational photography to do the heavy lifting for zooming and low-light photos.

Huawei is sticking with the "more is better" approach and opting for three rear cameras: Telephoto, wide-angle and super wide-angle. Instead of the Huawei P20 Pro's camera system, which only had two zoom types plus a monochrome camera to aid with portrait-style photos, the Mate 20 Pro's Leica-made triple-lens camera array adds the extra wide-angle, which enables some fish-eye-like views of subjects and landscapes. Up close, that ultra-wide mode turns into a new macro mode that can get closer to subjects. All told, there's a 40-megapixel f1.8 wide camera, a 20-megapixel f2.2 ultra-wide camera, and an 8-megapixel f.24 telephoto camera with optical image stabilization. 

For a much deeper dive into the new camera system, read Andrew Hoyle's early hands-on experience and see his test photos from London.

Read: Hands-on with the Mate 20 Pro camera

3D Live Emoji turns 3D objects into dancing AR critters

Huawei's new phones are compatible with Google's ARCore apps, opening up a world of augmented reality possibilities. But Huawei's own AR camera trick, 3D Live Emoji, is absolutely wild. Using the front-facing depth-sensing camera, the phone can scan real-life objects and create a scan similar to what Google's Tango technology could do years ago.

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Scanning a panda.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

But the phone can also turn that scan into an animated emoji, building a skeletal mapping and turning, say, a stuffed panda into a dancing panda in the real world. It's amazing-looking, weird, and something that Apple should consider for a future iPhone X update. I'm already dying to try this.

It has a whole new proprietary 'nanomemory card' 

Huawei went ahead and invented a new memory card, a smaller-than-microSD card called a nanomemory card. The Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro are expandable by an extra 256GB. I wouldn't want a new memory card format in a phone, but at least it's expandable?

What else you need to know about the Mate 20 Pro

Reverse charging, facial and in-screen fingerprint security and a triple-camera array are definitely what stands out on this new phone. But that's not to say the "standard" specs aren't impressive.

It feels like a Samsung Galaxy S9 and an iPhone X had a phone baby.

The Mate 20 Pro feels nearly identical to the Galaxy S9 Plus, with its longer 6.39-inch, 3,120x1,440-pixel curved AMOLED screen. The top notch and face-scanning camera, however, are iPhone X-like. It does feel really nice to hold, without feeling too wide. Color finishes include textured-finish emerald green and midnight blue models, a color-gradient blue-green model called twilight, and (of course) pink gold and black.

Specs and battery life sound promising.

The Mate 20 Pro has a 4,200-mAh battery and faster charging -- up to 70 percent capacity in 30 minutes via a 40-watt charger, or 15-watt wireless charger. A faster Huawei-made Kirin 980 processor that aims to improve on-phone AI and camera intelligence, giving better scene recognition and a new in-motion subject autofocus mode.

Additional specs, according to Huawei:

  • Size: 158 by 72 by 8.6 mm
  • Weight: 189 grams (6.7 ounces)
  • Display: 6.39-inch 3,120x1,440-pixel AMOLED
  • CPU: Huawei Kirin 980 processor (2x 2.6GHz Cortex A76, 2x 1.92GHz Cortex A76, 4x 1.8GHz Cortex A55)
  • OS: Android Pie 9.0 with Huawei EMUI 9.0
  • RAM: 6GB/8GB
  • Storage: 128/256GB (expandable)
  • Rear cameras: Leica 40-megapixel f1.8, 20-megapixel f2.2, 8-megapixel f2.4 (OIS on 8-megapixel)
  • Front camera: 24-megapixel f2.0
  • Dual SIM
  • Battery: 4,200 mAh

The Mate 20 Pro starts at 1,049 euros for a version with 6GB of RAM and 128GB storage. It's on sale now in Europe. We don't have UK or Australian prices, and it's unlikely ever to get a full release in the US, but that euro price converts to £920, $1,215 or AU$1,700.

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The Mate 20 Pro (left) and Mate 20 (right). Slight size/width difference, note the notches.

Josh Miller/CNET

There's also a step-down Mate 20 with less exciting tricks

The Huawei Mate 20, also announced alongside the Pro, looks similar but delivers less over-the-top extras. The phone is wider, more like an iPhone 8 Plus ($699 at Walmart) in size, with a larger 6.53-inch, 2,244x1,080-pixel LCD display, and less of a notch (really, a dimple). 

It doesn't have an in-screen fingerprint reader or face unlocking, opting instead for a regular fingerprint reader on the phone's back. But the Kirin 980 processor's the same, it also has triple rear cameras, and it has just a slightly smaller 4,000-mAh battery. It starts at 799 euros for 4GB RAM and 128GB of storage.

Huawei Mate 20 specs

  • Size: 158 by 77 by 8.3mm
  • Weight: 188 grams (6.6 ounces)
  • Display: 6.53-inch, 2,244x1,080-pixel LCD
  • CPU: Huawei Kirin 980
  • OS: Android 9 Pie
  • RAM: 4GB/6GB
  • Storage: 128GB (expandable)
  • Rear camera: Leica 12-megapixel f1.8, 16-megapixel f2.2, 8-megapixel f2.4
  • Front camera: 24-megapixel, f2.0
  • Dual SIM
  • Battery: 4,000 mAh

So, yes: The Huawei Mate 20 Pro rises above the increasingly long list of identical looking black slabs on the smartphone market with some truly unique features. Are they enough to set it apart? We'll find out when we review the phone in the near future.

There's an even larger phone, the Mate 20 X, with graphene cooling

Huawei's gone even larger than the Mate 20 Pro with a 7.2-inch X model, which oddly costs less than the Mate 20 Pro but seems targeted at gamers. The phone has a larger 5,000-mAh battery and added cooling tech, a "combination of graphene film and vapor chamber" that Huawei promises is unique to phones and hasn't been done before. It sounds like Huawei's trying to go up against the Razer Phone 2 and Asus ROG in the Android phone gaming space. It doesn't have 3D Face Unlock, though. It starts at 899 euros with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage.

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The Porsche Design version is all about finish.

Huawei

And, of course, a Porsche Design phone too (why not?)

The Mate 20 Pro comes in a Porsche variant called the Porsche Design Huawei Mate 20 RS. It has face unlock and all of the Mate 20 Pro features, just with added flair and racing-stripe leather bonded to the phone. It starts at a super high 1,695 euros for an 8GB RAM, 256GB storage version. 

Oh, and Huawei unveiled a new smartwatch, the Huawei Watch GT at today's event, too. 

Read moreGoogle thinks the Pixel 3's one rear camera will beat Samsung's four

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