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Huawei Mate 20 Pro review: An elite phone with the looks to match

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"What did you think of it?"

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9.0

Huawei Mate 20 Pro

The Good

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro goes above and beyond with exciting new features and an eye-catching design.

The Bad

You can't use microSD cards to expand the storage. The main loudspeaker hidden in the charging port is muffled when you plug the phone in.

The Bottom Line

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro's impressive list of features puts it unquestionably among the top phones of the year. Shame you can't buy it in the US.

"It's pretty badass."

That's what I told my CNET colleague Eric Franklin, when he asked what I thought of the new Huawei Mate 20 Pro.

And I meant it. This phone not only has a spec list that's the equal of any flagship phone out there, but it comes with enough new features to make it a truly exciting phone. And excitement is something the phone world's sorely lacking.

Mix in the P20 and P20 Pro's sleek, colourful and water-resistant design, the awesome display and the solid camera and you have a phone that's not just "good for Huawei" -- it's a bloody brilliant phone. Full stop.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Earlier Huawei phones such as 2014's P7 were entirely forgettable, but the company has upped its game with subsequent launches and is now the second-biggest phone manufacturer in the world. With the Mate 20 Pro, Huawei is firmly cementing that position. It's absolutely up there with current flagships such as the Samsung Galaxy S9, iPhone XS and Google Pixel 3.

At £899, SIM-free in the UK with 128GB of storage, this device doesn't come cheap, but it will still cost less than the iPhone XS, which starts at £1,099 with half as much storage. It's also more affordable than the Google Pixel 3 XL, which clocks in at £969 with 128GB of storage.

In Australia, the Mate 20 Pro can be yours, SIM-free for AU$1,599. Live in the US? Bad news for you as Huawei's ongoing turmoil with the US government means this phone won't be officially available to buy there, though adventurous American shoppers should eventually be able to find it online (likely without a warranty). For reference though, that £899 price tag, minus tax, converts to just under $1,000.

What about these new features?

The Mate 20 Pro is one of the first phones we've seen to use an in-screen fingerprint scanner, which is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of having a dedicated fingerprint scanner on the back or the bottom of the phone, a patch of the actual display is able to scan your print. You can't see the sensor with your naked eye, and there's absolutely no way of telling it's there when the screen's on. A little fingerprint icon lights up when the screen's locked to tell you where to place your pawprint.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It recognised my fingerprint as quickly and accurately as almost any other fingerprint scanner I've used and Huawei says it's just as secure. It's positioned about a third of the way up the phone's screen and is comfortable and convenient to use. But Huawei's also gone the Apple route of building face unlock into the Mate -- that gives you two unlocking options. 

Face unlock works just like Apple's Face ID. You register your face on the phone first and it'll automatically scan to unlock when you wake the phone up. It's still great to have the fingerprint reader as a backup, especially for situations when it's inconvenient to hold the phone to your face.

The Mate 20 Pro's face unlock feature also works well, and recognised my face more often than not -- even with a hood over my hair and with or without my glasses on. Like Apple's Face ID, it scans your face in 3D, which gives an extra depth of complexity and means it can't be fooled into unlocking by showing it a 2D picture of your own face. (Yes, I tried.) 

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

You can't use it yet to authorise payments however, nor could I use it to log into my bank, both of which I can do using the fingerprint scanner. It's likely that individual services will need to enable the face unlock to work for authentication -- much like with Apple's Face ID. I've asked Huawei to confirm whether it's working with banks and other services to allow face unlock to work, but the company has yet to respond. At the moment then, it's best to see the face scanner as a convenient way to unlock the phone and nothing more. 

But there's more in the "quirky new features" category. The Mate 20 is the first phone we've seen with two-way wireless charging, effectively turning the phone into a power bank for another device. Switch the function on, and you can place another phone onto the back of the Mate 20 Pro and that phone will draw power as if you'd placed it on any wireless charging pad.

It's a neat idea, though whether you'll feel generous enough to donate your own power to a friend who's running low is a question you'll need to answer for yourself. It worked with my iPhone X and apparently will work with any device that supports the Qi charging standard. I found it a little awkward to turn on, since you have to dive into the settings menu to activate it -- Huawei should turn this into a quick settings toggle if they want people to use it. The feature will also turn itself off after a while, so you'll need to keep an eye on it if you're desperately hoping to give more power to a second phone. A little finessing would make this feature a handy addition.

Let's talk about that square camera unit

That's right, a square camera mount. Huawei has stuffed three different cameras and a flash into an unmissable, eye-catching mount on the back. You get 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. Despite that, most of your shots will be taken with 10 megapixels as the phone takes information from the different cameras to combine into one image that's well exposed and packed with detail. At least, that's the theory.

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Rich colours and a great exposure balance between the sky and the ground. Lovely stuff.

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Vibrant and pin sharp. Jolly good, indeed!

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A lovely shot of some veg in London's Borough Market, taken with the standard camera mode.

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And the same shot using the wide-angle mode, allowing me to capture the whole veg stand in one shot.

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A gorgeous super-wide angle view across London.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In practice it seems to work well as the Mate 20 Pro can take some brilliant shots. In sunny weather the phone captured rich blue skies, with plenty of detail remaining in the shadows. The telephoto mode gives you a 3x zoom, with no loss of detail. Or you can digitally zoom in further to 5x if you want to get even closer on the action. The loss of detail is more noticeable at this extra level of digital zoom, but even so, the shots are still crisp enough for a Facebook or Instagram post.

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The Thames and St Paul's Cathedral, taken using the super-wide mode.

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And using the standard mode...

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And finally, the same shot taken with the 5x zoom mode.

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I mostly enjoyed playing with the super-wide angle lens, though. It's wide enough to give a dramatic, creative angle to shots when used well. The interface is a bit awkward though -- a little icon on the bottom of the screen lets you change the zoom mode, but you need to cycle all the way through the range until you get back to the one you want. I'm probably nitpicking here, but it can slow down your shooting by a few seconds -- which, in a critical moment, might mean the difference between getting the shot or missing it.

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The AI mode didn't specify "bridge" here. It did recognise "clouds", although that's a pretty safe bet in London. 

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Even in the lower light of this indoor area, the Mate 20 Pro captured a crisp shot.

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It uses the same AI scene recognition seen on the P20 Pro, whereby the camera recognises what it's looking at ("trees" or "blue sky," for example) and adjusts the settings accordingly. On the P20 Pro I often found that it boosted the saturation far too much, resulting in unnatural images. But it's a little more toned down on the Mate 20 Pro and I was mostly happy with what the AI mode achieved.

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I'm amazed at how bright and sharp this night-time photo of this East London street is. 

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Also like the P20, the Mate 20 Pro excels in low light. There's a "Night" mode, which takes multiple images over a period of several seconds, piecing them together into a much brighter, more detailed image than I've seen from almost any other phone. It's not quick -- you won't capture fast-moving objects in night mode -- but for moody shots of London backstreets or a cool-looking bar front it's amazing.

Huawei showed off a new feature at the launch event that allowed the Pro's front-facing camera to 3D scan an object -- a teddy bear, in that example -- add skeletal mapping, and turn that bear into a 3D, dancing critter in front of you. It looked like great fun, but this is still slated as a "coming soon" feature and Huawei hasn't yet said exactly when this will arrive.

Much more to like

I've enjoyed using the Mate 20 Pro during my review period. It's hardly breaking new ground, design-wise -- the curving glass and metal approach is reminiscent of the Galaxy S9 -- but it looks great nonetheless, particularly in the jazzy blue-purple Twilight colour. The phone feels good to hold, too. Its 6.39-inch display is big, sure, but its odd 18.7:9 aspect ratio makes it long and narrow, and therefore easy to wrap your hand around. An IP68 rating protects it from accidentally spilled drinks, too.

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Josh Miller/CNET

The display itself is pin-sharp, thanks to its 3,120x1,440-pixel resolution, and the AMOLED technology it uses makes the screen vibrant. Inside is the potent Kirin 980 processor, the latest processor from Huawei. Navigation is immediate, apps open without hesitation, editing photos in Adobe Lightroom is a breeze and it handled demanding games such as Asphalt 9: Legends with aplomb.

And that's just in the standard mode. Head into the settings and you can activate Performance mode, which lets the chip run at full whack. I'm not convinced it's necessary though. While benchmark scores improved, the overall performance is so good normally that there's no real need to bump it up even more, particularly as it will have a detrimental effect on battery life. My advice? Keep the processor in the default mode and only go for that performance boost if you find your games looking a bit stuttery.

It's unquestionably one of the most powerful phones around and there's little you could throw at it to slow it down. Huawei also says that its software improvements to the EMUI interface (which runs over the top of Android Pie) will keep it humming along at optimum speed for longer, without degrading over time. That's something we'll be keeping an eye on.

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The battery is great. It's a burly 4,200-mAh ticker that easily lasts a full day of demanding use. Keep a careful eye on your screen time and avoid streaming video or playing intense games and you could probably manage two days on a single charge. It lasted around 18 hours on our battery drain test, which puts it squarely among the top performers, beating out the Google Pixel 3's 16 hours, 47 minutes, but just below the Galaxy Note 9's 19 hours, 20 minutes.

And it's got a super fast charge. Using a new 40-watt charger, Huawei reckons it'll get 70 percent charge in only 30 minutes. Unfortunately I haven't been given a UK version of this plug so I'm yet to fully test this, but the European plug I tried it with -- used via an adapter -- did seem to charge quickly. I'll have to leave my final verdict on this until I've got my hands on a proper charger.

What's not to like?

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro isn't a perfect phone. The biggest issue is that Huawei has ditched the microSD card slot, opting instead for its own proprietary nano storage cards. These cards are smaller than microSD and in fact have an identical size and shape to nano SIM cards. Huawei is hoping that this will become the new default standard for phone storage.

And it may be right, but the fact remains that the microSD cards you've been using in other phones will no longer fit and you'll be forced to buy one of Huawei's new cards. That's if you can even find one -- at the time of writing, the new nano cards aren't available to buy and Huawei has yet to confirm pricing or availability for them.

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Josh Miller/CNET

For now it's best to think of the phone as having built-in storage only. Luckily then, it comes with 128GB as standard, so you probably won't run out of space any time soon. Hopefully by the time you do fill it up, you'll be able to buy the cards you need.

The other small issue I have is that Huawei has turned the USB-C charging slot into a loudspeaker. It's a cunning move to avoid putting a speaker on the front of the phone, but there is a glaring problem: When you plug it to charge, the sound is blocked. It may not be a problem all the time, but if you want to watch a lot of YouTube videos or listen to your favourite playlist, you'll have to decide between powering your phone and enjoying better audio quality. That is, unless you charge it wirelessly or use wireless headphones.

Should I buy it?

If you want to walk around knowing that your pocket is home to some of the most cutting-edge tech it's possible to put in a phone, then the Huawei Mate 20 Pro is for you. While the Pixel 3 XL, iPhone XS and Samsung Galaxy S9 are generally great phones, they lack the pizzazz of Huawei's in-screen fingerprint scanner, its two-way wireless charging and its eye-catching colour choices.

The phone's lack of standard microSD card support is frustrating, so if that's a real problem for you then it's Samsung's offering you need to choose.

Huawei Mate 20 Pro specs comparison


Huawei Mate 20 ProGoogle Pixel 3 XLiPhone XS MaxSamsung Galaxy S9 Plus
Display size, resolution 6.39-inch AMOLED; 3,120x1,440 pixels6.3-inch "flexible" OLED; 2,960x1,440 pixels6.5-inch Super Retina OLED; 2,688x1,242 pixels6.2-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 538ppi522 ppi458 ppi529ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.21 x 2.85 x 0.34 in 6.2x3x.03 in6.2x3.0x.3 in6.22x2.91x0.33 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 157.8 x 72.3 x 8.6 mm158x76.7x7.9 mm157.5x77.4x7.7 mm158.1x73.8x8.5 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.67 oz; 189g 6.5 oz; 184g7.3oz; 208g6.66 oz; 189g
Mobile software Android 9 PieAndroid 9 PieiOS 12Android 8.0 Oreo
Camera 40-megapixel, f1.8, 27mm (wide); 20-megapixel, f2.2, 16mm (ultrawide); 8-megapixel, f2.4, 80mm (telephoto); OIS12.2-megapixelDual 12-megapixelDual 12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 24-megapixel, f2.0, 26mmDual 8-megapixel7-megapixel with Face ID8-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K
Processor Kirin 980 (octa-core) Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (2.5GHz octa-core)Apple A12 BionicQualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor (2.8GHz + 1.7GHz octa-core), or Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7 GHz + 1.7 GHz octa-core)
Storage 128GB64GB, 128GB64GB, 256GB, 512GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM 6GB4GBNot disclosed6GB
Expandable storage Nano SD (not microSD) up to 256GBNoneNone400GB
Battery 4,200-mAh3,430-mAhNot disclosed, but Apple claims it will last 90 min. longer than iPhone X3,500-mAh
Fingerprint sensor in-displayBack coverNone (Face ID)Back
Connector USB-CUSB-CLightningUSB-C
Headphone jack NoNoNoYes
Special features In-display fingerprint sensor, two-way wireless charging, water resistant, super-fast chargingIPX8, wireless charging support, Pixel Buds USB-C headphones in the boxWater resistant (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging; Face ID; MemojiDual-aperture camera, water resistant (IP68); super slow-motion video; wireless charging; iris scanning
Price off-contract (USD) Converts to roughly $1,000$899 (64GB); $999 (128GB)$1,099 (64GB), $1,249 (256GB), $1,449 (512GB)$840 (64GB); $890 (128GB); $960 (256GB)
Price (GBP) £899 £869 (64GB); £969 (128GB)$1,099 (64GB), $1,249 (256GB), $1,449 (512GB)£869 (128GB); £929 (256GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,599AU$1,349 (64GB); AU$1,499 (128GB)AU$1,799 (64GB), AU$2,049 (256GB), AU$2,369 (512GB)AU$1,349 (64GB), AU$1,499 (256GB)
huawei-mate-20-pro-9576
9.0

Huawei Mate 20 Pro

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 9Camera 9Battery 10