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Huawei P20 Pro review: Triple-threat camera beats the Galaxy S9 Plus

Those cameras aren't a gimmick: This phone takes superb shots in low light.

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Andrew Lanxon
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Andrew Lanxon

Lead Editor, CNET Advice, Europe; Lead Photographer, Europe

Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.

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13 min read

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I like things that stand out. It's why I've always been a fan of giraffes on an open plain and always fundamentally mistrusted those insects that disguise themselves as dead leaves.

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8.4

Huawei P20 Pro

The Good

The Huawei P20 Pro's three cameras snap amazing shots in low light. Its coolest colour will turn heads.

The Bad

It lacks wireless charging, and there's no headphone jack or expandable storage. The auto camera settings don't always produce the best results.

The Bottom Line

The Huawei P20 Pro's groundbreaking low-light mode and stunning twilight colour scheme make it a serious contender to Galaxy, iPhone and Pixel phones. Sadly, you can't buy it in the US.

It's also why I like Huawei's new top-end phone, the P20 Pro. It stands out for two reasons: its magnificently bizarre iridescent pink and blue "twilight" colour (you can also get it in pink gold, solid blue or black), and the fact that it has a total of three cameras on the back.

Those lenses combine to take superb outdoor shots in the daytime, but at night they take the best low-light images I've ever seen from a phone, especially when you're using Night Mode. (That's after I dismiss Huawei's auto-optimisation software, which can oversaturate shots.)

Huawei P20 and P20 Pro aim to one-up Samsung

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Low-light photos are even better than the brand-new Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus from Samsung. Their 12-megapixel dual-aperture lenses can take bright shots in low-light, but often produce blurry shots if there's even the smallest amount of movement from your subject or your shaking hands. The P20 Pro wins here because it creates consistently detailed images that don't blur if your hands slightly shake as you hold the phone. Photos will still blur if a car passes or a photobomber leaps into the frame, but that's just the nature of the beast.

Inside the Huawei P20 Pro's psychedelic twilight shell is a metric tonne of top tech. The processor can't catch the Galaxy S9 for speed, but it will confidently power through any of your daily duties. The OLED screen -- complete with "optional" notch at the top -- makes everything you do on your phone pop, and the 4,000-mAh battery puts up one hell of a fight to keep it running throughout. The phone is water resistant, too, and passed CNET's two water-dunk tests.

In short, the Huawei P20 Pro ticks almost all the boxes of a flagship phone and does so with a look that sets it apart from the masses. At £799 in the UK and AU$1,099 in Australia, it's far from cheap, but it's the first premium Huawei phone that's worth your money. (UK price converts to about $1,140, though see below for a note on availability.)

It's a tough fight between the P20 Pro and the Galaxy S9 Plus. The S9 Plus' superior performance, higher screen resolution and headphone jack make it the better all-around phone to go for (the P20 Pro gives you a dongle to put in its USB-C charger port if you want to listen on wired headphones). But the P20 Pro's eye-catching colour scheme and awesome night photography skills are enticing. So if that design and three-camera setup speak to you, you won't miss all that much by picking the P20 Pro -- if it sells where you live.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The P20 Pro won't sell in the US

The P20 Pro isn't available in the US and that's not likely to change any time soon. The US government banned the sale of Huawei networking equipment in 2012 over concerns that Huawei would spy on the US through its products, especially its networking hardware. In February, the heads of the FBI, CIA and NSA all expressed concerns over the company's phones as well. 

And while carriers and retailers have distanced themselves from the Huawei brand in recent months, some devices remain available at Amazon and elsewhere. No other country has banned the manufacturer, although Australia blocked Huawei from working on its national broadband network (though the phone is available Down Under). 

Huawei has fought back by pointing out it has relationships with major carriers, corporations and consumers in more than 170 countries. "We have earned the trust of our partners across the global value chain," said a spokesman. Both the Huawei P20 Pro and P20 are currently on sale in Europe and Asia, and will be available in Australia soon.

Huawei P20 versus P20 Pro

So what about the regular Huawei P20? It's a completely different phone. 

It's smaller and has two rear cameras instead of three -- in other words, there's no telephoto lens. The P20's features are stepped down across the board. It uses a different camera sensor and screen technology, has a smaller battery with less RAM and it's more susceptible to water damage.

Still, the P20 is also a little cheaper at £599, which converts to about $850 or AU$1,100. It will be easier for many people to use one-handed. It still comes in that awesome blue-pink colour, and adds another gradient shade, called champagne gold. Scroll to the end of the review for the full specs comparison.

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The P20, lying down, next to the P20 Pro.

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P20 Pro design brings the fun back to phones

I love the P20 Pro's duo-tone twilight colour scheme. As far as I'm concerned, it's the only colour worth getting. The way the blue blends into the pink is fantastic, almost like the colours of petrol on water. It takes me back to a time when phones didn't take themselves quite so seriously and dared to look different -- 2004's hot pink Motorola Razr, for example. It's like that one guy in the office who turned up wearing a tie-dye t-shirt and flip flops, while everyone else arrived in grey business suits.

OnePlus teased a similar colour scheme on Twitter with the launch of the OnePlus 5. It was called "unicorn" and it was the fans' top vote when OnePlus asked which colour to make next. But OnePlus never went through with it. The OnePlus 5 eventually became available in black, white, red and gold, despite my numerous emails asking -- no, demanding -- that beautiful unicorn phone be put into production. Well, OnePlus's loss is likely Huawei's gain.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's not just the colours I like, it's the mirrored back, the curving glass that feels amazing to hold. Its reassuringly solid feel reminds me of the iPhone X. It's water resistant too (IP67), so you needn't worry about taking photos in the rain.

The downside is that the P20 Pro's backing is a fingerprint magnet, no matter which model you choose. Those cool colours will quickly be covered by a smeary layer of grease.

There's also no wireless charging. That's frustrating since the glass back would allow for it, unlike the previous model's metal casing. You also won't find a headphone jack, so be prepared to use either the included adapter dongle or make the switch to wireless headphones.

The P20 Pro's three cameras aren't a gimmick

Besides the bonkers colours, it's the three cameras on the back that make the Huawei P20 Pro truly exciting. They're arranged vertically down the left side of the phone's back. You have an astonishing 40-megapixel sensor (this is your main colour camera) and a 20-megapixel sensor that shoots only in black and white, but adds detail to shots. There's also an 8-megapixel telephoto lens that helps you zoom in close.

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That 40-megapixel camera is a ludicrous number of pixels for a phone, but the idea isn't to use them all at once. The default resolution is only 10 megapixels, but the Huawei P20 Pro uses the data captured by both lenses to create images that are sharp, well-exposed and have balanced colours. If you remember the Nokia 808 PureView's 41-megapixel camera from 2012, you kind of get the idea.

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Huawei P20 Pro outdoor camera test.

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Huawei P20 Pro outdoor camera test.

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Huawei P20 Pro outdoor camera test, with the AI scene detection enabled.

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Huawei P20 Pro outdoor camera test.

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The theory is that you'll get more detailed, balanced image quality from a higher-res camera. And in my own testing I've been impressed with the P20 Pro's shots. Outdoor images are colourful and pin-sharp, with a good balance of exposure between highlights and shadows.

The automatic mode uses AI to quickly and accurately recognise a scene in order to optimise settings. It can identify a stand of trees as "greenery", for example. But I often found I didn't like the "optimisations" the phone makes by default.

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On the left, a shot using the standard auto mode. On the right, the oversaturated result from the AI scene detection.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The P20 Pro's automatic mode mostly just boosted the image's saturation to the point where colours looked unnatural and garish. A scene that the phone recognised as greenery would boost the greens, while a "blue sky" scene would heavily oversaturate the blues. I regularly found that cancelling the auto scene detection resulted in more natural-looking shots that I could tweak more subtly in Snapseed, should I wish.

Let's go back to the 8-megapixel telephoto lens. Using it gives you three times (3x) optical zoom (the biggest optical zoom available on a phone), or a five times (5x) zoom, which combines both optical and digital cropping. At 3x zoom, images remain sharp and at 5x, you only lose a little of that detail. If you want to snap a picture of an elegant swan in the park but want to stay safely out of pecking range, the 5x zoom will do the trick.

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Outdoor shot using the wide angle lens. Note the tower in the background.

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The same shot, but this time using the 5x hybrid optical and digital zoom.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

But it's when the sun goes down that this phone shines. Low-light situations are typically where most phone cameras fail, but the Huawei P20 Pro's larger sensor size and stabilising software allow it to snap the best low-light images I've ever seen from a phone. Even dark, dingy bars are captured well, with plenty of detail visible in the shadows, while neon lights on walls remain properly exposed. It captured East London's city streets in all their gritty detail, with static items such as walls and street lamps remaining pin-sharp, even though I was holding the phone in my hand. Usually, you'd only see that kind of stability with a tripod to grip the phone in place.

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Huawei P20 Pro night mode camera test.

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Huawei P20 Pro night mode camera test.

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Huawei P20 Pro night mode camera test.

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The Huawei P20 Pro achieves this nighttime photo magic in a separate "night" mode by taking multiple, longer exposure shots to combine into one final image. As a result, images taken in night mode take 4 seconds to capture, which isn't ideal for quick snaps on a night out. What's so remarkable is that you don't need a tripod to steady the scene, so whether you're an amateur or an enthusiast, this mode will capture your attention. Waiting for 4 seconds would normally drive anyone batty, but if you're trying to capture a night shot and you have time to compose it, the P20's low-light skills are truly superb.

There's a wealth of shooting options too, including panorama, depth-of-field effects (aka portrait mode), pro modes for manual controls and a dedicated black-and-white mode that uses the monochrome sensor.

Portrait mode on the Huawei P20 Pro was pretty good when we tested the rear and front-facing cameras. Portrait shots didn't cut off the sides of glasses, but in some tricky lighting scenes, it did overexpose bright backgrounds more than other phones.

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Huawei P20 front-facing selfie camera test, outdoors.

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Huawei P20 front-facing selfie camera test, low-light with screen flash.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Selfies from the front-facing camera are decent but not astounding. Even in good outdoor light I found that fine details in the image had a softness to them, which was disappointing given the 24-megapixel resolution. But the exposure and colour balance is good for the most part and while it doesn't have the same low-light performance as the main camera, the screen can pulse bright white to act as a flash, which helps illuminate your face for selfies on dark nights out.

Huawei echoed the iPhone X in adding portrait lighting scenes to both the rear and front-facing cameras. These can add dramatic effects such as stage lighting and black-and-white vignettes. You can edit this lighting mode, as you can on the iPhone X.

Notch or not: P20 Pro lets you choose

Now that we've covered the triple camera, let's get back to another controversial feature: the notch.

The front of the phone is dominated by a 6.1-inch display, broken at the top by a notch similar to the one on the iPhone X. It works in much the same way on the Pro, with notifications, the time, battery and network information appearing in the small gaps on either side of the notch. Unlike the iPhone, however, you can turn the notch "off" in the settings. All that really happens is that the notch areas are digitally filled with black to give the appearance of a solid bar across the top. I preferred seeing the notch than losing that slim, bezel-free look.

My bigger gripe with the display is the fingerprint scanner under the screen. Putting the scanner there requires a "chin" that makes the phone longer than it would be if the fingerprint scanner could be moved to its back. As a result, the bezel is noticeably thicker at the bottom than it is at the top, even with the notch turned on. This gives the P20 Pro an off-putting unbalanced look.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Placing that fingerprint sensor beneath the screen is a break from Huawei's previous designs, which put it on the back. The fingerprint reader on the back of the Huawei Mate 10 Pro was fast and accurate to unlock, for example. Although I'm not a fan of the placement on this phone, the scanner was at least able to accurately read my fingerprint as fast as most top-end phones I've used.

The display itself is bright, vibrant and plenty sharp, thanks to its OLED screen -- the same screen technology you'll find on the Galaxy S9 and iPhone X -- and its 2,244x1,080-pixel resolution. That results in a pixel density of 408 pixels per inch, which is below the iPhone X's 458 ppi and the S9 Plus' 529 ppi. That isn't a difference you'll notice in everyday use, though. It was only when I held the P20 Pro and the S9 Plus right up to my face that I could see a difference -- and you're unlikely to spend much time with your phone 3 inches from your nose.

No escaping the notch: 15 phones with screen notches

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Plenty of power

The P20 Pro runs on Huawei's Kirin 970 octacore processor. It's fast, but not up there with the best of the best in benchmark terms. It achieved 6,751 on the Geekbench 4 multicore test, which put it a fair step below the S9 Plus' score of 8,416 and miles behind the iPhone X's 10,275. The difference in performance was much the same on the 3DMark Ice Storm: Unlimited test, too. In benchmark terms, the Pro's scores put it more alongside the OnePlus 5T -- a phone that costs several hundred pounds less.

That said, you're unlikely to find the phone lacking in the power stakes. Navigating the P20 Pro's interface is extremely swift, with no lag when opening menus or apps. Photo editing in Snapseed is a breeze and gaming in Riptide: Renegade and NOVA: Legacy was extremely smooth. 

In short: There's nothing you're likely to throw at this phone that it can't comfortably handle.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Huawei P20 Pro runs Android 8 Oreo at its core, over which Huawei has slapped its Emotion interface. This skin was clunky and unpleasant on earlier Huawei phones, but it's come a long way and these days it isn't at all bad. The overall look isn't too far from stock Android, apart from the lack of an app drawer (which you can put back in the settings).

It does come with various apps preinstalled, including Booking.com and eBay (both of which can be uninstalled), not to mention various Huawei services and two "SIM Toolkits", but the phone doesn't feel too cluttered as a result.

All-day battery life? Maybe, maybe not

There's a capacious 4,000-mAh battery, which Huawei says will get you a couple of days of use. That's larger than the battery on the Galaxy S9 Plus, but it doesn't necessarily last longer. It's not impossible to get more than a day of use, as long as you're careful with what you do. The phone holds its charge reliably in standby, so if you're the sort of person who glances at their phone every so often, enjoys a bit of Spotify on the bus home from work and sends a few texts, the P20 Pro won't struggle much to hit that two-day target.

More demanding use will, of course, drain it quicker. Shooting photos all day with the brightness on max, streaming lots of video or doing a lot of gaming will almost certainly leave you needing a charge in the evening. On our looping video rundown tests (in airplane mode), the P20 Pro lasted 15 hours, 45 minutes on a single run -- that's an average of five tests on three different phones. That puts it below the S9 Plus' average of 16 hours, 55 minutes and below Huawei's own Mate 10 Pro, which clocked up almost 20 hours on the same test.

Huawei P20 Pro shows off its three cameras with four new standout colors

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Huawei P20 Pro vs. the competition

Assuming you can get your hands on the Huawei P20 Pro (sorry, America, your loss), here's how it compares to the regular Huawei P20, Galaxy S9 phones, iPhone X and Google Pixel 2 and 2 XL.

Huawei P20: The features that make the P20 Pro so exciting are absent on its smaller sibling. You still get that cool pink-and-blue colour, but the camera bravado is gone. There's a 12-megapixel rear shooter instead of a 40-megapixel colour sensor. There's no telephoto lens. You get a smaller screen, different screen technology (LCD instead of OLED), a smaller battery and less RAM. The body is only splash-resistant and can't take a dunking. I was impressed with the shots taken with the additional lens on the P20 Pro, so if photography is crucial to you, stick with the Pro.

Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus: The P20 Pro's night-time photography skills are what puts this phone above the Galaxy S9 Plus, even more so than the monochrome or telephoto camera sensors. There really is no competition when the light drops. But if low-light shooting isn't a priority for you, the Galaxy S9 Plus' faster performance and sharper screen make it the better option. The headphone jack and microSD card slot on the S9 are worth having, too. And the purple-and-blue colour potions are almost as cool as the P20 Pro's twilight hue, though not quite as good.

iPhone X: While there are no bright colours to be seen, the iPhone X has an unquestionably stunning design. It's an all-round powerhouse too, with a lightning-fast processor and brilliant camera for almost any shooting condition. The iPhone also has an innovation edge with its 3D face unlock (but no fingerprint reader if Apple's Face ID fails). The P20 Pro is the king in low light though, and its cheaper price for a large-storage device sweetens the deal. Remember, too, that new iPhones are expected in September.

Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL: The Pixel 2 phones were the previous kings of low-light photography, but the P20 Pro has taken that crown. Mix in the colourful, water-resistant design and the P20 Pro is the more attractive option. The Pixel 2's stripped-back Android interface is still worth considering though, particularly if an easy to use, fuss-free interface is important.

Huawei P20 Pro specs comparison chart


Huawei P20 ProSamsung Galaxy S9 PlusiPhone XOnePlus 5T
Display size, resolution 6.1-inch; 2,240x1,080 pixels6.2-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels5.8-inch; 2,436x1,125 pixels6-inch; 2,160x1,080 pixels
Pixel density, tech 408ppi; OLED529ppi; OLED458 ppi; OLED401ppi; OLED
Dimensions (Inches) 6.1x2.9x0.31 in6.22x2.91x0.33 in5.7x2.79x0.30 in6.1x2.92x0.29 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 155x73.9x7.8 mm158.1x73.8x8.5 mm143.6x70.9x7.7 mm154.2x74.1x7.3 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.3 oz; 180 g6.66 oz; 189 g6.14 oz; 174 g5.71 oz; 162 g
Mobile software Android 8.1 OreoAndroid 8.0 OreoiOS 11Android 7.1.1 Nougat
Camera 40-megapixel RGB, 20-megapixel monochrome, 8-megapixel telephoto Dual 12-megapixelDual 12-megapixel16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel telephoto
Front-facing camera 24-megapixel8-megapixel7-megapixel16-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K
Processor 2.3GHz octacore Kirin 970Octacore Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor (2.8GHz + 1.7GHz), or octacore Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7 GHz + 1.7 GHz)Apple A11 Bionic2.45GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
Storage 128GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB64GB, 256GB64GB, 128GB
RAM 6GB6GBNot disclosed6GB, 8GB
Expandable storage NomicroSD up to 400GBNoNo
Battery 4,000mAh3,500mAhNot disclosed3,300mAh
Fingerprint sensor Below screenBackNone (Face ID via TrueDepth camera)Back of phone
Connector USB-CUSB-CLightningUSB-C
Headphone jack NoYesNoYes
Special features Three rear cameras, super slo-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 scanningWater resistant (IP67), wireless Qi charge compatible, TrueDepth front-facing camera adds Face ID for payments and enables front-facing AR effectsPortrait mode, notifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash Charging
Price off-contract (USD) $1,140, convertedVaries: $840-$930 (64GB)$999 (64GB), $1,149 (256GB)$479 (64GB), $539 (128GB)
Price (GBP) £799£869£999 (64GB), £1,149 (256GB)£449 (64GB), £499 (128GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,099AU$1,349 (64GB), AU$1,499 (256GB)AU$1,579 (64GB), AU$1,829 (256GB)AU$599(64GB), AU$699 (128GB)
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8.4

Huawei P20 Pro

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Camera 8Battery 8