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

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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.

8.4 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Camera 8
  • Battery 8

The Huawei Honor 10 is a speedy Android phone with a notch. Check out our review. 

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.

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.)

Low-light photos are even better than the brand-new Galaxy S9 ($640 at Amazon) 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 ($731 at Amazon). 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.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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 ($729 at Amazon). 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 ($999 at Walmart). 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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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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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