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Huawei P20 review: A killer low-light camera you can actually afford

It has the Huawei P20 Pro's night mode, but costs you hundreds less.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Money, How-To & Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads the CNET Money, How-To, and Performance teams. A California native who grew up in Silicon Valley, she's passionate about connecting people with the highest standard of advice to help them reach their goals.

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If you're lusting after the Huawei P20 Pro's three rear cameras and mesmerizing "twilight" color, but can't justify the high price, then the "regular" Huawei P20 is the phone to get. Cheaper by hundreds, the P20's dual rear camera has the P20 Pro's same killer low-light camera mode that makes your photos of dimly-lit cocktails pop, and an iridescent color option that absolutely leaps out of the crowd.

huawei-p20-and-p20-pro-0106
8.0

Huawei P20

The Good

The Huawei P20 takes terrific low-light photos from the dual rear camera, comes in some astounding colors and is small enough to use with one hand. Like the P20 Pro, it lets you hide the default screen notch many Android fans hate.

The Bad

Why is the P20 only splash-proof, but not rated water-resistant like the P20 Pro? There's no headset jack. You won't be able to buy it in the US.

The Bottom Line

The Huawei P20 cuts some luxuries, but delivers similarly spectacular low-light photos of the Pro model.

Even if you're not comparing it to the P20 Pro (more on that below), the P20 here delivers good performance for a middish-price phone that fits well in the hand.

huawei-p20-and-p20-pro-0106

If you don't like that notch, don't worry. You can turn it off in the settings.

Josh Miller/CNET

But compare it to other phones in its class and the situation gets murkier. The Huawei P20, is suspended in limbo waiting for competitors like the OnePlus 6 to launch May 16 and the Nokia 8 Sirocco to sell on April 30.

So if the P20 Pro's £799/AU$1,099 price spikes outside your budget, the £599/AU$999 Huawei P20 (which converts to $839) is the smart buy, and you don't sacrifice many important features (keep reading for more details). The Huawei P20 also costs £140 less than the Galaxy S9.

However, it's too early to say how the Huawei P20 fares for its price category. I'd wait until the OnePlus 6 and Nokia 8 Sirocco reviews are in to see how the phone's main rivals pan out.

Note: The Huawei P20 and P20 Pro won't sell in the US, due to government pressure that caused AT&T and Verizon, and Best Buy to back away from selling Huawei phones.

Huawei P20 vs. Huawei P20 Pro: What's the difference?

The Huawei P20 is cheaper and a little simpler than the P20 Pro in every way.

It has a 5.8-inch LCD screen rather than a 6.1-inch OLED display. The picture quality is notably richer when you hold both phones side by side, but the P20 is still plenty usable. The P20 also has shorter battery life and "only" two cameras on the back instead of the P20 Pro's three sensors. It's splash-proof (IP53) while the P20 Pro is fully water-resistant for up to 3 feet and 30 minutes (IP68).

Huawei P20 and P20 Pro aim to one-up Samsung

See all photos

But the two phones share DNA as well: a 24-megapixel selfie camera, the same Huawei-made Kirin processor, Android 8.0 Oreo and almost all the same camera features as the pricier Pro (minus the telephoto lens and 3X optical zoom -- you can still zoom digitally).

See the chart at the end for a full specs comparison.

Huawei P20 many not have 3 cameras on the back, but...

I'd keep every one of the photos taken on the P20.

Huawei saved its three rear cameras for the P20 Pro, including a 40-megapixel lens, but the P20 has most of the same settings, and its 12-megapixel main camera (RGB) can hold its own. There's also a 20-megapixel monochrome lens that helps add detail.

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The Huawei P20 has a 12-megapixel camera and a 20-megapixel monochrome lens.

Josh Miller/CNET

Huawei piled on the photo settings, which makes the native camera app a little confusing, but photography buffs will find what they need and then some: Pro mode, super slow motion video, extra lighting options for portrait photos on both front and rear cameras, and predictive focus.

Perhaps one of my favorite extras is a small bit of camera software that asks you if you prefer your selfies taken the standard way, which flips them, or in mirror mode, which looks exactly like you do when you're posing for your snapshot (see example below). 

HDR is its own separate mode, which is a shame; I'd prefer it to be automatic. Beauty mode, which softens skin tone, seems to linger even when you set the scale to zero.

Night Mode is a separate setting that combines a multitude of shots taken behind the scenes over the course of 4 seconds into one shot that's consistently bright and colorful even in low light -- more so than photos taken at night in the automatic mode.

One thing that's a little different: Huawei's photography AI automatically applies settings to make common scenes look their best. A dog or cat. A close-up of a flower petal, blue sky, greenery, a portrait, text. You can dismiss suggestions on a case-by-case basis or entirely turn them off in the settings. Sometimes I liked it; other times it was a little much.

Huawei P20 camera vs. P20 Pro

I took test shots on both P20 phones: indoors, outdoors, portrait and low light. I expected the P20 Pro pictures to blow the P20 out of the water, but they didn't always. Instead, depending on the lighting and the scene, they swapped roles.

p20-pro-selfie-classic-lighting

The Huawei P20, left, rendered my hazel eyes in greyscale using portrait lighting in "Classic". Using the same selfie setting, the P20 Pro repeatedly made my eyes ink-black.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

For example, the P20 Pro showed much more detail and texture when we zoomed all the way into the picture of a portrait on the same laptop screen. But it was the regular P20 that produced warmer and better exposed images of an indoor shot of a shuffleboard, which had mixed lighting, and we preferred the detail and warmth in a portrait mode photo of my coworker and his tie-dyed hat.

The biggest surprise of all was when I used the P20 and P20 Pro's portrait lighting mode in Classic Lighting (kind of like a black and white spotlight shot). In two different locations, the P20 rendered my eyes in grayscale. 

The same pictures taken in the same spot on the P20 Pro made me look like a black-eyed, bug-eyed alien (e.g. Mantis, in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). The same happened again after after I updated to the latest software. Feels like a bug, but not a deal breaker.

Huawei P20's design, performance and battery

Here are the most important things you need to know that aren't to do with the camera.

Here's how you turn of the Huawei P20's notch.

CNET

Design: The design is really nice, with slim side bezels and a mirrored finish. Just get used to greasy fingerprints mucking up the body, or buy a case. The P20's LCD screen isn't as rich as the P20 Pro's OLED display, but you'll fare just fine for daily activities. A fingerprint sensor below the screen means the phone isn't bezel-free, but it was fast and accurate, so I didn't mind. Warning: This area is for unlocking only; it isn't a home button.

The "notch" you can turn off: The P20 comes with a notch design by default, which makes it look like someone took a chunk out of the screen at the top of the phone. More accurately, it means that the screen extends to the left and right sides of the camera and speaker. A lot of people hate this look. If you're one of them, you can turn off the Huawei P20's notch in the settings, which blacks out the screen to form a uniform bar across the top.

No headset jack: Sorry. But the box comes with a USB-C dongle attachment if you want to use your wired headphones. Wanna know what else comes in the box? Watch my Huawei P20 unboxing.

Battery life: The P20 has a 3,400mAh battery. It ran for 15 hours in CNET's battery drain test on a looped video, with the phone set to airplane mode. That's only 45 minutes less than the P20 Pro average, and two hours less than the Galaxy S9 Plus, which has a battery of just about the same capacity (3,500mAh). In real world testing, the P20 will get you through a work day, but like most phones, you'll need to plan on charging it once a day. Resource-intensive activities like streaming music and maps navigation will suck down your reserves faster.  

Speed and performance: Like the P20 Pro, the Huawei P20 has a 2.3GHz octa-core Kirin 970 processor made by the company in-house. In three benchmarking tests, the P20's score was about half that of the Galaxy S9's. We average three runs for every benchmark to arrive at the final result. However, benchmarks are only one performance indicator and in real life, the P20, while perhaps not quite as zippy, was absolutely not 50 percent slower than the Galaxy S9.

Storage space: There's plenty of it. 128GB by default, which is ample room for your photos and videos. However, when it's gone, it's gone. Neither Huawei P20 phone has expandable storage.

Colors: You can buy the Huawei P20 in black, blue, twilight, pink gold and champagne gold (this one has a gradient, too).

Huawei P20 versus P20 Pro, Nokia 8 Sirocco and Galaxy S9


Huawei P20Huawei P20 ProNokia 8 SiroccoSamsung Galaxy S9
Display size, resolution 5.8-inch; 2,244x1,080 pixels (LCD)6.1-inch; 2,240x1,080 pixels (OLED)5.5-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 428ppi408ppi534ppi570ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.9x2.8x0.3 in6.1x2.9x0.31 in5.55x2.87x0.30 in5.81x2.70x0.33 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 149.1x70.8x7.65mm155x73.9x7.8mm140.93x72.97x7.5 mm147.7x68.7x8.5 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.8 oz; 165g6.3 oz; 180gN/A5.75 oz; 163g
Mobile software Android 8.1 OreoAndroid 8.1 OreoAndroid 8.0 Oreo OneAndroid 8.0 Oreo
Camera 12-megapixel RGB, 20-megapixel monochrome40-megapixel RGB, 20-megapixel monochrome, 8-megapitxel telephoto 12-megapixel (standard), 13-megapixel telephoto12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 24-megapixel camera24-megapixel camera5-megapixel8-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K
Processor 2.3GHz octa-core Kirin 9702.3GHz octa-core Kirin 970Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor (2.36 GHz + 1.9GHz)Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor (2.8GHz + 1.7GHz), or octa-core Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7GHz + 1.7GHz)
Storage 128GB128GB128GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM 4GB6GB6GB4GB
Expandable storage NoneNone256GB400GB
Battery 3,400mAh4,000mAh3,260mAh3,000mAh
Fingerprint sensor Below screenBelow screenBackBack
Connector USB-CUSB-CUSB-CUSB-C
Headphone jack NoNoNoYes
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)Water-resistant (IP67); wireless chargingDual-aperture camera, water-resistant (IP68); super slo-mo video; wireless charging; iris scanning
Price off-contract (USD) Converts to $839Converts to $1,140Converts to $925Varies: $720-$800 (64GB)
Price (GBP) £599£799Converts to £660£739
Price (AUD) AU$999AU$1,099AU$1,199AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (256GB)
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Huawei P20

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Camera 8Battery 8