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

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 P20 Huawei P20 Pro Nokia 8 Sirocco Samsung 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 pixels 5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 428ppi 408ppi 534ppi 570ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.9x2.8x0.3 in 6.1x2.9x0.31 in 5.55x2.87x0.30 in 5.81x2.70x0.33 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 149.1x70.8x7.65mm 155x73.9x7.8mm 140.93x72.97x7.5 mm 147.7x68.7x8.5 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.8 oz; 165g 6.3 oz; 180g N/A 5.75 oz; 163g
Mobile software Android 8.1 Oreo Android 8.1 Oreo Android 8.0 Oreo One Android 8.0 Oreo
Camera 12-megapixel RGB, 20-megapixel monochrome 40-megapixel RGB, 20-megapixel monochrome, 8-megapitxel telephoto 12-megapixel (standard), 13-megapixel telephoto 12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 24-megapixel camera 24-megapixel camera 5-megapixel 8-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor 2.3GHz octa-core Kirin 970 2.3GHz octa-core Kirin 970 Octa-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 128GB 128GB 128GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM 4GB 6GB 6GB 4GB
Expandable storage None None 256GB 400GB
Battery 3,400mAh 4,000mAh 3,260mAh 3,000mAh
Fingerprint sensor Below screen Below screen Back Back
Connector USB-C USB-C USB-C USB-C
Headphone jack No No No Yes
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 charging Dual-aperture camera, water-resistant (IP68); super slo-mo video; wireless charging; iris scanning
Price off-contract (USD) Converts to $839 Converts to $1,140 Converts to $925 Varies: $720-$800 (64GB)
Price (GBP) £599 £799 Converts to £660 £739
Price (AUD) AU$999 AU$1,099 AU$1,199 AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (256GB)

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