Phones

A hole new design

Kicking off a phone design trend, the Honor View20's front-facing camera sits in a hole-punch display at the screen's left corner

The Honor View20 is the bellwether for how this year's crop of smartphones will look. The flagship device from Honor, the sub-brand of Chinese smartphone-maker Huawei, was launched here last Thursday.

It has a hole-punch display - the left corner of the screen has a circular display cutout to accommodate the front-facing camera.

This alternative to the display notch popularised by the Apple iPhone X is expected to appear in many smartphones this year, including Samsung's upcoming Galaxy S10 series.

Like the display notch, I soon got used to the hole-punch cutout. It resides quietly at the corner like other icons in the status bar.

It is probably less intrusive than the notch while watching videos or playing games in landscape orientation because my left hand will likely be covering that corner anyway while holding the phone.

In fact, I was more annoyed that Honor has placed its headphone jack at the same top-left corner as the hole-punch. This means that the headphone cord gets in my way when I use the View20 in landscape mode.

YouTube videos expand to fill the space around the hole-punch camera, while the Netflix app adds its own black bars at the sides of the screen to work around it.

And if the hole-punch bothers you, the View20 has a setting that enables a black bar at the top to conceal it.

  • SPECS 

  • PRICE: $829

    PROCESSOR: Kirin 980 (dual-core 2.6GHz, dual-core 1.92GHz, quad-core 1.8GHz)

    DISPLAY: 6.4-inch, IPS LCD, 2,310 x 1,080 pixels, 398 ppi pixel density

    OPERATING SYSTEM: Magic UI 2 (Android 9.0)

    MEMORY: 256GB, 8GB RAM

    REAR CAMERA: 48MP (f/1.8), time-of-flight (TOF) 3-D camera

    FRONT CAMERA: 25MP (f/2.0)

    BATTERY: Non-removable 4,000mAh battery

  • RATING

  • FEATURES: 4/5

    DESIGN: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4.5/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 4.5/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 4/5

    OVERALL: 4.5/5

The display itself is surrounded by narrow bezels, with the bottom chin slightly thicker than the rest. This 6.4-inch LCD screen offers good, vibrant colours.

Its 2,310 x 1,080-pixel resolution is just about sharp enough that you won't see any jagged edges while reading text. The screen is also bright enough - barely - to be used outdoors on a sunny afternoon.

Its other noteworthy feature is the 48-megapixel (MP) rear camera, which uses Sony's latest IMX586 image sensor to take photos of 8,000 x 6,000 pixels.

Although this sensor has a relatively small pixel size of 0.8 microns - leading to more noise - compared with 1.4 microns in Samsung's and Google's top models, Sony says the camera can combine the data from adjacent pixels to effectively act like a 12MP camera with a 1.6-micron sensor.

In other words, you should probably use the camera at its default 12MP resolution for best results. These photos look excellent - sharp with good contrast and little noise. Photos at 48MP resolution are usable, of course, but pack more noise than their 12MP versions.

But Honor has also added its own twist by tapping the artificial intelligence (AI) prowess of the View20's Kirin 980 processor - the same chip in Huawei's flagship Mate 20 series - to merge multiple 48MP shots in real time to create an ultra-sharp 48MP photo.

Dubbed AI Ultra Clarity, this shooting mode creates high-resolutions photos that effectively allow you to zoom in to look at the captured details, sort of like shooting through a telephoto lens that is missing in the View20.

While I was unable to test this feature in depth - the firmware update did not arrive in time for the review - I did manage to get a short hands-on with this mode and came away impressed with the level of clarity in the composite 48MP image.

It works best without any moving objects because, like a long-exposure shot, you basically have to hold the smartphone steady while it takes multiple shots of the scene.

Speaking of which, the View20 has a night mode that requires you to hold the phone still for a few seconds. Photos generally turned out brighter in this mode compared with the default Auto mode, though there were instances where I preferred the photo taken in Auto because the colours looked more natural.

Another feature that I could not test, pending a software update, is its secondary time-of-flight camera, which uses light to map a distant object in 3D. Honor says it can be used to scan objects and re-shape the body of an object, like giving a person thinner legs. This body-shaping function is in the camera app, which I tried in a demo. But I don't see myself using it after the novelty wears off.

Like most smartphones these days, the View20 has glass at its front and back. But Honor has imbued the glass back with a striking V-shaped chevron pattern while the edges of the back also exhibit a gradient effect. This holographic-like look will divide opinions.

It lacks wireless charging, though its fast-charging technology more than makes up for it by fully charging the device in slightly over an hour.

There is also no waterproofing, which is common among high-end phones. Neither does it have an SD card slot.

Its mobile operating system is based on Android 9, but has its own user interface, dubbed Magic UI, on top. It feels smooth and fast, thanks to the powerful Kirin 980 processor and the 8GB system memory on my review set.

Currently, Magic UI is near-identical to Huawei's EMUI software - the only difference I noticed is that it brings up the Google Feed page instead of Huawei's own HiBoard feed when I swipe right at the home screen. Honor says it plans to further differentiate Magic UI to appeal to younger users.

Given its 4,000mAh battery, I was expecting better battery life from the View20. While it will easily last an entire day and more, its stamina of 12hr 15min in our video-loop battery test is good but not outstanding.

My review set (8GB of memory and 256GB storage) is priced at $829, which makes it more affordable than top smartphones, including Huawei's flagship models. More importantly, it stacks up well against rival models from Xiaomi and OnePlus.

Honor also sells a cheaper variant with 6GB memory and 128GB storage at $699.

• Verdict: The hole-punch display design trend is on a roll with the Honor View20, which marries excellent performance with an impressive rear camera. It also offers great value for money.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2019, with the headline 'A hole new design'. Print Edition | Subscribe