Phones

A top-notch camera in Huawei P20 Pro

Huawei P20 Pro
Huawei P20 Pro

Huawei rolls out the world's first triple-camera system with its new P20 Pro, tapping its stellar camera hardware to good effect

The Huawei P20 Pro catapults the Chinese firm into the upper echelon of smartphone makers.

It seems churlish to say that of Huawei, which ranked third in sales globally last year after shipping about 153 million smartphones.

But in many aspects, it has been playing catch-up. Notably, its Android-based EMUI software has invited comparisons with both Apple and Samsung, having similar features and design elements as its bigger rivals.

But an area Huawei has been working diligently to get ahead of the competition is the camera. In 2016, the Huawei P9 was one of the first smartphones with a dualcamera system.

More importantly, it was the start of Huawei's collaboration with German camera-maker Leica, a partnership that has yielded the world's first triple-camera system with the new P20 Pro.

The P20 Pro taps its stellar camera hardware - consisting of a 40-megapixel (MP) RGB lens, a 20MP monochrome lens and an 8MP telephoto lens - to good effect.

Its low-light performance is impressive for a smartphone camera, thanks to a Night mode that opens the camera shutter for up to six seconds to take multiple shots that are then composited for a clear and sharp image.

It offers 5x hybrid zoom using a combination of its telephoto lens, which has up to 3x optical zoom, and the main camera. It even goes up to 10x digital zoom, using software to enhance the zoomed-in image to keep it relatively sharp.

This feature does not seem like a big deal, but I found myself using it as makeshift binoculars to make out the letterings on faraway signs and billboards.

  • SPECS

    PRICE: $1,148

    PROCESSOR: Kirin 970 (Quad-core 2.36GHz, quad-core 1.8GHz)

    DISPLAY: 6.1-inch, Oled, 2,240 x 1,080 pixels, 408 ppi pixel density

    OPERATING SYSTEM: EMUI 8.1 (Android 8.1)

    MEMORY: 128GB, 6GB RAM

    REAR CAMERA: 40MP RGB (f/1.8), 20MP monochrome (f/1.6) and 8MP telephoto (f/2.4)

    FRONT CAMERA: 24MP (f/2.0) BATTERY: Non-removable 4,000mAh

    RATING

    FEATURES: 5/5

    DESIGN: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 5/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 5/5

    OVERALL: 5/5

For camera enthusiasts, the Pro mode lets them manually adjust settings and even shoot in RAW format at the camera's maximum 40MP resolution. However, the camera loses the ability to zoom at this resolution.

Most users would probably go with the default 10MP option in the settings. This mode combines four pixels from the 40MP camera into one to give a better-looking image.

The P20 Pro taps its on-board artificial intelligence (AI) chip to automatically adjust the camera settings based on the scene.

When I tested it, it correctly identified everyday scenes, from food (it brightens the area within the plate) to greenery (it makes the greens in the scene more vibrant) to portraits (it simulates the blurred background bokeh effect). Speaking of which, its bokeh effect is impressive - natural-looking and without any hard edges around the person.

But I am not a fan of the way the camera handles textures and skin. The software processing tends to overdo the noise reduction and sharpening, leading to extra-smooth images that, when zoomed in on a computer screen, lack detail. Human faces, in particular, look smeary, with wrinkles and age spots practically erased.

To be fair, this approach to image processing is not unique to Huawei. Viewed on a smartphone screen though, this does not matter as you cannot make out the loss of detail. It makes the P20 Pro great for taking photos for social media or websites.

Overall, the P20 Pro makes a strong case for having the best smartphone camera in the market, though the phone itself is not without drawbacks.

The P20 Pro has a striking, glass back design. And if you get the twilight version (available next month), the phone's colour will appear to change when viewed from different angles.

The rest of the phone is more ordinary. Huawei may even get brickbats for some of its design decisions.

The notch at the top of the screen, narrower than the one on the Apple iPhone X, is a likely lightning rod for detractors. But it can be concealed somewhat by turning the top of the screen black in the phone's settings. The notch is also not used by video apps such as YouTube, so its screen actually looks like any other notch-less smartphone.

I would have liked its fingerprint sensor to be at the back instead of the front, squashed between its 6.1-inch Oled screen and the bottom edge.

The P20 Pro has a super-fast face unlock feature using its front 24MP selfie camera, though it is probably not as secure as fingerprint recognition.

Others may bemoan its lack of a microSD card slot, which is aggravated by its relatively modest 128GB internal storage.

There is also no headphone jack or wireless charging, all of which are features on the competing Samsung Galaxy S9 series.

The resolution of its Oled screen is also not as high as the S9 series', though it does look very good. It supports high-dynamic range videos from Netflix.

Battery life is excellent as expected, given its 4,000mAh battery. It lasted 141/2 hours in our video-loop battery test at maximum brightness, which is an entire hour longer than the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and almost six hours longer than the iPhone X.

The P20 Pro will probably last around 11/2 days on a single charge in everyday usage.

•Verdict: The P20 Pro packs an excellent camera within its attractive slim body. The design trade-offs made by Huawei will not please everyone, but its competitive price may win over doubters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2018, with the headline 'A top-notch camera in Huawei P20 Pro'. Print Edition | Subscribe