Sometimes an action intended to create a positive outcome is simultaneously intertwined with negative consequences. For every yin, there is a yang; for every good, a bad; for every … you get the picture.
Having spent the past few weeks with the latest Huawei flagship, the Mate 20 Pro, that is the one niggling thought that keeps reverberating around my head as I try to sum this phone up. By packing the device with some truly impressive smarts, Huawei has sacrificed other — and I would even argue integral — features.
But more on that later.
The story so far
On paper and, indeed, in practice, Huawei’s latest premium handset is a monster on just about every level. The Huawei Mate 20 Pro promises pretty much everything one could hope for from a smartphone in 2018, and then some: long battery life, a high-quality camera with AI-infused effects, an in-screen fingerprint reader, and even a built-in wireless charging pad to power up all your compatible devices. I’m not sure how many consumers were requesting that last one, but hey … we’ll take it.
Before we dig too deep into what it’s like to use the device on a day-to-day basis, here’s a quick overview of the phone’s innards. Everyone likes specs, right? Right.
What lurks beneath: the specs
Size (mm): 72.3 x 157.8 x 8.6
Aspect ratio: 19.5:9
Weight: 189 grams
Screen: 6.39-inch OLED display (3120 x 1440)
SIM: Dual-Nano SIM
Storage: 128GB / 256GB (expandable by a further 256GB via Huawei’s new Nano memory card slot, which doubles as the secondary SIM card slot)
RAM: 6GB / 8GB
Chipset: Huawei Kirin 980
Rear camera (Triple Leica lenses): 40-megapixel wide angle, 20-megapixel ultra wide angle, 8-megapixel telephoto
Front (selfie) camera: 24-megapixel
Water resistance: IP68
Operating system: EMUI 9.0 (Android 9)
Battery: 4,200 mAh
Ports: 1 x USB-C
Usually you can tell whether you’ll like a device within a minute of setting eyes on it and picking it up. There’s just something about the feel, the aesthetics, the weight, the texture. Some phones shout “square,” “bezels,” “heft,” or a bunch of other descriptors that get you off on the wrong footing. And when that happens, it becomes just a little bit harder to forgive minor imperfections.
Fortunately, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro doesn’t suffer from any of that. It really is a beautiful phone. Aesthetically, my first impression was that this is a close relative to one of the Samsung Galaxy devices, such as the S9 or Note9, with a slender body and gorgeous polished curved display. However, the distinctive wide notch at the top also edges this phone into iPhone X territory.
The small bezels have allowed Huawei to maximize screen real estate, and while the display stands out as large and bright, the device doesn’t scream BIG. It’s easy to hold, certainly compared to many other flagships on the market at the moment, and the form factor is one of the most noticeably impressive facets of the device. It gets things off to a good start.
Charging and battery
As with most phones, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro ships partly juiced, so you can turn it on straight out of the box. But out of habit, I like to fully charge things before I get going — setting everything up after unboxing can be a power-intensive process.
So this feels like a good point to talk about one of the most impressive aspects of the Huawei Mate 20 Pro: the battery.
To illustrate how quickly its new flagship regains its power, during charging Huawei displays the battery percentage with two digits after the decimal point. So when you’re watching it juice up (as we all love to do, right?), it rolls up fluidly, giving the impression that it is charging super quick.
But this is more than a visual trick — the Huawei Mate 20 Pro really does charge ridiculously quickly. Thanks to the 40-watt wired SuperCharge functionality, the gargantuan 4,200 mAh battery can go from nearly nought to 100 percent in a fraction more than an hour. But if you don’t need a full charge — and you likely won’t, given how long the battery lasts — 30 minutes provides nearly 70 percent charge.
It’s worth noting here that the Huawei Mate 20 Pro is also equipped for 15-watt wireless charging, but I didn’t try that out as I don’t have the wireless charging pad. Besides, with the option to SuperCharge through a wire, I’m not sure I’d ever find much need to juice this up wirelessly. That is one peripheral I can live without.
Now, in terms of battery life, I’d say the Huawei Mate 20 Pro has the best longevity of any phone I’ve used. In my first test, I charged the phone to 100 percent on Sunday night, and by Wednesday morning it still had 10 percent remaining. To be clear, I wasn’t doing any kind of battery-sapping activity, such as streaming movies or albums, but I wasn’t being conservative either — just the usual phone-unlocking a million times a day to check Gmail, Slack, Google Maps, random internet things, the occasional YouTube video, and so on.
However, I should point out some of the ways Huawei achieves this extra life. The battery size is only one piece of the puzzle here, part of the reason the Huawei Mate 20 Pro has such longevity is that it optimizes the apps running on your phone to minimize unnecessary drainage. It actually took me a while to realize why I wasn’t getting nearly as many push notifications as usual — Huawei’s software was the root cause. This is great for your battery, but not so great if you’re trying to keep on top of important things in your life.
For example, Gmail and WhatsApp seemed fine in terms of push notifications, but others, such as activity-tracking apps, eBay, Twitter, Words With Friends, and the like, rarely came through on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro. I missed quite a few important alerts as a result of this — but there is a way around it.
By default, Huawei assumes control of all your apps’ background processes, and this seems to affect push notifications for many — if not most — apps. But in the battery management settings there is a section called “app launch,” which gives you manual control of how your apps perform. I found that by deactivating automatic management, I was able to resolve most of my push notification problems.
I should add here that the battery didn’t suffer all that much after I regained control of the background processes for the apps. I was still enjoying the better part of two full days on a single charge, even after making these changes.
But this whole sorry episode also shines a light on one of the device’s major downfalls: its aggressive software. I’m all in favor of efforts to maximize battery life, but if this means preventing notifications from reaching your phone, that is not so great. But more on the software later.
Additionally, there are two battery-saving modes that should get you extra juice. “Power saving mode” limits background app activity while disabling email auto-sync and cutting system sounds and some of the visual effects, which should buy you an extra 2.5 hours.
However, there is also an “ultra power saving mode” that would buy you nearly two extra days.
As you would expect, this mode severely limits the number of apps you have available. By default, you can only use the dialer (phone), messages (SMS), and contacts, though you can manually add three additional apps to the list. Obviously, the more apps you have consuming power in the background, the bigger the impact they will have on the battery.
Still, it’s a nice touch and an easy way to keep basic phone functionality while you conserve battery during long camping trips.
The Mate 20 Pro sports a Leica-powered triple-lens camera system arranged in a grid-like setup alongside the flash. In terms of lenses, it constitutes a 40-megapixel wide angle, 20-megapixel ultra wide angle, and 8-megapixel telephoto — Huawei hasn’t included a dedicated monochrome lens on this camera like it did on the P20 Pro.
As a general observation, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro captures amazingly clear and detailed photos, including colors and low-light shots. We previously wrote about how insanely great the camera is on the Huawei P20 Pro, and it’s pretty much more of the same on the Mate 20 Pro. One of the key differences, however, is that with the Mate 20 Pro we now have an ultra-wide angle lens in the mix.
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro really shone in low-light situations. However, I could not notice a great deal of difference in the outcome between “night mode” and the normal photo mode, though “night mode” may have produced a slightly crisper image. Either way, the quality of photos in dark settings was pretty exceptional.
These photos (“normal” and “night mode”) were taken in very dark, late-night situations. It looks like there is a spotlight shining onto the scene, but there wasn’t. And you’ll notice that it picked up the one solitary star in the night sky, too.
It’s worthwhile highlighting some of the software features that, we’re told, won’t be landing on other Huawei phones via over-the-air (OTA) software updates.
One neat new tool is a video bokeh effect called “background blur” which — as its name indicates — blurs the background as you shoot a video. This is a pretty common feature in still image captures from smartphones, but it’s interesting to see it emerge for video in the latest Huawei flagship.
Based on my tests, it generally produced great results, but at times it was a little rough around the edges, with the blur affect not quite hitting the mark — it would sometimes turn on and off, while other times the blur encroached a little onto the edges of the subject.
Arguably more exciting than video bokeh is a new Sin City-style color isolation feature that keeps the human subject in color, while everything else in the scene is black and white. Huawei calls this effect “AI color.”
Based on my tests, it wasn’t always perfect — particularly when more than one person was in frame, and the color would sometimes switch on and off, or even switch between characters in a scene.
But by and large it worked, and worked well. If you’re into making arty home movies, this will save you a lot of spade work in desktop-based editing suites.
It’s worth noting that these effects are not yet available in the consumer version of the camera software, but Huawei told VentureBeat that they will be rolling out in the very near future.
At its launch event last month, Huawei also teased a very cool new 3D object scanning tool that basically transports a real-world object — such as a soft toy — into a moving digital representation. In effect, you can film your kid in a scene with their very favorite teddy bear, dancing together.
Unfortunately, this feature isn’t even available in the pre-release software made available to VentureBeat, so we have not been able to test it yet.
Elsewhere on the camera, you have access to the usual array of features that you no doubt know from other flagships, such as blur effects for your selfies via portrait mode, and 3D emoji that mimic your facial expressions. Kids love it.
If you choose to secure your phone so that nobody can view the contents of your device except you, there are three ways you can unlock the device.
There is a passcode option, which by default requires six characters. But you can edit the passcode option so that you can use between four and 16 digits — though that option is not immediately obvious. You can also elect to use a pattern or a password.
If passcodes aren’t your thing, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro has you covered. The company has managed to shoehorn a fingerprint reader into the actual screen itself. This is not by any means a first — Chinese smartphone company OnePlus launched the 6T last month with an in-screen fingerprint scanner, while the likes of Vivo, Xiaomi, and Huawei itself have introduced devices with in-screen fingerprint readers. But it is still a little bit of a novelty.
Getting it set up was straightforward; you just have to touch your finger on the sensor zone a few times to register your fingerprint, and thereafter you’ll see a little circle on the lower third of the screen to unlock it. It worked pretty flawlessly; however, I did feel as though I needed to press a lot more firmly and deliberately on the sensor than with typical fingerprint sensors — tapping it lightly won’t work. But it still only takes about a second to unlock if your technique is right.
However, the jewel in the security crown is 3D Face Unlock, which is blazing fast. Similar to the one used in the newest iPhones, 3D Face Unlock basically projects thousands of dots onto your face to build a picture of its various curves and contours.
It really is a super fast way to unlock your phone, though you will still need to use fingerprint unlocking to authenticate apps.
Software: EMUI 9
As with other Huawei devices, the Mate 20 Pro comes with the EMUI software as part of the package. It’s basically a thick skin plastered on top of Android, and it hasn’t always gone down well with users in the past. In my view, there are a handful of nice little elements to EMUI, but by and large it brings more annoyances than benefits.
Let’s start on a positive note, though.
One of the neat features that has been baked into EMUI for a while is something called App Twin. It enables you to have two accounts running simultaneously in social apps, including WhatsApp, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, and WeChat.
This means you can have a personal and business Facebook profile on your phone at the same time without having to repeatedly log in and out of the app.
Given that the Huawei Mate 20 Pro is a dual-SIM phone, App Twin also means you can have two WhatsApp accounts for two different phone numbers on the device at the same time. This won’t be of use to everyone, but many who utilize dual-SIM functionality will probably love this feature.
Overall, however, EMUI 9 feels like it gets in the way and interferes unnecessarily with Android. I’m not going to review EMUI here — there are plenty of online guides that document the good and bad elements of Huawei’s Android skin, but I will highlight a few particularly awful elements.
One example is lockscreen notifications, which are just not very functional. Rather than sliding my finger over a lockscreen notification to read a message in full, I have to double-tap it in a very specific place, and then it jumps to the top of the screen. You can’t really do anything with it from there other than swipe it away — you can’t delete an email from your inbox from the lockscreen.
Another irksome design flaw is that EMUI doesn’t offer an app drawer by default*. This means all the apps you install are automatically added to the main homescreen, similar to iOS, which frankly isn’t great. App drawers are useful for those apps I don’t use very often but still want installed on my phone. There is a setting to turn on App Drawer which I later discovered, though if you have already set up your homescreen with dedicated folders for all your apps, switching to the App Drawer mode effectively resets everything.
But one of the most annoying parts of EMUI 9 is something called HiSearch. It’s a Huawei-built search interface for your apps and contacts, and it automatically pops up whenever you swipe downward on your homescreen. This happens all too frequently, because the notch has removed any meaningful notification alerts from the status bar (more on that below). I tended to swipe down from the top a lot to see what alerts I have had — but if you miss the top of the phone even by a millimeter, you will inadvertently activate HiSearch. And there doesn’t appear to be any way of deactivating it.
Is it a feature? Is it a bug? It’s really hard to tell.
And that, ultimately, is the problem with EMUI. It feels like too many unwanted features are forced on you, with no obvious way of getting rid of them.
I was informed by Huawei much later that the version of the software I have is not the final release, meaning it might be prone to bugs. So I can’t really be certain which facets of EMUI were bugs and which are features. There were certainly more than a few bugs, though — for example, the phone would randomly switch the default SMS app I had manually configured back to the bundled Messages app. It seemed to do this maybe once a week, and I’ve never figured out how to stop it from happening.
As I alluded to at the start of this review, the yin-yang effect means that a design decision intended to bring something positive to the mix can usher in negative outcomes.
So, about that notch.
Huawei has given the Mate 20 Pro a big old notch in a similar vein to the iPhone X lineup. Based on my rough measurements, it consumes around half the top edge of the display.
The notch allows Huawei to offer a marginally longer screen. But the notch is as wide as it is because underneath the facade is the camera and 3D Face Unlock system, consisting of a dot projector, 24MP RGC camera, flood illuminator, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, and IR Camera.
That’s all great, but in the process Huawei effectively removes any meaningful status bar notifications from the device. One of Android’s strengths lies in its notifications, which make it easy to see what needs to be addressed.
But because of the notch on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, you can’t see at a glance whether your alarm is set without swiping down; you can’t see whether you’ve been @-mentioned on Twitter; you can’t see Gmail or New York Times breaking news alerts. For the most part, you can’t view any notifications at the top of your screen.
As you can see, the little available space in the status and notification bar is too consumed with battery indicators, clocks, Wi-Fi symbols, Bluetooth icons, dual-SIM network status, and so on to really leave much room for, you know, notifications. You can move the battery percentage indicator inside the battery symbol, which gives you an extra slot to work with, and sometimes a random Gmail or WhatsApp notification will indeed appear in the bar at the top.
I should also stress that you can hide the notch, but that is merely an aesthetic tweak that makes it look like there is no notch by filling in either side in black. You can’t actually get rid of the notch, and there is no way to move the status/notification bar down below it.
Personally, I would rather have 5mm less screen at the top and have access to visible notifications in the status bar. As a result of the notch, I spend way too much time swiping down to see whether I have new notifications, and as previously noted, all too often this inadvertently launches HiSearch — something I have no desire to use.
So yeah — the Huawei Mate 20 Pro notch does serve up a little more screen real estate, but in the process it loses a key Android utility.
The notch giveth, and the notch taketh away.
The (no) headphone jack
If you’re tired of people moaning about 3.5mm headphone jacks, you can skip this section. Removing headphone jacks from phones is all the rage. But just because this is common in most flagship phones now doesn’t mean I’m going to stop whining about it for eternity.
The reasons Huawei removed the headphone jack from the Mate 20 Pro are pretty much the same reasons it removed the headphone jack from the P20 Pro — namely, it has allowed the company to improve water resistance and shoehorn a bigger battery into the device.
There are plenty of devices around my house that absolutely should be wireless, such as the TV remote control and the music speaker for my phone/tablet/PC. Heck, I’ve even grown to love my little cord-free vacuum cleaner. But a mobile phone is rarely more than a headphone cord’s length away from the headphones, so a wire is not a big deal. And wired headphones don’t need to be charged.
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro actually does ship with a little headphone dongle so you can plug your normal headphones into the USB-C port, but I’m probably going to have to buy lots of dongles so that I can be sure I have one on hand whenever I need it. Yesterday, for example, I needed to quickly jump on a Skype call through my phone, and as I went to plug my main “big” headphones in, I suddenly remembered that the phone didn’t have a 3.5mm jack and the dongle was on the other side of the house attached to a different set of headphones.
But the overarching problem I have with removing the headphone jack is the reasons given for its removal. There is little question that the battery in the Huawei Mate 20 Pro is insanely good — the best I’ve encountered in any smartphone. But it also charges insanely quickly. So this raises the question: Does someone really need battery life that good when it charges that quickly? There is a valid argument to support the notion — but for me, ditching the headphone jack is not a worthwhile trade-off.
The other stated reason for ditching the headphone jack raises its own set of questions. Both the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the Huawei Mate 20 Pro have a dust and water resistance rating of IP68, but Samsung has managed to squeeze a headphone jack into its phone. Go figure.
Having used the Huawei Mate 20 Pro day in, day out for several weeks now, I can say that I have something of a love-hate relationship with the device. It really is a beautiful phone that oozes “premium.” The form factor is just about perfect for me, the screen is great, and it’s packed with a ton of solid features. The camera is fantastic, and it too comes with a bunch of unique features. From a hardware perspective, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro is formidable.
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro likely won’t be going on sale in the U.S. anytime soon. But using the euro pricing as a guide, this is basically a $1,100 device — so we have to judge it on that basis. For comparison, it is around double the cost of the OnePlus 6T.
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro is a premium device on every level, and it is priced accordingly. That’s why, even after all the fanfare around great camera, battery life, and unlocking functionality, I’m just a bit disappointed by the software and some of the design decisions.
It’s the small irritations that add up once you’ve used a device for a while. I can’t get over the notch at the top — it’s way too big, everything seems crammed in, and there is no room for notifications in the status bar. Occasionally, a Gmail or WhatsApp icon might show up there, but I’ve never figured out why that only happens sometimes.
Good hardware requires good software. There are just too many annoying elements of EMUI that can’t be removed, and in a few other cases I can’t quite figure out whether I am dealing with a feature or a bug — remember, I was only told much later that the software on the review device is pre-release.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I am also disappointed by the removal of the headphone jack. But that is now the way of things in the smartphone world, so c’est la vie.
These may seem like minor points to some, but for me they are not easily ignored. Together, they fundamentally changed how I use a phone. In a $1,000+ device, I don’t want to overlook niggling inconveniences — I want perfection.
*11/12/18: This article was updated to clarify that the Huawei Mate 20 Pro does in fact have an App Drawer feature, it’s just not on by default.