It took a while for Huawei to get here.
Nothing about the company’s boring smartphone lineup in, say, 2013, indicated that Huawei might one day produce phones that can hold their own against the best flagships around.
But Huawei kept refining its approach with each launch. Its phones got good. Then really good. In April this year, Huawei was the first major smartphone manufacturer to launch a phone with a triple rear camera, an all-around great device called the . And it’s been selling well. Despite being effectively banned from selling its phones in the U.S., Huawei has overtaken Apple to become the second largest smartphone maker in the world.
Now, with the launch of Mate 20 Pro, Huawei — perhaps for the first time — is a legitimate contender for the position of the best smartphone around, period.
The Mate 20 Pro is a big upgrade to the P20 Pro. It, too, has three rear cameras (with major differences, though; more on that later), but it has a bigger, better screen, a faster processor, better water resistance, a bigger battery, and wireless charging.
Huawei went beyond a spec bump, though. The Mate 20 Pro also has an under-the-display fingerprint scanner and reverse wireless charging (meaning you can charge other gadgets simply by placing them onto the phone’s back). You won’t find either technology on flagships from Apple or Samsung.
A phone is more than a list of specs, certainly. But I’ve used the Mate 20 Pro as my primary phone for a week, and it’s lived up to the promise. It’s fast and powerful, and it has every bit of tech I ever wanted from a smartphone — not to mention it took stunning photos and its battery lasted forever.
A little bit of everything
The Mate 20 Pro’s display is excellent. It makes the phone look like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 had a baby with the iPhone XS. It has a notch on top, rounded edges on the sides, and a small but noticeable chin on the bottom. I like the look, but it’s essentially an imitation of not one but two famous phones, which may be a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective. Original it is not.
On the back, the phone’s three cameras and flash are organized in a rectangle that’s unique. The phone can be had in the “Twilight” color, which is a beautiful purple-to-blue gradient, first seen on the P20 Pro. You can also get it in “Emerald Green” or, like my review unit, “Midnight Blue.” Both have a subtle line pattern on the back that glitters when moved under a light source. I liked the color, but when you’re in a dark room, it doesn’t really shine as it does in Huawei’s promotional materials. Finally, you can get the phone in black; I haven’t seen that one, but it appears to be the least exciting of the four colors.
Details like the red power button, tapered edges, or a (very) subtly textured back that should improve grippiness (it does, but ever so slightly) give the phone a premium feel. And just like most Huawei flagships of late, the Mate 20 Pro oozes quality and precision.
The phone’s size hits a perfect spot for me. It sounds big — a few years ago, 6.4-inch phones were enormous beasts — but due to its tiny bezels and display that’s curved on the sides, the Mate is actually slightly smaller than the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max.
Overall, the Mate is unique in some ways and yet derivative in others, but even then, it’s unique on the market, as no one else has copied both the iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy phone at the same time. Bottom line: It looks and feels very nice, and this, I assume, is what most users will care about.
Incredibly sharp display
Huawei Mate 20 Pro’s display is a crisp 6.39-inch OLED with a 3,120 x 1,440 pixel resolution and HDR10 support. I’ve compared it directly to the iPhone X (unfortunately, I didn’t have an iPhone XS for a direct comparison), and it’s noticeably brighter, with better contrast and more vivid colors.
Not everything’s perfect, though. The Mate 20 Pro’s colors pop more, but somewhat unnaturally so. The display’s color mode is “Vivid” by default, which makes this worse, but even after you change it to normal, the colors were still a bit too much to me. Check out the example below; on the iPhone X’s screen the color of the guitar appears natural. On the Mate 20 Pro, it’s nearly orange. Sure, the Mate’s display looks flashier at first, but some will prefer the iPhone X’s more natural colors.
Huawei has an interesting (and, to my knowledge, unique) feature that automatically reduces screen resolution when it’s not needed. Furthermore, the phone has a lower, 2,340 x 1,080 pixel resolution enabled by default; you need to manually switch to 3,120 x 1,440 pixels if you want the highest resolution. In regular use, you’ll have to look closely to notice any difference, so leaving this setting on default is probably the way to go, as it saves battery.
The display has all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a modern flagship. A feature called “Natural tone” adjusts color temperature based on ambient lighting, similar to the iPhone’s “True Tone” setting. Additionally, you can reduce the screen’s blue light emission for a better nighttime reading experience, although the iPhone still does a better job at this. You can also hide the notch with a black bar, if you want to. And, just like on LG’s recent flagships, there’s also an “Always on display” setting, which displays time and date even when the screen is (mostly) off.
One minor drawback: The screen’s curved edges look gorgeous, but they don’t serve a particular purpose. And since the screen is quite reflective, you’ll often see distorted reflections along the edges, which can be distracting. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it is something to consider.
Excellent performance and a battery that refuses to die
Huawei claims its Kirin 980 chipset — which is built with a 7-nanometer manufacturing process, just like Apple’s A12 — offers a 75% CPU performance upgrade and a 46% GPU performance upgrade over Kirin 970, while consuming significantly less power. It’s hard to test these numbers in real-life usage, but the Mate 20 Pro is definitely very, very fast.
These days, most smartphone flagships perform excellently, but the Mate 20 Pro had that little extra oomph, occasionally surprising me with how fast it was. Touch anything on the phone, and it’ll launch immediately. This especially goes for the camera, which launches roughly as fast as the camera on the iPhone X. Thanks to Huawei’s new Kirin 980 chipset and 6GB of RAM, the Mate 20 Pro never stuttered, no matter how many apps I had open.
In the Geekbench performance testing software, the Mate beat every other Android phone except the Galaxy S9+ in the single-core test with a score of 3,264, and every other Android phone in the multi-core test with a score of 9,684. And when I manually put the phone in “Performance” mode, which optimizes the phone’s settings for maximum performance, the numbers climbed to 3,334 and 10,096.
Apple’s iPhone XS is still far ahead of everyone with scores of 4,796 and 11,222, respectively. Note that several manufacturers, including Huawei, have been caught cheatingat these tests, so I wouldn’t put too much faith in them, but the numbers do confirm that this is one of the fastest phones around in terms of performance.
Huawei managed to stuff a 4,200mAh battery into the Mate 20 Pro. That’s better than the iPhone XS Max, better than the Samsung Note 9, better than the company’s own P20 Pro. And battery life was certainly excellent. The phone lasted a day and a half of heavy use, which is in line with the best phones I’ve tested. In normal use, I could see it comfortably lasting two days or more.
The phone supports quick charging, and, unlike the P20 Pro, it also has wireless charging on board. But Huawei took it a step further with reverse wireless charging, which turns the phone into a wireless charging pad. Place a device that supports wireless charging on top of its back, and the Mate will charge it.
The feature wouldn’t make sense on most phones, but the Mate has a battery so juicy that I could easily imagine a situation in which lending some of its battery life to a pair of earphones or even another phone could be a good idea. In any case, you won’t mind having the option, and you can turn the feature off if it bothers you for any reason.
A new take on the best smartphone camera
This is going to be a long section — there’s just so much to cover that I can’t make it any shorter. But the TL;DR is this: The Huawei Mate 20 Pro’s camera is the best smartphone camera I’ve ever used.
Now, for the details.
While the Mate 20 Pro’s camera setup sounds similar to the one on the P20 Pro, it’s actually different with one key regard. On the Mate, Huawei ditched the monochrome sensor and replaced it with an ultra-wide sensor. So the cameras are now, in order: a 40-megapixel f/1.8 sensor, a 20-megapixel f/2.2 ultra-wide sensor, and an 8-megapixel f/2.4 telephoto sensor.
This versatile sensor array enables Huawei to do a ton of cool tricks. By default, the camera takes 10-megapixel photos, and Huawei combines input from all three sensors to get more features than you’ll find on any other phone. The best thing about these is how seamless it all is for the user. Fire up the camera, and in normal mode you’ll be able to choose between 3x zoom, 5x zoom and 0.6x zoom (which is ultra-wide mode). Sure, that 5x zoom isn’t really optical zoom; rather, the software is combining the image coming from the telephoto sensor with the information gathered by the 40-megapixel sensor to create a hybrid optical/software zoom effect. But here’s the thing: It just works, and you’ll be taking 5x zoom photos that actually look decent in no time.
Here’s another example, just to show what that hybrid zoom can do. The photo on the left was taken at 1x zoom, while the photo on the right was taken from the same position at 5x zoom.
Switching to 40-megapixel resolution shuts down most of these extra features, but sometimes, when the conditions were good, I was able to take some stunningly detailed photos in this mode.
Inexplicably, Huawei has HDR stashed away as a separate photo-taking mode, accessible only through the camera’s “More” menu. As you can see in the comparison below, HDR is pretty useful and it would’ve been nice if I were able to enable it with a single tap from the main camera’s screen.
Then there’s the AI. I don’t care much for the scene selection feature (which is enabled by turning on the “Master AI” option in the settings; it’s clever to see the camera recognize various scenes and adjust accordingly, but I’ve often found that these adjustments go a bit too far.
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to just turn the Master AI off and be done with it. Without it, the phone won’t fire up certain important features as the super-cool Super Macro mode, which lets you go really close to the subject and take a macro photo.
And, if you were wondering, you can combine Night Mode with the ultra-wide screen mode or the 3x/5x zoom mode.
Unfortunately, Night Mode sometimes generated ugly artifacts on my photos. The photo below would’ve been great given the conditions — if it weren’t for that horizontal line in the upper half of the image. Worse, the line was persistent; I took several photos from the same position, in both vertical and horizontal mode, and I couldn’t get rid of it. I hope this is either an anomaly on the unit I’ve had, or something Huawei can fix via a software update, as it renders Night Mode nearly unusable.
Obviously, you’re not always going to take photos in Night Mode; it’s just too slow. But the Mate 20 Pro does a decent job of snapping low-light photos from its default camera mode. In the comparison below, the Mate took a sharper photo with more realistic colors than the iPhone X — though, in fairness, the iPhone snapped that photo in a fraction of a second, while the Mate instructed me to hold my hand steady for a second or so.
Portrait mode takes photos that are oddly soft, and while not everyone will be a fan of the look, I was overall happy with the photos I’ve gotten. You can choose between 1x and 3x zoom in this mode — something you can’t do on the iPhone.
And while Portrait mode is only for taking photos of people, Aperture mode will let you take photos of any object with various degrees of bokeh. It’s a hit or miss, as you can see in the photo below (left) which is blurred in all kinds of weird ways. But guess what: If the photo’s not perfect, you can go in afterwards and change both the focal point and the amount of bokeh applied.
The 24-megapixel selfie camera takes excellent, extremely detailed selfies. In portrait mode, the resulting photos are, again, way too soft to my liking, but are generally pleasing to the eye. In low-light scenarios, the phone will do the familiar trick of turning its big, bright screen white and thus lighting up your face, which won’t result in beautiful selfies but it’s better than nothing.
The Mate 20 Pro can, at best, take 4K video at 30fps — this is one area where even the iPhone X, which is a year old, is nominally better, as it can take 4K video at 60fps. And, overall, the Mate’s video capabilities are a mixed bag. I took an evening video while walking, and the video was very bright but also unbearably twitchy as the device apparently tried and failed to stabilize the image.
Daylight videos with the Mate were gorgeous, but basically every flagship these days will produce something similarly good. Bonus points for Mate: Even in 4K mode, you can use some of its multi-camera tricks to take a wide-screen or a zoomed-in video.
Overall, the Mate’s camera isn’t perfect. You’ll get photos that blow everything else away, yes, but the overall experience won’t be as straightforward as it is on an Apple phone or even a Samsung. Still, the Mate matches every other phone out there on features and does OK even in areas where it’s just copying others, like the bokeh mode. And none of the other new flagships — even the myriad ones that came out this fall — can take 40-megapixel photos or photos with 3x optical zoom.
Can we please just stick with Google?
Huawei’s EMUI software, which comes in version 9.0 on the Mate 20 Pro, is better than most Android skins, but it’s not perfect. There’s a zillion options on offer; a dark version of the entire UI, iOS-like task switching, granular battery optimization and a built-in password manager are among the highlights. There’s also a wide choice of wallpapers and themes, though downloading new themes requires signing up for a Huawei ID (more on that later). And it’s all based on Android 9 Pie, so you’ll find the latest bells and whistles from Google under the hood as well.
There are also bugs, most of which have to do with the notch, which will sometimes obscure parts of content, and which definitely doesn’t leave enough space for icons. Huawei sort-of addresses the latter issue: When you swipe down from the top of the screen, the shortcut menu will show up and the status icons will drop below the notch, which means you’ll finally be able to see all of them. Mercifully, zoomed YouTube videos extend over the entire surface of the display, which isn’t the case on many of Mate’s Android competitors.
Sometimes the UI’s look was inconsistent. I’ve paired a dark grayish theme I liked with a blue wallpaper, and yet as I swiped from the middle of the screen to get the search field, the phone’s blurred background would go purple, as if the device is confused on which theme it’s using.
None of these quirks bother me much; perhaps I’ve gotten used to user interfaces by Chinese smartphone manufacturers, all of which are similar, all of which slap some iOS features onto Android, and all of which are slightly buggy. But Huawei’s software is definitely a class below Samsung’s or Apple’s.
The biggest issue I have with Huawei’s phones (not just the Mate) is the company’s insistence of drawing users into its services ecosystem. While accessing various features and pre-installed apps on the phone, Huawei offered me to create a Huawei ID and sign up for Huawei Cloud or HiCare. I’m already way too invested in Google’s ecosystem of services to bother with any of these, and I suspect most users outside of China are, too. And while you can certainly ignore all of these and use 99% of the phone’s features, frequent prompts to sign up for Huawei this or that will surely alienate some users.
So many extras
I’ve already mentioned the reverse wireless charging, which is a nice, albeit minor, feature. But this phone has plenty more surprises in stock. Its face unlocking capabilities are excellent in all conditions. It didn’t matter if I had my sunglasses on, or whether I was under direct sunlight, both of which cause trouble to the iPhone X’s face unlocking system. It’s hard to judge how secure Huawei’s system is, but it sure as hell beats Apple’s on practicality.
Should you desire it, you can also set up a fingerprint unlocking scheme, with the fingerprint scanner residing under the display. It’s the first time this actually worked well for me, and I’ve tried similar scanners on a bunch of other phones. But the feature, long-rumored to be coming to Apple and Samsung phones, feels like an afterthought. The face unlock works so well that I turned fingerprint scanning off after a day — I simply didn’t need it.
In fact, I dare you to find a feature the Mate 20 Pro doesn’t have. AptX, hi-res Bluetooth sound is on board, as are stereo speakers (though they aren’t very loud). IP68 dust and water resistance, dual SIM, memory card support (Huawei’s proprietary nano memory cards are used instead of the ubiquitous microSD standard), NFC, dual-band GPS, a fast LTEchip, an infrared sensor — the Mate 20 Pro has them all. The only thing I found lacking — and for me, it’s a serious offense — is the headphone jack; mercifully, Huawei includes a 3.5-mm-to-USB-C adapter in the box.
The Mate 20 Pro is, without a doubt, the most feature-packed phone ever.
Finally going Pro
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro is the best smartphone you can currently buy. But choosing a smartphone is not just about how feature-packed it is, or how nice it looks. Huawei doesn’t have the brand power of Apple or Samsung. And there’s the elephant in the room: the Mate 20 Pro won’t even launch in the U.S. For many users, this is more than a logistical problem — this is a problem of trust. Not to mention that finding a decent price and warranty might be an issue, too.
Finally, the price. The Mate 20 Pro costs €1,049 ($1,193) in Europe, which is less than the iPhone XS Max or even the XS (in Europe, not the U.S.), but it’s still a lot. All things considered, I can’t say the price is unfair, but it wouldn’t hurt it to be a little cheaper.