When it was first confirmed that the follow-up to the well-received Huawei P10 would be called the P20, our hopes were raised. Would skipping numbers P11 through P19 meant the new phone would be a huge jump forward – maybe even twice as good – as its predecessor?
Well, despite a stunning new design and a snazzy AI-enhanced camera, our hands on with the new P20 left us a little cold. After fully reviewing it and its bigger and pricier sibling the Huawei P20 Pro, our initial assessment has proved mostly correct.
Don’t get us wrong, the Huawei P20 is a great phone in its own right, but it hasn’t moved far enough from the P10 to be a properly enticing buy for 2018 – especially when all the features we wanted have been implemented on the Pro and left off the spec sheet for the smaller phone.
Then there’s the Huawei Mate 20 and the Mate 20 to consider, more expensive and yet also more capable. If you want the best phone that Huawei has to offer in 2018, you’re not likely to be led to the P20.
Huawei P20 price and availability
- Launch price: £599, AU$999
- Not coming to the US
- Release date: April 2018
All of this is moot for people in the US, where Huawei phones are rapidly disappearing as a result of losing key vendor deals and potentially being shut out of government contracts.
Somewhat unsurprisingly in that climate, Huawei confirmed the P20 won’t be making an appearance in the Land of the Free.
It is, however, available in the UK and Australia and after launching at £599, AU$999 SIM-free, the Huawei P20 price has dropped to around £400 in the UK, making it more attractive. We’ve seen it for less than AU$700 in Australia too, though it’s getting less easy to find.
In terms of budget that means it’s rubbing shoulders with the likes of the LG V30 and is way cheaper than the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Google Pixel 2 XL. However, the slightly larger, more powerful Mate 10 Pro is around the same price, which means you’ve still got some thinking to do.
Looks Leica Huawei
- AI-enhanced camera
- Strong specs
- Gorgeous glass-backed gradient design
Launching at the Grand Palais in Paris, the Huawei P20 got off to a glamorous start. The big sell for the phone was the AI-assisted dual camera on the rear.
Photography has been the main focus (pun intended) of the product line, with the continuation of the successful Leica partnership into the latest phone.
The P20 boasts two Leica Summilux lenses on the back, as well as a neural processing unit on the Kirin chipset, which provides the AI capability to the camera app. Huawei claims the AI function of the camera helps you become a better photographer, with suggestions and automatic mode-switching based on what the phone thinks you’re trying to portray.
If that sounds a bit scary – and scariness is something Huawei should be hyper-aware of with its US reputation hanging in the balance – it’s really not. It mostly just means when you’re taking photos of a cat, the phone says “Hey! Cat!” and optimises the settings to get the best possible shot.
The camera also includes improved low light capabilities, including an AI-infused version of Super Night Mode that allows you to take amazing night shots without the need for a tripod or supernaturally still hands.
The P20 includes flagship-level hardware: alongside that octa-core Kirin chipset is 4GB of RAM and a super-generous 128GB of storage. The whole package is encased in a glass-backed, super-stylish handset in a choice of gradient finishes or, if you prefer, more ordinary colours. Boo.
50 shades of gradient
- 149.1 x 70.8 x 7.7 mm, 165g
- Notched screen
- No headphone jack
There’s no denying the P20 is an eye-catching phone. The very first time we took it out on the London Underground, a group of teenagers asked us what it was, and declared it a ‘serious phone’ (this is, we presume, a good thing).
We usually only get comments from strangers when we’re carrying a OnePlus (which is treated a bit like a Nerd Club Membership Card), so clearly Huawei has done a good job on the design. Our review unit has the Pink Gold design, although realistically the gradient on that colourway is pretty subtle.
The hardened glass back of the handset has an opalescent pink finish that gives it a gorgeous mother-of-pearl look, and while not everyone will appreciate either the pink or the (slight) gradient, a lot of people would love a phone that looks like they found it on the beach.
That said, since it’s so smooth, the back does make this phone a slippery fish. You might want to put it in a grippy case if you don’t want it sliding off tables.
The back panel is also unusual in that the Huawei logo and various bits of bumf that manufacturers have to include (logos, model numbers, that kind of thing) is written in landscape orientation, as is the Leica logo and camera info.
This has the effect of making the back look like a traditional landscape-oriented camera, with the lenses on the right replacing the viewfinder. The only thing missing is a Sony-style hardware shutter button, which would have ideally been included on the left. You can use the volume keys as shutter buttons, though.
The dual camera lenses (no third camera on this one – that’s sadly reserved for the P20 Pro) are combined in a single oval enclosure which protrudes a millimetre or so. Flipping over to the front, you’ll find the selfie camera at top centre, as per the ‘notch’ trend of this year (more on that below).
The black bezels around the screen are decently slim, though the bottom strip is still fairly sizeable due to housing the fingerprint pad (it’s not pressable, sadly).
The phone comes with a screen protector pre-applied, which is a little annoying as you can clearly see its edges around the fingerprint pad and feel them when you swipe down from the top, but if you were going to put a protector on anyway, it’s probably better than having a self-applied one full of bubbles and dust.
The rounded metal edges of the P20 have a light pink finish to them on our unit, with the SIM tray on the top left, volume rocker and power key on the right, and two sets of drilled holes (only one is a speaker) plus the centred USB-C port on the bottom edge. That’s right, no headphone jack. Sorry.
- 5.8 inches, 1080 x 2244, 428ppi
- 18.7:9 aspect ratio
- TFT LCD
The FHD+ display on the Huawei P20 really does it proud. At 5.8 inches, it’s a good compromise between a smaller phone and a phablet, while not feeling large in the hand because of the slim bezels and the notch.
Before anyone gets up in arms about it, the notch on the P20 is probably the least annoying we’ve seen. Huawei has smartly included a software option that blacks out the rest of the screen on either side, effectively removing the notch.
So whether you’d prefer the extra screen space or a more uniform look, this phone has you covered – and you might find you don’t make the choice you expected. This phone actually converted us from a notch-naysayer: we just needed the option to turn it on and off until we worked out which we prefer. Whichever way you lean, it’s definitely good to have options.
Which brings us to colour and light. The P20 has lots of options for customising the display to your liking: you can turn on ‘natural tone’ which adjusts colour temperature based on your environment; switch between Normal and Vivid colour; choose Default, Warm or Cold colours; turn on the Eye Comfort mode (for better sleep), and so on.
The brightness slider goes from what we’d call ‘ridiculously dark’ to ‘pretty bright’, or you can let the phone select its own brightness based on where you are. You can also bump the resolution down to save battery if you want to.
All of that said, we found the default settings looked great out of the box, so we didn’t feel the need to do much fiddling with the settings.
The included wallpapers harmonise nicely with the colour scheme of the phone and show off the P20’s colour reproduction to the full: shades, tones and shadows all appear crisp and vivid. Icons almost jump off the screen.
The 18.7:9 aspect ratio is a strange choice, but gives a tall display with plenty of room for content whether you have the notch on or off. You will find, however, that you need to manually switch quite a few apps into full-screen mode at first, because they’re not always designed for such a long display.
The phone warns you that this might cause problems, but we didn’t experience any – apps just restarted in the correct ratio and stayed that way. If you choose not to go full-screen, the black bar stays at the bottom to fill the rest of the space.
- All-day battery life
- Fast charging, no wireless
After using this phone as our only handset – that means calls, copious outdated memes in the family WhatsApp group, a narcissistic level of social media usage, work, play, news, and everything else you might use a top-end smartphone for – we never got to bedtime (midnight onwards) with much less than half battery.
In other words, you can comfortably use the P20 all day and night without worrying that it’ll run out on you, and that’s to be commended.
However, it does drain fairly fast when used for video: we ran our standard battery test – a full-screen HD video on max brightness with accounts syncing in the background – and after 90 minutes, the P20 had lost 30% of its charge.
It means you’re looking at more of a day of battery life on a single charge if video watching is part of your daily routine, but 24 hours tends to be the going rate for most smartphones these days.
Luckily, if you do need to conserve battery, you’ve got lots of options. Head into Display settings and you can lower the resolution to ‘just’ HD, or put it on automatic to save power without thinking about it.
Automatic brightness should also save you a few percent. And then there’s Power-Saving Mode and Ultra Power-Saving Mode, which will extend your P20’s uptime by literal days (a full charge would give you four days’ use in Ultra mode, although it does essentially turn the phone into a Nokia 3310).
As per all Huawei devices, you’ll start getting irritating notifications almost immediately about ‘battery-draining apps’. According to EMUI, this seems to be virtually all of them – you can turn the notifications off in Settings > Battery > Cog > Power-intensive prompt if you find them annoying.
The phone comes with Huawei’s USB-C fast charger in the box, so powering up again doesn’t take long. There’s no wireless charging on this one though, so that’s one point to competitors like the Galaxy S9.
- Dual Leica cameras, 12MP RGB (f/1.8) and 20MP B&W (f/1.6)
- 24MP f/2.0 selfie camera
- Useful AI image stabilisation
The latest product of Huawei’s partnership with camera legends Leica, the P20 is unsurprisingly a camera-led handset. However, while the Huawei P20 Pro includes a triple rear camera, the P20 has to make do with just two on the back and one on the front.
What sets the P20 camera apart from the not-too-dissimilar Huawei P10 is the addition of AI, which interprets what you’re doing and tries to assist you. It’s sort of like the Microsoft Word paperclip for photography, except less annoying (well… mostly).
The camera app has the typical Huawei raft of modes, but what’s different here is that the phone will switch between them based on what it thinks you’re trying to accomplish.
For instance, if you aim the camera at a cat, it’ll switch on Cat Mode (we’re not making this up) and automatically apply settings that should get a better shot of a fast-moving fluffy thing.
In our tests, the phone correctly identified cats and dogs every time – even a black cat hiding under a bed! – but it perhaps needs a bird mode, as our parakeet was labelled a cat, and if she could read she’d be very offended.
The design of the camera app could be better – the horrible fake leather texture behind the shutter button is unnecessary and reminds us of TouchWiz circa 2013.
Scrolling left and right to see other modes seems a bit inefficient too, although you can scroll to the end and tap ‘More’ to see them all on a panel.
Aperture, Night Mode, Portrait Mode, Photo, Video and Pro mode are all on the scroll bar, and then there’s a whole load more including Slow-Mo, HDR, Panorama and Light Painting on the More menu.
Not all of the available modes can be manually enabled – Cat and Dog mode, Greenery (for plants), Flowers (yep, separate to Greenery…), Close-Up and other similar AI-enhanced settings can only be switched on automatically.
That’s probably a good thing, as we found they never failed to activate when required (although Close-Up likes to jump in and SUPERZOOM things too much at times), and it’s not necessary to clutter up the menu with them all.
The P20 camera launches quickly, and twinned with the double-tap volume key shortcut, it’s hard to miss a shot.
It also snaps instantly – we didn’t experience any shutter lag on this handset, although lower light photos did bring up the familiar old Huawei ‘sharpening the photo, please steady your device’ box.
That said, one of the big improvements to the Huawei camera app is the addition of AI to Super Night Mode, which takes spectacular pictures of night-time skylines and other dark scenes.
This has long been a favourite mode on Huawei phones, and the new version means you no longer need a tripod to get the shot. Because it’s a longer exposure mode and holding a phone dead still for 30 seconds to a minute is impossible, previously handheld Super Night Mode photos would come out blurry.
It’s not perfect, but the AI-assisted new Super Night Mode has significantly increased the chances that you’ll get a great result with just your hands.
If the phone detects that you’re holding it, it only counts 4 seconds of exposure before finalising the photo. If the phone is in a more stable position, like sitting on a ledge, it counts 18 seconds. The results are a little surreal, but undoubtedly beautiful.
On Auto mode, pictures taken with the main P20 camera come out beautifully. Indoors, outdoors, at night – even without the third camera of the Huawei P20 Pro, this is a very impressive shooter that rivals the top camera phones on the market. Night-time and low light photos are particularly good, and consistently came out sharper and less grainy in our tests than on the Pixel 2 XL.
The 2x hybrid zoom often self-activates when taking a close-up of something, and true to the marketing, it does offer a zoomed shot without losing quality. It can be a bit jarring to be trying to line up a shot and have it suddenly zoom itself in, though.
That said, the AI enhancements generally do make for a better photo. When we aimed the camera at people, it switched into Portrait mode, and the shots came out really well. The bokeh effect is noticeable and adds a professional vibe, even to a silly snap we took of our friends in a harshly-lit ice cream parlour at midnight.
The pet modes didn’t seem to make much difference either way, but food and plants genuinely did look better with their respective modes turned on.
On the selfie side, we were similarly impressed. The front-facing camera offers a very generous 24MP at f/2.0, and while there are lots of modes again, none of them feel like awkwardly shoehorned in Snapchat clones (looking at you, Samsung).
For selfies, you’ll want Portrait mode, which is where you’ll find the option to turn bokeh on and off, as well as a Beauty mode slider ranging from ‘first thing in the morning’ to ‘if I had a professional makeup artist’.
Beauty level 3 and bokeh on results in a flattering but realistic photo that looks like it was shot on an SLR. However, you can’t tap to focus – the camera focuses on the face whether you like it or not.
This can be annoying when you’re trying to take a photo of something else using the front-facing camera – a baby bird on our shoulder in our case – and it insists on focusing on a face even if it’s someone in the background.
There’s plenty to play with on the video side, too. Rather than OIS or EIS, the P20 calls its image stabilisation AIS – which gives us Artificial Intelligence/Image Stabilisation, but we’ll forgive that.
In other words, the included AI smarts cut down the hand shake in your videos, and in our tests it worked well.
You can shoot in 4K at 30fps on the main camera, and there’s also 720p super-slow-mo at 960fps for those artistic endeavours. The front-facing camera can shoot up to 1080p.
- EMUI 8.1, based on Android 8.1 Oreo
- Some bloatware
- Fast-acting face unlock
Huawei software doesn’t have the best reputation, but it’s fair to say it’s improved a lot over the last few iterations. EMUI, which is what Huawei calls its ‘Emotion’ overlay for Android, now looks more like stock than ever, with a few extras.
You’ll get some uninvited Huawei apps, including AppGallery (like a Huawei-endorsed Play Store), Huawei Health, HiCare, and Themes for changing the look of your phone. None of these are particularly irritating, or worse than what you’d get from other manufacturers. However, a lot of them can’t be uninstalled, which is vexing even when you’ve got 128GB to play with.
The P20 comes with EMUI version 8.1, which is based on Android 8.1 Oreo. There are some subtle differences: for instance, when you first turn the phone on, you’ll find you don’t have an app menu (‘drawer’ in Android parlance).
This means your icons all have to be on home screens, iPhone-style. To turn the app drawer on, go into Settings > Display > Home screen style and choose Drawer.
Annoyingly, you still don’t get the invisible swipe-up app drawer you normally would with Oreo: instead it brings back the old centre-mounted app key.
Not a huge deal, just mildly annoying for Android fans, and a bit of muscle memory adjustment if you’re coming from another Oreo phone.
The Android 9 Pie update for EMUI is just starting to roll out for the P20 now. As yet we haven’t been able to put it through its paces, but it should bring a variety of minor security and performance improvements.
The app icons on a lot of the Huawei themes are a bit ugly, but there are some stock-ish options that you quickly get used to, and some of the themes really make the most of the screen – the Pearl and Rainbow options harmonise especially well with the Pink Gold handset.
Out of the box, the navigation keys are all software: there’s no Back and Apps on either side of that black strip. Which means you effectively have two home keys – one software, one hardware – right above one another.
However, you can go into Settings > System > Navigation and change that, allowing home key gestures that effectively bring back the hardware nav keys. You can also add an odd ‘navigation dock’ blob to the screen instead, but we didn’t find that particularly useful or intuitive.
Since it’s 2018, the P20 also includes Face Unlock. We found it quick and effective, and it recognised us both with and without makeup and glasses.
Movies, music and gaming
- Loads of screen space with or without the notch
- No headphone jack
- Only one speaker
Despite the two sets of drilled holes on the bottom end, the P20 only has one speaker – the set on the right.
Cover that with a finger (or the heel of your hand accidentally when holding the phone) and you’re getting tinny, quiet sound.
You also don’t get a 3.5mm headphone jack, so you’re stuck with either Bluetooth headphones or USB-C ones – no charging and listening to stuff at the same time then, if you go for the cabled option.
The speaker is fine – it goes decently loud but is fairly directional and sounds a little thin at the top end of the volume range. Similarly, the earphones included in the box are okay, but not special.
The first time we used Netflix on the P20, it rebooted, which wasn’t a great start. It also struggled with the Amazon and Kindle apps at first, and both had to be reinstalled before they worked properly.
Netflix, thankfully, worked the second time without a reinstall, and has been fine since – but it’s worth being aware that you might have some issues.
Full-screen videos look colourful and captivating on the P20’s screen, and while it can’t compete with the higher-res OLEDs on the top end of the market, the slim bezels and extra-tall 18.9:7 aspect ratio still offer an excellent viewing experience.
Gaming fans should find plenty to like about the P20. The Kirin 970 chipset is very capable of handling intensive games, and that display makes for a really immersive experience.
We didn’t run into any problems with lag, overheating or crashes in our gaming sessions, and vertical games like Super Mario Run looked especially good with the extra height – like they’d swallowed a power-up mushroom.
Strong, but not the strongest
- Huawei Kirin 970 (4 x 2.36GHz, 4 x 1.8GHz)
- 4GB of RAM
- 128GB of storage
Huawei’s kitted the P20 out with its own Kirin 970 octa-core chipset, as previously seen on the Huawei Mate 10, plus 4GB of RAM.
We found the P20 very smooth to use, in spite of some very intensive use and app switching. It felt a bit warm at times, but that’s as bad as it got.
On the benchmark side, an average of three Geekbench 4 scores gave a single-core result of 1,885 and a multi-core result of 6,681.
That falls between the Huawei P20 Pro at 6,775 and the Pixel 2 at 6,260. Meanwhile, the Samsung Galaxy S9 was up in the 9,000s and the iPhone X was over 10k, so it’s fair to say that while the P20 performs consistently with some competing phones and will be a solid performer for a good while to come, it doesn’t touch the top performers on the market.
You don’t get a microSD card slot with the Huawei P20, but that’s not surprising given that it only comes in one storage size: 128GB. That should be enough for almost everyone.
The Huawei P20 isn’t quite the Huawei P10 successor we wanted, and it’s not quite worthy of being called the P20. If not the P11, then perhaps the P12.
There are plenty of high points though, with a gorgeous screen, great performance, good stamina and that superb camera – but for every high on the P20, the Huawei P20 Pro has it beaten.
The P20 Pro costs more, but you do get 2GB more RAM, water resistance, an OLED screen, a bigger battery and a whole extra camera – well, you’re pretty much adding on another phone.
As with the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the Galaxy S9 Plus, the P20’s biggest competition is its far superior stablemate. So unless you get a great deal on the P20, or you’re happy with ‘good but not great’, we’d recommend springing for the bigger guns if your budget allows.
Who’s this for?
Android users who are into their photography but are less concerned about fancy extras like waterproofing and wireless charging.
If you want a more affordable flagship that looks good and takes great photos, the P20 might be the phone for you.
Should you buy it?
If you really don’t want to spend the extra for the P20 Pro or the Mate 20 Pro, and it won’t bug you forever that there’s a better version of your phone out there, then quite possibly yes.
But even if the Pro didn’t exist, the P20 would have very stiff competition in the form of the Galaxy S9 and the Pixel 2, even if they do cost more.
As the P20 continues to get discounted, it begins to become a more attractive proposition.
There are lots of alternatives to the Huawei P20, such as the following three:
Huawei P20 Pro
Sadly for the P20, its Huawei sibling leaves it in the dust. The P20 Pro will cost you an extra £200 or AU$100, which is a serious chunk of change, but it does make a significant difference to the specs. You get a bigger screen, OLED, an extra 2GB of RAM, a bigger battery, water resistance and of course that third rear-facing camera.
If you can spare the money, it’s hard to recommend the lower-end phone when this exists.
Read our full Huawei P20 Pro review
Samsung Galaxy S9
Samsung’s all-rounder flagship is top of the competitor list for just about any phone this year, and the P20 is no different. The S9 offers an AMOLED screen the same size as the P20’s LCD, better pixel density, more storage options, a headphone jack, water resistance and wireless charging. But it loses out on selfie camera resolution and battery size, and it’s a fair bit pricier too.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S9 review
Google Pixel 2
The Pixel 2 has now been followed by the Pixel 3 of course, but in terms of price and specs the 2017 Pixel 2 is more of a direct competitor to the Huawei P20, especially as it also focuses on photography. If you’re choosing between the two, the Pixel has a smaller screen but uses AMOLED vs the P20’s LCD.
The battery is considerably smaller at 2,700mAh, the selfie camera is much lower res, and in our experience the P20 takes even better low light photos, but you do get pure Android and a golden ticket to the latest upgrades with the Pixel.
Read our full Google Pixel 2 review
First reviewed: April 2018