As you can see I have made a fairly bold statement up there at the very top of the review, and that my friends, was not just for clickbait. It was a serious intended question, which during the course of this review I intend to answer. I have had the privilege of testing a few of Huawei’s Mate range of devices in the recent years. but I have not had the pleasure of testing a P-series device for years now. The last P series device I reviewed was the Ascend P7 back in 2014. Well, it will be nice to see what has changed since then, as the P series always seemed like the poorer of the two product families when it comes to tech and spec. I have also most recently been using the awesome Mate 10 Pro, which has been my phone of choice for taking pictures whilst on work trips (all my MWC 2018 photos were taken on the Mate 10 Pro) and holidays.
So without further ado, let’s take a look.
Design and Hardware
I have already done an extensive unboxing of the device, which I would recommend that you check out by clicking here. If you just want to see the video, then check it out below.
The phone’s design is all about curves and smooth edges. It resembles a pebble-like feel in the hand and is a tad slippery due to this. I have gone and applied a skin to the back to help with this – and also to stop the rear of the phone becoming a fingerprint magnet. In the normal retail box, you should find that there is a case included for you to stop this inherent ‘slipperiness’. The rear houses the other major feature of this phone: the three cameras. This to my knowledge is the first mainstream smartphone to house three rear cameras on it, and we will go into the details of these cameras and what they can do later on in the review. All the camera modules are raised from the back of the phone, meaning that the phone does not sit flat on a surface. To some, this may be a concern. After a while though, I no longer noticed this and it actually helps me to feel which way up the phone was when I was pulling it out of my pocket.
On the right-hand side of the phone, we can find the power key which has got a very nice red accent on it. This doesn’t really help in locating the button by feel as there is no texture to the button, but it is a nice touch and it distinguishes the button visually when you have it sat on the side. Above the power key is where the volume rocker sits and this is a nice dampened button with a good press on it, meaning that you know when you are using it. As is the case on most phones these days, you can use the buttons as a zoom control for the camera if you wish. I very rarely use this function on most phones, and I don’t think this one will be any different.
On the left the phone is bare, with exception of the nano sim slot. I have a European region dual sim variant, so the slot contains a tray for two sim cards. Unfortunately, the decision has been taken that this will not support an SD Card, like on some of the previous generations of P-series devices. Whilst it is a shame to see this change, it doesn’t really affect me as the phone has a very healthy 128GB internal storage that is more than adequate for my use.
Down at the base of the phone is where we can find two speaker grills. Like on the current iPhone 8 series one, of these a faux grill housing a microphone array and the other houses a single speaker. Nestled in-between these grills is the USB Type C port for charging, and it will also support data as it has Display Port functionality built in. This allows you to output content to an external monitor either using screen mirroring or the EMUI Desktop which was first seen on the Mate 10 Pro. I am a big fan of this function, as it allows you very easily show off photos to a larger audience through the simple act of plugging into a TV via HDMI to USB Type C cable or USB Type C dock. If that dock supports charging pass through, it will also charge the phone as well as allowing data throughput.
Moving back up to the top is where we can find the second of the microphones, and also an IR emitter which is becoming something of a rarity on phones these days. That last inclusion will make it possible to control your TV from your phone, and I am reliably informed it can also work as a remote for presentations as well with the correct software. Headphone jack lovers will be disappointed as the trend for the exclusion of the 3.5 mm jack has continued here, meaning you will need to use the dongle that is included should you want to use any headphones other than those you get in the box.
Onto the front then. The phone is dominated by the OLED display, which is very clear and vibrant to the point where the brightness can be too high in some scenarios. I also found that the auto brightness was somewhat erratic in how active it was, leading to my phone being blinding sometimes in low light. The screen itself measures at 6.1″ diagonal and has a PPI of 408. The contrast ratio is infinite and blacks are really well presented. The one disappointment is that the resolution is only 1080p and this along with some scaling issues within the software does mean that the Samsung Galaxy S9+ looks nicer when on the home screen.
At the top of the screen is the much-maligned notch that you will either love or hate. Again, I don’t mind the feature and I have actually come to find it useful as the UI actually uses it well. If however, you are opposed to the notch it can be disguised in software through the settings menu. I have had reports of this causing some issues with certain apps though, so you may wish to experiment with this feature. In the aforementioned notch, you will find the front-facing 23 MP camera and the associated sensors for proximity and light levels. It is also here that the second speaker sits. This will also work in media playback as well as an earpiece, much like on the iPhone 8 and above. Huawei has also worked with Dolby to allow this device to have Dolby Atmos support to give the speakers a bit more oomph when watching movies and video. This cannot be switched off in the settings, which seems like an oversight to me – maybe the potential for a future software fix there?
Right at the bottom of the screen resides the fingerprint reader. In a move that I am not the biggest fan of, this has been moved to the front rather than on the rear like on the Mate 10 Pro. The sensor itself is very fast to respond, and will wake the screen when it is locked and asleep.
The area around the fingerprint reader can also be used for gestures to control the back, home and multitask functions of Android, however, I personally prefer on-screen controls and haven’t utilised this feature at all. I suppose it is just a matter of getting used to it at the end of the day. For those of you moving away from an iPhone or older Samsung device, this will be a natural position for you and will not require much adjustment. Fortunately, Huawei has also included Face Unlock too, meaning that I rarely have to use the fingerprint sensor. I know this is not as secure as using my fingerprint but for convenience, it is my prefered option to unlock the device. What would make it better is if the fingerprint sensor and facial recognition were tied together, making the phone inherently more secure. That would, however, slow down the unlock time.
Overall I am very impressed with the design, and I love the feel of the phone in hands it does not feel too cumbersome to hold and is a joy to use for media consumption, taking photos and making calls, etc. The materials used to build it feel solid, and I like that it has got an IP rating of IP67 so I don’t need to worry about using it in the rain. This one very well designed piece of hardware and it is one that I thoroughly enjoy using due to its feel.
Let’s get the specs sheet out of the way first here, guys.
- Body: dual-glass with metal frame, 7.65mm thick
- Screen: 6.1″ AMOLED, 1080 x 2244 px resolution (408ppi);
- Chipset: Kirin 970 chipset, octa-core processor (Cortex-A73 2.4GHz + A53 1.8GHz), Mali-G72 MP12 GPU
- Memory: 6GB RAM, 128GB storage
- OS: Android 8.1 Oreo with EMUI 8.1;
- Camera: 40MP f/1.8 color + 8MP f/2.4 color telephoto + 20MP f/1.6 black & white, 4K video capture, 720@960fps slow-mo, Leica branding
- Camera features: 1/1.7″ 40MP sensor, up to ISO 102,400, 3x optical zoom, 5x hybrid zoom, OIS + EIS, can change focus and lighting in photos after they are taken, Variable Aperture, Portrait Mode, can shoot long-exposure without a tripod
- Selfie cam: 24MP, f/2.0 Leica lens, Portrait Mode with live bokeh effects; 2D Face Unlock
- Battery: 4,000mAh; Super Charge
- Security: Fingerprint reader (front), 0.4 seconds response time
- Connectivity: Dual SIM, Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2 + LE, NFC, USB Type-C
- Misc: IR blaster, stereo speakers
So we can see from the spec list that this is a phone that is packing quite a serious punch, especially in the camera department. I will look at the camera separately as it is a major feature of the phone. What I want to really concentrate on here are the other aspects of the phone, such as the brains and the engine.
The phone is being powered by the same chip as we have already seen and are very familiar with from the Mate 10 Pro from last year. Alongside that, we also have the very same NPU which will allow for all the AI shenanigans. Behind this chip, we also have 6GB of RAM and 128GB of EMMC storage. This allows for the phone to feel very fluid and fast again as on the previous Mate 10Pro. I know that I am drawing a lot of similarities to the previous device but there is a good reason. Both phones function just as fast and fluidly, and this should really be no surprise as in terms of brains these two devices are the same. As for the power, once again the similarities don’t stop there as this phone is also packing a 4000mAh battery capable of lasting 2 days – at least with my normal usage scenario. No, this is not as unique as it was a few months ago, as more and more phones are getting these longer lasting batteries. In fact, I can normally get my Galaxy S9+ to last 2 days if I stretch it. That being said, if I am going to be away on a trip and I don’t want to have to be concerned with my battery running out, I will reach for the Huawei P20 Pro first!
The inclusion of Supercharge is something that I absolutely love and because of this, I can forgive the oversight of not having QI charging. It would have been easy for Huawei to have implemented this from a design perspective, however, due to the way supercharge works they would have had to modify the charging systems to allow QI to work. When using Supercharge, I am able to get a full charge within 2 to 3 hours, which is great as I don’t have to worry about being low on power.
The one thing that I cannot forgive Huawei for in terms of design is the location of the fingerprint reader. For the last year now, we have been starting to see the move to rear-mounted fingerprint readers on most phones. The only obvious exception to this has been Apple, as they have just plain removed the sensor altogether and utilize facial recognition for their security purposes. Why then Huawei have felt the need to utilize the bottom of the phone for a fingerprint reader, I don’t know. It is right down at the base of the phone and is actually really awkward to use. I have actually dropped the phone a few times whilst using it. I have to admit that I am slightly biased to have the fingerprint reader mounted on the rear of the phone, as was the case with the previous Mate generations. While I am aware that the previous P series have had the fingerprint readers on the front and mimicking what was being done by Samsung on the Galaxy S range, it is time to make the move to the rear, or indeed to in screen as is the case with the Porsche Design Mate RS.
Huawei Porsche Design Mate RS
I am aware that in screen fingerprint sensors are a relatively new and burgeoning technology and so comes with a high price tag. But you could have just moved it to the rear of the phone in the meantime! Having a reader on the rear makes for a much more practical option, as the reader can then be utilized for other things such as a shutter button for selfies or dragging down the notification shade. At least they have given you the option to use the reader with gestures to replace the on-screen navigation buttons, so it is not completely wasted. Hopefully, on the next development, this will become a thing of the past.
Now that I have finished my mini-rant, let’s get back on track.
We are now seeing some more things that are going to take advantage of the NPU on board the phone. Whilst these are still primarily aimed at the photographic side of things, some other areas of the phone do benefit such as calls; you know one of the things that made us carry around these mobile devices in the first place!
The NPU, or Neural-Network Processing Unit to give its full name, was launched on the Mate 10 Pro and is also present on the P20 Pro. It isn’t abundantly clear where they are using the tech, but in some aspects of the phone, you can see where it is taking effect (in the Image Processing is much faster than on my Galaxy S9+). The machine learning of the phone is now assisted by AI, which comes from the NPU. The phone will learn how you use the phone, then the NPU will mimic this behaviour to allow the phone to identify the most efficient mode and optimise performance accordingly. In turn, this will keep the phone feeling fluid and fresh later down the road. The NPU is not just used for this though it will also allow an improved experience in the world of Augmented Reality. This is one feature that Huawei is trying to show off by the use of their Translator app, which has been co-developed by Microsoft. Using the onboard AI means that the phone is now more capable of performing translations within the app without having to reach out to the web for help. It does work in reality, but if I’m honest it is something I would only use in this review and I cannot see myself using it in the future.
Really what the NPU and its AI focus are giving you is a phone that is ready and capable of stepping up when Google unleashes their AI programming in the very near future. We are not here yet, but it is very much around the corner. Huawei is also covering off any move made by Apple with their Bionic chip in the iPhone X.
The NPU in conjunction with the Kirin 970 processor is a very powerful combination, and an example of this power was showcased earlier this year at MWC where is powered the guidance of a car! Check out this article for more info.
Back to calls though. Huawei has implemented a system called Easy Talk. In essence, this will improve your calling experience for both you and the other caller. Imagine you are trying to make a call from a busy shopping centre. Normally to make yourself heard, you would have to raise your voice to a point where you are almost yelling at your phone. Using Easy Call, this is no longer an issue as you can just talk normally and the AI will recognise the background noise and cancel it out. This means that the person on the other end of the call will not be aware of where you are and will just hear you and not the hubbub of shopping centre madness. Genius! This is one feature I can’t wait to try out in the real world.
There has not been a massive amount of change from the software that was present on the Mate 10 Pro, pretty much all of the features that were present in that are still here, both good and bad. I am still annoyed by the issues visible with the scaling of the UI and the fact that it is not uniform over the whole UI.
I still like that fact that EMUI has been scaled back slightly, to now look more like the Pixel version of the UI. I like that the home button works correctly for launching the Google Assistant and that Huawei has not decided that they have got to implement an alternative assistant (cough Samsung). There is some duplication of the standard Google Apps but they are actually not that bad to use, so I can let them slide. The implementation of Android Oreo 8.1 is good, and it brings the nice features over to the phone although to be honest you will be hard pushed to find what they are unless you go looking for them!
A nice feature for “notch” haters is that the area around the notch can be changed to make it meld with the notch if you want it to. It has been noted that some apps are still having issues with this, so if you did want to use this option, be aware that it can lead to some weird looking apps, particularly at the top in the notification area.
The EMUI skin over Android 8.1 is very pleasant, and it allows me to really dig down and customise the way the phone looks and feels. It does have some genuinely nice touches, such as “knuckle touch” which can be used to perform a variety of different gestures include screenshots, screen record activation and split screen app. The main user interface can be laid out in the normal Android way, with the inclusion of the App drawer or it can be set up in a more iPhone like manner with all your icons spread across the screen. You can very easily place multiple apps into folders that can be fully customised in their look by means of background colours. There are thousands of themes to choose from, which will change the way your icons look and feel, along with your wallpaper and lock screen. All of these visual touches makes the phone really pleasing to use and allows it to feel unique to you the user.
Behind the glossy front end, Android Oreo is doing a lot of really neat things like ensuring that apps are being monitored to keep their usage of battery, data and RAM in check. You will get the occasional prompt to let you know when an app steps too far out of line. Split-screen multitasking is now something that has come to the forefront of using this type of phone and it is an ease and pleasure to use. You also have full access to the Google Assistant, which is constantly evolving and getting more intelligent. I really like that long-pressing certain apps will now open up contextual menus without having to go into the app in its entirety. All of this is of course assisted by the active machine learning enabled by the NPU.
This is the biggy. This is what makes this phone so special, it is also what I have been looking forward to most about the phone. I ranked the camera on the Mate 10 Pro very highly and chose to use it over my Galaxy S8+. Things in the camera world have now moved on as they do, and we now have the S9+ throwing up some serious competition to the Huawei.
I love the way that Huawei has chosen to implement their triple camera setup, and it was one of the reasons that I was so excited to sink my teeth into this phone. I have found that the combination of the monochrome sensor alongside the standard RGB sensor can, and does, produce some pictures of outstanding quality. Throw in the fact that we now have the option of up to 5x Lossless Zoom in that mix and things can only be good. The actual camera has not really had much of significant jump in terms of the raw specs since the Mate 10 Pro that preceded this, and this is by no means a bad thing. What has changed now though is the use of AI within the camera’s software and algorithms.
Due to the use of the NPU, the camera is now able to identify scenes a lot quicker in Auto mode, leading to it being able to adapt your shooting mode more quickly. This has made taking photos of a high quality much easier for a non-pro like me. I also really like that when you are taking a picture, the phone will indicate what the automatically selected scene is via a graphic in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. If that wasn’t cool enough, the phone will now also be able to detect if it needs to zoom in for you depending on what you are photographing, i.e. Portrait Mode using the rear camera or Close Up mode. In both of these modes, as soon as the “scene” is recognised then the zoom lens will kick in to allow you to get the recommended focal distance. This must be used in conjunction with the laser-assisted autofocus one of the four methods used in focusing the lenses.
Another feature that I really liked on the older Mate 10 Pro was the ability to capture longer exposures in low light to allow some very clever light effect pictures.On the older phone, this required a tripod and up to 30 seconds per shot. Whilst that is fine for the pro photographer it is not the greatest experience for us mere mortals. Huawei has taken action to rectify this and have now decreased the time needed for a long exposure to 6 seconds, and you no longer need to cart around that big old tripod either as we now have a 3rd option for stabilisation.
I introduce to you AI-IS, or Artificial Intelligence Image Stabilisation. This will work alongside the OIS and EIS to allow for the camera to be stabilised much quicker which is essential for night shots. This extra layer of AI and the ability for the camera software to instantly recognise scenes allows for you to “see the unseen”, as Huawei likes to tell us. Essentially what they mean is that you will be able to see more of what is in the shot through the lens than what you can see with your own eyes. This had mixed results in my testing, but it is a definite improvement over the previous version of the Huawei camera UI.
Here are few camera samples for you to go over and have a look at. If you click on the thumbnail, then you will get the full-size image.
I think these above pictures give you a good idea of the phone when it is using the normal auto mode, and also what it can do when using the monochrome mode.
This next selection is what can be done when using the variable aperture setting.
This next selection is what can be done when you utilise the zoom.
Now for the selfie round:
As you can see the results kinda speak for themselves with regard to the quality of the camera. Would it be suitable as a replacement for the expensive DSLR that a pro photographer uses; I think not. However for your average user who likes the simplicity of the camera interface of say an iPhone but wants that little bit more “tweakability”, then I would say this is very much a winner. How does it compare with the Galaxy S9+? Well for me, the ability to use that monochrome mode means the world to me, so I am very happy with it and I will be continuing to take it with me on my trips.
How does the video side of things perform though? We have got a 4K capable camera for video, so it is hardly going to be any surprise to know that it really does do a good job. What I was particularly keen to look into though was how well it works for slow motion, now that we have the 960 FPS capture speed. So I tried to get some recordings of a bouncing ball in my garden. Check out the results below.
Not too bad. Obviously, a little more practice is required to get it just right with regard to the timing. The only thing that would make it easier is if it was set up like the S9. where it would start recording when the camera detects motion, rather than relying on your reaction times!
So at the top of this review, I asked if this is the phone that is the best camera phone? Well in answer to that question, we have to look at both the camera and the phone. The camera is the most obvious bit of the puzzle, and while it is more than serviceable as a daily shooter, it has its areas of weakness. I am personally a fan of the colour saturation that is added from the scene modes, but I know that there will be some out there who aren’t. The good thing is that these can be turned off. The chance is though if you are that much of a camera specialist that you are turning these functions off, then you will be able to detect the other foibles within the camera. For instance, at high zoom levels it will lose some crispness on the edges of the images.
The second aspect of my question was related to the phone. Here things are a bit more clear-cut. If you can learn to live with the slight oddities presented by EMUI, then this is a fantastic piece of phonic hardware. The whole thing just feels well built, the battery lasts an age, and it never feels slow. I have even learned to look past the incorrectly placed fingerprint reader and the weird scaling of the UI.
For me, this is most definitely up there with the best of phones, and it certainly ticks all of my boxes for a camera so I am happy with it. If your needs are the same as mine then I bet you will be too. I would recommend that you try and check this one out as soon as you can, as it is well worth a look.
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