Huawei Mate 20 Pro
With three lenses covering ultra-wideangle to short telephoto, this is probably the best smartphone photographers can buy, says Andy Westlake
This is probably the best smartphone photographers can buy, says Andy Westlake
Over the past couple of years, we’ve been watching Chinese smartphone maker Huawei’s progress with increasing interest. The firm’s meteoric rise has seen it jump from virtually unknown just a couple of years ago to claiming second place in global smartphone sales, despite being effectively locked out of the huge US market. Its ongoing partnership with Leica has also seen the firms co-develop some genuinely exciting new camera technology.
With its latest model – the Mate 20 Pro – Huawei has taken the already excellent camera used by its P20 Pro and developed it further. Most importantly, it has replaced the dedicated monochrome module that was used by previous Huawei flagship devices with a 16mm equivalent lens. In concert with the existing 27mm and 80mm lenses, this makes for a unique photographic device: no other camera of any type allows you to switch from ultra-wideangle to short telephoto optics, simply by tapping a button.
It’s not just the lenses that stand out, though; the Mate 20 Pro also provides an impressive array of useful tools in its camera app. In its Pro mode, you get DNG raw shooting with full manual control of exposure, while elsewhere you’ll find the latest computational-photography features such as shallow depth- of-field simulation, portrait re-lighting and handheld night shooting. Yet this camera will fit into your shirt pocket, and as a sideline can also be used to browse the web, keep in touch with your family and friends, and buy old lenses on eBay. For serious photographers, there’s nothing else quite like it.
The Mate 20 Pro’s three lenses are arranged in a square on the device’s back, alongside a Dual Tone flash that aims to match the colour of both sunlight and artificial light. Its 16mm equivalent ultra-wideangle camera has an aperture of f/2.2 and a 20MP sensor, and can focus as close as 2.5cm in super-macro mode. Meanwhile the main 27mm camera combines an f/1.8 aperture with a 40MP sensor; unlike the other two, this uses a 1/1.7in-type sensor that’s larger than average for a smartphone (although still fingernail-sized, at 7.4x5.6mm). Finally the 80mm telephoto module only has an 8MP sensor, but its f/2.4 lens includes optical image stabilisation.
As with its other recent flagship phones, Huawei has made extensive use of Artificial
Intelligence throughout the device, and its latest Kirin 980 HiAI processor now has twin neural processing units optimised for different kinds of tasks. As a result, the Mate 20 Pro can supposedly recognise 1,500 different photographic scenes and scenarios, and tailor the image processing to match. It also sports AI 4D predictive focus, which is designed to recognise subjects as they move around a frame and precisely track focus on them.
Huawei’s camera app is both impressively well featured and intuitive to use. Alongside the basic point-and-shoot Photo mode, you get an Aperture mode for shallow depth- of-field effects, Night mode that allows handheld exposures up to 8 seconds, and a Portrait mode including various relighting and bokeh-simulation effects. But I suspect many enthusiast photographers will quickly gravitate to using Pro mode, which gives full manual control and the ability to record DNG raw files from all three cameras (previously this was limited to the main camera). Other options include Panorama, Monochrome, HDR and Time-lapse modes.
Design and handling
While it’s similar in size to previous Huawei flagship devices, at 157.8x72.3mm and just 8.6mm thick, the Mate 20 Pro uses a distinctively different design. It’s based around a 6.39in OLED HDR screen that’s gently curved towards the edges, with a 19.5: 9 aspect ratio. It’s the first smartphone to have a fingerprint reader embedded beneath the screen, while the 24MP front camera system is now capable of more secure 3D facial recognition. There’s a wide notch at the top of the screen, but thankfully it can be hidden, with various status icons then displayed either side on a black background to give a cleaner, more elegant appearance.
Power is provided by a huge 4,200mAh battery, which can charge from empty to 70% in 30 minutes, with wireless charging also available at a slower rate. It’s easily capable of lasting a day of intensive use and can even be used to top up other devices wirelessly, albeit very slowly. Other features include IP68 waterresistance, and a single USB 3.0 port for charging, data transfer and audio out. The device is compatible with a new Nano Memory card format that fits into the dual-SIM tray to expand the 128GB of built-in memory, with a 128GB card costing £55. This could be handy when shooting lots of raw files.
The Mate 20 Pro comes in a choice of four colours: Midnight Blue, Emerald Green, Twilight, and Black. The blue and green models have an attractive ‘Hyper Optical Pattern’ surface finish, with
extremely fine ridges designed to make them more resilient to fingerprint marking and provide a better grip. My Emerald review sample was certainly a lot more secure in-hand than the notoriously slippery P20 Pro.
On balance the Mate 20 Pro handles as well as any other high- end smartphone. It’s speedy in operation, with apps opening in the blink of an eye. The sub-screen fingerprint reader isn’t as lightning-fast as the separate scanners found on Huawei’s previous phones, and I mostly used face detection for unlocking instead. A bigger problem is that with the screen extending right to the edges of the device, it’s easy to get ‘false touches’ that result in unpredictable operation. But this can be substantially alleviated by adding a case.
When judging the Mate 20 Pro’s camera, it’s important to understand what it’s trying to do. At heart, it’s a point-and-shoot that’s designed to take pictures that will look great on Facebook or Instagram, with image-processing to match. Despite what the hype might claim, it isn’t going to replace a DSLR for most enthusiast photographers. But it might just complement one nicely.
In general the device produces good-looking images with attractive colour, aided by accurate autofocus and extremely well-judged auto white balance and exposure. Like previous Huawei models, the AI processing in the basic Photo mode can get over- enthusiastic with the colour saturation, but my impression is that it’s been dialled back slightly from the cartoonish extremes of the P20 Pro. However if you still don’t like it, you can switch the AI off, or simply switch to Pro mode for more realistic colour output.
Examining the images in detail reveals just how much compromise has been made to fit such a diverse range of focal lengths into such a thin device. Not surprisingly, the main camera is the best of the three, thanks to its fast aperture and larger sensor. It delivers strong levels of detail across almost the entire image, with barely any distortion. However if you intend to process raw files, you’ll need to correct cyancoloured corner shading.
The wideangle optic resolves plenty of detail in the centre of the frame, but gets much softer towards the edges. It also shows marked moustache distortion, meaning that lines along the edges of the frame that should be straight appear wavy instead. Raw files reveal massive vignetting of almost 3 stops, plus a little lateral chromatic aberration.
The telephoto camera is the weakest of the three, in part reflecting the fact that its 8MP sensor output is upsized to 10MP by default. However this is compounded by the fact that because it’s a smaller aperture it needs to use higher ISOs more often, with noise and noise reduction then degrading fine detail. Raw files again exhibit colour shading in the corners.
This might all sound like a whole catalogue of image- quality problems, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. I’d be perfectly happy making A4 prints of many of the images I shot with the Mate 20 Pro, and with minimal post-processing.
Unless you’re shooting raw, it’s possible to select intermediate focal lengths, but this involves digital zoom with some loss of detail. It’s not a problem if you’re only going to use the images on social media, but becomes readily visible if you examine image files up close. The various special features mostly work well, too. Night mode gives entirely usable images in situations where you’d normally need a tripod, while the Aperture mode is getting more accurate and convincing all the time. Unfortunately Huawei’s Panorama mode is pretty poor: it can give obvious stitching artefacts and struggles to deal with brightness changes across the scene, meaning it lags a long way behind competing devices from Apple and Google.
With its ultra-wide camera, the Mate 20 Pro offers a different perspective to other smartphones 16mm equivalent 1/220sec at f/2.2, ISO 50
The three camera modules and Dual Tone flash are arranged in a square
With the telephoto camera, you can home in on details within a scene 80mm equivalent, 1/100sec at f/2.4, ISO 64
Left: In its Pro mode the camera app offers fully manual exposure control
The Mate 20 Pro is built around a gently curving OLED screen
The main camera gives excellent results with minimal distortion 27mm equivalent 1/430sec at f/1.8, ISO 50