We’ve been using Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro daily since it was launched in London last October. While we posted plenty of info about the device at the time, and a large selection of test images from its impressive triple-rear-camera setup shortly thereafter, we recently realised we somehow missed doing a full-blown review. So here it is, at long last. We’d like to believe it’s all the better for the delay, because what missteps there are have been revealed to us in the way only prolonged use can.
Another motivation for reflecting on the Mate 20 Pro now is that it’s set the bar for 2019’s crop of new handsets, the leaks of which are already in full swing, and the official announcements of which start in less than a week when Mobile World Congress gets underway. Also, with new devices around the corner (including the P30 from Huawei), the Mate 20 Pro is likely to get a substantial price drop… which could make it an appealing alternative to the expected eye-wateringly hefty price tags the Samsung S10 and its ilk will undoubtedly come with.
Also, the Mate 20 Pro took home the Stuff Award for best flagship handset of 2018. Without further ado, this is why…
The Mate 20 Pro’s 6.39in OLED panel with high dynamic range (HDR) is one of the best we’ve ever had the pleasure of peering at. The resolution is a whopping 3120 x 1440 pixels, which translates to an equally whopping pixel density of 539 pixels per inch. In other words, the only way we can make out individual pixels is with the help of a macro lens. Conveniently, the Mate 20 Pro has a macro lens of its own… but that’s no use for taking pictures of the phone’s display, for obvious reasons.
Last October we would have argued that by opting for a wide notch and curved screen edges Huawei went with the worst of both worlds. We didn’t like Apple’s jumbo notch introduced on the iPhone X, and we’ve never cared much for Samsung’s insistence on curved edges. In the best cases, curved edges are aesthetically pleasing but pointless, in the worst — namely the Note 9 — they’re actually infuriating because they make it tough to crop images or draw to the edge of the screen. And with the Mate 20 Pro, Huawei’s included both curved edges and a fat notch.
Fast forward to today, and we don’t even notice notches anymore. Plus Huawei’s curves seem less aggressive than Samsung’s. Like Samsung’s, they also manage to make the phone feel slimmer than it really is, and they help with the edge-to-edge look every manufacturer chases (and which was the motivation for notches in the first place). Yes, you can hide the notch with a black bar if you choose to, but don’t mind it enough to bother.
Previous Huawei phones’ displays have (like many other Android flagships) tended to favoured over-saturation, but the Mate 20 Pro lets you choose from vivid or natural display presets, along with options to adjust tone based on ambient lighting, and the now obligatory option to reduce blue light in the evenings. Samsung’s Note 9 display might be marginally better if we were splitting hairs, but there’s nothing worth complaining about from Huawei’s offering.
Even four months down the line, the Mate 20 Pro tends to have a third or more of its juice left come bedtime. The only occasions we’ve had to top it up have been on days we’ve been travelling, using apps like CityMapper heavily while also snapping a heap of pictures and listening to music. This is, of course, thanks to the humungous 4200mAh battery Huawei’s managed to cram in.
Even better is the fact that the handset offers what Huawei calls SuperCharge. Using the charging block supplied (take note, Apple) with the phone we’ve charged it from 20% to just shy of 80% in a little over half an hour. That’s thanks to the support for 40W wired charging. For extra points, there’s also support for 15W wireless charging, but we’ve not been able to experience that as we haven’t had one of Huawei’s 15W wireless chargers to test. Being able to get almost three-quarters of a charge in 30 minutes is a genuine game changer, and when combined with the sort of stamina the Mate 20 Pro provides, it’s meant we’ve pretty much stopped carrying a battery booster.
Finally, there’s the reverse wireless charging that lets us turn the phone into a battery booster itself that’ll juice up any Qi-supporting handset. We’ve only used the feature a couple of times (and only to show people that it works), but it’s just another feature on an already astoundingly long list that helps the Mate 20 Pro stand out. We fully expect to see it on most flagships released in 2019 as Huawei’s rivals look to catch up.
Go wide, go long
The Mate 20 Pro’s elegant design and incredible battery life would be enough to recommend it, but it’s the camera kit that really sealed the deal for us when choosing our favourite phone of last year. Around the back there’s a killer combination of a 40MP f/1.8 27mm primary camera, an 8MP f/2.4 80mm telephoto camera (with optical image stabilisation), and a 20MP f/2.4 16mm ultra-wide angle camera (that also allows for macro photography from as near as 2cm and that recently received a software update that makes the results even better than the already solid ones we enjoyed out of the box).
While Huawei’s image processing is still prone to over-sharpen things, and you can still tell the images come from a smartphone camera when you zoom in to pixel-peeping levels, there’s simply no other smartphone out there today that offers the creative flexibility of the Mate 20 Pro. The ability to go from ultra-wide angle to 3x optical zoom with a couple of taps is glorious, and the zoom slider makes it possible to stop anywhere in between. Even going beyond the optical zoom limitations to the 5x mark results in surprisingly useable images thanks to Huawei’s software prowess.
That same software is also to thank for the astounding night mode images, made possible by the Mate 20 Pro snapping multiple images for up to five seconds, compensating for camera shake, stacking them together and pulling out detail. The only other smartphone we’ve seen that can offer similar low-light performance is Google Pixel 3, but as that’s not readily available locally the point is moot.
Even Huawei’s portrait mode is pleasingly adept at isolating the subject from the background, and the 24MP f/2 front-facing camera make’s Apple’s selfie shooters look positively pedestrian. If there’s any criticism to be levelled against the Mate 20 Pro’s photography chops its that the on-screen interface looks dated. Also, you’ll get the best low-light and video results from the primary 40MP camera rather than the zoom or ultra-wide ones, but that’s to be expected given their respective specifications.
(Un)locked and loaded
In the months we’ve been testing the Mate 20 Pro we’ve captured over 4,000 photos and installed almost 200 apps, including some processor-taxing games. We haven’t had a hiccup. That’s no doubt on account of the combination of Huawei’s Kirin 980 processor, the 6GB or RAM on board, and the 128GB of storage. Sure, we had to spend a bit of time up front moving all of Huawei’s preinstalled rubbish to an out-of-sight folder, fiddling the interface settings to our liking and turning off the bizarre default theme that changes the lock and home screen images every time we wake it, but thereafter it’s been smooth sailing.
During setup you can choose to have the usual on-screen Android navigation buttons for home, back and app switching, or you can opt to go all-in on Android 9.0’s gesture navigation. We did the latter, and now find it weird using physical buttons. Swiping in from the left of the screen goes back, swiping up from the bottom edge takes us home, and swiping and holding lets us switch between apps. We’d like a gesture for switching between the most recent apps (like you get on the iPhone X and above), but otherwise it’s speedy and intuitive.
Part of the reason for the broad notch at the top of the Mate 20 Pro’s display is the option to use 3D facial mapping for security (ala FaceID on an iPhone). It’s about as reliable as FaceID, but for those who prefer using a fingertip, there’s also the in-screen fingerprint sensor. It’s not quite as reliable as a physical sensor, it’s limited to a small and specific portion of the display, and it requires the applied digit be pretty straight on, but it’s sufficiently reliable to avoid frustration, and a real talking point that’s impressed everyone to whom we shown it.
Despite being almost perfect, there are a few quirks about the Mate 20 Pro we could do without. For starters, having the volume rocker and (fetching red) power/lock button right next to one another (on the right-hand edge) results in frequent, accidental screenshots. Further, occasionally when we unlock the phone we get a pop-up message at the bottom of the home that reads “HiVoice error – This app does not have the necessary permissions needed to run. Please check your permission settings” with an on-screen option for ‘off’. No amount of digging in the settings has allowed us to stop this from happening.
Then there’s the contentious new physical storage tray on the reverse of the SIM tray. This takes a Nano Memory Card (rather than a microSD card) that’s the same dimensions as a SIM card. It’s a solid enough idea on paper, but we’ve yet to see a Nano Memory Card in the wild. Meanwhile, microSD is ubiquitous. That said, with 128GB on board we’ve not needed additional storage, and instead we’ve been able to use a secondary SIM.
Sadly, if you want the dual-SIM version you won’t be able to get it on contract, as South African mobile operators continue to refuse to range dual-SIM handsets whenever they can. Also, you won’t see the gorgeous emerald green version of the Mate 20 Pro here. The former isn’t Huawei’s fault. The latter is, but hey, colour options are its prerogative.
Lastly, there’s no headphone jack, although Huawei does supply a 3.5mm-to-USB-C adaptor with the Mate 20 Pro. There’s a consolation prize, though. Instead of a headphone jack, there’s an IR blaster on the top edge of the handset. This isn’t something we thought we’d use initially, but as it works with our TV we’ve found ourselves firing it up from time to time when we can’t reach (or find) the TV remote.
The votes are in
The Mate 20 Pro may not be without faults, but the ones that exist are so trivial as to be practically irrelevant. It’s jam packed with everything the demanding smartphone owner could wish for, from essentials like heaps of processing power, class-leading battery performance, seriously rapid charging, and the best camera setup we’ve tested to date, to nifty extras like reverse wireless charging and an included, translucent case.
With the price for the phone now hovering around the R17,000 mark (down from the R19,000 price tag it carried at launch), the Mate 20 Pro isn’t just the best high-end smartphone of 2018, it’s likely to remain a compelling option well into 2019. It goes without saying (though we’ll say it anyway) we can’t wait to see what the Mate 30 Pro (or whatever the successor is eventually called) brings to the table. Huawei’s made the best phone of recent times and we’re betting it’s going to do everything it can to hang onto that accolade.
We've been testing the Mate 20 Pro since October 2018, four months and change later is it still the best phone money can buy?