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Huawei’s P20 Pro has a unique triple camera and a predictable notch

And a home button, too

Photography by Tom Warren

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The Huawei P20 Pro is now official, taking up its place as the company’s new flagship and this year’s most exciting new phone. Unlike Samsung’s iterative Galaxy S9 update, Huawei’s P20 device family — which includes the regular P20 and a P20 Lite — is full of design and camera novelties that feel fresh and different from the rest of the market. Well, the new phones have notches, too, but those can be disguised if you really hate the look.

The crown jewel P20 Pro features two things I’ve never seen on a phone before: a triple-camera system and a dual-tone paint job that shifts color depending on how it catches the light. Last year’s iridescent HTC U11 showed something similar, but Huawei has escalated the coloring sophistication by using non-conductive vacuum metalizing to generate a unique gradient finish on the P20 Pro. I’d call it a work of art if the glass back wasn’t such a fingerprint and smudge magnet, spoiling the glamorous and premium appearance. Much of my time trying out this phone was spent reflexively wiping away the swirling patterns of fingerprints, which were somewhat reminiscent of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

But let’s talk about that epic new camera system. First of all, Huawei has added a third lens to the back of the P20 Pro, which provides an 8-megapixel, optically stabilized telephoto camera. This allows for 3x optical zoom or a 5x hybrid zoom. Huawei’s traditional setup of combining the data from a monochrome and a color sensor is still in place, but this time, the color sensor weighs in at a whopping 40 megapixels. You’ll have the option to use that entire resolution to take photos, though the default setting will be to combine the data from four adjacent pixels into one and thus generate clearer, brighter 10-megapixel shots. We’ve seen this technique, which Huawei calls Light Fusion, in the past on devices like the Nokia Lumia 1020 and its “super pixels.” One of these quad-pixel pixels inside the P20 Pro measures in at 2µm, which is huge for a smartphone sensor. Google’s Pixel 2, for comparison, has 1.4µm pixels, while the regular P20, which has a 12-megapixel main sensor, comes with 1.55µm pixels.

Huawei’s choice to not integrate the third camera on the P20 Pro into the same pill-shaped module as the other two makes the design feel a bit disjointed. Then again, that probably saves on manufacturing complexity, given how the regular P20 only has the dual-camera system. Plus, the third lens on the Pro doesn’t protrude as far out from the 7.8mm body as the other two. Another distinction between Huawei’s various lenses is that the two main cameras don’t have optical image stabilization like the telephoto one: Huawei thinks its artificial intelligence stabilization (AIS, in Huawei-speak) is all that’s required. AIS works on the basis of object recognition, understanding the outlines of shapes, and ensuring that they stay consistent from one frame to another. It’s available in video mode and all the way up to the maximum 5x zoom.

There’s a laundry list of P20 camera options and assistive features designed “to bridge the skills gap” between photography amateurs and pros. One that capitalizes on AIS is a promised 5-second-long exposure mode that can be used without a tripod. Handheld exposures of such length usually end up a blurry mess, so Huawei is making a bold promise here. The autofocus system is a combination of a laser, face detection, depth information, and contrast. And there’s a so-called 4D predictive focus for ensuring randomly moving objects — such as a flower being jostled by the wind — remain in focus.

Huawei’s AI object recognition has grown in awareness to now not only recognize food, but to know what sort of food it is that you’re trying to photograph. The company’s worked with food photographers from around the world, and now when it detects a particular style of cuisine, it will apply the image processing tweaks it believes are best suited to it.

Huawei P20 Pro

Up front, Huawei has a 24-megapixel selfie cam that also uses Light Fusion. The front-facing camera is housed in the notch at the top of the phone’s display — which is a 6.1-inch Full HD+ OLED panel on the P20 Pro and a smaller 5.8-inch LCD on the P20 — next to a cute circular earpiece. Unlike Apple’s iPhone X, Huawei’s notch doesn’t house a complex Face ID system, but the P20 is the first P-series phone from the company to come with Face Unlock, which just uses the camera.

Should you experience an ideological revulsion toward notches, Huawei adds a nice software option to mask out the top of the screen so that the phone looks like it has a straight-line top bezel. I really like the look of that on the OLED P20: the perfect black screen is indistinct from the notch material, and so all that remains are the notification and status icons seemingly floating atop the phone’s case material. The notch will be masked by default when viewing photos and video anyway. It’s worth noting that this disguise trick probably won’t work as well on the LCD of the P20, whose backlight can’t be selectively switched off as with OLED, but in any case, even using the phone with the notch visible shouldn’t be much of a bother.

At the bottom of the phone, Huawei retains its familiar home button and fingerprint sensor combo. The company claims its users really like it, and that capacitive button — which is more of a touchpad, to be fair — accepts gestures that can make the usual Android navigation bar superfluous (and thus open up more space on the screen).

As with the Mate 10 Pro, Huawei omits the headphone jack on the P20 and P20 Pro, though the company supports LDAC for higher-bitrate Bluetooth audio streaming. Other pertinent specs include the Kirin 970 processor, which Huawei makes itself, a 4,000mAh battery and 6GB of RAM on the P20 Pro and a 3,400mAh cell and 4GB of RAM on the P20, plus 128GB of storage on both. Both will have dual-SIM variants and include an IR blaster. No wireless charging, though. The latest version of Huawei’s EMUI, built atop Android 8.1 Oreo, comes preloaded on the company’s new phones.

Huawei’s also launching an accompanying Porsche Design Huawei Mate RS, which is a fancied-up P20 Pro. The 6-inch Porsche Design variant has a higher-res 2880 x 1440 display and 256GB or, wait for it, 512GB of storage, plus it has an in-display fingerprint sensor (together with a second fingerprint sensor on the rear). Otherwise, the Porsche Design shares all the features of the P20 Pro.

The P20 goes on sale today for €649 with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The P20 Pro will follow on the 6th of April for €899 with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. And the Porsche Design with 512GB? That’s €2,095, available on April 12th.