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Huawei P30 Pro review: zooming into the future

China’s camera champion could have been a better phone

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Before I came across Huawei’s P30 Pro, I was confident in telling everyone that the Google Pixel 3, like its two predecessors, had the best smartphone camera. Now, I’m not so sure.

The P30 Pro is not a complicated phone: it’s got a familiar and fast Kirin 980 processor, the same dimensions and all-glass design as every other flagship handset, and the same bonus features like wireless charging and waterproofing. It’s a very direct rival to Samsung’s Galaxy S10 Plus, albeit without a headphone jack or the extra high-resolution screen. Europeans can grab a 128GB P30 Pro for €999, with many carriers bundling it with a free Sonos One speaker.

What sets Huawei’s device apart is the black cluster of cameras on its rear. It offers unprecedented zoom capabilities, rivals the Pixel’s epic dynamic range, and puts the iPhone to shame in night photos. You won’t be able to buy a Huawei P30 Pro in the United States, but if you care at all about mobile photography, this is a device you’ll want to know about. Because the P30 Pro is blazing the trail that everyone else will follow, it’s showcasing the future of photography in a phone that’s available today. And, for once, the device playing that role isn’t made by Apple, Samsung, or Google.

So what’s unique about the P30 Pro camera system? A lot. From the four sensors on the rear, the headline-grabber is the new periscope-like lens arrangement in the telephoto camera: a prism reflects incoming light 90 degrees sideways, channeling it through a series of lenses in the body of the phone that would be impossible to fit into a smartphone’s thin chassis any other way. This is why the bottom aperture appears square, and the benefit of this setup is a true 5x optical zoom.

The P30 Pro has the best and most versatile zoom of any phone camera system yet

Combining image data from the telephoto camera and the main 40-megapixel image sensor, Huawei produces what it calls a hybrid — yet still lossless, according to the company — zoom of 10x. I don’t strictly agree with Huawei, as I do see some loss of sharpness once you zoom in to 10x and beyond, but that quality degradation is tiny. In good light, I’ve obtained some legitimately usable images from this camera when zoomed in as tight as 32x. There’s not much to say about this other than “wow.” The P30 Pro has taken a traditional weakness of smartphones, the ability to zoom in on distant subjects, and turned it into a strength. Earlier this year, I tried an Oppo prototype with the same periscope camera tech, and by the end of 2019, we’re likely to have numerous phones from Chinese manufacturers with similar capabilities. As of today, though, Huawei is the unrivaled champ.

1x zoom.
1x zoom.
5x zoom.
5x zoom.
P30 Pro at 1x, 5x, and 10x zoom.
P30 Pro at 1x, 5x, and 10x zoom.
P30 Pro without zoom.
P30 Pro without zoom.
P30 Pro at 5x zoom
P30 Pro at 5x zoom.
P30 Pro at 10x zoom.
P30 Pro at 10x zoom.
P30 Pro at 24x zoom
P30 Pro at 1x, 5x, 10x, and 24x zoom.

And all of this wild zooming action is just the appetizer.

Above the telephoto camera is the main image sensor, which now has an RYYB (red, yellow, yellow, blue) subpixel setup. Why yellow subpixels instead of green? Huawei says they absorb both red and green light and thus help the sensor collect 40 percent more light. I’m intimately familiar with the performance of the P20 Pro camera from last year, which had the traditional RGB subpixel arrangement, and the 2019 model marks a major improvement in image quality and exposure. I attribute that in large part to the novel RYYB sensor, which is aided by the addition of optical image stabilization in the P30 Pro, available on both the main and telephoto cameras.

As big a boost as Huawei’s hardware improvements may provide, the company has worked some algorithmic magic on top of the new sensor to produce what is, in simple terms, the best low-light camera ever put inside a smartphone. I’ve raved in the past about Google’s Night Sight, which is — was — truly a revolutionary step forward for nighttime photography. But the Huawei P30 Pro bests Night Sight in its automatic camera mode. Where Google asks for three or four seconds of steadiness to get a good exposure in the dark, Huawei’s new camera produces vastly better images in a fraction of a second. Check out these stark comparisons and let the vast chasm in quality sink in:

Night Sight on the Pixel raised the bar for what we could expect from low-light mobile photography a couple of notches above Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy devices, and today, Huawei has a phone that makes Night Sight look ugly and crude. It’s impossible to overstate how much of a leap this is.

This phone’s low-light photos leave me shaken and stirred

Huawei does have its own Night Mode and it has a Pro mode and it has a Master AI setting that adjusts colors and sharpness relative to the scene it identifies, but I haven’t felt the need for any of them. This is simply a superb camera in its default state. But the advantages of the P30 Pro are never combined: you get either great nighttime photos or awesome zoom, not the two at the same time. This is because the telephoto camera has a smaller and less capable sensor and a smaller aperture (f/3.4 versus f/1.6) than the main one.

Many people have asked me if Huawei is overprocessing P30 Pro images quite as heavily as it did with the P20 Pro last year. The answer is no, but I still find the company too aggressive with its mix of grain-suppressing blur and additive sharpening. The oil painting look, which iPhones and Galaxy devices are just as guilty of, can sneak in on P30 Pro shots: when photographing crowds, I often end up with people’s faces looking like they were deliberately smudged to protect their identities. Scenes with plenty of intersecting lines, on the other hand, suffer from oversharpening where the finer detail starts to appear crunchy instead of crispy. You can opt to shoot RAW in Pro mode to sidestep Huawei’s processing choices, but then you lose a lot of the powerful and desirable JPEG processing that the phone does to achieve its excellent night shots.

Low-light sample photos with the P30 Pro, each of them shot without recourse to night mode.
Low-light sample photos with the P30 Pro, each of them shot without recourse to night mode.

I find the Google Pixel camera still retains the most fine-grained detail out of any phone camera. In a photo comparison of croissants, Huawei was very close to Google, but the Pixel was the one that really conveyed the flaky texture of the pastry, while Huawei presented a less grainy but also less realistic image. Google’s white balance and exposure calculations are also more accurate, though Huawei has made improvements with a new AI-driven HDR+ image processing in the P30 Pro that calculates an exposure map for every image and intelligently adjusts each segment of the scene. Faces in shadow are given an exposure boost while super bright things such as the sun or a light bulb are reined in so as not to blow out highlights.

Pixel 3 XL (left) versus P30 Pro.

P30 Pro images tend to be warmer and less contrasty than those from the Pixel 3, but the distance between the two cameras is slight

My most common image adjustments with this Huawei phone are to deepen the blacks, which tend to come out a little faded and amp the contrast and saturation up a touch. (If you use the Master AI setting, that’ll be done automatically for you, but I still don’t trust it with every shot). I also find daytime photos tend to have a slight red tint to them, but that’s only apparent under close side-by-side scrutiny with the Pixel that I’m already familiar and pleased with. Overall, the P30 Pro’s main camera soaks up a ton of detail, and its images scale up beautifully with light editing.

Compared to the iPhone XS or Samsung Galaxy S10, Huawei’s P30 Pro is a clear winner. Samsung has a pronounced tendency to oversaturate its images, while Apple’s camera just can’t compete with the physically much larger sensor of Huawei’s phone. The P30 Pro captures more detail, has a wider dynamic range, and is useful in a broader set of scenarios. When you try taking photos in low light, the iPhone XS presents a blank black canvas, and the Galaxy S10 gives only outlines while the P30 Pro makes things look like daytime.

The P30 Pro’s portrait mode, automatically enabled by Master AI on this shot, can be stunningly accurate.
The P30 Pro’s portrait mode, automatically enabled by Master AI on this shot, can be stunningly accurate.

Focusing with the P30 Pro is quicker than with the Pixel 3 or any other phone camera I’ve tested. Especially in low light, Huawei’s camera is insanely fast and responsive, thanks to the newly added 3D depth sensor on the back. It works on the same principle as Apple’s Face ID tech on the front of iPhones, creating a depth map of the things in front of it. That helps the main camera focus more accurately, it enhances the portrait mode with graduating bokeh that intensifies the further away you get from the subject, and it allows for augmented reality measurement of things like height, depth, and volume.

Sample 1080p footage from the Huawei P30 Pro.

The one letdown with Huawei’s P30 Pro cameras is that its video quality is not a match for its still photography. I find the stabilization, if you’re not zooming in, and the sound recording to be great. However, the quality of the video image is rather poor, lacking detail. Huawei’s image-smoothing habit really flattens out textures in videos and presents a rather artificial look. The iPhone is probably still the leader when it comes to shooting video, with Samsung in a close second.

Finally, Huawei also throws in an ultra-wide angle camera on the rear and a super-high-resolution selfie camera, both of which are fine but not in any way as remarkable as the rest of the company’s imaging hardware. Huawei’s camera app is quick to launch and operate, borrowing liberally from Apple’s camera interface, and it does a fine job of keeping the extra modes and features out of the way if you just want to snap a quick photo.

Turning to the phone itself, the P30 Pro is built around the Kirin 980 processor (the same as last year’s Mate 20 Pro), with 8GB of RAM and at least 128GB of storage. This is a fast phone, offering some of the best responsiveness and gaming performance I’ve yet come across on Android. But I’ve also stumbled upon a couple of bugs, most notably with the Twitter app and the multitasking view, both turning into a visual jumble on occasion.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Huawei’s software is not as good as its hardware

Huawei’s EMUI software is still what it is: more frustrating and nagging than helpful. It’s small things like not letting me pull down the quick settings shade on the lock screen to turn on the flashlight. Or not having the double press of the power button as a camera shortcut. Or the insistent reminders to enable HiCare, disable the background refresh of my most-used apps, sign in to a Huawei Cloud account, and grant all the invasive data permissions that the company lusts after. If Huawei could find some chill, as Samsung did this year with One UI or as OnePlus has been practicing for years, its phones would be vastly more enticing.

Huawei’s default EMUI launcher will be something you’ll want to replace immediately.
Huawei’s default EMUI launcher will be something you’ll want to replace immediately.

The first thing I did with the P30 Pro was download Nova Launcher and the Reduze Icon Pack, which are both free from the Google Play Store. With Gboard replacing the preloaded SwiftKey and a few pesky notifications dismissed, I managed to rein this phone in and make it feel like an Android handset rather than a Huawei device. That’s obviously work no one should have to do, but, in all honesty, I’m willing to accept the bumpy onboarding as a trade-off for the awesome performance of the Kirin 980 chip and those wild cameras on the back. I can see why some people would not want to make those compromises, however.

The battery is amazing, but the display is not

Huawei’s Bluetooth and Wi-Fi performance is exceptional. Hooking up my wireless earphones to this phone is faster than with any other device, except for the iPhone and its match-made-in-gadget-heaven AirPods. Syncing a Withings step-tracking watch to the P30 Pro is also vastly quicker than it is with Google’s Pixel 3. London’s underground system has Wi-Fi at every station, but most Android devices are too slow to identify the network, and I often get a connection just as the train’s departing each stop. With the P30 Pro, I’m connected before the train’s even arrived at each station. This wireless quickness complements the phone’s overall fluidity beautifully, lending a real sense of modern technology to the P30 Pro.

The P30 Pro eschews an earpiece and instead vibrates the screen to generate call sound, which works shockingly well.
The P30 Pro eschews an earpiece and instead vibrates the screen to generate call sound, which works shockingly well.

All of the above is underpinned by a humongous 4,200mAh battery that lasts beyond a day and a half no matter what I throw at it. Marathon gaming sessions, hours-long photo shoots, wireless music listening, extended YouTube streaming, everything that would exhaust lesser phones and have them begging for a power cord is taken in the P30 Pro’s stride. Huawei underlines this strength for the phone with the addition of 15W fast wireless charging and 40W wired SuperCharge that gets the battery from 0 to 70 percent in 30 minutes. Reverse wireless charging, should you want to top off your Galaxy Buds from the P30 Pro, is also available.

The one bit of hardware I don’t love on the Huawei P30 Pro is its display. I don’t mind the notch, which is as tiny as you can make it, with Huawei even ditching the earpiece for a magnetic levitation approach that vibrates the screen to generate sound. This works shockingly well, with calls sounding clear, loud, and even better than numerous Android alternatives with conventional earpieces. The problem is that the 6.47-inch 1080p panel is of a noticeably lower quality than the one in Samsung’s Galaxy S10 or last year’s Mate 20 Pro. When displaying a white screen, for instance, its curved edges exhibit a bluish shadow. Huawei’s default auto-brightness also tends to be a little too dim, forcing me to nudge it up every evening.

I like that Huawei has reduced the curvature of the sides of the P30 Pro’s screen from the extreme curves of the Mate 20 Pro, but the display is still not flat enough for totally comfortable use. This is a phone with a 19.5:9 aspect ratio, which is to say it’s already elongated, and then the side edge curves cut into the usable space a little bit more.

Can we just go back to capacitive fingerprint readers?

Embedded into the display is a fingerprint sensor that Huawei says has been made faster and better than the Mate 20 Pro’s. That is true. However, it’s still not as fast or as reliable as the capacitive one found in the P20 Pro. With the latter, I could just tap the sensor and have the phone unlocked in milliseconds. The one on the P30 Pro requires that I linger and press in a little for it to recognize me. I’ve not spent enough time with Samsung’s Galaxy S10 to compare it directly, but Google’s Pixel 3 and LG’s G8 both use the traditional fingerprint reader on the back, and both are quicker and more accurate than Huawei’s in-display fanciness.

The P30 Pro will be remembered for the excellence and versatility of its cameras. Huawei has taken the best of every other cameraphone up until now and put it into one: zoom, AI-enhanced night shots, portrait mode with depth detection, and a litany of additional options. This device also has the performance and design refinement to stand proudly among the best 2019 flagship phones. Its epic battery life would be a leading feature on any other handset, but it gets buried under the heft of superlatives about its photographic capabilities.

Yes, there are a few significant failings, especially in Huawei’s software, that hold the P30 Pro back from being the very best. As usual, in a world with no perfect phones, this is yet another imperfect example. But don’t misread this as a mere proof of concept or a camera with an afterthought phone attached. My time with the P30 Pro was a happy one, and I’d expect anyone with an adventurous bent to their photography will be delighted by it.

The thing that I take away from the experience of reviewing the Huawei P30 Pro is a sense of optimism about the competition to Google’s Pixel. I was growing tired of only praising one camera as the undisputed king of mobile photography, and now Huawei has offered up competition that’s superior in important ways. A lot of phones with additional lenses can beat Google’s Pixel when you want to zoom in on a scene, but none have rivaled the Pixel’s dynamic range or straight up beaten it in low-light photography like the P30 Pro has done.

Huawei’s new flagship is just the start of a whole new breed of cameraphone. Periscope lenses and AI will soon be minimum specs for flagship cameras, and any phone maker not already working on such technology will be left behind. If you can’t wait for that future to materialize, the P30 Pro is already here and, for a brief moment in time, it owns the title of the most capable mobile camera on the planet.

Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge

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