Huawei P20 Review: Stuck in big brother’s shadow

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When Huawei debuted its latest P series of flagship phones earlier in the year, it was the P20 Pro that got much of the attention, with its tripe lens camera setup, Twilight back cover and bezel-less display. Where does that leave the Huawei P20 though?

Is it still a covetable device, or is it the scaled down version of the Pro?

We put the P20 through its paces to find out if it’s a worthwhile purchase and whether it can hold you attention long enough to forget about the P20 Pro.

Eye catching

The P20 is an eye catching device, particularly in the vibrant shade of blue that our review model came in. It will likely be even more so when in the Twilight colour option, which recently became available in South Africa.

Anyways back to the review device at hand.

In terms of dimensions the P20 is pretty much on par with most of the flagship phones released this year. Namely a 5.8″ device with a screen that features next to no bezels on the side, but does have ones on the top and bottom.

The latter houses a fingerprint sensor, which looks like and performs as speedily as the P10’s version.

It’s also one of several aspects that distinguish the more expensive Pro from the standard P20, with the former shifting its fingerprint sensor to the back in order to offer an “all-screen” look.

Both devices suffer from screen notches, which is still one of the more worrying mobile design trends in our opinion, but let’s leave that for another time.

All in all the P20 looks every inch a flagship phone, but the eye catching back cover comes at the price of being a serious smudge magnet.

This means you need to have a cleaning cloth close at hand, or place a cover on the back of the phone, which kind of defeats the point of having a good looking phone.

Pain points

Once powered up and signed in, you’re greeted by Huawei’s EMUI 8.1 skin, which is layered over Android Oreo.

It’s perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the P20, and Huawei’s phones in general. As with the Mate 10 Pro and P10 before it, the user interface on the P20 is difficult to navigate and features duplicated apps, some of which cannot be deleted.

While the Chinese manufacturer appears to have nailed down the hardware aspect of its flagship phones of late, the software still remains a sticking point for us, and the day Huawei hands over all UI to Google to load Pure Android cannot come soon enough.

Moving past the EMUI, let’s talk about the actual in-hand experience.

The P20 feels fast and responsive, with multitasking and switching between apps never suffering from lag. As such, it keeps pace with what’s asked from it and should not provide any frustration in terms of user experience.

If, however, you place a lot of value in processor benchmarks, the P20 might seem a little underpowered. On paper that should not be the case, with Kirin’s octa-core 970 chipset running things, 4GB RAM and 128GB onboard storage.

To that end it mustered a respectable if not overly impressive score of 205 545 on AnTuTu (v7.0). The Galaxy Note 9 for example, which we recently reviewed, totalled a far higher 244 095. Of course that device is powered by a different internal setup, but it potentially hints that Huawei is not making the most of the elements housed within the P20.

That said, it’s important to stress that the Huawei P20 doesn’t feel sluggish in any way, but those who place a lot of value in benchmark testing may be tempted to go elsewhere.

Sharp shooter

While the processor performance is up for debate, how does the P20 fare in the camera department?

As it turns out, quite well.

There’s dual lens setup, with a 20MP monochrome and 12MP RGB taking care of things on the rear. It’s also Leica-certified and utilises the specialist’s Summilux system.

The result here is a smartphone that’s great at taking pictures in a number of different environments, performing particularly well indoors, close in on subjects and while capturing plants and flowers.

The latter is enhanced via the image recognition running on the device. It’s similar to the version first introduced on the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, but it does feel a bit more refined, speedier and makes colours pop with more vibrancy.

There is only one issue, and strangely it has nothing to do with the P20, and rather the camera setup of the Pro.

More specifically it features three lenses, two of which are like the P20, but the third is a massive 40MP option. Having used it shortly after the Pro launched in South Africa, we can safely say the larger lens is a must have for any budding smartphone photographers, and it does make all the difference when comparing the P20 and P20 Pro.

It’s much like this scenario – if a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s around, does it make a sound?

Had we not tried the P20 Pro camera setup, we would have been none the wiser and quite content with the P20’s supremely solid all-round offering.

Unfortunately we know just how good it is, and it’s significantly better than the P20 variant.

Final verdict

At R12 999 the Huawei P20 is one of the better value for money (yes, even at R10k-plus) phones currently on the market.

But, and it’s a big but, the P20 Pro does not cost that much more (in our opinion) at R15 499. That little bit extra affords you a more modern and larger display, 6GB RAM and the aforementioned superb 40MP camera lens.

It’s not very often that we advise going for the more expensive option, but in this case the Huawei P20 Pro is the wiser long-term choice.

That’s why although a great all-round flagship phone, the P20 is stuck in the shadow if its big brother.

Robin-Leigh Chetty

Robin-Leigh Chetty

When he's not reviewing the latest smartphones, Robin-Leigh is writing about everything tech-related from IoT and smart cities, to 5G and cloud computing. He's also a keen photographer and dabbles in console games.