For phone and tech fans who have been eagerly waiting for silicon to make a process jump into the single digits, those days have finally arrived. After the launch of the iPhone XS/XS Max/XR, the first 7nm Android phone has landed with the Huawei Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro.
I've been playing with the $1599 Mate 20 Pro, Huawei's new flagship, for a couple of weeks now. Here's several things you should know about the phone.
Huawei's supercharging is fantastic
Most Android phones have some form of supercharging these days, thanks to the Quick Charge functionality built into the Snapdragon CPUs that powers most Android flagships. (Samsung phones with Exynos processors, the variant that is sold in Australia, is still compatible with Quick Charge standard.)
Good supercharging is an absolute lifesaver, particularly for anyone who's conscious about leaving their phone plugged in too often. And as a result, it's pretty common to wake up with only 15% or 20% battery.
Fortunately, that's never been a problem. Each Mate 20 Pro comes with a 40W supercharger in the box, which will get you about 70% of juice in half an hour flat. If you add the extra time it takes to have a shower, some breakfast, you'll be able to fully juice a phone within an hour.
The real advantage, though, is those times where you have only 10 or 20 minutes before running out the door. Those are the times where an extra 20% or 30% of battery is an absolute lifesaver, and Huawei has absolutely nailed it here.
The facial recognition is pretty inconsistent
On the flip side, one feature that doesn't work as often as I'd like is the 3D facial scanning.
Similar to the iPhone, you can unlock the Mate 20 Pro with your face. It works by building a 3D model, asking you to rotate your head around a few times until it builds a complete picture. The regular Mate 20 has face recognition as well, but it's not as advanced.
In the instances where the Mate 20 Pro does detect my face, the unlock process is lightning quick. It works in all environments, even late at night in bed when the only source of light is coming from the phone itself.
The problem is how inconsistent the facial recognition tech is. If you're holding the phone below eye level - around chest height or lower, which isn't uncommon if you're looking down at your phone - the Mate 20 Pro doesn't always nail it.
Even at PAX this weekend, I had an instance with a fellow journalist who also had a Mate 20 Pro. Standing in broad daylight at an intersection, I turned on the phone and made sure the camera was pointed at my face. I wasn't looking directly at the front-facing camera, but my face wasn't obscured and my irises were clearly visible.
But it refused to unlock. It took three times before it eventually picked my face up, unlocking halfway through me typing in my PIN.
The kicker is the inconsistency. I've turned on the phone sometimes and it's unlocked almost as soon as the display lights up. And then I've had other times where I've just given up on the facial scanning altogether. It's great when it works: Huawei just needs to work on their hit rate.
The Mate 20 is actually the bigger phone, and has a 3.5mm jack
When Huawei demoed the Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro to local journalists, people initially mistook the Mate 20 for the more expensive flagship. The Mate 20 has a dewdrop design for the notch, with the speaker on the top of the device rather than the top edge of the screen.
The Mate 20 Pro has a thinner but longer notch. It's partially out of necessity: Huawei needed the room to accommodate the tech for their facial recognition software. The end result, however, is that the cheaper Mate 20 ($1099) has a better screen-to-body ratio.
The Mate 20 doesn't have the 40MP rear sensor of the Mate 20 Pro - it uses a 16MP/12MP/8MP setup instead - but it's still splash and dust resistant, has the same 7nm Kirin 980 processor, and ships with 4GB RAM/128GB storage by default. The battery is 4000mAh as well, which will last a day easily unless you're using GPS, Bluetooth and streaming video 24/7.
And most importantly of all for some people: the baby Mate 20 has a headphone jack. Audiophiles won't be as thrilled, but having a headphone jack at all is notable. And given that the Mate 20 is $100 less than a Galaxy S9, the base Pixel 3 and noticeably more affordable than the S9+, Pixel 3XL and the rest of the major Android flagships, it actually takes some off the lustre away from the Mate 20 Pro.
Whatever phone you do get, however, you'll still be getting one of the first phones on the smaller process node. Moore's Law means we don't get process jumps quite as often as we used to, and as someone who's been waiting for computers and GPUs to transition away from 14nm for years, it's exciting to finally have the tech in your hand.
For a phone, one of the biggest advantages you'll notice is the reduction in heat. Phones don't have fans and there's bugger all space for heatsinks and cooling systems. The practical impact of that you'll have probably noticed your phone getting hot to the touch whenever games or intensive apps are running, or when the phone is just charging normally.
The only time I've noticed the Mate 20 Pro get hot is when it's plugged into the supplied supercharger. That runs at 40W, almost the same wattage as the charger for my Surface Laptop (44W), so it's to be expected. When it's charging at less hyperactive speeds, you can barely feel it at all. There's a rise in heat when a graphically intensive game fires up - like PUBG or Arena of Valor - but it's never uncomfortable, or to the point where I'm worried about the phone.
Using multiple apps and regular usage (Chrome, Reddit, various Google services, etc) are super quick as well. But that's something we'll see in all phones over the next 6 to 12 months as other manufacturers get their hands on 7nm silicon. That said: if I had to buy a phone today and I wasn't concerned about 5G support, I absolutely wouldn't be buying something on the older nodes.
Let's talk about that triple Leica camera
The Mate 20 Pro has a pretty beefy combination on the rear: a 40MP f/1.8 sensor with a 27mm focal length, a 20MP f/2.2 ultra wide camera with a focal length around 16mm, and a 8MP f/2.4 telephoto lens. Huawei's P20 had a black-and-white camera on the back to help capture extra detail, but the Mate 20 Pro is able to accomplish that with three colour lenses instead.
It also means you get the rather handy super macro mode, which lets you take photos within 2.5cm of an object.
The super macro focus is best used on a small object that fits within the centre of the frame, rather than something that extends beyond the image. On a piece of crispy skin salmon, for instance, the super macro gets some fantastic detail in the centre of the shot - but the blur on the extremities makes the photo a tad unpleasant. (You can also disable this, or any other AI-suggested photo presets, with a single press.)
But when you're just using the regular lens or the ultra wide camera without super macro, the details and colour are pleasant. Huawei's AI processing - ramped up by the dual neural processing chips in the Mate 20 Pro - adds a whole suite of new tricks.
Some of those include 4D predictive focus, where the AI works to maintain focus on a moving object. The AI can now detect more scenes and objects, although I found I generally preferred the natural colours of most scenes to the AI's suggestions. It worked reasonably well for landscapes and outdoor shots - like the snaps flying out of Sydney and into Melbourne above - but pictures of food would often become a little too vibrant.
Low-light shots were mixed, depending on what mode you were using. The camera app has a special night time option which essentially takes multiple photos and combines all of the exposures into a single, better lit image.
It's got some flaws though: I noticed anything with a logo or text in the background would sometimes have a halo-type effect. It works best on anything that's not moving, since you have to hold the camera steady throughout. You can get some good results if you have a phone tripod, and it can still work just to capture extra detail in well lit shots.
One weird quirk was that I wasn't able to shoot in RAW in Lightroom, a problem I've not had on other Android flagships or the iPhone X recently. Shooting within Lightroom has been a blessing for cataloguing, since you can take a shot and then edit it immediately in the same app.
You can still shoot in RAW and then import those photos into Lightroom, however, so it's not a dealbreaker. It's worth noting that RAW shots at the full 40MP are quite slow to save, but it's to be expected given that each shot weighs in at around 80mb.
The main thing you'll need to watch is low-light shots: like most phones, the Huawei favours aggressively low shutter speeds to get as much light in as possible, rather than retaining some detail and bumping up the exposure in post.
Buttons all on one side is great, but...
As someone who likes to take lots of screenshots, the ability to finally do this with my thumb is a godsend. The Mate 20 Pro only has buttons on the right edge of the chassis, with a large volume button and a smaller, red button to power on/wake up/restart the device.
Taking a screenshot is as simple as squeezing the power and volume down at the same time, which is simple enough to do with your thumb once you get used to it. You can also tap twice on the screen with a knuckle - not a finger - to take a screenshot as well.
If there's one criticism, it would be how far the buttons jut out from the device. With the slight curve on the edge of the phone, and just where the power button is positioned, I've found I've accidentally restarted my phone at least a few times every week.
It's been weird. I've butt dialled friends a few times, but I've never restarted my phone quite so much, and quite so consistently. Huawei could learn a little from the iPhone X/XS here, maybe rounding off the edges a little more or just not making it stick out so far.
Only buy the midnight blue version
The midnight blue and the black Mate 20 Pro are priced equally, which is a godsend because the midnight blue is miles better. Unlike the midnight blue, the regular Mate 20 Pro doesn't come with any patterning or texturing on the back of the device. It makes it a magnet for thumbprints, and gets grubby quite fast.
The midnight blue is much nicer to hold, more resistant to your oily fingers, and better in just about every way. The Mate 20 Pro only comes in two choices in Australia, but it might as well only come in one. Do not go with the black.
Best thing about having a 4200mAh battery? Being able to power that bright AMOLED screen at full blast for a hell of a lot longer. The Mate 20 Pro's 3120 x 1440 screen is plenty bright, supports HDR and DCI-P3, and you can tweak the resolution to save battery if you'd like. The pixel density is higher than what you'd get on an iPhone XS Max, the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL, too.
On top of that, IP68 resistance is nice to have. It's enough that your phone should survive if you drop it in the toilet (don't laugh, it's happened) or it gets a little splashed in the rain. There's also dual SIM support and a new expandable storage standard called Nano Memory, but support for that is thin on the ground at the moment.
Having played around with a few of the new flagships this year, the Mate 20 Pro is probably the most impressive Android flagship so far. Google's image processing is still the best in the business, and Samsung's entry level Note 9 is a solid all-rounder for $1499.
That's ultimately the biggest kicker for Huawei here. It's not the quality of the Mate 20 Pro. It's a good phone, runs like a dream and the triple Leica camera setup can more than hold its own. The AI processing is a little overeager, but you can always disable that quickly, or take photos in Pro mode (or Lightroom/VSCO/any other third-party camera app) instead.
The kicker will be one of trust. People have well established relationships with iPhones, Samsung phones, even the Pixel to some extent because of the Google branding. That's not entirely the case for Huawei just yet. The company sells plenty of phones in Australia and internationally, but most of those aren't retailing for $1600.
But the Mate 20 Pro is a solid phone from top to bottom. If you had to buy an Android phone now, and the last-gen hardware in the Pixel 3/Pixel 3 XL was too much to stomach, the Mate 20 Pro is what I'd go for. The only kicker there is the lack of 5G support: if you buy a handset now, you'll have to be happy staying on the 4G network for a few years. And if that's something you care about, then waiting for the next round of Android flagships might be wise.