Huawei seeking to ‘own’ smartphone photography with P20 series

Huawei today launched the much-leaked, but much needed P20 and P20 Pro series smartphones. These add to the Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro to create a formidable set of flagship products.

The outgoing P10 series, while good, were out of line with leading smartphone designs.

The P20 and P20 Pro, together with the lower-cost P20 Lite, will form the backbone of Huawei’s attack on Samsung and its defence against a surging Xiaomi.

The P20 Pro is the headline product. Its mechanical design is excellent, including an edge-to-edge OLED display measuring 6.1″ and 2280 x 1080. The small lower ‘chin’ includes a fingerprint sensor. The display has a small notch that houses the loudspeaker, proximity sensor and front-facing 24 MP ‘selfie’ camera. The Pro has a glass back, which, in some variants includes a vibrant graduated colour effect. It looks quite startling, although may be a little too much for some buyers and will be obscured behind any protective cover – a necessity given the acreage of glass used on the device.

Once again Huawei has eschewed the fashionable wireless charging for the, arguably, much more useful fast-charging. And with a 4000mAH battery in the Pro version, a full day’s use is almost guaranteed for the vast majority of heavy users.

Where the P20 Pro really stands out is photography. The P9 kicked-off the upswing for Huawei’s imaging capability, thanks to its partnership with Leica. The P9, and all flagship models from Huawei since, have incorporated dual cameras, with one RGB and one monotone sensor. The signature black and white photography, so redolent of Leica’s long history, was beautifully recreated in the Huawei flagship models.

The P20 Pro now takes this strong position even further with the inclusion of a third sensor and a significant update to the other camera modules. The dual RGB and mono sensors remain, though their size has been lifted to 40MP and 20MP respectively. In addition the phone has a third, telephoto lens, with an 8MP sensor. The telephoto offers 3x optical zoom and works in combination with the other sensors to create a 5x hybrid zoom. This worked well in our brief hands-on testing.

Rather than using optical image stabilisation, Huawei has opted to use its AI chip to provide for image stabilisation – this it calls AIS. It enables excellent low light photography – allowing the capture of images in light levels where a tripod would normally be mandatory. The effective ISO setting is 102000. Again in our tests, we were able to capture images in barely any light with no noticeable shake – something hitherto not possible.

The AI function has been enhanced in the P20 – it now features detection of 19 scenes – six more than on the Mate 10 with which it shares the Kirin 970 SoC with integrated neural processing unit (NPU).

The P20 Pro will hit the streets in the next few weeks with a street price in Europe of Euro 899. This is below iPhone X and Galaxy S9 Plus. This is smart pricing by Huawei. It also today launched the Mate 10 Porsche RS, which handily tops the iPhone X for most expensive mainstream smartphone.

We also expect a massive media push for the P20. Huawei is not now able to launch in the US as it had planned, so it should be able to invest in stronger brand development in Europe and other regions where its brand is still not top-of-mind among consumers. Though where Huawei really needs to work hard is in social media and other channels inhabited by millennials – this is not necessarily expensive, but does require intensive, consistent effort. And this doesn’t mean posting artificial product reviews, something it was caught doing in the few channels in the US where it did have distribution.

Huawei is doing well in its home China market. It also punches above its weight in Italy, Spain and a few smaller European markets like Finland. But it has massive upside potential in the UK and France, where it’s currently under-performing relative to its average European market share. However the competitive environment is getting much tougher for Huawei; Nokia HMD is also developing a strong portfolio and it has a brand that consumers, especially in Europe, are familiar with and have warm feelings toward. More concerning for Huawei is the arrival in Europe of Xiaomi – a player that will hit hard in the spec comparison. Huawei has resisted playing the low-price card – Xiaomi has not. And in the markets in Europe where Huawei is strongest – such as Spain – consumers are likely to respond well to Xiaomi’s offer.

The P20 series is an outstanding series of products – every bit as good as the Galaxy S9 series, in our brief testing. Huawei will likely back this up with an Honor version at a lower price point. In so doing it will continue to build out an impressive portfolio that we expect will help it gain share globally during 2018. But with Xiaomi’s star rising, it needs to watch its back.