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Huawei P30 Pro Review: Camera, Reinvented

The Huawei P30 Pro. Photo: Ben Sin

TL:DR Version

  • What’s good? This phone can basically see in the dark or get really close to a subject from afar in ways that we all thought was impossible with a tiny, thin smartphone camera
  • What’s bad? EMUI for the most part isn’t too bad now, but all the icon packs available look either garish or too iOS-like. I use Nova Launcher on this phone mostly just so I can use clean, modern icon packs. And I like the hole-punch display better than any notch

One of the lessons I’ve learned in my ten years of being a journalist is to take everything PRs and marketers say with a heavy grain of salt. And so when Huawei reps bragged that the P30 Pro “redefined” the smartphone camera, I didn’t bat an eye, because that was the same claim Samsung made when it launched the Galaxy S9, and that phone’s camera was just pretty good but not great. There’s so much hyperbole in phone marketing now that reviewers have to stay alert and not give in. And so, even during my initial hands-on sessions, when I didn’t get to push the cameras much, I remained skeptical, writing in the South China Morning Post that the phone was likely an iterative update.

Damn, was I wrong. I’ve since used the P30 Pro heavily for the past week and half and this is indeed mobile photography, reinvented. In fact, it would not be exaggeration to say the P30 Pro is a breakthrough in digital imaging.

I usually don’t cover the camera performance until later in the review but let’s just talk briefly about it first: The P30 Pro excels in two areas previously considered weak points of mobile cameras: low light photos and zoom shots. Huawei accomplished this by engineering two unconventional camera lens systems that can produce well-lit images in extremely dark situations or zoom into objects far closer than what any smartphone before it was capable of.

Check the samples below. These images were all taken in succession in a dark alley after midnight.

But there’s more to judging a phone than just the ability to shoot images in the dark and zoom up real close, and in these other areas, the competition is more even.

Design and build: nice, but we done seen it before

With a 6.5-inch OLED screen, a large battery and those complicated camera sensors, the P30 Pro is relatively hefty at 192g, but due to the curvature of the OLED display and the ultra-thin bezels surrounding the panel, the phone keeps roughly the same size as the iPhone XS Max or Samsung Galaxy S10+. It’s a good looking phone, with a gradient colored back that appears to change colors depending on the lighting, sturdy aluminum sides and a vibrant screen, but it’s nothing we ain’t seen before. In my opinion, I think the Mate 20 Pro, with its more original camera module design, looks better.

The Mate 20 Pro looks more unique to my eyes.

I also am slightly disappointed by the P30 Pro’s notch. I thought that, after the Honor View 20, Huawei’s upcoming phones would all use the hole-punch display, but nope. It’s all a matter of preference, but I personally like the hole-punch design better than the notch.

The Huawei P30 Pro’s notch (left) is smaller than the iPhone XS’s large notch (right), but I personally prefer the S10’s hole-punch design the best (middle).

Digital imaging breakthrough

The P30 Pro’s camera module sticks out quite a bit from the body. That’s obviously not desirable — the side placement of the camera module means the phone doesn’t sit flat on a desk — but the P30 Pro’s camera system is so advanced it’s worth the more clunky form factor.

So here’s what Huawei has put together: a 40-megapixel main sensor, 20-megapixel wide-angle lens, and an 8-megapixel telephoto lens. The main sensor and the telephoto lens are the two that have been re-engineered from the ground up to achieve their technological breakthroughs.

The main sensor breaks from convention by using an RYB sensor (red, yellow, blue) instead of the ubiquitous RGB (red, green, blue) sensor, with Huawei’s reasoning that yellow light is superior to green light because because yellow contains enough green while taking in more red — crucial for low light imaging.

Don’t just take my word for it, see for yourself: the below sample was shot in my room at night, with all lights turned off and curtains closed. The iPhone image (near total darkness) was what my eyes saw at the time. What the P30 Pro can do in pitch blackness is uncanny.

The telephoto lens, meanwhile, uses a periscope-like design through which light is directed sideways inside the phone to an image sensor that’s placed perpendicularly to the rest of the image sensors. This, along with complicated software algorithm and image processing, allows the P30 Pro to achieve 5X optical lossless zoom and 10X digital zoom that’s almost lossless.

A render of the periscope-like telephoto lens in action. Photo: Huawei

Here’s a sample of the zoom in action. The first image you see is a reference image of the scene to my eyes.

And here are 10X zoom images focusing on the blue street sign, captured by Huawei’s, Apple’s, and Samsung’s best.

The difference is more noticeable when you go for a closer crop.

In fact, the P30 Pro can zoom digitally all the way to 50X, and while at this scope the image becomes blurry, the fact that you can essentially magnify an image by 50 times and still get something that’s relatively legible with a gadget no thicker than a wallet or notepad is surreal.

A quick aside: the “Periscope” zoom system seen in the P30 Pro was actually first introduced by Oppo more than a year ago. Somehow, Huawei has beaten Oppo to the punch in putting this tech into a working phone. I am not sure what the story is here — that Huawei saw Oppo’s development and somehow took the idea and got it out faster than Oppo, or Huawei was working on the same tech the whole time but just never advertised it like Oppo… but I thought Oppo deserves a shoutout here. Anyway, back to the P30 Pro review.

Now some people say that zoom shots and low light image are niche areas of the mobile photography experience, and that the average consumers do not need those features. That’s fair; but from a technical standpoint, what Huawei has accomplished cannot be understated: there are billion dollar corporations actively spending millions trying to improve low light performances in mobile photography, and Huawei bested all of them.

In other shooting conditions, the P30 Pro can also hold its own against anyone, though the results are now up for debate. In general, the P30 Pro still tends to overprocess and overexpose images a bit compared to images captured by the iPhone or Google Pixel, and human skin tone can come off a bit artificial compared to an iPhone’s portraits.

But the P30 Pro can capture impressive bokeh images, thanks to a new TOF (time-of-flight) sensor, which allows the phone to produce real-time depth-of-field effect when shooting stills or videos. Whether it’s a crash cymbal, sleeping cat, fried chicken sandwich or person, the depth-of-field effect is natural with accurate edge detection.

The depth-of-field blur is slightly stronger than I’d like here, but I can tweak this after the fact.

Video recording has previously been a weakness of Huawei phones, and the P30 Pro improves on this end with better stabilization, but it still can’t shoot videos at 4K/60fps (all other top phones can do this) and even the improved stabilization still falls short of what the iPhone XS can do. The P30 Pro’s video capabilities are good, not great. The iPhone XS and LG G8 can do great.

Everything else

Powering everything is the Kirin 980, which is Huawei’s top tier chipset. It’s a powerful 7nm processor, but it’s about six months old and has been used several other phones, including much cheaper “mid-tier” handsets from Honor. There’s something about this chipset being available on $400 phones that make it feel less premium here. Still, in most usage scenario the Kirin 980 is powerful enough to handle just about anything, though its GPU capabilities are slightly inferior to the Snapdragon 855. This is only noticeable when playing graphically intensive games.

Battery life has always been a strong point of Huawei handsets and nothing has changed here. This is still a phone that will easily last all day and then some. As I’ve written before, Huawei phones can last so long that whenever I switch to another phone, I’m caught off-guard by the faster dwindling battery.

That 6.5-inch OLED display has a resolution of “only” 1080p, so it’s not as pixel-dense as Samsung’s S10 or even the Mate 20 Pro, but I was unable to tell the difference despite putting the two screens side by side. The P30 Pro’s panel is excellent and gets almost just as bright as Samsung’s industry-best screen.

The earpiece has been removed from the top of the display too, in favor of a vibrating speaker underneath the panel. It sounds great for phone calls, but for reason Huawei wasn’t able to make it pump out louder sound to double as a loud speaker like what LG’s done with the G8. This means the P30 Pro only has a single speaker grille at the bottom of the device, and the audio experience definitely suffers a bit. There’s no headphone jack too.

Software and UI: getting better, but not there yet

The biggest sore point of using Huawei phones for many western reviewers is EMUI, Huawei’s software skin that is heavy handed and looks a bit too much like iOS for most of our liking. Even if we get over the fact that, aesthetically speaking, EMUI is the opposite of what Google has envisioned, there were plenty of bugs or glaring omissions with EMUI in years past that drove reviewers crazy.

For example, when I reviewed my first Huawei phone three years ago, the software routinely killed push notifications due to over-aggressive battery management, and the lockscreen could not display music widgets. Huawei fixed those a year later, but the software still had other issues such as an incompatibility with Nova Launcher and an Always-On Display that didn’t show third party notifications.

I’m happy to report that all of this have been fixed. The Always-On Display isn’t useless now, and Nova Launcher works fine. I’m still not a fan of EMUI’s icon aesthetics or iOS-like system-wide search menu, but Huawei is listening to feedback and making improvements. There’s still some ways to go before I’d call EMUI a good Android skin like what OnePlus or Xiaomi have built, however.

The good news is slapping Nova Launcher over EMUI covers up most of our gripes.

Early contender for phone of the year

As I already stated in the opening, it would not be an overstatement to say that, with the P30 Pro, Huawei has developed a breakthrough in mobile photography, anchored mostly by that crazy low-light camera and zoom lens that should go untouched for the rest of this year. And that achievement alone sends the P30 Pro to the top of the pack right now in the smartphone pecking order.

If you really do not see yourself shooting in those conditions much, then the P30 Pro’s edge over the competition shrinks considerably, but then you’re still looking at the best in-class battery life, an almost edge-to-edge vibrant screen, and a versatile camera system with above average wide-angle and bokeh capabilities.

Basically, the P30 Pro is a leading contender for phone of the year right now.