Huawei Mate 20 review: Packing premium performance for a high price

In the last few years, I’ve mainly used Samsung’s Galaxy phones. I also have an iPhone X on hand for a tasty iOS vs Android comparison. The new Mate 20 is my first hands-on experience with a Huawei device outside a trade show.

Honestly, I really like this phone. It’s a breath of fresh air in a crowded smartphone market and a great entry point if you’re new to the Android platform. But it doesn’t come cheap, with a starting price of 700 pounds ($876). We dig into Huawei’s Mate 20 to see if it’s worth the big bucks.

Huawei provided us with a review unit for testing, model HMA-L29. It included 6GB of system memory, 128GB of storage, dual-SIM connectivity and EMUI 9.0 (build C432E10R1P16) running with Android’s October 2018 security patch. I used the device mostly on my home network along with AT&T outside the house.

What’s in the box

Huawei Mate 20

Based on our previous review of the Mate 20 Pro, there’s nothing new to see here regarding package contents. The Mate 20 ships in a no-frills box that doesn’t distract from the beautiful surprise within. It contains a USB Type-C cable, a charger, earbuds, and an eject tool for the nanoSIM card tray. You even get a clear protective case — a pleasant surprise — though it eventually becomes a smudge magnet. At least it keeps your greasy fingerprints off the phone’s beautiful backside.

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

The earbuds are similar to those packed with Apple’s iPhone, but ditch the newer USB Type-C connector in favor of an old-school 3.5mm jack. I’ve never had an issue with earbuds provided by Apple or Samsung, and the headset shipping with Huawei’s Mate 20 is no different. They don’t drown everything out, however — at max volume I still hear myself type on a mechanical keyboard. The earbuds could also use rubber slip-on covers like Samsung’s earbuds for a more secure fit within your ears.

Design and build quality

Huawei Mate 20

The Mate 20 seems to take cues from the iPhone X’s edge-to-edge screen. The screen’s side bezels are just over a sixteenth of an inch thick at best, while the top and bottom bezels are around an eighth of an inch. Sure, pulling out the measuring tape is extreme, but these bezels are crazy thin, so all you mostly see is the phone’s beautiful screen. The curved aluminum frame’s smoothed edges make the device feel great to hold.

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

On the left you’ll find the enclosed slot for two SIM cards, while the volume and power buttons are on the right. The power button mostly has a reflective midnight blue surface save for a red reflective strip running along the button’s top edge. The USB Type-C port, speaker and microphone sit along the bottom, with a 3.5mm audio jack, a microphone, and an IR blaster at the top.

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

A gorgeous midnight blue washes across the back highlighted by a hint of a lined diagonal pattern if you angle the phone just right. The color is similar to the coral blue Samsung Galaxy S9, though perhaps a bit lighter. Mounted on the back is a fingerprint scanner located below the square Leica three-lens module.

Huawei Mate 20

The ear speaker is cleverly placed above the camera and within the top bezel, making it extremely hard to see. This placement frees up more space on the actual screen. By comparison, the Mate 20 Pro and Apple’s iPhone X family keep the ear speaker within the screen space. Huawei’s out-of-screen speaker placement enables a smaller notch than those you’ll see on the Mate 20 Pro and the iPhone X family.

A brilliant display

Huawei Mate 20

The Mate 20 provides a 6.53-inch IPS screen designed for rich colors and wide viewing angles, supporting 16.7 million colors. By comparison, the Mate 20 Pro has a smaller 6.39-inch OLED screen but packs more pixels per inch.

The phone defaults to a “smart” resolution out of the box that lowers the screen resolution to conserve power when its battery runs low. The phone typically runs at 2,244 x 1,080 and then switches to 1,496 x 720. You can keep the display at either resolution by toggling off the “smart” feature and selecting one of the two resolutions.

The phone also runs on the “vivid” color setting out of the box, which filters out the low-level yellows in white backgrounds and amplifies the color spectrum, rendering app icons, backgrounds and more with deeper blues and greens, and hotter reds, oranges, and yellows. The second “normal” mode isn’t quite as brilliant, adding yellow back to white backgrounds and flattening the colors. Both modes allow you to manually adjust color temperatures or use the “warm” or “cool” filters.

Under the hood

Huawei Mate 20

Unlike the Snapdragon-powered competition, Huawei uses its in-house Kirin 980 SoC to power the Mate 20. It’s based on 7nm processing technology, cramming 6.9 trillion transistors into a small chip. This translates into better power efficiency and better performance than SoCs based on 10nm and 14nm technology.

This chip is significant in several ways. It contains four Cortex-A55 cores with speeds up to 1.8GHz, two Cortex-A76 cores up to 1.92GHz, and two Cortex-A76 cores clocked up to 2.6GHz. The chip also includes an integrated Mali-G76 graphics component and two neural processing units that specifically handle artificial intelligence.

Huawei Mate 20

As previously stated, the review unit had 6GB of system memory and 128GB of storage. Huawei also sells another version with 4GB of system memory and 128GB of storage. Both support up to 256GB of additional storage via a Nano Memory card the size of a nanoSIM card. Let’s be honest, we wish Huawei would have stuck with microSD but at least there’s some form of expandable memory. Just keep in mind that Huawei controls the standard and makes the cards, so it’s going to be more expensive due to lack of demand compared to microSD.

You can install two nanoSIM cards or one nanoSIM and one Nano Memory card. Currently you can only get these Nano Memory cards through Huawei, though the company wants to make this design an industry standard. Still, relying on proprietary storage means you can’t hit Walmart or Amazon for cheap, compatible cards, making storage expansion inconvenient.

Unlike the Mate 20 Pro, which relies on a double-sided hybrid tray, this version places the two cards side-by-side.

Performance

Huawei Mate 20

You can gauge the phone’s performance in two ways: With and without Performance Mode enabled. This mode is toggled off by default, but you can switch it on by heading into System > Battery. According to a pop-up message, this mode optimizes the phone’s settings to “deliver maximum performance.” The penalty is faster battery depletion and possibly a hotter phone.

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

I ran several benchmarks to compare the two modes. Geekbench didn’t show a drastic change between the settings, showing the Kirin 980 scoring 3,371 in normal mode and 3,411 in performance mode in the single-core test. Both scores place it ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Xiaomi’s Black Shark gaming phone.

On the multi-core front, the Kirin 980 scored 9,891 in normal mode and 10,143 in performance mode. These numbers are great, pushing the Mate 20 past the OnePlus 6, Samsung’s Galaxy S9, the LG G7 ThinQ and Xiaomi’s Black Shark gaming phone.

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

In AnTutu the Mate 20 scored 276,401 with performance mode off, placing it between the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 and the Mi Mix 2S. With performance mode toggled on, the phone scored a higher 305,894, placing this phone between the Mate 20 Pro and the Asus ROG Phone, which is dedicated to gaming.

In addition to those two benchmarks, I also ran PCMark, GFXBench, and 3DMark. In a framerate comparison, performance mode doesn’t give you a significant boost — maybe a two or three frame increase at best — so it’s probably not worth leaving on for gaming. If anything, performance mode will just drain your battery faster.

You really don’t need the performance mode, generally. Between the Kirin 980 and Huawei’s optimized EMUI platform, this phone is already freakishly zippy. Everything you do on this phone is just fast, from finding and installing apps, to browsing with Chrome, or streaming content. In Pokemon Go, Nintendo’s login system is the longest wait. Even uploading all my pictures and videos to the cloud took no time at all.

Other hardware features

The Mate 20 provides two biometric features for secured access. Front and center is facial recognition. It maps your face using infrared dots and stores that data after the setup process for future comparison. Anything added to your face that doesn’t belong in the original 3D map disrupts the process.

While convenient, the Mate 20 struggled to recognize my face without anything disrupting the map. The phone could unlock instantly, or work after a delay. Other times I had to use a different method, like a PIN.

Still, when it works, facial recognition is an extremely speedy way to unlock the phone. Just lifting the phone will grant near-instant access.

The phone also includes a physical fingerprint reader on the back. This is a smart move given the phone’s facial recognition isn’t always reliable. I can default to a finger when I run into problems wearing hats and sunglasses. By comparison, the Mate 20 Pro provides an in-screen fingerprint scanner.

Battery

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

The Mate 20 has a 4,000mAh battery. It’s slightly smaller than the 4,200mAh battery of the Mate 20 Pro, but larger than the LG V40 ThinQ (3300mAh), iPhone XS Max (3,174mAh) and the Pixel 3 XL (2,915mAh).

The battery comfortably lasted me two days. We took a trip to Charlotte, NC to see the local Christmas sights and experience WinterFest at Carowinds. Outside general phone use, this was a prime time to use the phone’s camera and hit the park’s PokeStops and gyms in Pokemon Go. I kept the phone on its default auto-brightness setting, given the overcast sky didn’t require the maximum brightness.

Light phone users will probably only need to charge the Mate 20 every few days. Heavy users may see a low battery warning by the day’s end.

Most of the battery consumption was through the screen, Pokemon Go, and the camera.  I unplugged it from the charger Saturday morning at 10 a.m. when we headed to Charlotte and didn’t plug it back in until Monday morning after we had already arrived home late Sunday night. The phone gave up the ghost sometime between getting home and waking up the next morning.

During the trip, I didn’t make many calls or send texts, since I was with the people I usually call and text during the entire family trip. I didn’t heavily check emails or surf the internet either. The only real battery drain I experienced with this phone was through the benchmarking software used during the review process prior to the trip.

To determine the battery charge rate, I drained it until the phone shut off, plugged in the power adapter, noted the time, signed into the device, and closed all open apps. I started charging at 12:02 p.m. and the battery hit 52 percent capacity one hour and 20 minutes later. Overall, the Mate 20 battery took two hours and 47 minutes to full charge while the device remained on.

Had the Mate 20 relied on a power-saving OLED screen like the Pro model instead of an IPS display, we’d see even longer battery life. Still, if you’re a light phone user like myself, you’ll probably only need to charge the Mate 20 every few days. Heavy users may see a low battery warning by the end of the day.

Sound

 

Huawei Mate 20

The phone includes two speakers: A main speaker at the bottom next to the USB Type-C port, and one cleverly hidden above the front-facing camera. Both work in a stereo configuration when playing movies and music.

Unfortunately, there appears to be no means for balancing these speakers. When listening to music in landscape mode, audio leans toward the larger speaker. The earphone speaker definitely produces sound, but if can’t compete. If you hold the phone vertically, the balance isn’t quite so offset.

Overall the sound isn’t bad. Without an equalizer to adjust the settings, you’re stuck with high treble and not-so-deep bass levels. The audio is loud enough to suffice but doesn’t match my wife’s iPhone X. The audio from Apple’s phone is not only centered correctly, but provides better volume without distortion.

Your best bet is to use the earbuds. Their maximum volume definitely won’t burn out your eardrums, and you get a better balance between treble and bass than with the phone’s built-in speakers.

The FM radio app also doesn’t work without the earbuds, as they serve as the radio antenna. The over-the-air audio was surprisingly clear, however.

Camera

Huawei Mate 20

The rear camera module features three lenses: one 12MP wide angle lens (f/1.8 aperture), one 16MP ultra-wide angle lens (f/2.2 aperture), and one 8MP telephoto (f/2.4 aperture).

Open the Huawei’s stock camera app and you’ll find six modes listed along the bottom: Aperture, Night, Portrait, Photo, Video, and Pro. A “more” selection also brings up 11 additional modes, like Slo-mo, Panorama, Monochrome, Time-lapse and more. You can download a “good food” mode as well.

Huawei Mate 20

The maximum image resolution is 3,968 x 2,976 at a 4:3 aspect ratio. You can also select 2,976 x 2,976 (1:1) and 3,968 x 1,984 (18:9). By comparison, the iPhone X takes pictures at 4,032 × 3,024, which is slightly larger but has the same aspect ratio. The images I shot with the Mate 20 were sharper than the iPhone X, though its colors weren’t as deep.

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

I mostly cycled through Photo, Night, and Pro modes during the review. In Photo mode, the camera takes beautiful pictures on a clear, sunny day. My photos shot outside Walmart produced crisp blues, greens and yellows. When I walked inside the entrance to shoot the racks of poinsettias, reds and greens became weird due to different lighting. In other indoor scenarios using Photo Mode I touched the screen in multiple places to find a decent exposure to no avail, and switched to another mode.

Here are additional pictures taken indoors using Photo Mode:

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

Here are pictures taken during an overcast day using Photo Mode. These animals moved fast as they darted their whole heads (and freakishly long tongues in some cases) in and out my car window. The camera was just as fast, catching loads of detail:

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

An immediate fix is to use Night Mode, even during the day. It balances the darks and whites when Camera Mode remains too murky.

Surprisingly I wasn’t a big fan of it during my nighttime shoots. I wanted the holiday lights to stand out against a dark environment, but Night Mode would brighten the night sky and shadows. This mode is good if you want a general photo of your scene but aren’t concerned with shadow depth and color brilliance.

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

However, Night Mode was useful when I wanted to quickly lighten an overcast scene without using Pro Mode. Here’s a comparison:

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

Both Photo Mode and Night Mode require a few seconds to complete. For Photo Mode, the phone can pause for more than a second while it stabilizes the shot for an extremely sharp picture. Night Mode takes a few seconds longer, testing exposures for the right balance.

All the same, Photo Mode took great night shots on its own without having to load Night Mode or Pro Mode:

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

If you have the time, Pro Mode is your best option for edit-free photos. I could adjust the ISO and shutter speed for the best depth and exposure, though I accidentally zoomed some pictures thinking settings were sliders instead of numbers you tap. Other settings you can edit include exposure compensation, focus, white balance, and metering.

Here’s a comparison between Photo Mode and Pro Mode:

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

I also tested Portrait Mode to get nice up-close-and personal head shots of my subjects and even myself, using a handful of lighting filters. Pop replaces the background with a cool blue/purple/red palate. Stage Lighting shines a spotlight on your subject, blacking everything else out. Folding Blinds render angled lined shadows across the scene.

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

If you want more selfie fun, Huawei’s Mirror app adds picture frames and effects like blowing on the camera to create ice. You can zoom in to see every strand of hair in your eyebrows and change the brightness. The Mate 20 provides a 24MP front-facing camera with a f/1.8 aperture, producing great selfies.

You can see a good chunk of unedited photographs (and two videos) I took with this phone right here.

Software

This is my first encounter with EMUI, so I really can’t compare it to previous builds. Huawei says it brings 25.8 percent faster system response speed, on average faster application startups, and a lower touch input delay than the previous version. Powering Huawei’s skin is Android 9.0 Pie.

Huawei Mate 20

Initially when you wake the device, swiping up activates five quick-launch shortcuts: Recorder, Flashlight, Calculator, Stopwatch and QR scanner. Above these icons you’ll find five additional quick tools: Lock down the current image so it’s displayed each time you wake the phone, delete the current image from the lock screen rotation, save the current image to your gallery, share/print the current image, and edit the Magazine unlock settings.

By default, the lock screen displays images from the phone’s Magazine feature. You can toggle this off and use whatever image you want. Magazine pulls images from eight “subscriptions” you can toggle on and off: Huawei featured, Leica photography, Travel, Transportation, Celebrities, Style, Life, and Sports.

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

The Settings portion of EMUI 9.0 is extremely clean and well-organized, so you won’t spend all afternoon hunting down a specific setting. For instance, the Smart Assistance section provides settings for motion control. Here you can set knuckle gestures to take screenshots or open apps, and draw a line across the screen to enter split-screen mode.

Huawei Mate 20

Meanwhile, the Display section lets you alter the notch. By default, it surrounds the front-facing camera but you can expand this notch to stretch from end to end, creating a black notification and battery bar as shown above.

In System you can toggle between three types of navigation: the standard three-button method, gestures, or the dock, which creates a virtual thumb pad you can position anywhere on the screen. It supports three commands: Back, Home screen and Recent tasks.

Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20
Huawei Mate 20

Huawei provides in-house apps too. HiCare offers troubleshooting guides for network connections, problems with calls and texting, hardware issues and other problems. Phone Manager is an all-in-one app to optimize your phone’s performance while Smart Remote uses the built-in IR blaster to control compatible TVs.

The Themes app provides a cool library of themes to spice up your Home screen. There are 12 in all, though I stuck with the dynamic Milky Way theme featuring a purple and blue wallpaper that sparkles as you swipe through pages. The Dark theme provided on Mate 20 Pro isn’t available on this model.

But that’s not all, Huawei loads the Mate 20 with even more in-house apps covering music, videos, health, email, photos, tips, note-taking, and more. You’ll also find the company’s AppGallery storefront.

Overall, EMUI is much more bloated than stock Android, and even many other skins like you’ll find from Samsung and LG. EMUI continues to be one of the biggest sore points for western users, as it just feels a bit too much like iOS. Of course if you’re coming from iOS or don’t mind that style, you might actually appreciate the skin.

Availability

Huawei will likely never sell this phone using local carriers, but you can still get the Mate 20 unlocked online. A quick search on Amazon shows the 4GB/128GB model for $625 and the 6GB/128GB model for $776 through third-party sellers. There’s no warranty for customers in North America, as it’s an import only affair.

You can also get the Mate 20 through Huawei’s exclusive distributor John Lewis & Partners. It’s a bit more expensive, costing $876 for the 4GB/128GB model, but includes a two-year guarantee. The site currently doesn’t list the 6GB/128GB model.

Full specs

Display6.53 inches
IPS panel
2,244 x 1,080 resolution
381 PPI
Aspect ratio
DCI-P3
ProcessorHuawei Kirin 980
8-core chip: 2x @ 2.6GHz, 2x @ 1.92GHz and 4x @ 1.8GHz
GraphicsMali-G76
Memory4GB or 6GB
Storage128GB
NM card slot supporting 256GB
Battery4,000mAh
CamerasRear:
12MP Wide Angle (f/1.8)
16MP Ultra-Wide Angle (f/2.2)
8MP Telephoto (f/2.4)

Front:
24MP (f/2.0)

NetworkHMA-L29:
Primary SIM card:
4G LTE TDD: B34 / B38 / B39 / B40 / B41
4G LTE FDD: B1 / B2 / B3 / B4 / B5 / B6 / B7 / B8 / B9 / B12 / B17 / B18 / B19 / B20 / B26 / B28
3G WCDMA: B1 / B2 / B4 / B5 / B6 (Japan) / B8 / B19 (Japan);
3G TD-SCDMA: B34 / B39
2G GSM: B2 / B3 / B5 / B8 (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900 MHz)

Secondary SIM card:
4G LTE TDD: B34 / B38 / B39 / B40 / B41
4G LTE FDD: B1 / B2 / B3 / B4 / B5 / B6 / B7 / B8 / B9 / B12 / B17 / B18 / B19 / B20 / B26 / B28
3G WCDMA: B1 / B2 / B4 / B5 / B6 / B8 / B19
2G GSM: B2 / B3 / B5 / B8 (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900 MHz)

HMA-L09:
4G LTE TDD: B34 / B38 / B39 / B40 / B41
4G LTE FDD: B1 / B2 / B3 / B4 / B5 / B6 / B7 / B8 / B9 / B12 / B17 / B18 / B19 / B20 / B26 / B28
3G WCDMA: B1 / B2 / B4 / B5 / B6 (Japan) / B8 / B19 (Japan);
3G TD-SCDMA: B34 / B39
2G GSM: B2 / B3 / B5 / B8 (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900 MHz)

ConnectivityWireless AC Wave 2
Bluetooth 5.0, BLE, SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD, LDAC and HWA Audio
USB Type-C (5Gbps)
IR blaster
Biometric SecurityFingerprint scanner (back)
Facial recognition (front)
Headphone jackYes
Dimensions6.22 (L) x 3.03 (W) x 0.32 (H) inches
Weight0.414 pounds (6.63 ounces)
Software versionAndroid 9.0 Pie with EMUI 9.0
ColorsMidnight Blue
Black
Twilight

Conclusion

Huawei Mate 20

There’s so much to love with the Mate 20, from the cameras, to the performance, to the overall presentation. The Mate 20 didn’t give me much to complain about. Its user experience is clean, apps and services open near instantly, and you have plenty of options for taking great photographs and videos. The only real big beef with the Mate 20 was audio playback through both speakers in landscape mode, and the hit-or-miss performance of the phone’s facial recognition.

Overall, you get a lot of bang for your buck but this phone doesn’t live in a bubble. There are a lot of other great phones out there for similar pricing but with much better brand recognition, including devices like the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Note 9. That’s not to say this isn’t worth picking up, but before you make the plunge it’s never a bad idea to consider checking out the competition as well.