Huawei Mate 20 Review

Huawei is a company on the periphery for most people. They’ve heard about the company but don’t really know who they are. The vast majority of people I talked to about Huawei only know about them from the recent headlines of corporate spying and the Trump administration’s push to ban them from the US telecom industry.

But what gets lost in the shuffle is that Huawei makes damn good phones. The Mate 10 Pro was one of my favorite phones of 2017 and well into 2018. I still pick it up from time to time because of the build quality and performance even though it’s been about a year and a half since the phone was released.

Now, Huawei is back with another phone that makes me put down all of my other toys. The Huawei Mate 20 is not the true current flagship from Huawei, that honor goes to the Mate 20 Pro, but the Mate 20 has another purpose. At budget-flagship prices, the Mate 20 battles it out with phones like the OnePlus 6T for the best value on the market right now. While it’s not a perfect device, there is a lot to love here.

What we love

Build quality

It’s tough to find a phone that feels amazing in the hand. Instead, we’ve been left with too many curves and not enough edges. And with the addition to glass and metal sandwiches, holding onto to those phones gets even harder as phones get bigger.

But, we find ourselves loving the Huawei Mate 20. Sure, the rear of the device is glass, but it’s been treated so that it just feels… different. The closest thing I can compare it to is denim, but that’s not a great comparison. It’s hard to describe because it’s so unique. The etched design is one of my favorite things about the Mate 20 due to how distinct it feels and how it stands out from other phones on the market.

The rear of the phone also houses the super fast fingerprint scanner. While the Mate 20 Pro has an under-display scanner, the Mate 20 stuck with the rear-mounted scanner. I don’t mind it at all. I do love the scanner on my OnePlus 6T, but using the Mate 20 reminds me just how first-generation these new scanners feel. I’m sure that’ll change in future generations but for right now, the rear-mounted scanner is just fine.

There’s a lot to love about the rear of the phone, but the overall construction is a positive. There’s not going to be any bendgate here due to how strong the body is. There’s absolutely zero flex in the device even when I tried to bend it with everything I had in me. This leads to a really positive user experience because you always feel like you have a premium product in your hand, whether you’re texting, watching a video, or just messing around with the phone because of how cool the back feels.

The display

I’m a bit of a display snob. No, I don’t know everything there is to know about display technology, nor do I discriminate based on pixel counts, color saturation, or white balance. I just love a display that looks good to my eye every time I turn it on. The Mate 20 is the definition of what I love.

While I would normally prefer AMOLED over LCD, Huawei did an excellent job here sourcing a grade A panel. In fact, the only display I’d even say comes close to the Mate 20’s would be that of the LG G7. In case you missed the hype, the LG G7 was widely praised for having one of the best LCD displays ever when it came out in 2018. I’d put the Mate 20 above it.

Peak brightness is fantastic. This is one of the brightest displays out there right now and reading in bright sunlight is effortless. Just be sure to wipe off those smudges because they can interfere. I don’t know what Huawei did here, but I found our review unit picking up more fingerprints than other phones I’ve used in the past.

The elephant in the room is the notch. Look, some people just refuse to use a phone with a notch– and that’s fine. But, the Huawei has the right idea here. The Mate 20 features a “teardrop” notch design for the single front-facing camera. It doesn’t take up too much real estate or ruin the experience.

While Mate 20 Pro users may struggle with a massive notch, the non-Pro owners will have just a small notch that holds a camera that enables face unlock and takes some really nice selfies. You’re not going to get multiple cameras like the Pixel 3 XL or biometric scanning like the iPhone, but I’ll gladly trade those for more screen real estate and a less unsightly notch.

Back to the panel, the colors are vivid but not entirely accurate. But, they look great. If you’re going for the most accurate panel out there, there are other options on the market. If you just want a display that looks great, then the Mate 20 is a very solid option.

Performance

A great build and a nice display don’t mean much if the phone is a laggy mess.

The Mate 20 (and it’s big brother) come with Huawei’s most recent Kirin 980 chipset. It’s the first 7nm chip from the company, and it absolutely flies. I have not once seen a slowdown or any performance issues here. I would take the Kirin 980 over the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 right now, and that’s a pretty big statement.

In addition to fantastic everyday use, hardcore users will be happy. Throwing even the most graphically challenging games at the Mate 20 doesn’t slow it down. Multitasking and running split-screen apps are simply a joy and work without any issues. While the Mate 20 doesn’t have a stylus like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, I would put it in the same class for those who need a workhorse productivity phone due to how well the SoC handles multiple tasks.

If you’re not quite getting the performance out of the Mate 20 you want, you may want to turn on performance mode. This lets the phone disregard battery and heat and pushes the SoC to its absolute limit.

Honestly, I think it’s pretty amazing that we’re at the point where a throttled SoC can perform as the Kirin 980 does in the Mate 20. I did turn on the performance mode to test it out for the purposes of this review, but I never felt a need to turn it on during daily operation.

Performance Mode does what it implies. It jacks up the power going to the SoC but I didn’t see a lot of improvements. I think that might be because there aren’t really apps or operations that stress the Kirin 980 normally, so why would you need to kick the tires?

Battery life is another standout here. I generally get a day and a half to two full days of usage with the Mate 20. While I haven’t used every phone released in 2018 and 2019, it does stand at the top of my battery life scale along with the OnePlus 6T.

When using the Mate 20, I do miss wireless charging. It has become a staple in flagships from LG, Samsung, and Apple, and I wish Huawei would follow suit. While the Mate 20 Pro does have wireless charging (and reverse wireless charging), the Mate 20 does not. I know that Huawei needs to give people a reason to spend more money on the Pro variant, but wireless charging doesn’t feel like a Pro feature and I feel it should’ve been included here.

Cameras

People love taking pictures. And since we’re hesitant to carry around more than one device, phone manufacturers are taking note and packing in as many cameras as they can into devices. Even budget phones costing under $200 can get you a dual camera setup that takes perfectly good social media pictures.

So, how does a phone stand out at higher price points? More cameras of course.

The Huawei Mate 20 features a rear triple camera setup. It has a main lens, a wide-angle lens, and a lens that supports up to a 2x zoom. These are arranged in a square design along with the dual LED flash. It’s a distinctive layout, but not one we’re entirely sold on.

As for performance, we’re more than happy here. All of the lenses take quality pictures and we find ourselves drawn to wide-angle shots in particular. While the zoom lens is a nice feature, we find that there’s a lot of noise in these shots and colors aren’t represented as accurately.

Needs improvement

Software

Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: Huawei’s software is better than it’s ever been. There’s a real maturing going on here and I feel like we can look to Samsung for the path Huawei is traveling here. It started with terrible TouchWiz, move to a more refined Samsung Experience, and now has refined even more with the new One UI. Each iteration brought a more streamlined experience.

But Samsung still has a terrible reputation when it comes to software because of its rough start. I feel Huawei is going to get stuck with the same stigma if they don’t hurry up and focus its software on a more Western audience.

The focus on an Eastern audience is very apparent. From the color palette to little decisions like not offering an app tray out of the box (you have to turn it on in settings), this just isn’t in line with what most people in the US and Canada want.

And hey, I’m all for trying something new but I think Huawei falls flat here in several instances. First off, despite a few software updates during our review period, the phone feels unstable. I had app crashes almost every day. Sometimes the phone would just restart itself. Going to the homescreen would cause the system to reload the launcher (commonly referred to a homescreen redraw) on occasion. With a powerful processor and an abundance of RAM, these should not be issues, but they are.

Huawei routinely gets panned for trying to bridge the gap between iOS and Android with its software choices. I think that’s a fair assessment and would like the see the world’s second largest phone maker scale back a little bit. You can see the influence in many areas of the OS, especially in the share menu (of which I use a lot). It’s a downright clone of iOS’ share menu. This isn’t a positive thing– iOS’ share menu isn’t good. Android has a clear advantage here and that’s what makes this so frustrating. Why take something superior and nerf it just because your competitor is doing it another way?

I do give the software high marks for all of the software features it has included. From simple features like app cloning, there’s a real added value when you buy a Huawei device.

The trade-off is that you’re stuck with a ton of extra apps. Huawei packed in apps I don’t want and even its own app store, AppGallery. Just… why? There’s zero added value here and I know most people will just skip over the app in their app drawer instead of opening it. Instead of developing your own app store, can we get faster software updates?

I’m not going to talk much more about software because I think you get the picture. A more focused, closer to stock feel would give Huawei a huge advantage here in the US. Let’s make it happen, Huawei.

Conclusion

There’s a ton to love about the Huawei Mate 20. While not the Pro version, it offers a ton of features, fantastic build quality, and top-tier performance and battery life without busting your budget. The OnePlus 6T is normally named the budget flagship champion, but the Mate 20 is at least in the conversation. I think the 6T probably wins out because of software, but I couldn’t blame anyone for picking the Mate 20 over the OnePlus 6T for features alone.

The real question you have to ask yourself is if you want to get in bed with Huawei right now. The United States government is throwing some pretty heavy accusations at Huawei and the President is even considering banning the company from proving US companies with telecommunications equipment.

To be clear, we’ve seen no concrete evidence of spying from Huawei and other countries like Germany and India have come to the company’s defense. But, it does make us worry that a possible ban may be coming. If this happens, will Huawei pull out of the US completely? What does that mean for warranties and software updates?

There’s more here to consider besides what an excellent phone the Mate 20 is. I’ve truly enjoyed my time with it outside of the software issues I experienced. If there was no baggage, I would recommend this device to friends and family no problem. But, there is and that gives me pause.