Honor 20 Pro review (early verdict): ace hardware, questionable software

Are a gorgeous design and an undoubtedly impressive camera enough to recommend the Honor 20 Pro?

Honor 20 Pro review

Honor has served-up a fresh batch of smartphones, known as the Honor 20 series. It might seem like a quick turnaround after the Honor View 20, which launched in January, but the Honor 20 Lite, Honor 20 and Honor 20 Pro are being sold as the best possible camera experience that Honor has ever offered.

In fact, the Chinese company is marketing the Honor 20 series with the tagline "Capture Wonder" and it has submitted the Honor 20 Pro to DxOMark for a comprehensive nitty-gritty assessment from the industry-standard body – a first for the firm that has clawed its way to the fourth biggest smartphone brand in the UK with its combination of aggressively low prices and solid hardware.

With the Honor 20 Pro, the Huawei sub-brand is clearly grasping for more. The transition isn't easy – something rival OnePlus 7 Pro is currently wrestling with, too.

Ahead of the Honor 20 series launch, we spent some time with the Honor 20 Pro. Below are our initial thoughts on the handset. Check back soon for a star rating and more analysis of the photography-focused new Honor handset.

Honor 20 Pro review: Price, Release Date

Honor 20 Pro, which ships with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of built-in storage, comes in at €599. That's around £525 or $550 converted. Considering the Huawei P30, which has comparable camera specs and internals, starts from £699 in the UK that's inarguably good bang for your buck.

Unfortunately, there's no word on the UK release date as yet, with Honor only teasing us at its launch event that the Honor 20 series will be "available soon".

Honor 20 Pro review

Honor 20 Pro review: Display, Design

It should come as no surprise whatsoever that the Honor 20 Pro feels incredibly well-built from the second you pick it up. Honor is not known for producing flimsy, plasticky handsets... and the Honor 20 Pro isn't the first to buck that trend.

The Honor 20 Pro feels solid, with the glass display on the front and the rear case gently curving to give the whole handset a cohesive, premium feel. As impressive as the camera technology squeezed into this smartphone is, the pill-shaped module to house the plethora of lens on the back of the Honor 20 Pro is ridiculous.

HONOR 20 PRO KEY SPECS

Dimensions: 154.60 x 73.97 x 8.44 mm

Weight: 182 g

Screen: 6.26-inch LCD, 2340 x 1080 at 412 ppi

CPU: Huawei Kirin 980

RAM: 8GB

Storage: 256GB

Battery: 4,000mAh

Cameras: 48MP main + 16MP ultra-wide + 8MP telephoto + 2MP macro / 32MP front-facing camera

OS: Magic UI 2.1.0  / Android 9.0 Pie

Not only does it look monstrous, but it creates a wobble that all-but registers on the Richter scale whenever you attempt to tap something in the lower right-hand corner of the screen while the phone is resting on the table. If you're the sort of person who pops your new smartphone into a case as soon possible, this won't be an issue.

But it would be a shame to shroud the Honor 20 Pro in case, no matter how practical. After all, this is a gorgeous smartphone. Taking a leaf from the colourful gradient-style cases we've seen on the likes of the Huawei P20 Pro, before appearing on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, and the Samsung Galaxy S10 and OnePlus 7 Pro, the Huawei P20 Pro takes a very colourful approach.

According to Honor, in order to create just the right holographic flashes of colour, the company combines colour and depth layers into a single composite for the rear case of the handset. The arduous process purportedly requires the firm to ditch 20 rear panels in every batch of 100 produced. So, that gives an insight into the care and attention lavished into the design with this handset.

The Phantom Blue finish is a stunning blend of emeralds and blues that seems to surface a new drop-dead gorgeous finish each time the light hits it. There is also a Phantom Black colour, which is not the plain ol' black finish we've come to expect from smartphone manufacturers but incorporates deep shades of purple.

On the front of the Honor 20 Pro, the company has opted for a hole-punch design to squeeze as much screen real estate as possible into the physical footprint available.

And it has really worked. Despite the sizeable 6.26-inch panel on the Honor 20 Pro, the company says it has the same form-factor that you'd typically find on a smartphone with a 5.3-inch panel with a 16:9 aspect ratio and chunky bezels above and below the display. Whether or not that's marketing bumf, it certainly feels like the Honor 20 Pro is much more compact than your average 6.26-inch handset. 

Don't get us wrong, reaching the top of the screen to drag down the notification shade still requires a little thumb gymnastics, but it's not as pronounced as phones with similar size screens albeit without the all-screen design. If you're dead-set against bigger screens, it might be worth swinging by your local store to try first. 

Honor is using an LCD panel, not an OLED. So don't expect the same zingy colours and deep shades of black that you'll get on pricier flagships out there. However, the screen still looks great and gets really bright, which is great when playing colourful video games and watching box sets on the go.

Honor 20 Pro review

Unlocking the device is handled by the side-mounted fingerprint scanner, which doubles as a sleep/wake button when depressed into the frame. Honor says it ditched the rear-mounted sensors used in previous devices based on feedback from focus groups that claimed the side-mounted sensor didn't require a deliberate movement to unlock, so felt more natural.

For our money, we've always preferred front-facing fingerprint scanners – not least because it means you can unlock the phone and authenticate secure apps when the handset is resting on your desk without having to pick it up. So, unfortunately, switching from the rear-mounted to the side-mounted scanner doesn't fix that.

However, the fingerprint scanner is very fast. Although we did have a few issues with the sensor in our first few days, but re-enrolling the fingertip, taking care to ensure the sides of the print were captured as picking up the phone naturally rarely sees the centre of the print land on the scanner, unlike the front-firing variety. That seemed to resolve the hiccup for good.

Honor has followed in the footsteps of the OnePlus 7 Pro and not included an IP rating. It says adding the feature – as well as obtaining the certification – costs money, and it would rather just pass on its savings to its customers. That all sounds good, but if you're particularly prone to butter-fingers, it's probably best to avoid this one.

Finally, there's no 3.5mm headphone port to be found on the Honor 20 Pro, so you'll need an adapter for your old pair of wired headphones. Ho-hum.

Honor 20 Pro review

Honor 20 Pro review: Camera

The cream of the Honor 20 crop, the Honor 20 Pro boasts a quadruple camera with 3x lossless optical zoom and 30x digital zoom. If that sounds at all familiar, it's because that's the same maximum zoom achieved with the Huawei P30

Given that Honor is a sub-brand of Huawei (although Honor insists on referring to Huawei as a sister brand) we can expect some of the same magic dust, which creates an almost lossless digital zoom using AI and software sharpening tools, to have been sprinkled into the mix here as well.

The quad-camera on the Honor 20 Pro consists of a 48MP main camera with f/1.4 aperture and Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS). This wide-angle sensor is coupled with a 8MP telephoto camera, a 16MP ultra-wide angle (capable of shooting pictures with a 117-degree field-of-view) and finally, a dedicated 2MP macro camera to improve any close-up shots of pets or nature.

Photos look pretty great from the camera, with details looking sharp. The Master AI, which tries to tweak the settings behind-the-scenes based on what the viewfinder is pointed at, works pretty well. Although it does tend to add a bit more zing to colours than we'd typically apply when editing shots, but that's just a personal preference. 

The 30x digital zoom is a very nifty party-trick and will undoubtedly come in handy at some point during the lifespan of the phone. But realistically, it is the 3x lossless optical zoom that will really make the difference day in, day out. This will improve your holiday snaps and gig photographs, enabling you to capture little details you would never have been able to get otherwise.

Aside from the paparazzi-levels of zoom, this quadruple camera can also handle Portrait Mode shots with artificial bokeh-style blur behind the subject of the image. There's also Super Night Mode, which is designed to try and bring the same illuminating effect as the dedicated Night Mode on the P30 series or the catchily-named Night Sight on the Pixel 3 range. Both of these modes work well enough, but shouldn't have the latest flagship offerings from the likes of Samsung and Google quivering anytime soon.

We'll have to spend a little more time with the camera before giving our definitive verdict, but things are looking pretty good for now.

Honor 20 Pro review

Honor 20 Pro review: Software, Specs

Out of the box, Honor 20 Pro runs Magic UI 2.1.0, which replaces the Huawei-branded EMUI skin that powered its previous handsets. Don't worry if you didn't realise the operating system had changed: they look identical

That's something that could change going forward. Honor said it has some design tweaks in the pipeline that will help to create a separate identity for the Magic UI operating system to help differentiate it from EMUI.

Until that happens, Magic UI is still the same eyesore that it always has been. Huawei desperately wants to ape the software design rolled-out by Sir Jony Ive and his team at Apple, but the result feels like a bad knock-off. It would be so good to see the company flex its own design muscles and create something completely different, like Samsung did with its laudable One UI that debuted on the Galaxy S10 series.

Design aside, Magic UI also comes pre-loaded with a load of crud. After a fresh installation, Honor 20 Pro already sports the HiCare app, Huawei AppGallery, Booking.com, something called Optimiser, Compass, SIM Toolkit, Translator, Mirror (yes, really), Recorder, Calculator, and Fortnite Installer. On top of that, you'll find all the usual Google-designed apps that you'd expect on an Android smartphone – Calendar, Gmail, Contacts, etc. so you'll have to pick between a Huawei-made and Google-made app for each of these basic system features. It's exhausting.

On the Pixel 3a or OnePlus 6T, Android is a well-designed and easy to use operating system. On the Honor 20 Pro, it's a confusing muddle of duplicate apps, pre-installed software from partners, and the irksome design of an iOS wannabe. It's a shame given just how impressive the hardware on the outside is. 

Of course, you can install a third-party launcher and tirelessly delete the duplicate apps to solve most of these issues, but that is not what everyone wants to do after coughing up for a brand-new phone. It's a lot of admin.

There is another potential issue with the Honor 20 Pro software. Following the revelation that Google will suspend all business with Honor's parent company Huawei in order to comply with the US government's blacklisting of the company. As such, Huawei will lose access to updates to Google's version of the Android operating system, including Android Q. While the Honor 20 will ship with the latest operating system from Google, albeit with Huawei-designed user interface elements slapped on-top, it could be the last major Android OS update release it ever sees.

If you're the kind of person who looks jealously over friends' shoulders at the latest and greatest features, it might be worth giving this smartphone a miss and going with something from the likes of Samsung, LG, or Google. At least for the moment.

Powering the Honor 20 Pro is a 4,000mAh battery cell, which should be hefty enough to provide all-day battery life. But when the phone does drain, Honor supports 22.5W Honor SuperCharge which refills 50% of the battery capacity in just half an hour. That's not as fast as OnePlus 30W Warp Charge, but it's more than good enough. 

You'll get the same charging speeds on the Honor 20, although it has a slightly smaller 3,750mAh battery cell inside. Both handsets are running the Kirin 980 system-on-a-chip, which is the same that fuels the powerhouse Huawei Mate 20 Pro. This in-house silicon is coupled with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of in-built storage.

As you'd expect from these flagship-esque specs, the Honor 20 Pro ticks along nicely and doesn't stutter or stumble – whether you're switching between a bevy of tabs in Google Chrome, or playing a graphic-intensive game.

Honor 20 Pro review

Honor 20 Pro review: Our Early Verdict

Honor 20 Pro packs a great camera with some seriously impressive zoom functionality. The 3x optical zoom is a brilliant addition to any photography arsenal, coupled with the usual Portrait Mode, Ultra-Wide angle, and Night Modes you'd find on smartphones with a much heftier price tag – not least those from Huawei itself.

But while the hardware never disappoints, the software definitely does. And that is before the questions around whether the Honor 20 Pro will even get an update to Android Q in the coming months.

If you're already sold on the Honor brand, there's plenty to like here. But those who aren't particularly brand-loyal might want to look elsewhere for a better software experience, no mass of duplicated apps, and a guarantee that the software features coming soon in Android Q will make it to your new handset.