Huawei’s AI and photography tour de-force with the new Mate 20 series
Huawei’s worst kept secret is out and the new Mate 20 premium smartphone range has been revealed. This is a report from the global launch event in London I attended on Monday. I was part of an audience of what seemed like a couple of thousand other journalists and influencers flown in from across the world.
Photos in this article from the launch were taken using either a Huawei P20 Pro or the new Mate 20 Pro. Of course, we’re mainly interested in Huawei’s camera tech, but we’ll cover the other main features as well.
Three new smartphones were unveiled, the Mate 20, Mate 20 Pro and the mini-tablet-sized 7.2 inch screen Mate 20 X, all equipped with the latest Android Pie (version 9) and Huawei’s EMUI launcher.
We’ll focus on the Mate 20 Pro as that’s the model we have been provided with by Huawei to evaluate. It’s also the highest specification model by far. It also looks and feels gorgeous and is clearly being positioned to be crowned the top premium smartphone.
Triple-cameras with Leica lenses but with a new twist
|Camera (1)||Main Camera (2)||Telephoto camera (3)|
|20 megapixel monochrome sensor, 27mm f/1.6 lens||40 megapixel colour sensor, 27mm f/1.8 lens||8 megapixel colour sensor, 80mm f/2.4 lens|
|16 megapixel colour sensor, 17mm f/2.2 lens||12 megapixel colour sensor, 27mm f/2.2 lens||8 megapixel colour sensor, 80mm f/2.4 lens|
|Mate 20 Pro and X||20 megapixel colour sensor, 16mm f/2.2 lens||40 megapixel colour sensor, 27mm f/1.8 lens||8 megapixel colour sensor, 80mm f/2.4 lens|
Although Huawei says its established P-series (P20 and P20 Pro) is specifically aimed at photographers, all members of the new Mate 20 family have triple-cameras equipped with Leica-certificated lenses. This borrows much of the camera technology that has made the triple-camera P20 Pro the current smartphone camera benchmark. Such tech includes laser and phase detection focusing and hybrid zooming.
The three cameras, plus the dual LED flash/torch light, are now arranged in a square 2×2 matrix in the centre of the top half of the back of the devices. The Mate 20 Pro and X models get the full-spec 40 megapixel 27mm f/1.8 main camera, but this is downgraded to a 12 megapixel sensor in the basic Mate 20 model.
Mono camera swapped for colour with 16mm ultra-wide lens
There is one key difference between the Mate 20 Pro and X camera configurations compared to the P2 Pro’s. On the P20 Pro one of the three cameras has a 20 megapixel monochrome sensor. This serves two purposes; firstly as a pure black and white camera and, secondly, as a depth and detail sensor for the other cameras.
Huawei says it has improved its AI-assisted camera software and hardware enough to not need the mono camera any more. This has enabled Huawei to replace the mono camera with a 20 megapixel colour sensor ultra-wide-angle camera, equivalent to a 16mm f/2.4 full frame (FF) lens field of view. The basic Mate 20 gets a 16 megapixel sensor for the ultra-wide camera.
My personal opinion is that this is a good move. The main 40 megapixel camera is a 27mm equivalent wide angle, which is good but not wide enough in very tight situations. Concerning the mono question, as you have 40 million DNG-RAW colour pixels to play with from the main camera, in my mind you should be able to get excellent black and white, with a bit of work in post-processing, when required.
But I do concede that some of my photography journalist and photographer peers feel the loss of the mono camera is a potential deal-breaker for them. Perhaps it will reappear in next year’s P20 Pro successor?
16-135mm hybrid zoom
Compared to the P20 Pro the optical focal length range in the Mate 20 Pro goes from 16mm to 80mm (5x) instead of 27-80mm (3x). On the P20 Pro you could go to 5x using its AI-enhanced hybrid optical/digital zoom, so Huawei provided optimum image quality steps of 1x (27mm), 3x (80mm), and 5x (135mm).
With the Mate 20 you now have 0.6x, 1x, 3x and 5x. If you like, the hybrid zoom is now 16-135mm. Unchanged again is the reliance on electronic image stabilisation except for the 3x-5x telephoto mode, using the 3x (80mm) camera, which is optically stabilised.
Unless you are using a 40 megapixel camera mode, which limits you to the main 27mm camera, photos taken between 1x and 5x in the hybrid zoom are recorded at 10 megapixel resolution. The 0.6x or 16mm ultra-wide setting records 20 megapixel images.
P20 and P20 Pro low light and AI-assisted modes retained
Apart from the lack of a true mono camera, I don’t see any of the other stand-out camera modes missing from the Mate 20. You still get the super low-light mode, light painting mode, seamless panorama and 3D panorama modes, plus the 720p 960fps super slo-mo mode. The AI scene recognition mode is still there and Huawei says it’s being steadily expanded.
It looks like the 24 megapixel selfie-camera, common to all the new Mates, is the same as the one on the P20 and P20 Pro, featuring a 26mm f/2.0 lens. As we shall see, however, the Mate 20 Pro can do more with its selfie camera thanks to additional infra-red depth-sensors.
New to the Mate 20 Pro at least is an Augmented Reality (AR) lens mode. This uses new stereoscopic depth sensors in the screen ‘notch’ either side of the selfie-camera. These are used to improve the trustworthiness of the face-unlock function but are also used for the AR lens.
With this, instead of seeing yourself in the selfie configuration you see one of a selection of cartoon faces. The camera monitors your facial expression, which is reflected in real time by the cartoon face. You can record this along with your voice to create your own fun animated emojis. It’s hilariously funny to use at first!
During the launch presentation a 3D Object AR scanner was demonstrated. This extends the function of the AR lens to digitise and model real-life objects in 3D and then animate them, overlaid on a live real-world view. It was very impressive, but the feature won’t be available for a few weeks.
Updated Kirin 980 chip-set
The Mate 20 range benefits from Huawei’s upgraded Kirin 980 chip-set. Basically, it uses more compact silicon fabrication so there is more space for extra modules, it’s faster and yet more power-efficient.
Some have reported that it has enabled the 4K video mode to speed up from 30 frames per second to 60fps, but our Huawei source wouldn’t confirm that. However the extra processing grunt means 4K video at up to 30fps is now electronically stabilised. A faster video graphics processor means gaming performance should be noticeably improved.
AI performance doubled
There are now two NPUs (neural processing units) instead of one, accelerating AI functionalities. AI, or artificial intelligence machine-learning addresses many aspects of the phone, from fine-tuning power saving, optimising app launching, to learning your photography preferences and automating the camera responses accordingly.