As the geopolitical drama continues around the company's 5G plans, Huawei's consumer tech division is plowing ahead with a fresh round of flagship phones.
The Chinese firm's new P30 handsets have big screens, a slick design, fast performance, and all the other table-stakes features you'd expect. But let's cut to the chase here: more than their aesthetic appeal or speedy internals, the Huawei P30 and P30 Pro are special almost exclusively because of their immense photographic prowess.
And the "Pro" model in particular, with its unique 10X hybrid zoom-toting internal periscope camera, stands a good chance of being one of the best and most versatile phone cameras of 2019.
The Huawei P30 Pro builds in the foundations of the Mate 20 Pro, which launched last October, with a 6.47-inch curved OLED display as part of a refined curved glass sandwich design. The bezels are slimmer, the screen is bigger, and the notch is smaller. In design terms, the overall package is every bit as impressive as Samsung's Galaxy S10.
In meetings ahead of the launch event in Paris, Huawei showed us the P30 series in four of the main iridescent hues on offer. "Breathing crystal," my personal favorite, is a sky-blue-white gradient with hints of orange as the device tilts through the light. "Aurora" a striking iridescent purple that'll be familiar to P20 fans. In addition, there's hot new "sunset red" joining the mix, and those complement the standard blacks and whites for the color-averse.
The whole package is powered by Huawei's Kirin 980 processor, now with a base of 8GB of RAM for the P30 Pro, or 6GB for the standard P30. Huawei's homegrown 7nm silicon has a proven track record in the Mate 20 series, and performed without a hitch in our brief time with the P30s ahead of launch.
A bigger screen and a smaller notch, plus ample internal upgrades.
The front face of the P30 series boasts a greater screen-to-body ratio than either of its predecessors, as Huawei opts for a dewdrop cutout shape instead of an S10-style hole punch. The need to eliminate ever more stuff from the front face means the P30 Pro also uses a new in-display speaker system that vibrates the screen to provide in-call audio.
As a result, the earpiece audio system is now entirely separate from the bottom-firing loudspeaker used for music, video and the like. Huawei calls its approach "electromagnetic levitation," but for all the pomp implied by that name, the tech behind it sounds very similar to what LG has already showcased in its new G8.
The other main specs are similarly impressive: IP68 water resistance (or IP53 splash resistance in the regular P30) — a 4,200mAh battery that's paired with the same charging setup as the Mate 20 Pro: 40W Super Charging plus wireless charging plus reverse wireless charging. In the standard P30, this steps down to a 3560mAh cell with slightly slower Super Charging.
|Category||Huawei P30||Huawei P30 Pro|
|6.47-inch Curved OLED
|Chipset||Kirin 980 with Dual NPU||Kirin 980 with Dual NPU|
128GB / 256GB / 512GB storage
|Expandable storage||Yes, Nano memory||Yes, Nano memory|
25W Huawei SuperCharge
40W Huawei SuperCharge
15W Wireless Quick Charge
Reverse Wireless Charging
|Rear Camera 1||40MP SuperSpectrum
Wide angle, f/1.8
Wide angle, f/1.6, OIS
|Rear Camera 2||16MP Ultra wide angle, f/2.2||20MP ultra wide angle, f/2.2|
|Rear Camera 3||8MP
3X Optical zoom, f/2.4, OIS
5X Optical zoom, f/3.4, OIS
|Rear Camera 4||None||Time-of-flight camera|
|Camera zoom||3X Optical Zoom
5X Hybrid zoom
30X digital zoom
|5X Optical Zoom
10X Hybrid zoom
50X digital zoom
|Front camera||32MP, f/2.0||32MP, f/2.0|
|OS||Android 9 Pie
|Android 9 Pie
|Water and dust resistance||IP53||IP68|
|Audio||3.5mm Headphone jack
Dolby Atmos, Type-C
BT aptX, aptX HD
|No Headphone jack
Dolby Atmos, Type-C
BT aptX, aptX HD
|Connectivity||Cat.16 up to 1Gbps
Wi-Fi 802.11a/.b/g/n/acBT 5.0, NFC
|Cat 21, up to 1.4Gbps
BT 5.0, NFC
The P30 Pro's impressive new quad Leica camera setup is the main reason to care about this phone.
The main attraction, however, has to do with the feature Huawei has been pitching as the major strength of the P series for the past three years: photography. The P30 Pro's quad Leica-engineered camera setup is something I'm genuinely excited by, and I say that as a hardened tech reviewer who's seen many phones come and go over the years.
Huawei claims that the 40MP main sensor has been completely re-engineered, and as such has been badged with a new brand name: Superspectrum. The new sensor ditches the red, green and blue subpixels that make up each pixel in favor of a new red + yellow + yellow + blue setup, which Huawei says can draw in more light compared to the more traditional subpixel layout. In addition, the main camera also gets upgraded to an f/1.6 aperture and OIS. All of the above bodes very well for low-light performance.
Huawei's handheld long exposure mode is back, too. Without drawing any premature conclusions, chances are good this will be an exceptional low-light camera. Better than the Pixel 3? We'll have to wait and see. But just the fact that that's in contention is a big deal for these phones.
The P30 series also boasts an impressive wide-angle camera which, on paper, matches the Mate 20's: 20 megapixels behind an f/2.2 lens. Plus there's a time-of-flight sensor hiding in the second camera cluster over to the right. Similar to the Honor View 20 and Galaxy S10 5G, this is a new kind of sensor for more accurate depth detection in portrait shots. Artificial bokeh seemed competently executed on the early P30 Pro units we played with, but once again, we shouldn't draw any firm conclusions just yet.
Up to 10X zoom, and a low-light camera that might dethrone the Pixel 3.
But it's the fourth shooter that might turn out to be the jewel in the P30 Pro's crown. It's a new 5X optical zoom camera far beyond the zoom capabilities of its rivals. This 125mm equivalent lens uses a unique internal periscope structure — most of the lenses involved in this camera actually live inside the phone at a 90-degree angle. That's because arranging the lenses the normal way, stacked on the back of the phone, would either result in a humongous camera bump, or make the phone's chassis an inch thick.
In hybrid zoom mode, combining input from the main sensor, the P30 Pro can ramp all the way up to 10X without losing any detail. To see this level true telephoto zoom in a phone you'll be able to buy in the next few weeks is pretty wild, and as someone who's been known to dabble in more exotic accessories like lens cases, having such a wide range of focal length options in the phone's hardware is exciting.
That's only strengthened by with the versatility of a main sensor that can beat the P20 Pro and maybe even the Pixel 3 in the dark. Suddenly the triple camera array of the S10, with its 2X zoom, starts to look just a little bit pedestrian.
We're barely a quarter of the way into 2019, but already we might have seen the best phone camera of the year.
Huawei also hasn't neglected the front camera — that's now been upgraded to a new 32MP unit. And Huawei's new AI HDR+ system is particularly useful in selfies, though it works with all of the cameras, front and back. This feature builds on Huawei's existing AI image recognition, and can understand the component parts of a photo. As such, it can help make sure the main subject of a photo is properly exposed even in badly backlit conditions.
On the software side, Huawei's EMUI interface hasn't changed a whole lot in the new version 9.1. EMUI veterans will notice some subtle refinements like improved animations in the recent apps menu, and a more consistent design to the icon frames in the home screen. Otherwise, this is largely the same software as the Mate 20, with an expansive feature set, tight controls on background battery usage, and some heavy iOS design influences.
EMUI is fine, but it's far from my favorite Android interface — it often tries to do too much, and still mishandles some basic software areas like the lock screen, where notifications behave more like an iPhone than an Android device.
I'm also not clear whether the P30's in-screen fingerprint scanner is going to remedy any of the frustrations I had with the Mate 20 Pro. Huawei says it's using an upgraded optical sensor in the P30. But in the short time I had with it, it still felt pretty much the same to use — a bit of a mixed bag, and not as good as a capacitive scanner or the Galaxy S10's ultrasonic sensor.
At least there's still face unlock, though this feature is included without the IR laser array we saw in the Mate 20 Pro, which would've required a larger notch. In theory, that means the P30 series trades screen space for ease of unlocking in darker conditions.
More baby steps forward for Huawei's EMUI.
But of course, as promising as the P30 Pro is, it's not the only phone Huawei announced in Paris today. There's also the regular P30, which as in previous generations is a little smaller and a little less trailblazing than the Pro across the board. There's a 6.1-inch flat display, a traditional earpiece, a slightly smaller, though still sizeable, 3,560mAh battery. Plus a trimmed-back camera experience that maxes out at 3X telephoto zoom, and a lower-specced lens for the main camera, without OIS.
The core components of the P30 Pro are there, but it's clear that if you want everything that makes these phones special, you'll want the bigger and more expensive model. Ultimately, the price of this smaller model will dictate how well it's able to compete with phones like Samsung's budget-flavorer Galaxy S10e.
Just like the Mate 20 Pro, the P30 Pro is an extremely capable "do everything" smartphone. But crucially, Huawei's new flagship improves upon its design, tunes up the software and supercharges the camera, making it a meaningful upgrade. That's enough for someone like me, who really enjoyed the Mate 20, to get pretty excited.
For Americans, possibly the best phone you can't buy. For Samsung, a very, very serious competitor to the Galaxy S10.
A big, important chunk of the Western smartphone market is, of course, off limits to Huawei, and there's nothing these phones can do to get around that. But it does, once again, position a new Huawei flagship as something of a forbidden fruit. The best phone you can't buy if you're American... or, perhaps, the best pocket-sized camera you can't buy. (We'll see to what extent that's true in our full review.)
And if you do live in a market where the P30 series is sold, then the ongoing struggle between Huawei and Samsung is going to be fiercer than ever before, with battle lines being drawn around zoom photography.
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