It's a big call, but perhaps not unexpected given the litany of new features, technology partnerships, and one-ups unveiled at the Huawei Mate 20 Series launch in London on October 16.

It seems when it comes to the 2018 smartphone season, the best really has been saved for the last.

With the Mate 20, Huawei has released a device that not only boasts headlines like "The World's Fastest Smartphone with The Largest and Fastest Charging Battery", but also a device that unveils ground-breaking artificial intelligence and augmented reality technology. It's tech that garners the "wows and whoops" typically reserved for devotees of the Apple iPhone phenomenon, or even Samsung. That's a reality that should have engineers and executives in Silicon Valley and South Korea taking notice.

The Design

At first glance, The Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro definitely commands a second look. With the phone narrower than virtually all competitors in its class, a rounded glass edge, similar to its Samsung contemporaries makes its mammoth screen entirely manageable, even in the slightest of hands. Huawei also unveiled its new textured back, which is not only a visual differentiator but helps mitigate expensive drops and downtime caused by repairs. Another differentiator to its predecessor and other devices in the category is a fingerprint reader integrated within the device's screen. Even two weeks into using the NZ Herald's test device, the experience of having your thumbprint interrogated through a pane of glass is no less sci-fi than it was the first time it unlocked.


The Hardware

The Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro boasts better connectivity and expansion capabilities than virtually any high-end smartphone available. Each unit supports "hybrid dual SIM" technology, allowing you to add a local sim during overseas excursions. This prevents prohibitive roaming costs, while still receiving important messages from home.

You can also swap out that second sim for an expandable memory card to add an additional 256GB of storage space.

The interchanging of this port is a technological feat for Huawei and something they're proud of. It has after all allowed the company to make arguably the slimmest, most feature-rich smartphone on the market.

There's a volume rocker and power button on the right of the device, with a red-coloured accent which is useful to ensure you always hit the right feature each time.

Both devices in the Mate Series sacrifice an audio jack port for an ultra-slim profile, however unlike its California-based competitor Apple, Huawei still provides a USB to 3.5mm audio adapter for those keen to stick with legacy, cabled headphones.

A photo of the Auckland Harbour Bridge taken on the Mate 20 Pro. Photo / Will Trafford
A photo of the Auckland Harbour Bridge taken on the Mate 20 Pro. Photo / Will Trafford

The Mate Series also ships with its own pair of USB-C headphones which feature an in-line microphone for hands-free conversations and audio adjustments.

While the headphones are a generic design, they provide a snug fit and solid audio performance, in fact, I would challenge even the most ardent audiophile to find a better off-the-shelf in-ear audio product from the sub-$200 category.

One of the proudest moments for Huawei during the launch event was chief executive Richard Yu demonstrating the Mate 20's "Reverse Charge" function.

The technology allows the device to wirelessly charge other smartphones on their last legs (Yu demonstrated the Mate 20 charging the latest generation iPhone to riotous applause).

The real story here that should have its californian competitor's blood running cold is what makes this even a worthy function, the Mate 20's enormous battery life.

The Mate 20 series was an opportunity to introduce Huawei's next-generation "Super-charging" technology. In our tests, we saw the device charging as much as 1.5 per cent of battery life per minute.

It's hard to adequately describe the sensation of watching a smartphone gain half a day's charge in less than 10 minutes.

The screen's visuals make it a little like watching life in double, triple, or perhaps more accurately quadruple speed.

The Camera

When it comes to the Mate 20's camera it's pretty clear Huawei is exceptionally proud of their collaboration with German lens titan, Leica. That was a sentiment echoed by the Leica management team themselves that were on hand for the device's launch. The Mate 20 Pro sports a new matrix camera of three lenses, all of differing sizes with different functions in mind. In our demonstration shots the Mate 20 Pro bests every device in the category, in virtually every light condition. A new macro lens makes small objects appear crisper and more vivid than any device from 2018's smartphone line-up. It's a similar story when it comes to the phone's ultra-wide angle images. Everything from selfies to landscapes benefit from more detail, with less digital artifacts.

Where the Mate 20 Pro really comes into its own is its much-vaunted Artificial Intelligence technology. Huawei's AI chip, paired with Leica's century-old legacy in camera engineering generates an image that for our eye, easily takes the podium, for best image produced by a camera phone in 2018. The AI technology essentially analyses the image in each frame (including video) and makes the decision to for example extend the exposure time for dark environments to maximise visibility, and minimise low-light artifacts. The chip even identifies particular entities (people, dogs, cats, children) within images and individually maximizes the impact of the image. While Huawei's AI technology boasts the ability to make even the most amateur photographer's picture pop, it also supports an extensive 'pro' mode which allows the professional, or amateur enthusiast to tweak virtually every element of an image to a level comparable to even DSLRs.

The Software

The Mate Series ships with Android 9.0 (Pie), the very latest from Google's Mobile Operating System team. It was pretty clear from the search-engine giant's presence at the Mate 20 launch, that they were keen to be aligned with what is for now, the world's fastest and most-equipped Android Smartphone.
Google even awarded the Mate 20 Series a "Android Enterprise Verified" badge, essentially green-lighting the device for the security conscious commercial market.

Huawei's customised user interface "EMUI" has also had a facelift for 2018. Gone is much of the Tron-Like blue/black user interface, in favour of a lighter, brighter, perhaps more Google-esque colour pallet. Fans of Google's search, Gmail and Maps products will feel right at home with the Apps preinstalled the minute they power up the device. Huawei also provides a number of its own factory-installed applications which offer varying degrees of usefulness. I was a huge fan of Huawei's battery usage monitoring tech for example. It highlights the presence of battery guzzling apps like Instagram and Snapchat operating behind the scenes, and lets you tune their usage accordingly. EMUI does still take some getting used to, but this is without doubt Huawei's tamest, best iteration yet. Give it an hour or two and you'll have it mastered.

The Chip

The single-largest selling point of the Mate 20 Series as far as Huawei is concerned is the debut of its latest processor, the "Kirin 980". The chip itself has been crowned the fastest smartphone processor to hit the market, meaning latency on things like live editing of video and high-end gaming is virtually seamless. This is a feature set with limited appeal, but it also means the Kirin 980 really shines is in things like launching apps, multitasking and its significantly reduced power consumption. The chip is 57 per cent more power efficient than its 2017 predecessor and 75 per cent faster. The first metric, dropped the need for a daily charge on our demo unit, with the second making it virtually impossible to slow the device down after launching more than 20 common apps including Spotify, Instagram and Facebook's Messenger in under a minute.

The Best Smartphone of 2018?

Despite the fact it's only November, writing this review makes the Mate 20 series feels a little like the last word on the 2018 Smartphone season. While we've seen popular incremental upgrades from the likes of Samsung and Apple, for Huawei it seems this was a mic-drop moment. The launch event itself was a litany of feature debuts that said to the industry, not just 'anything you can do, I can do better' but 'you didn't manage to do what we've done'. From the world's fastest processor, to the best smartphone camera we've ever tested, to an industrial design which feels like its set the standard for other manufacturer's 2019 lineup. The question is, will perhaps the best smartphone of 2018 be able to become one of the best selling? For political reasons, Huawei has been locked out of the United States, the largest market for high-end smartphones for several years now, so that's doubtful. But for Kiwis, the Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro are available now at Spark, 2Degrees and selected retailers nationwide. The world's best smartphone on the market, might also be its best kept secret.

The Mate 20 retails for $1199 with the Mate 20 Pro priced at $1499.

Will Trafford travelled to London courtesy of Huawei