Huawei P30 Pro review: Quad camera crushes the competition
Something happened in 2018 that took a lot of people by surprise: Huawei, after its years of tinkering and P-series iterations, introduced the best phone camera on the market. The following year, in 2019, the P30 Pro went about by tearing up the rule book and going big on photography.
However, the Chinese company has been battling to hold onto its 'king of the camera phones' crown, what with Google introducing the incredible Night Sight mode in its Pixel phones, Samsung pushing multiple cameras in its A9 and great in-device processing in its Galaxy S10+, and Oppo now showing very similar technology in its Reno 10x Zoom.
The P30 Pro doesn't muck about though. By implementing a Leica Quad Camera system - which marries ultra-wide, super-high resolution and genuine zoom alongside a Time-of-Flight (ToF) camera - the Chinese company succeeded in implementing the most versatile camera in any phone before any other maker. The iPhone is only at three cameras even years after.
Of course, there have been US trade war issues that have caused people to baulk at the idea of Huawei phones, because its newser handsets - such as the Mate 30 Pro and follow-up to this reviewed handset, the P40 Pro - can't support Google Play services (i.e. no Play Store). But as that political pantomime gets sorted out - and we hope it does - we still think the P30 Pro is a great phone. Whether or not it happens to be a kind-of swan song...
Design: Bigger, bolder
- 6.47-inch OLED Huawei FullView Display, FHD+ resolution (2340 x 1080), 19.5:9 aspect ratio
- Finishes: Breathing Crystal, Amber Sunrise, Aurora, Pearl White, Black
- No front-facing speaker, uses magnetism vibrations for audio
- Dimensions: 149.1 x 71.4 x 7.6mm / Weighs: 165g
- Optical in-screen fingerprint scanner
- IP68 water- and dust-resistant
- No 3.5mm headphone jack
- Teardrop notch
With many saying the hole-punch camera would be the dominant force, Huawei thinks different: the P30 Pro has a small 'dewdrop' notch front and centre. Thing is, the Huawei's screen choice, at 6.47-inches, is so massive that this little black-out area to the top where the front-facing camera is housed is barely noticeable. Flip a coin, really, it's six of one half a dozen of the other - and we've barely noticed the difference between this and a punch-hole camera like you'll find in, say, the OnePlus 8.
At least the Pro isn't a slider phone, like the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, which would make for a bulky, dust-grabbing form factor. However, the P30 Pro is far chunkier than the P20 Pro from before, for the simple fact that the newer phone houses a massive battery under the hood. It's 4,200mAh, which given how well the Mate 20 Pro proved in performance terms with the same battery capacity, is great. The P30 Pro lasts for an age - but more on that later.
Ultimately, the P30 Pro is a larger, beefier version of the P20 Pro that it replaces. That larger screen has a narrow aspect ratio, though, so it's easy to hold and puts it on par with the other sizeable screens we're seeing - take a look at the Samsung Galaxy S20+ as one obvious example - including Huawei's own curved-edge P40 Pro follow-up.
Despite this physical size, Huawei has foregone cramming more pixels into the Pro's screen - which we think could be seen as a mistake. Imagine being able to watch crisper streams from Netflix, or zoom into those photos with extra eye-popping detail? Samsung offers a 3200 x 1440 resolution in its S20+ (even the at-the-time comparison with the S10+ was higher), which it turns off by default for the sake of battery life, and Huawei could easily have offered a similar solution for the best of both worlds, going high-res only when really needed or requested.
Visually, however, the P30 Pro is a stunner. Shown here in its 'Breathing Crystal' finish - we know, marketing names have to be a bit silly, right? - it's a gradient finish with a pearlescent sheen. It's a fingerprint magnet, though, as is to be expected these days, but keep it clean and that surface sure does sing. There is are more conventional black option, or if you're looking to go the opposite way then the orange Amber Sunrise is a hot look (well, maybe, it's not as lary as it looks in press photos - as we discovered when first seeing some samples at the P30 Pro launch event in Paris).
An even more up-to-date option, the P30 Pro Ultimate Edition, appeared in 2020 as Huawei's sort-of protest phone. This gets around the Google Services issue, as it's "old" hardware at this point, but does feature the fingerprint-resistant finish of the P40 Pro, called Silver Frost, which is a favourite.
The P30 Pro's design embodied some new ideas when it was launched. Look up by that dewdrop notch and you won't see a speaker crammed into the edge next to it, because the P30 Pro doesn't have one. Instead, by using magnets to create vibrations in the screen, you'll hear audio projected into your ear. We've seen and tested this feature in the Vivo Apex 2019 concept phone - and it's impressive to say the least. It works, too, as we've found in long-winded calls with our credit card company (buying these pricey phones brings inevitable financial woes, eh?).
It does mean, however, that the P30 Pro's bottom-edge-only speaker sees the phone lag behind some of its competition when it comes to audio. We weren't expecting gaming-quality stereo output as per the Razer Phone 2, but the Google Pixel 4 XL is notably better with its stereo setup and output than this Huawei.
The P30 Pro also updated Huawei's in-screen fingerprint scanner, by offering with an optical solution. It's easy to register, quick and accurate to log-in - but not a patch on how incredibly fast that aforementioned Vivo phone is (really, you need to look at our video to get an idea of that speed). At least in-screen scanners are now of good quality, though, which shows how far Huawei has come in a short period of time - since the Porsche Design Huawei Mate RS and its so-so scanner just a few years ago.
Cameras crush the competition - with some caveats
- Leica Quad Camera system, SuperSensing main sensor
- Optical stabilisation (OIS) for main and zoom lenses
- Main: 40MP, 27mm, f/1.6
- Wide: 20MP, 16mm, f/2.2
- Zoom: 8MP, 5x periscope zoom, 125mm, f/3.4
- 10x hybrid zoom, not optical
- Time-of-Flight (ToF) for depth
- Front-facing selfie camera: 32MP
Now, on to the main event. The P30 Pro is really pitched as a camera phone. And it has a whole heap of interesting things to offer in this department. At the time of launch there was nothing better - but since then the competition has rallied hard to play catch-up.
SuperSensing sensor with high sensitivity
Principal to these is the so-called SuperSensing sensor, which functions entirely different to most conventional sensors. This is going to get a little bit deep, so hold onto your brains for a moment.
Most camera sensors have what's called a Bayer array - a four piece grid that delivers red, green, blue and green (RGBG) light frequency adsorption to the pixel sites below, with the camera then able to decipher full colour information from these readings. Huawei has done away with this in place of a red, yellow, blue, yellow (RYBY) array. Why? Because yellow light frequency is more sensitive, thus can capture more information for a more detailed result.
Now that's the theory, but it's the results that are really interesting. As the P30 Pro can do so much, we've broken this camera review section into sub-sections.
Wide and standard lenses
For most, it'll be the quad camera system setup that's most interesting, because it's this variety of lenses that allow for greater versatility in capture.
There's the 16mm wide-angle lens, as per the Mate 20 Pro, which squeezes lots into the frame. We love this wide-angle for the dramatism it can add to a scene - although the edges are softer than the centre by a long way and there's some colour shifting towards these peripheries too.
Then there's an ultra-high resolution main sensor - it only captures 40MP when you tell it; 10MP is the default as it can super-sample for better results - which delivers really detailed shots. Huawei is glutton for over-sharpening images, but in the P30 Pro the majority of the time the results are spot on.
The only downer is when switching between these lenses and seeing inconsistency between colour and exposure. The camera can also 'jump around' while the optical stabilisation kicks in, which looks a bit odd on screen.
Zoom: Optical and digital
The key lens to the Pro is the one that offers 5x optical zoom, used as a 10x digital zoom when needed, which pulls on the data from the other main camera to assist with software enhancing the zoom result.
The 5x optical zoom is mighty impressive, presenting a good level of detail considering the periscope zoom mechanism used. It's not pin-sharp at 100 per cent, but we've seen no other phone produce shots this crisp at an equivalent focal range. Well, there is now the Oppo Reno 10x Zoom to consider, but Huawei got there first.
Beyond 5x zoom things from the P30 Pro need to be taken within the context of a phone camera proposition though. The 10x hybrid zoom is fine - it's clearly not 'lossless' as Huawei claims, you only need to look at the frames in full size to see this - but the level of detail that's decipherable in this mode is impressive, even if it lacks genuine bite and sharpness.
Beyond this, Huawei offers up-to-50x digital zoom. It's entertaining, but the results aren't really worthwhile for much, given how soft things become as a result of the upscaling. It's darn hard to hold the thing steady at this kind of zoom too. Sure, nothing else on the market can compete with that, but really it's the 5x zoom that hits the sweet spot.
You might think you've ever really wanted to use such a zoom, but the moment you begin to see the possibilities it brings, it'll be hard to move on to a phone with a camera any less sophisticated. It's great for candid shots and great for seeing different composition options.
The P30 Pro is easy to use too. Selecting between wide, 1x, 3x, 5x and 10x is as simple as tapping the on-screen zoom circle icon (with a prompt as to what the current zoom is). If you're more a pinch-to-zoom operator then that's also possible, making those zoom levels between 1x and 5x easily achievable (though we must admit, we do miss the standard 3x optical zoom of the P20 Pro in that regard).
Huawei being Huawei, though, there are a variety of options available to toggle on and off. There's a colour setting - which selects between standard, vivid and smooth colours - and Master AI top and centre which uses learned data to auto-recognise scenes and adjust exposure, select settings and tweak colours as it thinks is best appropriate.
Master AI definitely has its uses, but it's not always desirable. It will present the mode it believes is appropriate - such as Super Macro, Text, Blue Sky, and so forth - which you can deactivate on-screen by hitting a little cross next to the auto-selected mode. The camera is supposed to learn if its recognition is incorrect when repeat presses occur. But we've seen plenty of errors: our dining table was a 'waterfall', apparently, while we've seen fruit mistaken for 'moon' and other such comical capers.
Many will like the simplicity that AI offers with its enhancement of exposure and colours, though, so we can certainly see why it exists.
When it comes to shooting subjects up close, the P30 Pro can get really close. With the standard lens, we're talking just a few centimetres from the subject.
But that's not all: the 5x zoom lens can also focus up close too. We shot our jeans and the result was detailed far beyond what the eye could see, with individual threads and fibres apparent - it looks like chainmail, when it's just woven threads. When out in Helsinki, Finland, a drink with the national berry, blueberries, in the glass was captured in extreme almost abstract close-up glory.
The 5x zoom isn't bitingly sharp, as we've said, so look at these shots outside of their on-screen confines and there's not as much detail as you might think, but it's still impressive enough to blow away your mates by taking a few close-up snaps.
Given the trend for phones to throw in paltry 2MP macro cameras - such as the Moto One Macro - it shows there's no need, because it can be done without.
A great feature of the P30 Pro is its Night Mode. This option takes multiple frames at different exposures and combines them into a single HDR (high dynamic range) image. Although it's designed for use at night, we use it most in the day where it's possible to extract extra range from shots for added dynamism.
Don't think of this like Google's Night Sight mode either, as it's not. It needs a steady hand - but you can still shoot handheld using Night Mode, even in very low-light conditions, which is great. If subjects are moving then there will be some subject blur as a result, but if it's, say, people walking through a scene or clouds moving at pace then it actually looks great.
While Huawei's nighttime shooting used to be the best, it's since slipped in the rankings. We worked up an iPhone 11 vs Pixel 3 XL vs P30 Pro to show you all the differences. Not that it's bad, however, as you can see below from the low-light shooting capability:
When we first saw the P30 Pro we were disappointed that it had no equivalent to Google's Night Sight mode, i.e. the ability to shoot shots in very low-light conditions and use processing to render the shot in almost daylight-esque form. Thing is, we were wrong. Although it doesn't shout about it, the P30 Pro in its automatic mode is the best low-light camera on the market.
We did some side-by-side shooting next to the Google Pixel 2 using Night Sight and the P30 Pro hands-down wins. In a near blackout dark kitchen we shot our (admittedly scruffy) kitchen utensils draw and, despite not being able to see what we were shooting whatsoever, the Pixel in Night Sight mode hardly rendered anything visible, whereas the P30 Pro presented the full contents of the draw as if the lights were on (believe us, they were off). It's staggeringly impressive - and that's down to the SuperSensing sensor's structure.
Now, the results in such extreme scenarios aren't going to be ultra-sharp or the most usable. But it spells out a future where artificial intelligence and image processing becomes a wholly different aspect of photography. Because the P30 Pro isn't using ultra-high ISO sensitivity to render these shots, it's using algorithms and processing the data it has available to generate images beyond what the eye can see.
Overall, however, it has to be said that Google's Night Sight - which you know you're using when it's activated - is a little more versatile in its approach for some other scenes. It can't do what the Huawei can in the example above, but it's a great mode that, in many ways, set the benchmark.
If you want to go a bit more detailed then a swipe to Pro mode gives control over all settings, including shutter speed and ISO sensitivity.
However, the maximum selectable sensitivity in Pro mode is ISO 6400, which seems to render the higher sensitivities (ISO 409,600 being the maximum) as entirely obsolete. How odd.
Furthermore if you use a high ISO sensitivity then, well, all the magic of that SuperSensing sensor is over-ruled and little processing occurs. A shot we took inside ancient walls on the island of Suomenlinna, Finland, shows up considerable colour noise, rendered as red, green and blue spots throughout the frame. A curious result, given how ultra-impressive the point-and-shoot mode's processing is - and that it's inaccessible in Pro mode!
Portrait and Aperture modes
The fourth camera in the quad equation is the Time-of-Flight camera. ToF roughly works like Sonar, outputting a (not visible to the eye) frequency of light that bounces off its subjects and returns a time-based depth map of what's in front of the lens. That's a better way of deciphering exactly what is where within a frame, for more refined handling of depth data than systems that simply use multiple cameras (or even single ones).
The P30 Pro's Portrait mode auto-selects a face and gives pretty good edging around subjects, while the user-definable Aperture mode (f/22 to f/0.95 on a sliding scale) has given us generally better edge definition than we've seen before - although it's not 100 per cent perfect. Still, such modes are an essential to a phone in 2019 and Huawei can be pleased with what it's delivered.
Cameras: In conclusion
Overall the Huawei P30 Pro had the best camera setup at launch. It was untouchable then, but how keen other makers have been to catch-up. We still think it's among the very best out there, though, even if the iPhone, Pixel and other handsets have come gunning for it.
That said, there are some perplexing points to the P30 Pro's cameras: the number of modes available may become confusing, especially when the standard point-and-shoot mode is so good; the zoom is great to 5x but overstates its ability thereafter (and 50x is just silly); the optical image stabilisation is useful but needs to be better with these zoom options; and some simple issues such as colour inconsistencies between focal lengths is a letdown.
- Kirin 980 processor, 8GB RAM, 128/256/512GB storage (NM card expansion available)
- 4200mAh battery, 40W SuperCharge fast-charging
- Wireless charging and reverse wireless charging
- EMUI 9.1 software skin on Android Pie
In terms of performance, the P30 Pro arrived mid-term in the company's release cycle, meaning the use of the Kirin 980 processor. All P30 variants - there are 128GB/256GB/512GB storage options - come with 8GB RAM too.
We've found the P30 Pro to be a solid performer and every bit the flagship in terms of operation: the software runs smoothly, we've not had crashes or apps hanging, while games have performed free of stutter or problems. Compared to, say, a Snapdragon 855 handset, you won't notice any difference.
Huawei has long pushed its EMUI - that's Emotion User Interface - with the P30 Pro at first adopting a slightly updated version (EMUI 9.1), eventually in February 2020 moving over to EMUI 10 (which is built over Google's Android 10 operating system).
Since its launch, however, there's been a bit of a cloud hanging over future support, because the United States, under Trump's command, put Huawei on a blacklist that disallowed many US-based manufacturers from doing business with the Chinese giant. That included Android. There's still a lingering question mark over the future of Huawei in Europe.
Relative to this device, however, we don't think there's need for alarm, as it's been signed off for Google Services, so Google Play will remain in tact. The Mate 30 Pro, however, was affected and unable to launch with such services, rendering it largely pointless in the Western market - the same thing goes for the P40 series, really, however good their cameras are.
Anyway, onto the actual experience. Since EMUI 10 has deployed we've not seen a huge amount of difference. There's some transition changes, dark mode is now available, and the icons are simpler and more colourful. Ultimately, we think Huawei is in a place where its customers will find its software offering and customisations to be acceptable. Not all will agree, though, with fussy pop-up alerts and Gmail breakdowns that Android purists may find irksome.
Whatever you make of the software - and we deep dive into EMUI here, for a general overview of tips and tricks - the P30 Pro's battery really impresses for a variety of reasons. The 4,200mAh cell is massive and lasts for an age: on heavy use days including some hours of gaming we've hit 45 per cent remaining after 17-and-a-half hours of use. That's mighty impressive. The P30 Pro could easily be considered a two-day phone per charge. We even think the Huawei outlasts the Asus Zenfone 6's 5,000mAh battery.
If the battery does run low then the 40W SuperCharge fast-charger in the P30 Pro's box will fill up the battery in double-quick time. Indeed, up to 70 per cent can be topped up with just half and hour at the plug.
There's also wireless charging and reverse wireless charging - the latter so you can top-up friends' phones or recharge your wireless earphones (although Huawei took its time to release wireless charging headphones, eventually launching the Freebuds 3 Wireless).