By Ben Sin
I usually write my phone reviews after two weeks of testing, but I’ve had the Huawei Mate 30 Pro with me for more than two months—ever since I picked one up in Shenzhen on the first day of sale. The reason I held off doing this review so long was because I wanted to wait until Huawei and the U.S. government resolve the entity list issue, which has been preventing the Chinese tech giant from shipping phones with Google’s services. As an Android user, my digital life is dominated by Google, and I thought reviewing a phone that can’t run Gmail, YouTube or Google Maps would be akin to reviewing a car that can’t turn right.
But a few things happened in the past couple of months that made me realize my thinking was narrow-minded and perhaps American-centric. First, I visited Seoul and learned through Korean friends that most South Koreans do not rely on Google much. Naver is their search engine of choice, and Google Maps is severely restricted in Seoul because the South Korean government refused to share mapping data with Google.
Then, I began hearing from viewers on my YouTube channel—mostly in India and Vietnam—that they “do not care about not having Google.” (Though it was ironic they were writing that on YouTube, a platform owned by Google).
Add in the billion Google-less internet users in China and iOS-loyalists who prefer using iCloud to Google Drive and Apple Maps to Google Maps, I realized there is a sizable chunk of the world to whom Google is not the end-all, be-all.
Huawei is surely banking on that, too, as it has begun selling the Mate 30 Pro outside of China, in regions like Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. And so I’ve decided to just proceed with the review and let users decide for themselves if they can deal with not having native Google services support.
Note: there is actually a way to side-load Google Mobile Services into the Mate 30 Pro and turn it into like any other normal Android phone—I have done so on my device—but this method has security loopholes and I do not recommend casual readers to attempt it)
Hardware: Sleek, curvy, and most importantly—original
Once upon a time, Chinese phones were just blatant iPhone clones. But while brands like Oppo and Vivo have done a great job of coming up with their own identity and hardware design, no Chinese company has left that unwanted stereotype behind more than Huawei.
From the 2017’s Mate 10 on, Huawei has developed its own clear hardware identity (for phones anyway, old habits die hard in other product categories), and the Mate 30 Pro is a continuation of that. From the giant center-placed camera module that aims to resemble a traditional camera more than a phone, to the shiny shimmery glass finish, this is unmistakably a Huawei design, and in my opinion, the Mate 30 Pro is the best looking phone this year.
Yes, other phones have adopted the centrally placed, circular camera module, but Huawei did this first, beginning with last year’s center-placed Mate 20 Pro camera module.
Around the front is a 6.53-inch OLED screen that curves dramatically on both sides. Vivo first pushed this new Chinese screen trend to the market, and just like the Nex 3, the Mate 30 Pro does a good job with palm rejection—meaning you won’t be accidentally triggering unwanted touches on the sides of the screen just from holding it.
Personally, I’ve always loved curved screens because they look sleek and also slims the phone down ever so slightly horizontally for an easier grip (the Mate 30 Pro has roughly the same screen size as Apple’s large iPhone 11, but my hands can wrap around the former just a tad bit easier). So, I’m a fan of this look. There has been a backlash, however, saying such dramatic curvature is mostly pointless and distorts images on the sides. I don’t disagree with that, it just doesn’t bother me much.
The OLED display is from Chinese company BOE has a resolution of 1176 X 2400—which is not quite 2K but still very sharp—and there’s a fingerprint sensor underneath the screen for one-tap unlock.
There is, however, also a notch at the top of the display housing a full 3D facial scanning system like the iPhones. The face unlock works great, but I don’t know why we need it when the phone already has a very fast and accurate in-display fingerprint scanner. I accepted the notch in 2017, but as we’re weeks from 2020, a large iPhone-like notch is an eyesore. Huawei does give us an option to digitally hide the notch by filling the areas around it with a black bar. I like the phone’s look much better after hiding the notch.
But some parts of the hardware parts are an odd step back…
Huawei’s Mate series has traditionally excited me the most among the half dozen of fall Android releases because the Mate always launches with a brand new chipset—Huawei’s own Kirin series, usually introduced the month before the Mate launch. Other Android brands tend to use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon series, which is usually announced in December. This means by the time phones like the Google Pixel or OnePlus T series comes out in October, they’re using a chip that’s just two months away from becoming old news.
Anyway, powering the Mate 30 Pro is Kirin’s 990, and whether it’s in benchmarks or daily performance, it is ultra powerful. So for the most part, the Mate 30 Pro is a natural step up from anything Huawei had released before because it has a better brain, but oddly, Huawei has made some hardware decisions here that’s technically a step back from the older P30 Pro or Mate 20 Pro.
The first is the omission of that jaw-dropping “Periscope” zoom lens used in the P30 Pro that could produce credible near lossless 10x zoom and 50x digital zoom. Instead, the Mate 30 Pro’s zoom lens is a more traditional telephoto lens without the special L-shaped tech. Huawei execs say they removed the Periscope lens here due to the design of the camera module, but assure the 8-megapixel telephoto zoom lens here can still offer very solid zoom. From my testing, yes, the phone can still achieve near loss-less 10x zoom that is still better than, say, what the iPhone 11 is capable of, and the Mate 30 Pro’s 30x digital zoom is still untouched by all but a small handful of phones. In the set below, notice the Mate 30 Pro’s 10x zoom crop is clearly more detailed than the iPhone 11 Pro’s 10x zoom. The Mate 30 Pro can go closer if need, whereas the iPhone is maxed out here.
Another change in the cameras is the wide-angle lens can no longer pull off macro camera performance. This omission is more needed, as Huawei has apparently redesigned the wide-angle camera from the ground up so that it behaves differently from other wide-angle lenses on the market (more on this in the next section).
But the phone also loses the under-screen speaker system at the notch, meaning the Mate 30 Pro doesn’t have stereo sound. Every top phone on the market has a very good stereo sound system these days, so the Mate 30 Pro’s glaring omission looks, or should I say “sounds,” quite bad by comparison.
I’m nitpicking, yes, but giving us “the most hardware” has always been Huawei’s M.O. Several reviews of last year’s Mate 20 Pro called it the “kitchen sink phone” because Huawei seemingly threw every conceivable feature at us. This year doesn’t feel to be the case.
Cameras: really impressive wide-angle camera that isn’t that wide?
The Huawei Mate 30 Pro has four main cameras on its attention-grabbing backside. The main lens is a 40-megapixel f/1.6 RYYB lens that remains mostly unchanged from the P30 Pro. I’ve written hundreds of words about this camera and its unreal low-light capabilities six months ago, so I’ll refer you to my P30 Pro review if you want to learn more. The long story short is that Huawei’s custom-built RYYB (red, yellow, yellow, blue) sensor breaks from digital camera tradition, which had always used an RYB sensor. That extra Y means Huawei has rejiggered the digital image processing grid to allow for extra yellow lights, which helps low light performance.
The main camera is very, very capable even in the darkest of scenes, but sometimes to the detriment of the atmosphere because photos can appear too bright. The color science also needs a bit of work as it tends to shade towards cool tones. This cold, over-processed look actually makes night shots of major cities look even more stunning than usual, but for photos of humans on a sunny day, it can look distant and unnatural.
Example: in the below samples, taken in Philadelphia: the first image is from Huawei, with its cooler tone and over-sharpened, over-processed look with dialed-up contrast. The second image is from the iPhone, and it’s much closer to how the scene looked to my eyes in real life. But I think Huawei’s processing make for a more atmospheric, Instagram-worthy shot. Likewise for the second set taken in New York’s Lower East Side of the Essex Market.
In general, Huawei cameras have an over-processed, cool tone that is in direct contrast to Apple’s warm, keep-everything-natural look. I think I prefer Huawei’s processing when shooting buildings and objects, but for portrats of humans or scenes that are supposed to be warm, like California during the day, I prefer the iPhone’s processing.
As mentioned earlier, the Mate 30 Pro’s zoom capabilities are still strong, despite falling short of the previous Huawei flagship. Below is a standard image and a 3x lossless zoom taken in New York at night. Considering the lighting situation, the 3x zoom is highly impressive, with no noticeable noise or loss of details.
But like I said, the main camera is mostly the same as the P30 Pro. Instead, what’s new to the Mate 30 Pro’s camera system is the wide-angle camera, which Huawei now dubs “Cine Lens.”
There are a couple of reasons for that new branding: Huawei has custom-built the lens to use a 3:2 aspect ratio to resemble 35mm film cameras. This gives the lens a more epic cinematic feel, but it’s also ironically not as wide as other phones’ wide lens, as the Mate 30 Pro’s wide only shoots at an equivalent of 18mm. It almost doesn’t feel like a wide-angle lens when compared to the iPhones or Samsungs.
But while that “Cine Lens” can’t capture as much scene, it is significantly sharper than other wide lenses on the market because Huawei used a 40-megapixel sensor, at least twice as many pixels as the next highest wide-angle camera on the market. On most phones, including and especially Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10, there is a clear gap in image quality between the main and wide lens. Not so here on the Mate 30 Pro, as shots from the main and wide-angle are close in quality. This is an approach Apple also used for its recent iPhones—whose main and wide lens share the same 13-megapixel count—but in terms of pure hardware prowess, the Mate 30 Pro’s higher pixel count and larger image sensor easily tops Apple’s camera gear. Check the below wide-angle samples: notice they don’t suffer from distortion, or soft details in the corners.
Still, my feelings are mixed on this new change from Huawei. Sure, a wide angle lens that can capture images almost as well as a main camera is a first in the smartphone industry, but the field-of-vision is also so narrow it doesn’t quite feel like a wide-angle lens to me. There have been some sweeping landscape shots that I normally could have fit into the frame in other phones that I can’t do with the Mate 30 Pro.
The fourth camera is a 3D TOF sensor, and it helps with some convincing bokeh effects. Although I’m still skeptical why we need a dedicated depth-sensing lens, as Google has proven it can make do with total software processed bokeh. The below bokeh shots are good, but there’s still a bit of the usual edge detection flaws. The Pixel 4’s bokeh are a bit better in my opinion.
Video performance, in particular stabilization, has been a weak point of Huawei’s cameras for a while and the Mate 30 Pro is a major improvement. Stabilization is excellent during the day and at night, the usual micro-jitter problem has been kept to a minimum. The iPhone 11’s video camera is still head and shoulders better, however, as it has better stabilization, dynamic range, and no dropped frames that plague many Android video cameras.
A new trick of the Mate 30 Pro is its ultra slow motion videos, which capture footage slowed down at 256x.
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