MANILA - Huawei's P20 Pro is a smartphone that begs to be judged based on its camera prowess, not by the inevitable comparisons to Apple's iPhone X that it hopes to slay, including the polarizing notch on its front face.
In terms of raw specifications, the P20 Pro trumps the most expensive iPhone yet. Huawei's latest has 3 cameras on the rear instead of 2, a first for a mainstream smartphone.
The Leica-engineered cameras include a dedicated monochrome sensor and a telephoto sensor that can zoom up to 3 times, instead of 2 times on the competition. Its main sensor has 40 megapixels, 3 times more than the iPhone X and the Samsung S9 and S9+.
Not since the Nokia Lumia from 2013 has a smartphone camera sensor packed as many pixels. But raw specs don't always guarantee good photos without equally good software.
Google's Pixel 2 cameras led the industry with just one rear lens thanks to excellent machine learning, until it was overtaken on review website DxOMark's ratings by the S9 Plus and most recently, the P20 Pro which got the highest ever score.
The P20 Pro relies on the Kirin 970 processor, also built by Huawei, to process the images using on-board machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Huawei delivers on its photography promises during our nearly two weeks using the phone as our daily driver, from the launch in Paris to a backpacking trip around Cavite.
Assisted by AI, the 3 times zoom becomes 5 times "hybrid" zoom that retains most details as if the set up were entirely optical.
Around Paris, where the phone was launched, sculptures and inscriptions on towers were clear when zoomed in from across the street.
Even with shaky hands, night shots were almost without blur as the on-board AI compensates for the unsteady handling.
The same AI tech cuts the noise even in day shots. Even from inside a bus on a rainy afternoon, we still got a shot of the Eiffel Tower with drenched, leafless tree branches in the foreground.
Against the light, the P20 Pro retains considerable detail from subjects that would have otherwise been washed out with other cameras.
The steel beams that hold together the enormous glass ceiling of the Grand Palais, where the launch was held, was still visible in our test shots, even the French flag that was hoisted on the roof.
The AI built-in also adjusts settings automatically depending on the subject and it works fast.
Point the camera to the sky and the horizon will be a deeper shade of blue. Point it at food and the color temperature becomes warmer while greens, reds and yellows appear deeper. One time though, it mistook a dog in a Paris supermarket for a cat.
It's no coincidence that the P20 Pro was launched in Paris, one of the world's most photographed cities.
Even with mostly overcast weather when it should have been spring, images looked sharp and colors popped.
The camera software is fast and fairly easy to navigate. Swiping from left to right switches the camera mode like in the iPhone X and the S9 Plus.
The interface, however, is bordered by a black leather image, a skeumorphic touch that would have found its place in iOS 6 from 2012.
Such touches that are out of place in Google's flat aesthetic make Huawei's EMUI skin an acquired taste. The rounded corners on the pop-up windows look more in place in iOS than on Android.
The P20 Pro runs Android 8.1 Oreo out of the box. While it is the most unobtrusive EMUI version yet, the skin takes out some of the functions that make Oreo such a fluid experience on other handsets.
The always on display is buried in the security and privacy menu and does not display notification icons, depriving users the convenience of seeing alerts at a glance without touching or moving the screen.
In the notification shade, tapping just below a settings icon turns it on or off. In vanilla 8.1, doing so will take the user to a sub-menu. This is particularly useful when switching between WiFi hotspots on the fly, without having to drill down the settings.
Otherwise, the P20 Pro breezes through routine use such as messaging, browsing and video and audio streaming wiith the Kirin 970 powering the device.
Aside from the cameras, the P20 Pro's other strength is battery life, with 4,000 mAh powering the 6-inch screen that adopts the on-trend tall aspect ratio. Fast charging using the supplied brick and cable is also reliable.
Unplugged before midnight after a top up, the P20 Pro got through late evening of the next day with 30 to 40 percent without a midday charge.
The fingerprint sensor is fast as expected of Huawei phones, though the sensor is prone to accidental misreads from the user's palm because it is nearly flush with the rest of the phone's chin.
The gradient "twilight" hue is gorgeous, shifting from blue to purple depending on how the glass back reflects light. The P20 Pro is also available in blue, black and gold.
Huawei's new logo and the Leica branding are stacked horizontally alongside the triple cameras, underscoring how the phone is as much a camera, with the screen viewed in landscape, as it is a communications and media consumption device.
Stacked vertically when holding the phone in portrait mode, the cameras look like those on the iPhone X, though the P20 Pro's module don't protrude as much.
The metal frame that holds the glass front and back look similar to the iPhone's, down to the bottom-firing speakers that leave no room for a headphone jack.
There is, however, a design touch that is distinct to the P series, an orange accent on the power button located below the volume rocker on the right side of the frame.
Even without QHD resolution, the Full HD screen that occupies almost the entire front of the device is bright and sharp.
Then there's the notch at the top that houses the earpiece and the 24-megapixel selfie shooter.
It's smaller relative to the rest of the screen, unlike notch on the iPhone X, which looks like cat ears.
In the settings, Huawei gives users the option to hide the notch by blackening the portion of the screen beside the top sensors, making the screen look more like a Mate 10 Pro.
Huawei said the notch is a necessary step as smartphone screens evolve to hide sensors underneath the glass.
Without the notch, which leads to the inevitable comparison to the iPhone X, the P20 Pro makes a stronger case for its selling point: monster cameras in a gorgeous frame with a battery that won't die on users.
But the deciding factor will be the P20 Pro's price, Huawei's flagships, while considerably cheaper than iPhones and Galaxies, have crept up in terms of pricing. Before a recent price cut, the Mate 10 Pro retailed for P38,990.
The P20 Pro was announced with a 899 euro price tag. At roughly P52,990, that's a few thousand pesos cheaper than the S9 Plus with the same storage at 128 gigabytes and some P10,000 less than an unlocked iPhone X in official stores. Huawei has not announced local pricing.