Huawei has made some pretty strong handsets, but none have felt like they could really stand as the best smartphone in the world. But the incoming P20 Pro might just do it.
We came away hugely impressed from our initial hands-on, as the high-end flagship packs in a whopping three back cameras that produce stunning results, not to mention an Apple iPhone X-like notch on a big, bright screen that dominates the face. Add in top-shelf components and you have a serious flagship contender.
Look at our list of the world's current best phones, however, and you'll find Google's Pixel 2 XL right near the top. We still think the Galaxy S9 is the better overall pick, but the larger Pixel 2 has the best smartphone camera that you can buy right now, a fabulous pure Android experience, and similarly high-end everything else within.
Will the Huawei P20 Pro unseat the Pixel 2 XL from one of those top spots? Here's how this comparison looks for now, following our hands-on with the P20 Pro. And we'll update this article with a final verdict once we review the P20 Pro, so stay tuned for that.
Design: Pro allure
The Huawei P20 Pro is definitely a looker. The most obvious thing it has going on is an iPhone X-inspired notch for the camera, which the screen wraps around to save top bezel. It's smaller here than Apple's rendition, but you also get a "chin" at the bottom of the front with a fingerprint sensor to boot.
Flip the P20 Pro around and you'll get sleek glass, along with the three camera modules aligned vertically at the upper left. And the gradient Twilight colour option is a dazzling delight.
On the other hand, the Pixel 2 XL is honestly kind of bland from the front. It looks and feels larger than it need to be, thanks to excessive bezel, and it just doesn't pack quite the same punch as the Galaxy S9 – or the P20 Pro, for that matter. We like the two-tone approach on the back, but overall the phone feels like it needed another round of refinement.
Screen: Pixel perfect?
Despite packing a high-end price tag, the P20 Pro does settle for less in one respect: it sticks with a 1080p AMOLED panel instead of going for Quad HD resolution like the Pixel 2 XL and many other Android flagships. Even so, the P20 Pro looked fabulous in our hands-on, with punchy colours and contrast, and the extra-tall 6.1in screen really pops with minimal bezel around it.
We'll really need to put it head-to-head with the Pixel 2 XL before we make a clear judgment here, although the Pixel has it beat on resolution with its 6in panel. The Pixel screen doesn't pop as much as, say, the Galaxy S9 however – and at sharper angles, you'll see some discolouration.
The Pixel 2 XL screen is mostly excellent, but it's not quite perfect. We'll see whether the P20 Pro nails enough of the viewing experience to overcome the resolution difference here.
Camera: True rivals?
As of this writing, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL boast the best smartphone cameras in the world – not even the newer Galaxy S9 can beat it, thanks to Google's brilliant software algorithms, which produce compelling shots day in and day out.
And that's with a single 12-megapixel back camera. It packs in a ton of dynamic range with each snap, with realistic colouring and without aggressive sharpening. It even offers portrait shots and bokeh blur with a single camera, thanks to its dual-pixel sensor. Even dual-camera setups can't beat the Pixel 2 on quality.
But what about three cameras? That's what the P20 Pro promises, and while more isn't always better, it really might be here. We were pretty floored by the results during our hands-on, as we wrapped our eyes around the results from the 8MP telephoto lens, a 20MP black-and-white lens, and a staggering 40MP main RGB lens.
That allows for a "phenomenal amount of pictorial fidelity and 5x zoom," as we wrote in our hands-on review, plus the P20 Pro can automatically switch shooting modes to deliver the best-possible shots.
It had a clear advantage over the Galaxy S9 in side-by-side shooting, and it really could take out the Pixel 2 XL for the camera throne. We'll find out soon once we have the P20 Pro in hand for more extensive testing.
Performance: Could be even
Google's Pixel 2 XL relies on the year-old Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip, while the Huawei P20 Pro uses last fall's Kirin 970 chip. We know the Pixel 2 XL is blazing fast with stock Android installed, and the P20 Pro was quite snappy during our hands-on. And it's the same chip as last year's Huawei Mate 10 Pro, which itself was very fast.
Will you see any noticeable speed difference between the two? We doubt it. Both of these are recent, high-end chips, but we'll have to wait and see whether Huawei's skinned version of Android 8 Oreo runs any slower than Google's take.
That said, the P20 Pro has an edge on RAM, with 6GB vs. 4GB in the Pixel 2 XL, although that extra chunk might not make any huge difference - anything more than 4GB seems like overkill on a smartphone.
Battery and perks: Mixed offerings
The Pixel 2 XL's 3,520mAh battery pack does an admirable job of keeping the phone running for a full day, even with heavy usage, and Android Oreo's optimisations seem to work wonders here.
And yet we're optimistic that the Huawei P20 Pro will prove even better on battery life, thanks to its monstrous 4,000mAh pack. That's with a lower-resolution screen to power, as well. Neither of these phones offer wireless charging, however, which is a nice perk on many other top-end phones.
Neither of them offer a microSD slot for expandability either, unfortunately. The P20 Pro offers a nice 128GB cache to work with, while the Pixel 2 XL does 64GB in the base model – you'll have to pay extra for the 128GB version.
The Pixel 2 XL has another nice perk in the mix, too: Google Daydream VR support, which lets you toss the phone into a headset shell and strap it onto your face for immersive virtual reality experiences. And there are many games and apps worth taking for a spin.
Initial verdict: Could be an upset
As of now, the Google Pixel 2 XL is very nearly our favourite smartphone in the world – but the Huawei P20 Pro might take it spot, or even vault up into the #1 position.
Our hands-on reviewer called it the most exciting phone he's seen this year, which is strong praise considering that the Galaxy S9 is our current pick for the must-have smartphone. We still need to put the P20 Pro through the full review gauntlet, but we really like what we've seen so far.
Meanwhile, we already love the Pixel 2 XL – but its biggest claim to fame is its spectacular camera. If the P20 Pro can top that, then it has a fighting chance to be one of the best handsets on the market in 2018. Huawei's phone if priced right could be worth every penny if the phone really delivers on its promise.
We'll find out soon, so check back after our full Huawei P20 Pro review posts for our final verdict in this comparison.