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Review: Honor 20

As smartphone launches go, the Honor 20 had an exceptionally rough one. Just two days before its early June unveiling, Donald Trump announced that Huawei (of which Honor is a sub-brand) would be banned from doing business with American companies.

Unfortunately for Huawei, this decision had the potential to wreck its entire smartphone business in the West as it would be unable to work with companies such as ARM and Google who are pretty much indispensable for smartphone OEMs. The announcement clearly left Honor in a tizzy and the Honor 20 launch was a truncated event where it neglected to mentionwhich OS the device would run. The launch date was then pushed back a few weeks as Honor tried to work through its international headache. While Trump has rolled back some of his rhetoric in the intervening weeks, Huawei’s position is still far from certain and consumers could still be affected by a lack of support or Android updates in the future depending on how events pan out.

With that necessary caveat out of the way, it’s worth noting that the Honor 20 is a solid mid-range phone that does a great Galaxy S10 impression at half the price. Like the S10, it features a screen that takes up the entire front face of the device with the exception of a ‘holepunch’ that the selfie camera can see through. Unlike the S10, this screen is neither curved at the edges nor is it an OLED, opting instead for cheaper LCD technology. The display itself looks good, if not quite matching up to the depth of colour that can be seen on OLED-sporting flagship devices.

 

While last year’s Honor 10 placed its fingerprint scanner in a thin bezel at the bottom of the screen, the Honor 20 incorporates it into its power button on the side, something not seen in many devices outside of a few niche Sony smartphones. While an under-screen scanner would’ve been nice, this is one example of where Honor has cut corners to maintain a lower price. In my two weeks of usage, the scanner has consistently worked well, very rarely failing to recognise my fingerprint despite its relatively small surface area.

The phone can also be unlocked through a facial recognition system that uses the selfie camera and some AI wizardry to detect the user’s face. For security conscious buyers, it’s worth bearing in mind that this is not as secure as Apple’s Face ID, which beams infrared light onto the face to create a 3D model. This has the added benefit of being usable in the dark. It’s hard to accurately test how secure Honor’s facial-recognition system really is, although it’s probably enough for most people who just want to stop overly curious family members from using their phone and for preventing thieves from accessing personal data in the event of a theft. If you’re a diplomat, a spy or the CEO of a major corporation you might feel the need to go with Apple’s more secure system, but for your average Joe this is probably fine. Recent research has shown that many phones with similar systems can be unlocked simply with a photo of the user presented to the camera; notably this trick did not work with last year’s Honor 10.

 

In terms of fluidity, the Honor 20 is able to effortlessly switch between different apps with little to no lag. In 2019 even the most basic smartphones should be fluid enough for simple usage, but transitions here feel particularly snappy with no dropped frames when moving in and out of different apps at speed. One can speculate that Huawei’s in-house Kirin 980 SoC is probably responsible for this, especially considering it’s paired with 6GB of ram. The 980 is the first Kirin processor to move to a 7nm node, so one would expect an improvement in both performance and power saving from earlier 10nm processes.

The Honor 20 has impressive battery endurance and most users should be able to get two full days out of it. I typically had over 50 per cent battery life left before bed with about 3 hours of screen-on time which included browsing the web, watching videos and listening to music over Bluetooth headphones. Honor has decided to remove the headphone jack this time around, so Bluetooth headphones or the (included) USB-C adapter are needed for music purposes. Unfortunately for audio enthusiasts, this is the direction that smartphones are heading in, and Honor has always followed the pack rather than leading it.

With the Honor series aimed at the youth market, what could be a more inevitable tie-in than pairing with Epic to offer buyers an exclusive Fortnite skin. The game’s installer comes preloaded on the device and the Honor 20 is one of a select handful of smartphones that can play the game at 60fps compared to the standard 30fps. The game I played felt smooth for the most part, although occasional dips below 60fps were apparent in more crowded areas with lots of visible geometry. Regardless, this is an impressive feat for a smartphone to achieve and Fortnite addicts have little choice at this price level if they want 60fps on their mobile.

Huawei has always positioned itself as a leader in smartphone camera tech and the Honor 20 is no exception. It now has four cameras on the back, a 48MP sensor as the main snapper, a 16MP wide-angle camera, a depth-assist camera to add that SLR-like ‘bokeh’ effect, and a macro camera for close-up shots. Daylight pictures look good, with relatively accurate colour reproduction and not too much oversaturation. Despite the 48MP sensor, when zooming in photos tend to look a bit smudgy, so while the overall photo may look nice, finer details are somewhat lacking. Low-light pictures are great however, while there is some inevitable grain the camera was still very usable at times when even my own eyes were struggling to pick details out. For a phone with a dedicated macro camera, close-up shots were a bit disappointing, with difficulty achieving perfect focus. This is generally forgivable on a smartphone but less so when there’s an entire camera devoted to it.

The Honor 20 is a good mid-range device that successfully apes many of the features of flagship smartphones at half the price. For most people the significant extra cost associated with the latest Samsung or Apple handset is probably not justifiable. The Honor makes some compromises such as lacking an in-display fingerprint scanner and water resistance. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Huawei’s political turmoil in the West is still far from over, which could result in poor software support in the future and a dearth of updates. But for consumers unconcerned with these issues, the Honor 20 offers a solid camera and an attractive screen making it a good buy at £399.

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