Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

Despite how you might feel about its rumored ties to the Chinese government (or lack thereof), Huawei has undeniably made some of the most technologically advanced phones of the last three years. Huawei released the first handset with triple rear cameras and reverse wireless charging, while also beating its biggest rivals Apple and Samsung to the market with phones featuring in-screen fingerprint sensors and dedicated neural processing units. But for Huawei’s latest flagship phone—the P30 Pro—Huawei was faced with a difficult challenge.

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Traditionally, Huawei P-series phones have pushed camera innovation. But after leveraging AI to help tune camera settings and putting three cameras on the back of its phones, what else was there left to improve? Sure, Huawei could have kept increasing the number of cameras on its phone like we’ve seen on the Nokia 9, but in some ways, that feels a bit too obvious. So instead, Huawei chose to completely re-engineer the way camera sensors work to achieve better low-light performance. Then Huawei tacked on an unprecedented 5x optical zoom lens just for kicks.

You see, inside almost every modern digital camera, there’s an image sensor with a Bayer filter, featuring a repeating four pixel grid that uses two green pixels, one red pixel, and one blue pixel to capture light and color. It’s a fundamental system employed by practically every camera company not named FujiFilm, but it’s not perfect. For the P30 Pro, Huawei changed up the formula by replacing the green color filters in a Bayer filter with yellow ones, with the reasoning being that yellow is a lighter color than green, which allows more light to pass through the filter and hit the sensor behind it. More light means brighter images, which when you’re out and about snapping pics in low light is precisely what you want.

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If you look at that third camera, you can see there’s a void where light gets reflected down into the body of the phone, not unlike a periscope.
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

However, while that might sound like a simple switch, it’s really an enormous amount of work. Once you change the way a camera’s color filter functions, you need to redesign its image processor (the thing that interprets the data the camera’s sensor captures), how those images are shown on a display, all of the camera’s various photo modes, and a bunch of other stuff. So has all of Huawei’s effort paid off?

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Actually, yeah. With its new sensor, the P30 Pro on auto mode can more or less match the excellent low light capabilities of Google’s Night Sight processing, without any extra tuning or special settings. That also means less hassle too, because now you don’t have to pause and hold the camera steady for four or five seconds as you do for with most dedicated Night Modes. Just tap the shutter, try not to shake your hands for a beat, and that’s it.

When you compare shots from the P30 Pro to phones like the Galaxy S10 or Pixel 3, the difference is obvious. For example, in a nighttime shot at a nearby park, while a photo captured by the Galaxy S10+ looks alright because the S10 needed to set the shutter speed at 1/9th of a second, even with the phone’s optical image stabilization, objects in the S10's pic appear significantly blurrier.

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Meanwhile, a face-off between the P30 Pro on auto and the Pixel 3 without Night Sight turned on shows how much of a head start Huawei’s new sensor really provides. If I didn’t know better, someone could have easily fooled me by saying the P30 Pro’s shot of this scooter on auto mode was taken on a sunny afternoon, and not almost midnight, which is when I snapped the pic.

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And even after I enabled Night Sight on the Pixel 3, the P30 Pro’s picture still featured sharper details and captured an image that looked more accurate to what I saw with my eyes. While the Pixel 3’s Night Sight mode did a good job of removing the heavy color cast that came from nearby streetlights, the P30 Pro’s photo is superior in almost every other way. Of course, Huawei has its own dedicated Night Mode as well, which adds an extra level of detail to challenging low light shots. Though I found that because the P30 Pro’s auto mode was so good, I didn’t feel the need to use it nearly as much, compared to the Pixel 3, which basically necessitates the use of Night Sight when the lights go down.

While the P30 Pro’s new sensor is a big help at night, in the day time, it sometimes causes the phone’s pictures to come out overexposed and lacking in color saturation.
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

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That said, Huawei’s new sensor isn’t perfect, because while it has dramatically improved the P30's Pro’s low-light performance, it seems to have slightly negatively impacted the P30's Pro’s bright light shooting. When compared to both the Galaxy S10 and Pixel 3, a daytime shot of some flowers from the P30 Pro had way more blown out highlights and more muted colors in the surrounding greenery.

I suspect this is something Huawei can improve over time, as this could be an effect of Huawei having to re-design its camera stack to accommodate that new sensor, but at least right now, there is a trade-off. Also, I should mention that Huawei only uses its custom RYYB sensor on the main camera, not the P30 Pro’s 20-MP ultra-wide camera or its 8-MP telephoto cam. It’s an understandable move, though it can be a bit jarring when switching between lenses, especially if you’re shooting video.

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Now, if the only thing Huawei had done was upgrade the P30 Pro’s main camera sensor, that would have been enough. But it didn’t, because for the P30 Pro’s telephoto camera, Huawei added a new system with a 5x optical zoom, what Huawei claims is a 10x lossless zoom, and a bonkers digital zoom that goes all the way up to a 50x magnification.

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This level of magnification blows past competing phones, which for the past few years, have been stuck with 2x or 3x zooms. The problem for phones is that unlike a normal camera lenses, there’s almost no room to fit all the glass and optics needed to deliver a really long zoom. So to solve the problem, Huawei installed a mirror similar to a periscope to lets the phone bend light down into the phone’s body, which lets Huawei use the length of the P30 Pro to squeeze in optics, instead of its thickness.

Frankly, this is a development I love, because until now, big camera zooms were something you only found on proper standalone cameras. But with the 5x/10x zoom on the P30 Pro, you get so much flexibility to get closer to the action. To test this out, I took the P30 Pro and some of its rivals to Madison Square Park and then tried to snap pics of the Empire State Building from almost 10 blocks away. And the results? Well, they speak for themselves.

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Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

At 5x and 10x zoom, the P30 Pro delivered fantastically sharp images, though as you get closer to 50x, it starts suffering from the issues inherent with digital enhancement. But the real eye-opener is how much more reach the P30 Pro’s telephoto cam offers compared to the 2x zoom you get on a Galaxy S10+. It’s quite a shock.

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OK, enough about cameras, what’s the rest of the P30 Pro like to use? At this point, it shouldn’t be a surprise, but the P30 Pro is a premium device from top to bottom. The P30 Pro is stuffed with all sort of techy solutions such as both wireless and reverse wireless Qi charging, IP68 dust and water-resistance, 15-watt fast-charging (and reverse wired charging as well), and the best color options you can get from any smartphone maker today. The P30 Pro even has an IR blaster, which is a feature almost every other phone maker has dropped from their flagship devices.

And with a seriously big 4,200 mAh battery, the P30 Pro offers ridiculous longevity. On our video rundown test, the P30 Pro lasted 15 hours and 24 minutes, the second longest runtime we’ve seen yet, behind only the Samsung Galaxy Fold’s time of 17:06.

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Unlike the vanilla P30, the P30 Pro doesn’t have a headphone jack, but you do get an IR blaster.
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

However, if I can nitpick a bit, I’m still frustrated that Huawei didn’t make room for a 3.5mm jack on the P30 Pro, as that’s a feature you do get on the vanilla P30. Aside from the unnecessary bloatware, Huawei’s EMUI 9.1 skin continues to be a relatively inoffensive take on Android, but at the same time, its somewhat cartoony look and occasionally overly simplistic UI is hard to love.

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And while the P30 Pro’s 6.5-inch OLED screen is impressively bright and colorful, it does suffer slightly from having less overall resolution than you get on a Galaxy S10. It’s not a dealbreaker, but with a screen that big on a phone that costs close to $1,000, if you have good eyesight, you can sometimes notice when text and images don’t look quite as sharp as they could.

Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

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But the P30's real downside is that it’s not really officially supported in the U.S. While you can get an unlocked P30 Pro from third-party retailers like B&H for just $900 ($100 less than the most similarly equipped Galaxy S10+), the P30 Pro isn’t compatible with CDMA networks like Verizon and Sprint. And if you ever run into a situation where you need customer support, you can’t expect the same kind of care you might get from an Apple or Samsung device.

But the impact of what Huawei has done on the P30 Pro is undeniable. If you frequently shoot photos in bars, restaurants, or similarly challenging environments, the P30 Pro’s low light capabilities are quite convincing. Meanwhile, that 5x optical zoom periscope breaks through to new levels of magnification for smartphone cameras.

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Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

Also because some of the tech used in the P30 Pro’s zoom system comes from Corephotnics, a company recently acquired by Samsung for $155 million, you better believe that 5x zoom is something we’ll be seeing on a lot more phones in the future. For the P30 Pro, Huawei set out to push the boundaries of smartphone photography, and on not one but two counts, it did.

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README

  • At 15 hours and 24 minutes, the P30 Pro has the second longest battery life we’ve ever tested.
  • While you can buy an unlocked version of the P30 Pro from third-party U.S. retailers, the phone doesn’t support CDMA networks like Verizon or Sprint, and there’s not much in the way of local customer support.
  • Huawei starts a new era of smartphone photography by putting a 5x optical zoom on a phone.
  • Almost any feature found on any other high-end premium phone—the P30 Pro has too.

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