Review, Smartphone

Honor 20 Review: Victim of Circumstance

The Honor 20 series was introduced at arguably the worst possible time. With Huawei’s Android license pulled – which also affects Honor – the future of the Chinese company’s smartphone business is uncertain. In fact, we’re seeing some of the effects right now: even though the Honor 20 has been launched in Malaysia, we still don’t know exactly when it will go on sale.

Despite that, the Honor 20 is really quite a good flagship smartphone. When (or if) the device goes on sale in Malaysia, it is worth considering for those who want a competent, affordable flagship smartphone. However, whether or not it’s a wise decision to purchase a Honor or Huawei smartphone right now…is an entirely different question.

Specifications

Display6.26-inch FHD+ LTPS (2340 x 1080)
ChipsetHuawei Kirin 980 2.6GHz octa-core
GPU
Mali-G76 MP10
RAM6GB
Storage128GB, non-expandable
Camera (rear)
48MP f/1.8
16MP f/2.2 (super wide)
2MP f/2.4 (macro)
2MP f/2.4 (depth)
Camera (front)32MP f/2.0
Battery
3,750mAh
Dimensions154.3 x 74 x 7.9 mm
Weight
174g
OSMagic UI 2.1 based on Android 9 Pie
ConnectivityLTE
NFC
Bluetooth 5.0
WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4/5GHz)
USB Type-C

Powered by the same chipset found in the Huawei Mate 20 and P30 smartphones, the Honor 20 has flagship-tier performance. On top of that, it also has reasonably good RAM and storage capacities, even though it doesn’t support expandable storage.

Besides that, this phone also has a quad camera system, not to mention a pretty generous 3,750mAh battery. This may not be the biggest battery capacity on a smartphone this size, but it can return very respectable battery life. I’ll elaborate more further down this review.

Design

Surprisingly enough, there aren’t that many smartphones with hole-punch screen cutouts like the Honor 20, which gives it a distinguishing feature. Aesthetically, it looks very similar to the Honor View 20’s display – it looks good without being too intrusive.

I’ve always preferred a hole-punch design, and I think it’s a great compromise between the use of pop-up cameras for an all-screen look – which in turn introduces moving parts that are susceptible to breaking – and a notched display. A hole-punch screen doesn’t have any moving parts, and it doesn’t take up as much space as a notch.

Overall design of the Honor 20 is also pretty minimalist. At least, that’s the case with the Midnight Black model I have here. It doesn’t have the shimmery effect of the Sapphire Blue variant, and it looks understated enough for those who want a device that isn’t quite as striking.

In terms of build quality, the Honor 20 feels premium and solid. The metal frame and glass back are nice to the touch, and the rounded corners of the phone help a lot with ergonomics. That being said, the glass and metal construction does make it a really slippery phone – I lost grip on the phone more times than I care to admit.

Without a doubt the Honor 20 feels like a proper high-end smartphone, and that is always a good thing for an affordable flagship device. If I were to nitpick, the side-mounted fingerprint sensor does feel sharp around the edges.

User Experience

That’s right, the Honor 20 has a side-mounted fingerprint sensor that also doubles as the power button, and it works great. Like most capacitive fingerprint sensors, it is very accurate, and it can unlock the phone lightning fast. However, there were some instances where it took some time for the phone to wake from sleep.

Now, I don’t think that’s the fault of the fingerprint sensor. Rather, I suspect it’s a software side issue. It’s an oddity I’ve noticed on other Honor smartphones too, where it occasionally takes slightly longer for the phones to respond once I clicked on the power button. While it doesn’t happen too often, it’s still worth pointing out.

Speaking of software, the Honor 20 runs on Magic UI 2.1 based on Android 9 Pie. As far as I can tell, it feels and looks a lot like Huawei’s EMUI software. Both versions of Android are almost indistinguishable from each other, which leads me to believe it’s merely one way for Honor to differentiate itself further from Huawei.

Regardless, Magic UI 2.1 will take some time to get accustomed to. The app drawer is not enabled by default, the user interface may not be to everyone’s taste, and there are some bloatware here and there. Overall, however, it’s still a responsive, lightweight version of Android with no serious shortcoming.

Next, we have performance, and the Honor 20 simply flies in this regard. The Kirin 980 is a very capable chipset, and I can multitask seamlessly with this phone. Switching from one app to another in quick succession proved to be a non-issue, and gaming on it is simply a joy. I’ve played a couple rounds of PUBG Mobile on the Honor 20, and I was getting high and consistent frame rate – very impressive.

Even though it doesn’t have a fancy OLED display, this phone’s 6.26-inch 1080p IPS display looks great. It has relatively neutral white balance, good viewing angles, and punchy, vibrant colours. Sure, you don’t get the deep blacks of an OLED panel, but this is an affordable flagship; expectations have to be managed.

But what really blew my expectations is the Honor 20’s battery life. Packed with a 3,750mAh battery, I can consistently get over eight hours of screen on time with this device, and I’m quite a heavy smartphone user. That’s insanely good battery life, and I reckon lighter users can get up to two days of usage effortlessly.

Charging rate of the Honor 20, on the other hand, is decent. Within 30 minutes of charging, the phone got up to 46% from empty.

I thoroughly enjoyed using the Honor 20 as my daily driver for this review, even if the software experience isn’t the best in the market. Plus, the excellent battery life and performance more than make up for this.

Camera

There are four cameras on the back of the Honor 20: the primary 48MP camera, a 16MP wide angle shooter, a 2MP depth sensor, and a 2MP macro lens. Even though there’s no telephoto sensor, the camera can still do “2x zoom.” It’s merely digital zoom, of course.

Without a doubt the primary 48MP sensor takes the best-looking shots. Like most smartphone cameras with 48MP cameras, the Honor 20 uses pixel binning to improve low light performance and reduce the image size to 12MP. The result? Well, very good camera performance regardless of lighting condition.

That being said, the shooting experience could definitely be better. The camera interface is not particularly responsive (it gets especially sluggish in low light conditions), and there is noticeable shutter lag in between shots. As a whole, however, the Honor 20 is still a capable shooter. The Super Macro mode – which uses the 2MP macro lens – is quite fun to play around with too.

Considering its relatively affordable price tag for a flagship-tier smartphone, you’re getting very respectable camera performance with the Honor 20. It is by no means better than class leaders like the Samsung Galaxy S10e, but it doesn’t cost as much either.

Competition

Retailing at RM1,699 for the sole 128GB variant with 6GB of RAM, the Honor 20 is one of the most affordable flagship smartphones in Malaysia. At this price point, it has a number of tough competition.

Xiaomi Mi 9

This is the closest competitor to the Honor 20. Even though the RM1,699 base model of the Xiaomi Mi 9 only offers half the amount of storage at 64GB, it has a number of advantages. It feels more premium, it has slightly better camera performance, and its AMOLED display is more pleasant to look at.

But there are also a number of areas where the Honor 20 is superior. It has much better battery life, its hole-punch display looks a lot better than the Mi 9’s notched display (although this is subjective), and I’d argue Honor’s Magic UI offers better software experience than MIUI 10.

That last part, however, could dramatically change in the near future. Now that Honor’s Android license has been pulled, it remains to be seen if Magic UI will even be relevant by the end of the year.

Honor View 20

If you want a different device that has a lot of similarities with the Honor 20, there’s the Honor View 20. It has the same Kirin 980 chipset, a larger 4,000mAh battery, and more importantly, you can get it at a lower price point right now.

If a good, flexible camera system is what you want, the Honor 20 will be better in this regard. Not only does it have a wide angle sensor the View 20 lacks, it also features a macro lens. Besides that, I personally prefer the Honor 20’s side-mounted fingerprint sensor over the View 20’s rear sensor.

Conclusion

On its own, the Honor 20 is a very competent flagship smartphone that doesn’t cost all that much. It has fantastic battery life, a capable camera system, fast performance, and a premium design. If it weren’t for the company’s Android licensing issue with Google, I would not hesitate to recommend this phone to anyone.

But that really is the biggest issue plaguing Honor and Huawei smartphones right now. Even if the Honor 20 goes on sale in Malaysia in the next few weeks with all of Google’s services intact, software updates will be another area of concern. Chances are, this phone will not receive Android Q officially.

Granted, Magic UI 2.1 in its current state is still a very functional version of Android. And if you don’t care about Android updates anyway, this issue will not be relevant to you at all. But do note that you will miss out on new features introduced in later versions of Android, and Honor may not be able to do the same.

Having Huawei’s Android license pulled is an unprecedented turn of events, and unfortunately enough, the Honor 20 is caught in the middle of it all. It’s a victim of circumstance, and it makes the phone tough to recommend not because it is a bad product, but due to an issue that is out of Honor’s control.