Huawei Mate 20 Lite review: Shining Lite

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Following the recent news that Google is restricting Android access to Huawei and Honor devices worldwide, we regrettably can’t recommend the Huawei Mate 20 Lite. Though it is an excellent handset and Huawei has said that existing devices will receive security updates, it is still not clear how this development might otherwise affect Huawei devices. For as long as the ban is in place, then, we’d recommend refraining from buying.

Since the ban, however, Huawei has revealed that it will be bringing the Android Q update to the Mate 20 Lite, in addition to “popular current devices”, despite the ongoing trade ban. There’s no word yet on when this update might drop, but you can see the full list of Huawei phones that are set to receive the Android Q upgrade in our dedicated Huawei ban article. 

Our original Huawei Mate 20 Lite review continues below

Huawei Mate 20 Lite review

Say what you like about Huawei it sure is prolific. Between the P20 phones, Nova, and various handsets from its subsidiary Honor, the Huawei Mate 20 Lite is the 14th phone from the Chinese company in 2018. Well, I guess you don’t become the second-largest smartphone manufacturer on the planet without making a few smartphones.

The curious thing about the Huawei Mate 20 Lite is that it undersold itself before it appeared on store shelves. If you call your product the Mate 20 Lite, then it stands to reason that there’s a version of the device which is, uh, “Hevy” and, sure enough, Huawei has confirmed that more devices will be on the way launching on the 16th of October, rocking the long-awaited Kirin 980 chipset.

What you’ve got here, then, is a taste of things to come. And a mighty-delicious taste it is, too.

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Huawei Mate 20 Lite: What you need to know

Because of all the Huawei handsets doing the rounds, the positioning of the Mate 20 Lite is a touch confusing. Is the Mate or the P range the flagship of Huawei’s collection? In truth, it’s best to think of them in the same way you would the Samsung Galaxy Note and S range – both are flagship phones that serve slightly different audiences.

Like the Note and S, the Mate a P handsets tend to overtake each other in terms of specs in a continual game of one-upmanship, made slightly more confusing by the fact there are three varieties of each. In this instance, the Mate 20 Lite advances on the P20 Lite by offering an extra 2GB RAM, a new HiSilicon Kirin processor and adding around £50 to the price tag.

Huawei Mate 20 Lite: Price and competition

That extra price brings it to £379, which is still quite reasonable in an age where the most expensive phones are breaking the four-figure mark.

The catch is you can get a lot of decent phones in that price bracket. We expect the modifiable Moto Z3 Play to go for around £390, but no UK price has emerged yet, while the excellent Asus Zenfone 5 goes for £350. Honor has a great selection of handsets and the wonderful Honor Play is expected to slip into a similar range, too.

Casting a slight shadow over all of these in the fantastic OnePlus 6. While it does come in at £469, its performance gives this year’s most expensive handsets a run for their money.

Best Huawei Mate 20 Lite contract and SIM-free deals:

Huawei Mate 20 Lite: Design

The Mate 20 Lite is a sleek-looking phone and it could easily pass for a flagship device at a glance. That’s no mean feat for a phone that by today’s crazy standards sits at the cheaper end of the spectrum. It doesn’t do anything hugely different to stand out, with its glass rear and rounded aluminium edges and corners, but it certainly looks handsome, even if it feels a little slippery.

In fact, comparing the Mate 20 Lite and P20 Pro side by side, it’s interesting to note the chin area is markedly smaller on the cheaper model, partly because the fingerprint reader has been relocated to the back of the handset.

That fingerprint reader is well positioned, fast and responsive when you need it, but you may rarely be in that position. Huawei’s big innovation here is facial recognition that unlocks the phone no matter which way up you’re holding it. It’s a bit of a gimmick, but it does work well.

Like its stablemates, the Huawei Mate 20 Lite has an iPhone X-style notch along the top, although this can be blacked out in the settings if you find it annoying. This is actually a pretty elegant solution as it removes the cutout but not the utility of the areas flanking the notch. You still get notifications, signal strength and battery life appearing in the blacked out area, for instance, as if the bezel was part of your display. It’s a good look.

A 6.3in display makes it sound that you have a phablet in all but name, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Thanks to the 19.5:9 aspect ratio and 7.5mm thickness the Huawei P20 Lite feels very slight indeed. In its quest for a thin device though, Huawei has had to compromise with the camera housings, which poke out a little from the back, the edges of which feel sharp enough to leave a scratch on delicate surfaces. I own the P20 Pro and it has the same problem, although I can report it’s easily rectified by popping the phone in a case.

This leads me to a pair of small annoyances. First, the Mate 20 Lite lacks any kind of officially rated dust- or water-resistance; second, it has no wireless charging. That said, you can expand the built-in 64GB RAM by an extra 256GB if you feel like splashing out on a microSD card. There’s also room for a 3.5mm headphone jack, which we can be thankful for given it was jettisoned for the P20 Pro.

Huawei Mate 20 Lite: Screen

The screen is another area where you’re getting the Lite part of Huawei’s offering. Not that it’s bad or anything but it uses LCD technology instead of the OLED tech you get in more pricey handsets. In short, that means weaker contrast and black that doesn’t look quite as inky.

But it’s important not to get too bogged down in this. After all, Apple didn’t embrace OLED technology until last year and still managed to sell some quite pricey handsets. And the 6.3in model on display here is a pretty good example – or it is as soon as you turn off the garish “vivid” colour mode anyway.

The screen manages a respectable 88.9% of the sRGB gamut (90.7% in the aforementioned vivid mode) while offering a sharp 1,279:1 contrast ratio. Brightness is a little disappointing for LCD at only 405cd/m2 with the slider pulled all the way to the right but you should still find it perfectly usable in all but the brightest sunshine.

I should also point out that the screen is of the Full HD variety, with a resolution of 2,340 x 1080 delivering pixel density of 409ppi. That isn’t as sharp as more expensive handsets, but even on a screen of this size, nine out of ten people won’t notice the difference unless using the phone with a VR headset where the screen is magnified.

Huawei Mate 20 Lite: Performance, battery life, software

Somewhat awkwardly, we’re unable to provide full benchmarks of the Huawei Mate 20 Lite at the moment. Our handset review handset is locked down and refuses to download the tools we need from the Google Play store. Suffice it to say we’re working with Huawei to fix this and will update the review when we’ve reached a resolution.

That’s unfortunate because while with most phones we can have an educated guess at how they compare to each other due to shared components, Huawei uses its own Kirin processors. This is even more complex because the chip in use here – the 2.2Ghz octa-core Kirin 710 – is making its debut, so we can’t even give “finger-in-the-air” kind of comparisons to other Huawei phones.

Still anecdotally, it’s all good. The new chip, backed by 4GB RAM and 64GB storage makes light work of day-to-day Android tasks and has no issues with multitasking either. Even intensive games run reasonably well on it: I downloaded both Real Racing 3 and PUBG Mobile to test its graphics capabilities and it didn’t object to either. It defaulted to medium graphics settings in the latter but manually pushing things up to the high graphical setting in PUBG was playable, too.

You might have thought the generous 3,750mAh battery would make for a phone that goes on and on, especially with a screen that’s only pushing out 1080p. Sadly, performance was actually pretty middling. In our standard battery test, where brightness is set to 170cd/m2 and data connections are disabled, the phone only lasted 11hrs 22mins in our video rundown test before running out of juice.

Huawei’s aggressive battery-saving methods mean you get more stamina in real-world conditions but all things being equal, 682 minutes is well short of other recent Huawei efforts – even the regular P20’s smaller 3,400mAh battery helped that phone last two hours longer.

The EMUI software has been getting better for some time, and it’s pretty inoffensive here although Huawei could benefit from embracing a more vanilla version of Android Oreo in the manner of Nokia or Motorola. In fact, the only real source of offence here is the amount of bloatware piled onto the phone before you get hold of it.

Some of the apps – like the mirror mode which Lets you use the front-facing cameras to check out your mug – are quite handy but packing in five games of variable quality is a bit invasive, as is putting Booking.com and Amazon Assistant in a folder labelled “Top Apps”.

With the Huawei P20 Pro camera attracting superlative-packed reviews across the web, could a phone costing half as much repeat the feat? Unsurprisingly, no, but it’s a very impressive snapper in its own right.

Flip the phone over, and you’ll see a dual-camera setup. The main snapper is a 20-megapixel f/1.8 aperture affair and it’s supported by a 2-megapixel secondary camera. The support camera is purely to add depth data to help produce fake bokeh images, not capture images in its own right and, unlike past Huawei phones, there’s no dedicated monochrome camera which, as a fan of moody cat pictures, I find a touch disappointing.

Still, it works well enough for a phone in this price bracket. In fact, in good light, it’s as good the photographs taken our favourite all-round phone of 2018: the OnePlus 6. The composition, detail and colour capture is nothing short of exceptional.

It’s a similar story in tricky low-light conditions. As you can see below, the Mate 20 Lite is an excellent all-round performer. In some ways, it actually beats the OnePlus 6 here, with far less chroma noise when zoomed in. Unfortunately, it does add a little too much softness, losing some edge detail in a smeary sheen, so call it a draw overall. Both are excellent cameras though, and notably, the Mate 20 Lite is £90 cheaper.

However, there are definitely some niggles. The first is kind of awkward because it’s billed as a key feature: the AI.

It’s not that the artificial intelligence is dim. In fact, it remains impressive that it can instantly tell when you’re looking at a cat or an overcast scene and label it accordingly. The problem is the next stage of this, where it automatically adjusts settings to take what it thinks will be the best shot it can muster.

The result, in our overcast example, was a shot that was completely oversaturated (below). Impressive a party trick as being able to recognise objects, scenes and conditions is, you’re simply better turning it off until Huawei gets better at knowing what to do with the information.

There are other little niggles too: toggling HDR, for example, is done on most phones by flicking a virtual switch on your main camera screen. Not here: it’s hidden away as a whole separate mode along with panoramas, filters and timelapse. Such a vital tool in the photography arsenal shouldn’t be ditched here like an afterthought.

Something that’s given a bizarrely higher billing is Huawei’s answer to Animoji: 3D Qmoji. You know the deal here: a series of cute animals respond to your eye and mouth movements and the result is then shareable via social media. Well, I say cute – the puffer fish is alright, but the rabbit looks right off the Donnie Darko casting couch. Scroll along the menu and you can also see a whole bunch of filters for the Snappety-chat generation, including ones which play out truly obnoxious music at the same time. Let’s just say these features are not aimed at the professional.

Video recording is an area which indicates the new Kirin 710 processor may not be all that hot. While you can record at 1080p at 60fps, you’ll have to drop either the fram erate or the resolution if you want to use stabilisation. That’s an unfortunate payoff to have to make. I also found that, while recording video, the Mate 20 Lite struggled to focus a lot of the time leading to often blurry footage. Even when it did lock on it would hunt back and forth distractingly before doing so.

On the front of the Mate 20 Lite, hidden in the notch, are two more cameras. Between them, these actually pack in more megapixels than the rear cameras, at 24- and 2-megapixels between them, though the aperture is only f/2.0 aperture. The idea, as with the rear pair, is that the secondary camera is there to provide depth mapping data for more effective fake bokeh, portrait-style photography.

In any case, they take selfies which are more than sufficient for all but the vainest of narcissists – although you’ll likely want to turn off the added features which are supposed to improve things but actually give a strange unnatural look. The beauty features give a creepy unnatural smooth style to the face, and putting on any of the lighting filters does much the same thing. The ‘stage’ and ‘classic’ lighting modes in particular were keen to cut off portions of my face, which is a worryingly aggressive precedent for the day when AI takes over the world.

Huawei Mate 20 Lite: Verdict

All in all, the Huawei Mate 20 Lite is a pretty easy recommendation at this price. It looks great, has a pretty solid set of cameras and seems like an okay performer, although we’ll only know how fast for sure when Huawei unlocks benchmarking tools. At £379 it’s pretty keenly priced too.

There are two possible issues I can see. The first is that the Mate 20 Lite is just the warm-up act for Huawei, with two new Mate 20 handsets due in October. These will likely be a lot more expensive, and may not really be a fair comparison at all, but for those anxious they may miss out, it’s worth waiting, just in case.

The second problem is that, competitive as it is, there are others that warrant attention. The Asus Zenfone 5 looks the part, is a solid performer and comes in £30 cheaper and we’re expecting the Honor Play to be priced in a similar ballpark too. If you can stretch a little further, the OnePlus 6 is only £90 more and that really does tear the Mate 20 Lite – good as it is – to ribbons.

Still, buyers of the Huawei Mate 20 Lite are unlikely to be disappointed. This is another solid effort and a reminder of just why Huawei is now the second biggest smartphone maker on the planet.

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