Huawei P20 Lite

If the Huawei P20 and the Huawei P20 Pro were designed to mix with smartphone royalty, then the Huawei P20 Lite is down there scrapping with the middle classes.

At a price of £329 (around $455 / AU$580 – though don’t expect to find it widely available in the US), the P20 Lite is roughly half the price of the Huawei P20, and counts the likes of the Moto Z2 Play as a direct rival.

Just like that other mid-ranger, Huawei’s phone attempts to trickle down a little of the glamour and panache from higher up the range. Despite its lower price tag, the P20 Lite retains the dominant edge-to-edge display and distinctive notch of its big brothers.

Add to that a dual-lens camera, a speedy fingerprint scanner and Android 8.0, and the Huawei P20 Lite starts to look a lot like a middleweight contender for the new edge-to-edge generation.

While it’s a solid effort from one of the world’s biggest manufacturers, however, there are a few notable shortfalls that might make you question whether it truly provides value for money.

Dropping down a notch

  • Sports speedy face recognition
  • A stylish all-screen look

You could say that the main purpose of any ‘Lite’ phone is to provide a rough approximation of the flagship at a more accessible price point. It needs to be readily identifiable as part of the family, yet smart about where it cuts corners to come in under budget.

For the most part, the Huawei P20 Lite meets that brief with a fair amount of style.

Indeed, style is the operative word here. All three P20 phones represent a design departure for the Chinese brand after the smart-but-humdrum Huawei P10.

Just like the rest of the smartphone world, Huawei has switched to an all-screen design philosophy. The P20 Lite has a relatively small chin, minimal side bezels, and a cut-out notch at the top of the display containing the front camera and earpiece.

In keeping with the obvious debt it owes to the iPhone X (more on which in the next section), the Huawei P20 Lite can use the camera sensors stored in that notch to read your face and unlock your phone. 

While Face Unlock seems to work quickly and accurately (even in pitch dark conditions, unlike other Face ID wannabes) it doesn’t seem to be as advanced or secure as Apple’s solution.

As evidence of this, Face Unlock is switched off by default, and you have to fish through the menus to manually switch it on. The way it scans your face instantly in the set-up phases also suggests that it isn’t truly obtaining a detailed 3D map of your face like Face ID.

Still, there’s no denying Huawei’s solution works quickly to unlock the phone. Set the P20 Lite to wake when you pick it up, and you won’t have to think about unlocking it at all.

If you’re using the phone for business usage, or wish to ensure the utmost levels of security, you might want to stick with the default fingerprint sensor.

Design

  • Notch looks a lot like the P20 (and the iPhone X)
  • A metal and glass build

As we’ve already mentioned, Huawei has taken a fresh approach to design with the P20 family. It’s not hard to spot the continued influence Apple has over the manufacturer’s work, however.

Just like its brothers, the Huawei P20 Lite is in thrall to the iPhone X. It’s got a very similar footprint and shape, and of course there’s that familiar notch eating into the top edge of the expansive display.

The notch itself is a lot narrower than the iPhone equivalent, doubtless owing to the less advanced front camera array we discussed above. It’s a little wider than the Essential Phone’s notch, though.

In one respect, the P20 Lite is even closer to the iPhone X design than its big brothers are, thanks to the omission of a front-mounted fingerprint sensor. Curiously, this has been shifted to a more regular (for Android) position on the rear.

That’s not to say that the P20 Lite has used the extra space particularly smartly. There’s still a noticeable chin below the display, with a Huawei symbol positioned there in place of a button.

When it comes to daily use, the rear fingerprint sensor is a good one. It let us in way more times than it kept us out, and in super-quick time at that. It wasn’t as finicky about finger positioning as some lesser phones continue to be either.

The P20 Lite’s metal rim is nothing to write home about. It has a matt finish and a slightly curious pair of ridges running about the outside, which actually combined to make us think it was made of plastic until we felt its cool touch.

Still, the phone feels nice and premium in the hand owing to its all-glass and metal make-up. It’s a shame the side buttons feel so plasticky and nondescript, but these are the sort of minor shortcuts that can combine to shave pounds off the final price.

Talking of shaving pounds, the Huawei P20 Lite weighs in at a relatively scant 145g. With dimensions set at a mere 148.6 x 71.2 x 7.4mm, it really is a supremely pocketable piece of kit.

Display

  • Edge-to-edge 5.84-inch display
  • 1080 x 2280 resolution

Despite its small size, the Huawei P20 Lite manages to cram in a 5.84-inch display, thanks to the whole edge-to-edge approach. This manifests itself in a somewhat unorthodox 19:9 aspect ratio.

While this makes for an impressive canvas when flicking through the home screen and native apps, it seems to have little practical use. Many apps remain unoptimised for this kind of display, with Android understandably slower in adopting notched displays than iOS.

YouTube offers you a regular rectangular picture by default, with thick black borders either side.

Games aren’t always entirely optimised for this kind of display, either. One of the biggest releases of recent times, Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition, exhibited strange visual artefacts when pushing it into full screen.

Still, the display itself is capable and attractive. It’s an LTPS TFT, which means that it’s sharp and accurate even though it lacks the contrast and punch of an AMOLED.

A more noticeable drawback of not having an AMOLED display comes if you really can’t abide that notch, and opt to hide it in the options menu. With the AMOLED-packing Huawei P20 Pro, this option would make the notch all but disappear. Here (as with the P20) you can clearly see that they’re merely ‘black’ sections of screen to the left and right of the notch.

Another thing the P20 Lite display shares with the P20 is resolution. While flagship Android phones often go for QHD resolutions, the Huawei P20 went with 1080 x 2240, and didn’t suffer remotely. The P20 Lite follows suit with a 1080 x 2280 screen, and sure enough it’s plenty sharp enough for pretty much all tasks.

Many thanks to Vodafone for providing us with a Huawei P20 Lite for review

Battery life

  • 3,000mAh battery will easily clear a day
  • Fast charging can get you 40% in 30 mins

The Huawei P20 Lite packs a 3,000mAh battery, which is about normal for a phone of this spec. It’s the same as the similarly equipped Honor 9 Lite, with predictably similar results.

This means that light users will be able to get surprisingly far into a second day of usage before feeling the pinch, while moderate users won’t need to sweat about running out of juice between bed times.

In our standard stress test, which entails playing a 90-minute looped video with the screen brightness cranked up to full, the Huawei P20 Lite consistently lost 17% of its power.

That beats the Moto G6 on 21%, though it falls short of the Moto Z2 Play (arguably a more direct rival) which lost just 10%. It’s pretty decent but nothing to rave about, in other words.

The phone’s battery stands up to 3D gaming about as well as expected, too. We found that 15 minutes of sustained Guns of Boom play drained 6% of its energy, which is about normal.

Charging up is appreciably swift, however. We found that the phone zipped from 38% power to 79% in just 30 minutes.

Huawei also provides an extensive suite of optimisation tools that help you fine-tune your setup, homing in on power-hungry apps and habits. Even if you are struggling to make it through a day, there are things you can do about it – including two power saving modes and the ability to drop the screen resolution.

Camera

  • 16MP + 2MP camera enables bokeh-adjusting wide aperture mode
  • AR lens lets you apply silly facial effects

You don’t get the same headline AI camera mode as the Huawei P20 and Huawei P20 Pro with the Huawei P20 Lite, so you’re just going to have to decide the optimal settings for shooting your cat for yourself.

In truth, the latter was a fairly gimmicky feature of the flagship models (low light shooting aside), so it’s no great loss. Far more keenly felt is the inevitable downgrade to the core camera tech. It isn’t anywhere near as capable a snapper as its big brothers.

Huawei has equipped the P20 Lite with a dual-camera setup, like the P20. As before, the 2MP secondary lens is purely there to assist the 16MP primary lens with extra depth information, largely for the included wide aperture mode.

Just like with the Honor 9 Lite and the Honor 7X, wide aperture mode lets you adjust the level of the bokeh effect on your photos after they’ve been taken, between f/0.95 and f/16.

It’s possible to get some nice blurred background effects with this, but in practical terms you probably wouldn’t want to opt for the lower end of the spectrum with many of your shots. It’s just too aggressive and artificial-looking.

In general use you won’t really notice the second lens going about its business. To all intents and purposes, this is a fairly ordinary camera that can generally be relied upon to get you usable images in decent lighting.

There are one or two quirks however, such as a strange tendency to overexpose and boost colours to a somewhat artificial extent in close-up shots.

It’s a shame, too, that you have to manually activate HDR mode in the settings menu. Still, we found HDR mode itself to be admirably restrained, gently balancing out extremes of shade and light only when absolutely necessary.

Booting up the camera isn’t the instantaneous affair you tend to get with flagship phones, but nor does it take overly long. Actually taking shots is a pleasantly snappy experience, with none of the shutter lag you can get with entry-level handsets.

Low light conditions, as ever, are where this middle-of-the-road camera comes a little unstuck. You’ll get plenty of noise and poor focus in many indoors shots, as well as Huawei’s irritating instruction to hold your phone still while it sharpens the image.

Away from the usual photographic settings – including a Pro mode for fine-tuning each individual setting – there’s a dedicated AR lens mode. This automatically sticks silly overlays onto the faces of you or your friends. Think bunny ears, kitten ears, love heart cheeks – all the usual cute stuff. If nothing else, it’s a further example of how solid Huawei’s face-tracking software is.

You also get a Watermark mode, which stamps each image with its location and time in a stylish font, and a Document scan mode that will quickly locate and align text for quick record keeping.

Around front you get the kind of 16MP camera that never seems quite as sharp as the megapixel count would suggest. As always, we’d recommend deactivating or at least reducing the weird Beauty setting, which smooths out your skin to an inhuman degree.

Camera samples

Interface and reliability

  • EMUI 8.0 built on Android 8.0
  • Not pretty but fast and functional
  • Usual Huawei bloatware

The Huawei P20 Lite runs on Android 8.0, which isn’t the very latest version of Google’s OS, but it's the latest major release. Of course, the precise version of Android matters a lot less with Huawei phones, thanks to EMUI.

That’s the name Huawei gives to its own custom UI skin, which sits on top of Android like a pimped up boy racer chassis sits on top of a perfectly decent car.

To be fair, EMUI 8.0 isn’t the worst Android skin in the business. It’s reasonably fluid and stutter free, it’s easy to decipher, and its menus and pull-down notification screen don’t deviate too far from the principles laid out by Google in the first place.

The classic Android app drawer is disabled by default with EMUI, which is one of many features Huawei has borrowed from iOS. Though unlike iOS an app drawer can be enabled here.

A more handy iOS-like feature is a universal search function, accessed by dragging down from the middle of a home screen. You can search for apps, contacts, messages, calendar entries and the like in this way.

The downside of EMUI on the Huawei P20 Lite is that it remains a fairly ugly, gauche interface compared to stock Android and iOS. From the custom app icons and menus to the cheap-looking themes with which you can customise the look of your home screen, it’s all just a notch or two below classy.

Then there’s the bloatware, with home-brewed apps for Video, Music, Health, Calendar, and a dozen or so Tools – many of which act as inferior duplicates to Google’s own app provision.

Fortunately there’s always the Google Play Store, which can be turned to for superior app equivalents and indeed completely fresh launchers. Meanwhile EMUI itself is, if nothing else, reasonably customisable – so you can reinstate that app drawer if you so wish, for example.

You can also fine-tune how you like your virtual command keys to look and operate, which should make it easier to adapt if you’re coming from another Android phone brand.

Movies, music and gaming

  • Most media doesn’t make use of wider screen
  • Headphone jack and one underwhelming speaker
  • 64GB of storage and microSD up to 256GB

With this first generation of notched smartphones, one of the first questions we ask is how well media content plays with it. Even the iPhone X continues to have issues in this department, after all.

We’ve already mentioned that Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition throws up some off-screen artefacts when you force it full screen. But with most other games the effect isn’t too problematic.

In most cases Huawei simply kicks in the crude-but-effective black bar effect, essentially pretending that the space either side of the notch doesn’t exist. PUBG, Bullet Hell Monday, Fancy Pants Adventure, Data Wing, Oceanhorn, NOVA Legacy, Guns of Boom, and Super Mario Run all worked in this way during our testing. No game made full use of the screen, however.

On the video front, Netflix adopts the same approach as those aforementioned games, while Youtube plays videos in their native 16:9 form factor with even thicker black borders.

Going back to Netflix support, as with all Huawei phones Netflix HD playback is not supported, which means that you don’t get full value from that crisp FHD+ screen.

This is a surprisingly common phenomenon with Android phones, and might provide sufficient incentive for mobile movie buffs to opt for a handset with a more mainstream (i.e. Qualcomm) chipset.

When it comes to audio, the Huawei P20 Lite is a mixed bag. On the negative side, you get a single speaker which is almost entirely lacking in bass. It’s clear enough, but there’s a distinctly unbalanced tinniness to the audio.

On a more positive note, there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack here, which is more than can be said for either the Huawei P20 or the Huawei P20 Pro.

More generally, you get a healthy 64GB of internal storage here, which is good for plenty of media. If that’s not enough, there’s microSD card support for up to 256GB.

Specs and benchmark performance

  • Kirin 659 CPU underpowered at this price
  • 4GB of RAM makes for smooth navigation

Our Huawei P20 Lite ran perfectly adequately during the test period, but we would have hoped for more from a £329 phone.

The Kirin 659 chipset that Huawei has gone with here is a distinctly mediocre chip. Indeed, it’s the same chipset that powers the Honor 9 Lite and the Honor 7X, both of which are significantly cheaper.

It’s perfectly capable of running Android 8.0 smoothly – especially combined with 4GB of RAM – and you won’t notice any significant stutters when using the fingerprint scanner or booting up the camera.

Gaming performance is distinctly underwhelming, however. Into the Dead 2 ran downright sluggishly, while rounds of Guns of Boom started out in stuttering fashion before evening out. PUBG Mobile, meanwhile, defaults to low graphical settings on the P20 Lite, which is a bit of an eyesore.

That’s simply not good enough for a phone of this price. At the risk of using Huawei’s budget sub-brand as a stick to beat it with, you can pick up the Honor 9 for less money these days, and that phone is significantly faster.

This is backed up by cold hard benchmarking facts. In our Geekbench 4 tests, the Huawei P20 Lite scored an average of 3,655 in the multi-core segment. The Honor 9 scored 6,633, while even budget champs the Moto G6 and Moto G5S Plus scored 3,807 and 4,312 respectively.

Verdict

The Huawei P20 Lite may be the cheapest phone in the 2018 P-series roster, but it arguably provides poorer value for money than the premium Huawei P20 and Huawei P20 Pro.

Its all-screen design certainly looks the part, and the phone has an attractively small footprint given the size of its display. But in practical terms, the wider Android ecosystem still doesn’t seem quite prepared for iPhone X-like notches.

Elsewhere, a disappointingly sub-par chipset means that you can get better performance for much less money, while the P20 Lite’s dual-camera setup is solid but not the selling point of the rest of the range.

Who’s this for?

If you like the new Apple-inspired design direction Huawei has taken with the P20 family but not the premium price, the Huawei P20 Lite could be for you. There aren’t many alternatives at around £300 (roughly $455 / AU$580) if you think the notch is this year’s must-have feature.

Should you buy it?

The Huawei P20 Lite goes much further towards a true all-screen approach than almost any other mid-range smartphone. However, the practical value of that notch remains in question given the related software limitations and lack of app support.

Performance also seems to have been compromised in Huawei’s effort to hit a particular combination of notch and price. It’s a solid and attractive phone, but you can get better for less if you’re willing to accept a more traditional screen shape.

Not convinced by the P20 Lite? Consider one of these instead:

Moto Z2 Play

The Moto Z2 Play also offers a cut-down take on a flagship phone for a similar amount of money.

While it lacks the Huawei P20 Lite’s distinctive all-screen design, the Moto Z2 Play has it’s own gimmick in the form of modular functionality.

It also benefits from a near-stock Android experience, which is a big advancement over Huawei’s clunky EMUI. The main drawback is that it’s likely to be replaced in the coming months.

Read our full Moto Z2 Play review

Honor 9

Honor might be Huawei’s cheaper sub-brand, but its flagship phone from 2017 offers a much more appealing buy than the Huawei P20 Lite.

Now available for slightly less than Huawei is asking for the P20 Lite, the Honor 9 offers vastly superior performance, a better camera and the same EMUI software experience.

That said, the Honor 9 forgoes the Huawei P20 Lite’s all-screen design, with a rather chunky forehead and chin.

Read our full Honor 9 review

Essential Phone

If you’re willing to spend around another £100/$100, you can get a far more capable (though still flawed) notch-sporting Android phone with a more extensive roster of features.

The Essential Phone features a sharper 1312 x 2560 display, a way faster (and better-supported) Snapdragon 835 chipset, 128GB of storage, and cleaner software than its notched rival.

Now that it’s dropped significantly in price, the Essential Phone is genuinely worthy of consideration if you’re obsessed with the notch.

Read our full Essential Phone review

First reviewed: May 2018

Many thanks to Vodafone for providing us with a Huawei P20 Lite for review

Jon Mundy
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