The dedicated telephoto module in the Huawei P20 Pro’s triple-lens Leica camera is one of the phone’s undoubted highlights.
The 80mm lens delivers an unrivalled 3x lossless zoom that complements an already very accomplished camera. As our camera review from earlier this month attests, the result is incredibly arresting close-ups.
But just how good is it compared to other top-of-the-range phones? We pitted the P20 Pro against the Apple iPhone X and the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus to find out.
Walkie P20 1x
Walkie P20 3x
Walkie S9 1x
Walkie S9 2x
In a shot with plenty of clouds in the sky, the high contrast of the P20 makes it look somewhat more dramatic.
At 3x magnification, some softening of the details due to shake is inevitable. But the P20 seems to cope well.
What’s more, the image-sharpening process seems to adjust the result to a good level, making the 3x zoom of the Huawei appear sharper than the 2x zoom on the Galaxy S9.
As you’ll no doubt notice, the cranes to the right are visibly softer in the iPhone X image compared to the other two phones.
In the image above, the auto-sharpening of P20 works really well, even when the zoom is stretched above the built-in optical level.
Shak P20 1x
Shak P20 3x
Shak S9 1x
Shak S9 2x
Shak iPhone 1x
Shak iPhone 2x
Signs are a great way to easily test a zoom.
Shak P20 5x
Shak S9 5x
Shak iPhone 5x
In this case, the P20 is the only phone that manages to render the text legible thanks to its higher magnification.
At 5x we’re well above optical zoom territory. And as you can discern when software does the heavy lifting of removing shake and sharpening an image, it can easily result in blurry images.
Zoom aside, what's the P20's camera like for everything else? Find out in our dedicated camera review.
Bridge P20 1x
Bridge P20 3x
Bridge P20 5x
Bridge S9 1x
Bridge S9 2x
Bridge S9 5x
Bridge iPhone 1x
Bridge iPhone 2x
Bridge iPhone 5x
An overcast day makes this picture of the Millennium Bridge feel rather gloomy. Even so, the iPhone X manages to deliver great detail if a little washed out. The S9 takes the crown for colour reproduction, while the P20 delivers the best detail.
At the high 5x zoom the P20 is a cut above the rest. The iPhone X image looks too artificial for our tastes and the S9 serves up a high-contrast image with rather soft edges.
Conversely, the P20 offers rich detail that I don’t believe can be found at this grade of software magnification in any other phone.
Turbine P20 1x
Turbine P20 3x
Turbine P20 5x
Turbine S9 1x
Turbine s9 2x
Turbine S9 5x
Turbine iPhone 1x
Turbine iPhone 2x
Turbine iPhone 1x (1)
All three phones perform quite well in this indoor shot. As predicted, the S9 acquits itself with aplomb and the iPhone struggles slightly with the light around the top window.
In this instance, the P20 impressed us with unusually true-to-life colour reproduction and excellent dynamic range. Take a close look at the black steel framing around the window for proof.
It’s only with optical zoom samples that you notice there’s a plaque on the crane. It appears rather grainy in the iPhone X image and is blurry in the photo taken with the S9, which seems to struggle the most with countering camera shake.
The P20 delivers the sharpest image with its 3x zoom with very little motion blur. And that’s by some distance.
At 5x, things get messy with both the iPhone and the S9 Plus. And here once again the P20 is the best of the three.
That’s despite some diffused light, due to the light-box light window on the right.
Turquoise P20 1x
Turquoise P20 3x
Turquoise P20 5x
Turquoise S9 1x
Turquoise S9 2x
Turquoise S9 5x
Turquoise iPhone 1x
Turquoise iPhone 3x
Turquoise iPhone 5x
A turquoise portacabin across the river makes for a great way to test how these three phones fare with a colourful subject in glaring sunlight.
There’s nothing to complain at no-zoom. But take particular notice of how the P20 makes the clouds appear more defined and increases the level of blue in the sky.
The iPhone X does that to an extent and delivers higher contrast, while the S9 sticks to real colours as much as possible.
It’s a tie at 2x and 3x zoom. The colourful building does pop out a bit more on the P20 due its tendency to oversaturate, but overall all three phones are pretty competent in these conditions.
There’s no contest at 5x, though. Once again the P20 proves that if you ever find yourself needing to use the manual zoom, it’s the only phone with which you can hope to achieve decent results.
Mexican P20 1x
Mexican P20 3x
Mexican P20 5x
Mexican S9 1x
Mexican S9 2x
Mexican S9 5x
Mexican iPhone 1x
Mexican iPhone 2x
Mexican iPhone 5x
Colourful graffiti on a sunny day is an easy, but usually attention-grabbing, subject. And proved to be a test in which all three phones managed to deliver high detail on all zoom levels.
Flowers P20 1x
Flowers P20 3x
Flowers S9 1x
Flowers S9 2x
Flowers iPhone 1x
Flowers iPhone 2x
Evening P20 1x
Evening P20 3x
Evening S9 1x
Evening S9 2x
Evening iPhone 1x
Evening iPhone 2x
Darkness is where things get tough for these three zoom lenses. The S9 fails miserably due to camera shake, the iPhone compensates by increasing brightness but losing details and the P20 excels again with oodles of pin-sharp detail.
Pay close attention to the petals on the ground and the bricks on the right to get an idea of just how good it is.
Whatever the P20 software does to stabilise images, it works every time and its rivals really need some catch up to do with compensating for shake in low light conditions.
treelamp P20 1x
treelamp P20 3x
treelamp S9 1x
treelamp S9 2x
treelamp iPhone 1x
treelamp iPhone 2x
I took a picture of the flowering tree hugging the lamp post with no expectations. It’s clearly an impossibly difficult shot that I was anticipating all three phones to fail miserably.
I wasn’t surprised by both the results of both the S9 and iPhone with both phones delivering the same mediocre results.
I was in for a surprise with the P20 that not only manages to lit the scene with virtually no shake but deliver an astounding level of detail in the 3x zoomed-in shot.
Optical Zoom is an area where the big brands have made only tentative progress in recent times.
But the P20 Huawei raises the bar as to what’s possible. In so doing, it delivers something that Apple and Samsung should be very worried about indeed.
What's the P20 got to offer besides its camera? Find out in our full review.
In the market for a P20? You'll find a wide range of deals on our comparison page.