I pitted the spanking new Huawei Mate 20 Pro against my ancient Samsung Note 5 – and the results were surprising

Despite being three years old – ancient by phone standards – my battered old Samsung Note 5 still beat out the tech-advanced Huawei Mate 20 Pro in some areas.
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After news broke that Huawei edged out Apple to become the world’s #2 smartphone maker, I’ve been curious about what it would be like to use one of their phones.

But while I’m a millennial, I’m not hard up about having the latest tech. In fact, I like to hang on to my existing phone until it’s in such bad shape that I’m forced to buy a new one.

I got my Samsung Note 5 in 2015, which is ancient by phone standards. Apps lag like crazy, the glass on the back is shattered, and the camera is a bit fogged over from when I dropped it in the sink last year.

So when Huawei asked me to review their recently launched Mate 20 Pro, I decided to pit it against my aging model to see if it’s worth the buy.

The phones are in a similar price range. I bought the Note 5 for S$1,000, and the Mate 20 Pro is retailing for S$1,348.

Since Huawei’s phone promised the latest and greatest features, I expected to be blown away. But it still lost to the battered Note 5 in some areas.

Here’s how my time with the Mate 20 Pro went:


Size and feel: 7/10

Because it’s meant for note taking, the Note 5 is considered a phablet, and is a pretty big size – about 6 inches long.

At nearly 7 inches, the Mate 20 Pro is even bigger, but it felt comfortable to hold thanks to its curved edges. However, the shiny surface was quickly covered in fingerprint marks.

Another thing that bugged me when using the Note 5: it was hard to type with one hand due to the width (3 inches). This problem persisted on the Mate Pro 20 as well. The phone was almost as wide as the Note 5 (2.85 inches), and it was tough to reach keys on the far end of the keyboard, like the punctuation toggle. It was absolutely impossible to reach the top of the screen.

It was far harder to use some apps – like the calculator – on the Mate 20 Pro (left) than the Note 5 (right) thanks to the longer size.
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The Mate 20 Pro did have a one-handed keyboard setting, but I couldn’t activate it.

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What I could activate was the mini screen view, which allowed me to reach across the screen with one hand. I couldn’t imagine using it often, though, as text became tiny in that mode.

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Also, the phone stuck out of my pocket like a weird shiny slab.

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Screen Display: 8/10

The first thing that hit me was the crazy high-resolution graphics. The screen was extremely clear and and sharp. It felt like everything was in HD.

I watched an Ariana Grande music video on both phones:

The Mate 20 Pro (top) and the Note 5 (bottom). Video on the Mate 20 Pro was significantly less pixelated, but the video didn’t fill up the screen. Rachel Genevieve Chia/Business Insider

The Mate 20 Pro’s screen felt a lot bigger compared to the Note 5, but the black border around it ruined the edgeless effect.

The thick black border around the screen of the Mate 20 Pro (left).
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Sadly, the Mate 20 Pro’s automatic lighting sensors didn’t work as well as the Note 5. When I brought both phones out under sunlight, the Note 5 brightened up immediately. The Mate 20 Pro also brightened a little, but not enough to see what was on the screen.

Combined with its super reflective surface, it made it extremely hard to see if the phone was unlocked or not. I couldn’t tell where the brightness slider was when I tried to turn it up, and this could potentially be very frustrating.

 

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Starting Up: 9/10

Since both phones operated on Android, it was easy to get started on the Mate 20 Pro. I just keyed in my Google account and everything got imported over.

There was also no physical home button. Instead, there were three buttons on the bottom of the screen. This didn’t take long to get used to.

Home buttons on the screen of the Mate 20 Pro (left) vs the Note 5 (right).
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Security: 9/10

One area the Mate 20 Pro did really well was security. The Samsung Note 5 only had a PIN unlock option, but the Mate 20 Pro had PIN, face, and fingerprint unlock options.

Registering a fingerprint took just minutes. I rolled my finger over the screen per the instructions and tried it out. It unlocked within seconds.

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The face recognition was just as good. I registered my face by turning it in various directions as instructed. It took about a minute. Afterwards, I picked up the phone and it automatically woke up and unlocked itself almost instantly.

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There was an option for face recognition to work even if your eyes are shut. I tested it. It worked just as fast.

One thing Huawei warns you with face unlock is that objects or people that look like you might be able to unlock your phone. I tried unlocking the phone with a selfie taken on another phone. I also tried with a zoomed-in version of my face in a group photo.

In both cases, the phone didn’t unlock.


Speed: 9/10

I don’t use heaps of apps, but after three years of use, the Samsung Note 5 lags often, and sometimes refuses to open apps entirely. It also restarts on its own.

The Mate 20 Pro is supposed to have the world’s most advanced processors and a 7nm chipset, so I wasn’t surprised that apps didn’t lag. However, after using the phone for a while, it started heating up quite significantly. It could be uncomfortable to hold a warm phone while you’re playing games or texing for a long time.


Sound: 5/10

Unfortunately, for music videos, the sound from the Mate 20 Pro’s speaker wasn’t as smooth as the one from the Note 5. But in videos with speech, the Mate 20 Pro’s speaker did better, and the sounds came out less crackly.

Overall, the sound was passable for both phones, but neither was outstanding.


Personalisation: 3/10

I like to keep my home screen uncluttered, with just the apps I use most. On the Note 5, I hid all the other apps away in the “Apps” widget in the toolbar.

On the Mate 20 Pro, however, there wasn’t an Apps widget. Instead, all the apps live on the main screen. The only way to get them off it is to create a second screen, or hide them in folders.

The phone comes with 16 apps that you can’t delete, and a folder of Google tools, so prepare to have them living on your screen all the time.

Unlike the Note 5, the apps on the toolbar couldn’t be changed either – so you’ll have to live with them as well.

My home screen on the Mate 20 Pro (left) and Note 5 (right).
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On the Note 5, I could choose from a huge range of themes and icon styles. I loved changing themes and had over 60 different ones to pick from. I also liked swapping out default icons for smaller, cleaner looking icons.

On the Mate 20 Pro, there were only 12 themes, and all of them looked pretty generic. The only way to customise them was to replace them with photos from the gallery. There was no choice of icons, and the preset ones were pretty big and clunky looking.

Theme choices on the Mate 20 Pro (left) and Note 5 (right).
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Special Apps: 7/10

The Mate 20 Pro had a couple of special apps that were pretty useful and not available on the Samsung Note 5.

The most interesting one was wireless charging. I turned it on, placed it over the Note 5, and the Note 5 started charging up immediately.

The screen on the Note 5 (right) showed it was charging up after I placed the two phones together.
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There was also an app for digital wellness, called Digital Balance, that tracked how much I used the phone. I could also use it to limit my screen time so addictive apps like YouTube or Instagram wouldn’t open during specific times. I could also set the screen to turn grey at bedtime (11pm) as a visual reminder to stop using my phone.

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Another app cleaned up the phone by deleting old files, blurry photos, music I didn’t listen to, unused apps and installation packages. This could be really handy for people who keep running out of space on their phones.

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Screenshots were also crazy easy on the Mate 20 Pro. I just rapped my knuckles on the screen twice. This beat the acrobatics of having to simultaneously press the home and power button on the Note 5, which sometimes activated the home screen, the lock screen, or Google Assistant by accident.

I could also make a scrolling screenshot to capture long web pages like articles on Facebook. Another screenshot function allowed me to indicate the exact area on the screen where I wanted to take the screenshot. On the Note 5, I had to open up the screenshot, crop it in the photo editor, then save it as a new file, which was way more troublesome.

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I also loved that the gallery kept deleted photos for 30 days in case I deleted a photo by accident. The in-built torch app was also nice for emergencies, instead of having to download a separate app for that, as I did on the Note 5.


AI camera functions: 2/10

One of the new features about Huawei’s Mate 20 were its AI camera functions, which could automatically translate text and identify objects. The results from this function were largely unreliable, but to be fair, this is quite a new area for smartphone tech.

The translation AI could handle simple text with a couple of clearly defined words, but once the words became denser, it couldn’t translate properly. The translating function also needed an Internet connection to work, which means it would be useless if you’re overseas with no data.

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I tried translating the ingredients list on a pack of nuts from Malay to English.
Rachel Genevieve Chia/Business Insider

The object identification was also a bit buggy. I tried it on my nut stash and got mixed results.

Rachel Genevieve Chia/Business Insider

Rachel Genevieve Chia/Business Insider

When it finally identified something right, the phone showed me the nutrition information of my walnut. The AI was supposed to be able to predict the weight of the walnut, but it didn’t do that. It just showed general information.

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Charging and Battery Life: 9/10

Unfortunately, to be moderately visible, I had to set the Mate 20 Pro’s screen brightness at medium. Anything less, combined with a reflective screen, made it hard to see the screen. This meant the battery drained pretty quickly.

The brightness setting on the Mate 20 Pro on low (left) and medium (right).
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The saving grace was the Mate 20 Pro’s fast charger, which charged the phone to full battery within 45 minutes. That was way faster than the Note 5, whose fast charger needed over two hours to hit full battery.


Camera: 8.5/10

The Mate 20 Pro lived up to its reputation as a brand with award-winning, raved-about Leica camera lenses. The camera sensed what I tried to photograph, and tweaked its settings to make the subjects look better.

This was extremely useful for categories like food and greenery, but portrait mode fell short. The over-aggressive blurring of the background made the photo look doctored. This was quite a pity, as I imagine most people use their phones to take photos of themselves, friends and family.

A photo of some curry rice on the Mate 20 Pro food setting (left) and the Note 5 (right).
Rachel Genevieve Chia/Business Insider

A landscape photo on the Mate 20 Pro (top) and the Note 5 (bottom).
Rachel Genevieve Chia/Business Insider

A photo of clouds on the Mate 20 Pro (top) and the Note 5 (bottom).
Rachel Genevieve Chia/Business Insider

A zoomed-in shot of a bee on a flower on the Mate 20 Pro (left) and the Note 5 (right).
Rachel Genevieve Chia/Business Insider

A photo taken in low light on the Mate 20 Pro (left) and the Note 5 (right).
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A macro shot of the leaves in a terrarium on the Mate 20 Pro super macro mode (left) and the Note 5 (right).
Rachel Genevieve Chia/Business Insider

A photo on the Mate 20 Pro portrait mode (left) and the Note 5 (right).
Rachel Genevieve Chia/Business Insider

There was also the setting where the camera inserted artificial backgrounds using AI technology. I was excited for these, but sadly they had an obvious cut-and-paste effect.

The original photo (left) and the artificial backgrounds.
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The software struggled to accurately crop detailed objects like hair when inserting the artificial background.
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I liked the camera feature that automatically snapped a photo when the subjects smiled. But this wasn’t as useful as the Note 5’s automatic timer, which activated once you showed the camera a high five – and came in handy for tons of group photos.


Overall thoughts:

The Mate 20 Pro had some great new features, especially the fast charging and speedy security. It also had exceptional low light and macro camera capabilities. The biggest draw was probably the razor sharp graphics and curved edges, which made looking at the screen and using the phone feel like a treat.

But for someone who doesn’t play any games or use a ton of apps, the main draw of this phone – the processor – was lost on me. There were many new and useful features, but nothing I would die without. I valued the ability to draw and take notes with the stylus on my Note 5 way more.

Overall, for these features, the price tag was a little steep – though gamers, people who need great phone security, or those who work a lot from their phone might get the best use out of this model.