Huawei Mate 20 Lite review: A decent large-screen mid-range handset with too much bloatware

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It’s interesting to receive a ‘lite’-branded handset for review when the full-fat version has not yet launched. There is a Huawei launch not far off, where it seems likely that the Mate 20 Pro could emerge. In the meantime, the £379 Huawei Mate 20 Lite looks like an attractively-priced big-screen (6.3-inch) smartphone. The headline feature is its two front-facing cameras, which cater for an apparently mandatory feature these days: bokeh (sharp subject, blurred background), in selfies as well as shots taken with the rear camera.

Huawei has put some thought into the design of this mid-range handset: nicely rounded edges and a full-screen frontage — including the obligatory front-camera ‘notch’ — make the Mate 20 Lite look like a considerably more costly phone.

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Huawei’s Mate 20 Lite has a 6.3-inch IPS LCD screen with 2340×1080 resolution (409ppi). The dual SIM handset weighs 172g, is powered by a mid-range Kirin 710 chipset with 4GB of RAM and runs on a 3,750mAh battery. It has 64GB of internal storage, expandable via MicroSD card.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The dual front cameras will catch the eye if you look closely, but otherwise they blend into the notch and background of the chassis for the casual observer. The back of the phone is another matter entirely. The rear camera lenses protrude significantly from the casing, such that they felt a little uncomfortable under my fingers while using the phone in landscape mode. Beneath them, the indented fingerprint sensor has a rough finish that contrasts nicely with the smooth glass around it.

Shiny, reflective glass is not my favourite finish, although I do understand that others like it. Whatever your view, the back attracts fingerprints more readily than pretty much any handset I’ve used. At least it’s not particularly slippery to hold, which really matters with a phone of this size.

The 6.3-inch Mate 20 Lite falls into a category of device that was, for a while, called a ‘phablet’ — somewhere between a large phone and a small tablet. When mainstream phone screen sizes began to stretch beyond 5.5 inches, the term became somewhat redundant.

The chassis that’s barely larger than the 6.3-inch screen — the Mate 20 Lite’s screen to body ratio is 81.6 percent. That’s a good thing, because at 75.3mm wide by 158.3mm deep by 7.6mm thick, this phone is going to need a pretty large pocket to live in. You’ll notice its 172g weight, too.

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The IPS LCD display, which has a resolution of 2,340 by 1,080 pixels (19.5:9 aspect ratio, 409ppi), is a delight to use. It’s great for reading web pages, and watching videos and catch-up TV. The ability to fiddle with colour temperature helps here.

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Colour and eye comfort settings come with the EMUI 8.2 overlay on Android 8.1.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

I’ll also read ebooks via their associated apps on a device of this size, so I don’t need to carry my e-reader. Here Huawei helps by offering its eye comfort mode, which reduces blue light. Sadly, it can’t match the Reading Mode that OnePlus has offered for a while now, and which is one of my favourite things about the OnePlus 6. Gamers will doubtless also value the larger screen and the ability to fiddle with colour settings too.

Interestingly there’s a feature called ‘smart resolution’ that automatically switches between 2,340 by 1,080 and 1,560 by 720 pixels, using the latter to save on battery life. I spent some time with smart resolution switched on and some with it off, and can’t say that having it activated seriously impacted my user experience. A longer acquaintance with the handset would have allowed me to discover whether the battery life boost was significant.

And a final note on the screen: if you don’t like the notch, you can lose it by darkening the surrounding areas.

Huawei has played it safe with connectors and buttons. There’s a USB-C port for charging and a 3.5mm headset jack, which will please many potential buyers. There are volume and power buttons on the right edge, while the SIM/MicroSD card caddy sits on the left. The grille for the single speaker is on the bottom edge. The location of the fingerprint scanner on the back is just right: it’s easy to find, and works pretty much instantaneously to unlock the handset. Face unlock is available too, and can be invoked to kick in when the handset is picked up, minimising the hassle involved in using it.

Android 8.1 (Oreo) is overlain with Huawei’s EMUI 8.2. The latter is a matter of taste, and does mean there are a lot of extras bulking out the Android offerings. Some of those are settings, like the aforementioned screen management; others come in the form of camera AI features (more on that below). Then there are the apps, which are plentiful.

I rather like having an FM radio on-board, and I do tend to toy with the Themes app whenever I review a Huawei handset. The Party mode might also be fun if there are other Huawei handset users around, as it allows music playback to sync across several devices.

But I’m not so happy about the digital Wallet app, or the range of games that Huawei seems to think I’ll be interested in. I can add my own games. Then there are the pre-loaded ‘Top Apps’ — Booking.com, Amazon Assistant, Neftlix and eBay. Again, if I want these, I can add them. Huawei Health is here too, for those who don’t have another of the many available apps to set up and use. Many user will probably have to spend some time uninstalling surplus Huawei apps.

Not surprisingly all this pre-loading consumes a fair amount of storage. There is 64GB of internal storage, of which 50.58GB was free out of the box. More capacity can be added via MicroSD, but doing so will sacrifice the second SIM slot.

The Huawei Mate 20 Lite runs on a Kirin 710 chipset with 4GB of RAM. Unfortunately the handset simply refused to load Geekbench, so I wasn’t able to benchmark the processor (I gather from other sources that Huawei has blocked this tool). Although nothing I threw at the phone gave it much of a hiccough, the Kirin 710’s mid-range spec suggests that gamers, in particular, might have performance issues. Gamers and consumers of video might also want to look for a more capable speaker.

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The housings for the 20MP and 2MP rear cameras protrude noticeably from the Mate 20 Lite’s shiny glass back, which also houses the fingerprint reader.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

There are four cameras in all — two at the front and two the back. The main rear camera has a 20MP sensor and an f/1.8 lens, with a 2MP secondary camera for depth sensing. There’s a similar arrangement at the front — a 24MP, f/2.0 main camera plus a 2MP secondary. During my limited use period, photos were on the better side of good, with impressive low light performance.

The much vaunted AI makes camera settings dependent on what it thinks the scene is, and can be used or not as required — as can the bokeh effect that’s enabled by the secondary camera.

There are 22 AI-recognised categories for the back camera: flower, panda (!), group photo, auto (as in automobile), food, sunrise/sunset, ancient building, waterfall, text, portrait, night, beach, blue sky, plant, fireworks, autumn leaves, overcast, snow, bike, cat, dog, stage performance. Seven of these are also used by the front camera: blue sky, night, flower, plant, beach, snow and stage performance, plus an eighth — room. And for the really ‘fun loving’ among us, there are AI-powered Qmojis that can replace faces and mimic facial expressions, while effects can be layered onto selfie faces and backgrounds added for stills and video.

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If you want, you can replace your face in a selfie with a 3D animated Qmoji.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The Mate 20 Lite’s 3,750mAh battery performs very well. I easily got a day’s use out of the phone with a mix of workloads including GPS use, some FM radio listening, video streaming, web browsing and email checking. I was generally left with more than 30 percent charge at the end of the day.

Conclusions

The Huawei Mate 20 Lite is a large handset, and that’s both a blessing and a curse. The 6.3-inch screen lends itself well to media-rich tasks, but the phone can be tricky to pocket. It has good battery life and a solid chassis, although the glass back does attract fingerprints.

The processor may prove underpowered for gaming fans, but this is otherwise a good competitor for the likes of the Asus Zenfone 5 and (Huawei sister brand) Honor 10. If you can stretch your budget a little further, the excellent OnePlus 6 deserves a place on your shortlist.

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