Xiaomi Mi 9 full review
Go back a couple of years and few people in the UK had even heard of Xiaomi, but looking into our imaginary crystal ball we're convinced that in a couple more years it is going to have completely transformed the smartphone market not only here in the UK but also in Europe, the US, China, India and elsewhere.
Xiaomi is a huge - but still pretty young - Chinese mega-brand and its smartphones, which are now officially available in the UK and Europe, undercut the global leaders in a way with which they simply cannot hope to compete. The only company that comes even remotely close is OnePlus, with its 6T, but that phone's still not a patch on Mi 9.
Mi 9 is Xiaomi's brand-new flagship phone for 2019. It undercuts the Samsung Galaxy S10 by more than £300 - the iPhone XS by more than £500! And what do you really lose - waterproofing? A few extra pixels that you can't actually perceive? No-one of sane mind has any business overlooking Mi 9 in the search for their next smartphone. It's not only one of the best Chinese phones, but the best phones period.
Also see: Best Xiaomi Phones
Announced in February 2019 (first in China, then again in Europe at MWC) we were told Mi 9 would launch in Europe by the end of the month. For some reason the UK launch date has come a little later, but we now know it will go on sale here imminently and have been promised UK release date and pricing info later this week.
When it does become available in the UK you'll be able to buy Mi 9 direct from Xiaomi, or from third-party stockists such as Amazon and eBuyer. If you don't want to pay the full amount up front you'll also find contract deals from Three and Carphone Warehouse, Go Mobile and Mobile Phones Direct.
Based on the UK pricing of Mi 8 (from £459) and Mi 8 Pro (from £499), and the Mi 9 European pricing of €449 for the 64GB storage model, or €499 with 128GB storage, we're pretty sure the Mi 9 will come in around £450, and certainly no more than £500.
The Mi 9 is already offered via the Mi Store in Italy, France and Spain. In other countries where Xiaomi does not have an official presence, such as in the US (for now), you can alternatively import Mi 9 from China, but double-check it supports the necessary connectivity bands for your network first.
GearBest is one such site that allows you to import Mi 9 from China, and you'll notice that it often does so at less than the retail price in your local area. But remember that when shipping from China you should factor in import duty (20%), differing consumer rights, and the Chinese software (which won't be preinstalled with Google Play and Google services unless you opt for an International or Global model). See how to install Google Play on Xiaomi phones.
Also see: Best Xiaomi Deals
The most obvious difference when you pick up Mi 9 is the display, which is now larger and taller than on Mi 8 and covers a greater surface area, with a reduced chin and a significantly smaller notch. It builds in an in-display fingerprint sensor, previously seen only on the Mi 8 Pro, and adds some customisation options to the Always-on Display.
Naturally this means the previous sensor has been removed from the rear, but there's yet more change here with the LED flash moved to below the camera assembly and the addition of a third lens within. The arrangement is narrower but also taller, and juts out more than before. When you see the specs you'll understand why, since Xiaomi has crammed in an incredible 48Mp lens.
Around the edges the new Mi 9 looks to be much shinier, with a highly polished metal frame that is narrower at the edges with glass that curves in not only to the left and right but also top and bottom. The IR blaster has been reinstated along the phone's top edge, and on the left is a new button for calling up Google Assistant.
There are new colour options, too, and though our review sample is sadly the standard Piano Black there are also two 'holographic' (read: iridescent) designs in Ocean Blue and Lavender Violet. We caught a glimpse of these versions at MWC and they were stunning.
Some changes you can't see, and inside Xiaomi has swapped out the 2018 Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (a 10nm chip) for this year's 855 (7nm). This offers improvements of up to 45% in general processing power, and 20% in graphics.
It's also added in wireless charging, which was previously found only in the Mi Mix line. But for something with which it has come late to the party, it has stolen everyone else's thunder with top speeds of 20W. A charger that can actually output this much wireless power is not found in the box, however. Wired charging is faster, too, at 27W.
For a company once accused of being 'China's Apple' and yet another copycat brand, Xiaomi has come a long way in design. So much so, we have to ask: why would any company want its devices to look like iPhones when they could look like Xiaomi phones?
While Apple remains stuck in monolithic-notch hell, Xiaomi has followed some of its fellow Android device makers in getting away from the "Hey, we're cool, we're forward-facing, look at our notch" conversations to listening to what its pretty impressive fan base actually wants. And they want screen. Screen, screen and more screen. Masses of screen. *All* the screen.
On Mi 9 the previously in-your-face notch has been replaced with a subtle waterdrop, centred at the top of the display. It houses only the selfie camera, while the speaker has been moved to a blink-and-you'll-miss-it position at the extreme edge where the screen meets the frame.
Xiaomi has also enlarged the panel, now up from 6.21in to 6.39in. Yet the phone's size and weight has barely changed, with Mi 9 still just 7.6mm thick (though it feels thinner with its curvier frame) and actually weighing a few grams less.
It's achieved this impressive design feat in three ways: first by reducing the phone's chin by some 40% to just 3.6mm; second by increasing the aspect ratio from an already tall 18.7:9 to a slinky 19.5:9; and third - unfortunately - by shaving 100mAh off the battery. The result is a super-high screen-to-body ratio of 90.7%, and a design that is not only significantly better looking but also more comfortable in use.
All this glass remains a magnet for fingerprints, though in our testing with Mi 9 we found it less notable than on the Mi 8 Pro we use day in, day out. Xiaomi has also taken steps to rectify two of our biggest gripes with that phone, enhancing the in-display fingerprint sensor and making some improvements to the Always-on Display.
Xiaomi claims this new fingerprint sensor works 25% faster than on Mi 8 Pro, and it did seem a little better in use. There's still some way to go here in making the fingerprint sensor work effortlessly every single time, however, and we often found our impatience prompting us to punch in the pin code instead.
But that screen - it's something to behold. Xiaomi uses a Samsung AMOLED panel, allowing it to offer the mix of vibrant, punchy and saturated colours we love with deep blacks and crisp whites. The 2340x1080 resolution is on point, if below what Samsung et al are capable of offering when pushing their handsets beyond the default settings.
It boasts a typical 430cd/m2 brightness (we measured 414cd/m2), up to 60,000:1 contrast, and version 2.0 of Xiaomi's Sunlight- and Reading mode features. And it's protected with Gorilla Glass 6, which Corning claims is two times better than Gorilla Glass 5.
Looking around the edges there's still no headphone jack (a 3.5mm adaptor is in the box), but there are two new features as well as improved audio from the integrated loudspeaker, which now features deeper bass and uses dynamic gain to amplify sound by 100%.
A button on the left edge by default wakes the Google Assistant. (If you're buying the Chinese version of this phone you'll instead have access to Xiaomi's own AI client.) This can be changed to quick-launch the camera, flashlight or the previous app, or to turn on Reading mode or trigger a Google search.
The second addition is an IR blaster, which used to be a common feature of Xiaomi phones but was removed in Mi 8. Now reinstated, this sensor works in tandem with the preinstalled Mi Remote app to control various appliances in your home. We got it working with our Sony TV and DVD player, but sadly it does not currently recognise our Roku media streaming box.
On the rear Xiaomi has refined the edges, which are now curved on all sides. This makes Mi 9 more comfortable to hold in one hand, despite its larger screen, but the glossy mirror-like surface is incredibly slippery, with nothing but the extruding camera assembly to aid grip.
Though we'd prefer the camera to lie flush with the phone's body, we appreciate how difficult a task this would be to achieve with a 48Mp sensor onboard. The new assembly sticks out further than previously, but the unit is protected from damage with tough Sapphire glass.
A halo ring around the top lens adds a touch of class, and is something we've seen previously from Xiaomi with the red outer rings on Mi 8 Pro and 18K gold detailing on Mi Mix.
Aside from these few quibbles - the slippery surface, the prominent camera bump, the fingerprints, the sub-Quad-HD resolution and the in-display fingerprint sensor that fails to work 100% of the time - the only thing we can really call out as a criticism of Mi 9's premium design is a lack of waterproofing. But when you consider that adding such a feature would add to the price we're more than happy to not have it. Maybe one for Mi 10.
In the smartphone world there is really just a handful of processors sitting at the top of the pile. Apple's A12 Bionic leads the group in terms of synthetic benchmark performance, and is followed by the Kirin 980 used by Huawei and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 that is used by just about every other flagship phone on the market. All three are 7nm processors, and all three produce a level of performance with which no-one could reasonably find fault.
(Samsung also has its own processors, with the Exynos 9820 found in the UK version of the Galaxy S10. And then there's MediaTek, but its cheaper chips are in a different league.)
In Mi 9 Xiaomi has specified one of those top-tier chips, the Snapdragon 855, but it has done so with the X24- rather than X50 modem which means this phone isn't capable of supporting 5G. (And neither are most of the world's phone networks, so that's really a moot point.)
This Snapdragon chip is clocked at 2.84GHz and uses the Kryo 485 core. It's integrated with the Adreno 640 GPU and paired with 6GB of RAM and 64- or 128GB of non-expandable storage.
Mi 9 is capable of some mind-blowing performance, if falling below those phones with a greater allocation of memory (such as the China-only Mi 9 Explorer, which has 12GB).
We ran it through our usual benchmarks and have charted its performance in comparison with some of today's top smartphones below.
Unsurprisingly it is significantly faster than Mi 8 and the 4G Mi Mix 3 with its newer processor, but the fact it was able to smash Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus out of the park is something to be proud of for a phone that is little more than half the price.
We also ran the Geekbench battery life test on Mi 9, in which it recorded 9 hours 57 minutes. That's significantly higher than Mi 8 (7 hours 10 mins) and also above competitors such as OnePlus 6T (7 hours 26 mins) and Galaxy S10 (4 hours 47 mins). In the real world, this means getting a full day's life from Mi 9 shouldn't be a problem.
When the battery is depleted the Mi 9 supports up to 27W wired or 20W wireless charging, but Xiaomi supplies only an 18W European (two-pin) plug in the box so we did not test this. The company claims you'll get up to 40% in 30 minutes wirelessly, or up to 100% in 90 minutes.
Mi 9 also covers all connectivity bases with dual-frequency GPS, the aforementioned IR blaster, NFC, OTG, Bluetooth 5.0 and Wi-Fi. It's a dual-SIM, dual-standby phone, with both SIMs able to connect to 4G networks.
In common with Mi 8 there's a 20Mp selfie camera at the front of the Mi 9, though we were kind of expecting the 24Mp selfie camera from Mi 8 Lite to make an appearance. No bother - it's a great camera, and good for selfies and video chat, though as on previous models the various beautifying features were so subtle it was often difficult to tell if they were doing anything.
Mi 9 is Xiaomi's first smartphone to support a triple-lens AI camera at the rear. It uses the same 48Mp lens we saw in Redmi Note 7, a budget handset announced in China in January, but combines it with 16Mp wide-angle and 12Mp telephoto lenses, all hidden behind Sapphire glass. It's a huge upgrade over the 12Mp + 12Mp dual-lens camera in Mi 8.
The first is a Sony IMX586 1/2" sensor that supports 0.8um pixels and has a f/1.75 aperture. This camera can also increase the pixel size to 1.6um at 12Mp, with its '4-in-1 Super Pixels' allowing in four times more light than a single pixel.
The 12Mp telephoto lens has a 2x optical zoom, while the 16Mp wide-angle supports a 117º field of view and 4cm macro photography. Both have 1.0um pixels and f/2.2 aperture.
The resulting quality of images in our test was superb, with excellent life-like colouring and detail that is sharp right to the edges of the shot. It's difficult to fault for a £1K phone, let alone one half that price. See below for our test shots with Auto- and HDR settings respectively.
In low light quality naturally steps down a notch, with some noise visible in the shot. But overall Mi 9 did a fantastic job of lighting the scene, and it sets itself apart from less capable camera phones by clearly defining text and easily distinguishing between the various shades of black in the scene.
For video super slow-mo at 960fps at 1080p and 4K at 60fps are supported.
The Mi 9 runs MIUI 10, which is a custom version of Android 9 Pie, most obviously different in the lack of an app tray, the custom drop-down notification bar, the re-ordering of the Settings menu and the various Xiaomi apps and features preinstalled on the device.
There are a couple of ways MIUI 10 is different on Mi 9 than on other Xiaomi phones that run the software. For starters, there's Dark Mode. This is one of the trendiest software features of late, reversing the screen colours and reducing its drain on battery life by up to 83%. It can also be easier on the eyes than a bright white display. While Google's talking about adding a system-wide Dark Mode in upcoming Android 10, Xiaomi's already there with MIUI 10 on Mi 9.
The other new feature here is something we mentioned earlier in this review, the customisable Always-on Display. You still don't have nearly as much control over it as on the likes of Samsung's Galaxy phones, but it now supports colour and some preset background images. If you like you can schedule the AOD to turn on and off only at certain times of the day.
In other respects this is MIUI 10 as we know it and, though it will feel unfamiliar to Android users who have never played with a Xiaomi phone before, there's a lot to love here that you don't get in standard Android. A couple of our favourites are Dual Apps and Second Space, allowing you to run multiple versions of apps on the phone and even wall off some for selective viewing.
During the setup process you get the chance to choose between a full-screen display that supports gestures for going back, home or accessing open apps, or you can display these navigation options as buttons onscreen.
A Split Screen mode is available within the multi-tasking menu, allowing you to interact with two apps at once. You'll also find things like One-handed mode (shrinks the size of the usable screen area) and Quick ball in the Settings.
Mi 9 was a Tech Advisor Best in Show at MWC award-winner, and that's something we have not lived to regret upon closer inspection of Xiaomi's latest flagship. Devilishly fast, insanely beautiful and offering the best value for money you'll find in any smartphone, anywhere. So should you buy it? You'd be mad not to.
Xiaomi Mi 9: Specs
- MIUI 10
- 6.39in Full-HD+ (1080 x 2340) 19.5:9 AMOLED display
- 2.84GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 octa-core processor
- Adreno 640 GPU
- 6GB RAM
- 64GB/128GB storage
- dual-SIM, dual-standby (both 4G)
- dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 5.0
- In-display fingerprint sensor
- Triple-camera: 48Mp + 16Mp wide + 12Mp telephoto
- 20Mp selfie camera
- 3300mAh battery, Quick Charge 4.0
- Fast wireless charging (20W)
- Lavender Violet, Ocean Blue, Piano Black
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