Unbeatable bang for your buck

Xiaomi has done it again.

Known for inexpensive, value-for-money devices, the Chinese smartphone maker has launched the Mi 9, which boasts flagship-class performance and features at mid-range prices.

It costs $599 for a model with 6GB of memory and 64GB of internal storage. My 128GB review set is priced at $699. This is at least $400 less than Samsung's top Galaxy smartphones, which start at $1,098 for the base S10e model.

Yet, the Mi 9 uses the same high-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor found in the US variant of the Samsung Galaxy S10 phones.

It also sports a Samsung-made Oled screen surrounded by thin borders. A small teardrop notch for the front camera sits at the top of the screen. This camera can be used to unlock the phone quickly, though its lack of infrared or 3D sensors means it is not the most secure option.

Alternatively, you can use the in-display optical fingerprint sensor - marked by a glowing fingerprint icon - under the screen. It feels more erratic and a tad slower than the typical capacitive sensor, but it should be good enough for most users.

The display itself looks vibrant and performs well with videos. But I have to take care not to cover the single speaker next to the USB-C port though while watching videos in landscape orientation.

The screen is bright enough to be used outdoors in the sun. Its 1,080p screen resolution, while adequate for me, is not as high as the screens of more expensive models.

An ambient display setting can be activated so that the screen shows the time, battery life and other notification icons even when the screen is off. This feature does consume a bit more of the phone's battery - disable it to maximise battery life.

The phone has a slippery, curved glass back that comes in two colours for sets selling in Singapore - a reflective black and an eye-catching shimmery blue.

  • FOR

    • Triple-camera system takes good photos and videos

    • Vibrant, bright screen

    • Excellent value for money


    • Single speaker easily covered by the hand

    • No water resistance

    • Banner advertisements in Xiaomi apps


    PRICE: $599 (64GB), $699 (128GB)

    PROCESSOR: Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 (single-core 2.8GHz, triple-core 2.4GHz and quad-core 1.8GHz)

    DISPLAY: 6.39-inch, Oled, 2,340 x 1,080 pixels, 403 ppi pixel density

    OPERATING SYSTEM: MIUI 10(Android 9.0)

    MEMORY: 128GB, 6GB RAM

    REAR CAMERAS: 48MP wide-angle (f/1.75), 16MP ultra-wide-angle (f/2.2), 12MP telephoto (f/2.2)

    FRONT CAMERA: 20MP (f/2.0)

    BATTERY: Non-removable 3,300mAh battery


    FEATURES: 4.5/5

    DESIGN: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4.5/5



    OVERALL: 4.5/5

The glass back also enables wireless charging using the Qi standard, a feature not found in the previous Mi 8 model. But Xiaomi does not include the wireless charger in the package.

The only major feature the Mi 9 lacks compared with flagship models is water-and dust-resistance. While it can probably survive being splashed with some water, I would not think the same if it were dunked in water.

Like some models this year, the Mi 9 has a dedicated hardware button for Google Assistant. But it can also be configured for other functions, such as switching on the torch.

A huge camera bump at its back means the Mi 9 will not lie perfectly flat on the table.

It has three rear cameras. Chief among them is a 48-megapixel (MP) camera that uses Sony's latest IMX586 image sensor.

This camera, which I first tested on the Honor View20 several months ago, combines image data captured from adjacent pixels to produce a cleaner 12MP photo.

You can also choose to take a 48MP photo that captures more details as well as noise. It also takes up four times the storage space as a 12MP photo.

While the View20 cleverly enables zoom functionality by merging multiple 48MP shots to create a very sharp 48MP photo, the Mi 9 does it the usual way - by having a telephoto camera with 2x optical zoom.

In good light, the Mi 9's photos turn out nicely. Colours look neutral and accurate while noise levels are acceptably low.

However, its low-light performance is merely adequate. For instance, the handheld long-exposure photos I shoot with the Night mode - which takes brighter photos than the default camera mode - show plenty of noise and often come with smeared effects.

The camera captures video at up to 4K resolution, which results in crisp and clear footage with lots of details. Handheld videos taken during a brisk walk also turn out relatively smooth without camera shake.

Xiaomi's MIUI 10 interface looks messy with its mix of circular and square icons. It also comes with many pre-loaded Xiaomi-made apps.

However, the most egregious thing about these apps is that almost all of them display banner advertisements, which are probably the reason Xiaomi can sell the Mi 9 cheaply. They can be disabled, but the process is tedious as it has to be repeated for each Xiaomi app.

The Mi 9 clocks around 13 hours in a video-loop battery test with the screen set to maximum brightness.

In my experience, it will comfortably last an entire day on a single charge, but not more than that.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2019, with the headline 'Unbeatable bang for your buck'. Print Edition | Subscribe