Xiaomi Mi5S Plus review

Blame it on the bokeh: Xiaomi’s Mi5S Plus is frustratingly close to being a winner

No bokeh, no deal. Xiaomi’s phone is frustratingly close to getting a recommendation.
No bokeh, no deal. Xiaomi’s phone is frustratingly close to getting a recommendation.
No bokeh, no deal. Xiaomi’s phone is frustratingly close to getting a recommendation.

Highs

  • High-performance processor
  • Stylish design
  • MIUI is fun and customizable.
  • Long battery life

Lows

  • Camera disappoints
  • Limited connectivity in the U.S.
  • Import only

DT Editors' Rating

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You’ve decided to splurge on a massive new smartphone, and are eyeing those with cool dual-lens cameras, but getting bewildered by the growing number of options. While Huawei, Apple, and even Honor phones will already be on your list, what about an imported phone like the Xiaomi Mi5S Plus? It’s a strong performer on paper, and comes with that dual-lens camera, but the price puts it in the same category as awesome phones from OnePlus and ZTE.

This means it’s far less of an impulse, what-the-hell buy than you may expect, and more of one that needs some consideration. Can the dual-lens camera swing the deal? We’ve been trying out the Mi5S Plus to see if you should be happy spending such a sizeable amount of money on an import device, or if it’s better to stay closer to home.

Design

Xiaomi makes great-looking phones, and it’s sticking closely to an established theme — shapely bodies with curved brushed metal rear panels — with the Mi5S Plus. It’s very similar to the Redmi Pro, the last Xiaomi phone we examined closely, just on a larger scale. It’s about the same size as an iPhone 7 Plus, but has a 5.7-inch screen, so it’s a compact shape. However, the body is quite thick at 8mm.

This extra thickness is effectively disguised by the curved metal sides, which make it very comfortable to hold, especially where the bottom corner rests at the base of your palm. It’s not quite as easy to use one-handed as the Huawei Mate 9 — a bigger phone — and I struggled to reach across the screen with my thumb. It’s lighter than the Mate 9 at about 170 grams, putting it closer to the iPhone 7 Plus.

A fingerprint sensor is mounted on the back under the twin camera lenses. It’s easily located when picking up the phone, and quick to react. In addition to locking the phone, it can secure apps and activate a child mode. What it doesn’t do is make the Mi5S Plus compatible with Android Pay. Try to set the mobile wallet feature up, and you’ll get a warning that because the phone runs a custom version of Android, it won’t work.

The rear cam takes solid enough pictures, but we are left feeling there should be something more.

How about the build quality? It’s not quite up there with hardware we’re used to paying nearly $400 or more for. The rear panel has a slight flex to it when pushed, something that probably isn’t a bad thing, but just feels off. I prefer my smartphones to feel solid, something the Mi5S Plus does everywhere else, which makes this aspect stand out more. Additionally, our review model arrived with a very slight imperfection where the metal rear panel meets the antenna band at the top of the phone. The super-shiny surface means it catches the light, and is very noticeable.

This makes the Mi5S Plus a mixed bag. We like the cool, minimalist design, its simplicity, its in-hand comfort and lightness, but aren’t sold on the build quality of a phone that costs this much  money. It’s not a deal-breaker, because the things we noticed don’t affect its operation in any way; but they’re flaws we’d rather not see at all in a phone we otherwise rather like.

Camera

Here’s the big selling point, at least, it should be given the increased attention on dual-lens cameras over the past year. Because there are two 13-megapixel camera lenses on the Mi5S Plus, you may expect it to shoot those cool bokeh pictures with the blurred background. You’re wrong, it doesn’t do that — well, not like the Huawei Mate 9, Redmi Pro, or iPhone 7 Plus, at least. Instead, the two lenses work together to take higher-quality pictures, mixing together results from the two lenses.

Xiaomi Mi5S Plus review
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

It’s a bit of a disappointment. Not that it’s a bad camera, it’s just the higher-quality shots aren’t all that much “better” than the normal ones, just different. Scroll through your images, and you’ll see the regular and enhanced snaps aren’t identical, but it’s often impossible to pin down which one was taken in what mode, and which one ultimately looks better than the other. With a bokeh mode, you instantly see the benefits of the dual lenses. It’s not like Xiaomi doesn’t make cameras with artificial bokeh modes. The Redmi Pro has one, and it’s perfectly fine.

The higher-quality dual lens shots aren’t much better than ‘normal’ single-lens photos.

Through experimentation, we found that used inside, Stereo Mode revealed clearer blacks but less detail in shadowy areas. Without Stereo Mode, the opposite was true. It’ll be down to you which looks better. The improvement in black levels makes sense, because one lens shoots only in monochrome, like Huawei’s Leica camera, and there’s a dedicated Mono mode, too. We miss optical image stabilization as well, and are surprised it has been left out of a flagship phone.

The selfie cam is much more fun. It has 4 megapixels, which is rather low these days, but the f/2.0 aperture lets in plenty of light, which makes up for any shortfall in raw pixel count. There is a massive range of live filters to play around with — including a Mosaic mode to pixelate out your friend’s faces, or amusingly pretend they’re doing something rude — and a decent beauty mode with adjustments for skin tone and slimness. It’s not complicated, is fun to use, and who doesn’t like to snap a good selfie every now and then?

Again, it’s all a mixed bag. We like the selfie cam, think the rear cam takes solid enough pictures, but are left feeling there should be something more.

Software

Xiaomi phones run Google Android, but with a heavily customized user interface over the top called MIUI. Because it originates in China, where Google software is barred, Google Play doesn’t come standard. Depending on where you purchase a Xiaomi phone, it may come with Google Play and related apps pre-installed. Our version, through importer GearBest, has Google Play ready for us to use.

Xiaomi Mi5S Plus review
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

MIUI is a step beyond most third-party Android user interfaces, covering many of the familiar aspects of the operating system, with altered views, different apps, or new ways of doing things. Rather than being a hateful mishmash of half-baked ideas, MIUI is a solid, attractive, and endlessly customizable piece of software. MIUI 8.0 is installed on our review phone — it comes in English, and is currently the most stable version out there. Xiaomi also pushes regular updates to its phones, but the Android security patch status does still lag behind — it was July 2016 on our phone. The base version is Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which is also out of date.

 If you want a phone that will shrug off even the most taxing tasks, the Mi5S Plus is the device for you.

Apps are spread across multiple home screens, like an iPhone, and the notification shade works slightly differently than usual, presenting shortcuts in a horizontally scrolling list instead of a further pulldown window. Xiaomi knows how to present an attractive UI, and all its standard icons are minimalist blocks in solid colors, with clear, helpful icons. It really looks fantastic. A theme store on the phone lets you alter most aspects if it’s not to your liking.

Xiaomi pre-installs a selection of apps, including a calculator, clock, voice recorder, QR scanner, compass, and plenty more. Our phone didn’t have any other pre-installed third-party apps, but that may not always be the case. If any demos or third-party apps are included on your phone, previous experience tells us they’re quickly uninstalled.

Non-Google apps often get a bad rap, but there are several Xiaomi apps we like, and wouldn’t replace. The weather app is very good, providing plenty of detail in an easily viewed manner. The data comes from AccuWeather. The standard calendar and gallery apps are also great, repeating Xiaomi’s preference for clean, simple design. There are a few unique Xiaomi features on the Mi5S that are also useful. Second Space lets you set up a separate account, perhaps for work or a child, on the phone. If that’s overkill, Dual Apps allows two versions of a single app to work on the phone, making it handy for a work and personal Facebook account, for example.

Some early hiccups with the software, where the camera app crashed and others performed slowly, soured our initial week with the Mi5S Plus, but a software update sorted them out, and it has run without a problem since. Of all the non-standard Android user interfaces out there, Xiaomi’s MIUI is one of the best. Don’t let it put you off trying a Xiaomi phone.

Performance

The Mi5S Plus has Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 processor inside. It’s not quite the latest, but it’s pretty close, and good enough for the OnePlus 3T, the HTC U Ultra, and other smartphones. It’s supported by 4GB of RAM in our phone, but a version with 6GB of RAM is also available if you’re willing to pay more. We’d say 4GB of RAM is more than enough for most tasks. The 4GB Mi5S Plus has 64GB of internal memory, while the 6GB model has 128GB. There’s no MicroSD card slot, sadly, but the SIM card tray will accept a second SIM card.

Xiaomi Mi5S Plus review
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Guess what? The Mi5S blazes along. The Snapdragon 821 is an excellent performer, and we have no complaints at all about app compatibility, speed, or playing games. If you want a phone that will shrug off even the most taxing tasks, the Mi5S Plus is the device for you. Riptide GP 2, with the graphics resolution turned up to maximum, plays like a dream with no frame rate issues or slowdown at all. Bullet-hell shooter Danmaku Unlimited plays superbly in HD and on Hard mode, where an awful lot happens on screen at once.

Zipping through the usual apps, The Mi5S Plus is a pleasure. It’s smooth, speedy, and performs with the same urgency you’d expect from a phone with one of the latest processors inside. It’s unfortunate that the benchmarks, as is sometimes the case, don’t tell the whole story. Our AnTuTu test returned 118180, which is well below other Mi5S tests for some reason, and Geekbench 4 gave 3436 multicore. Don’t pay them any attention.

Battery, screen, and connectivity

We’ve been impressed with the Mi5S Plus’ 3,200mAh battery, which has happily lasted for two days of normal use, and features a USB Type-C connector, and Quick Charge 3.0. In less than 90 minutes, the Mi5S Plus was fully charged, which makes it highly usable. The power efficiency of MIUI is assisted by the 1920 x 1080 pixel LCD screen. Super high-resolution screens are great, but they do suck battery power. Dropping it down to 1080p really helps extend the battery life here.

More: Xiaomi Redmi Pro review

It doesn’t ruin the Mi5S Plus either. The screen may use LCD technology, rather than an AMOLED panel, but it’s really bright, crystal clear, and a joy to look at. There’s a reading mode to reduce sleep-interrupting blue light, but there’s no scheduler, so you have to activate it manually. However, you can apply it to certain apps, such as an e-reader app, to make it slightly more user friendly.

Xiaomi Mi5S Plus review
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Mi5S Plus is an import-only phone, and doesn’t support all the right bandwidths for 4G LTE use in the United States. It’ll happily connect to AT&T and T-Mobile’s 3G network, though. In the U.K., where the Mi5S was tested, it spent the majority of its time connected to a 3G signal on the O2 network. Again, it doesn’t have the right bands for 4G LTE connectivity, but it never felt slow, and any speed difference may only be noticeable in back-to-back tests, or when streaming high-quality video.

Warranty, availability, and price

The price of the Xiaomi Mi5S Plusvaries based on importers, due to currency fluctuations, but on average, it starts at $400. You may be lucky enough to grab it for a little less on the right day. You can’t buy it in stores, so you need to find a willing importer if you want to buy one. While there are several choices out there, GearBest supplied our Xiaomi Mi5S Plus and has always delivered a faultless service.

Buy the phone through GearBest, and it comes with a three-day dead-on-arrival warranty, a 45-day money back guarantee if the phone should break down during that time, plus a one-year warranty to cover against defects. Yes, you’ll still have to go through getting support from China primarily by email and snail mail, but that’s strong aftersales service. If you break the phone due to mistreatment, drop it in the bath, or change the software and brick the phone, it won’t be covered.

Our Take

Blazing speed, two-day battery life, and damn fine value are huge assets, but it’s the Xiaomi Mi5S’ half-baked camera that leaves us frustrated

Is there a better alternative?

Because $400 now buys you plenty of very cool smartphones, the Mi5S Plus faces quite a challenge. The OnePlus 3T and ZTE Axon 7 both work on U.S. networks with 4G LTE connectivity, and don’t require an importer to buy, so we’d have to say you’d be better off buying one of those. However, there’s something to be said about being different and opting for the Xiaomi — but we’d be very tempted to grab the Xiaomi Redmi Pro instead.

It’s considerably cheaper — less than $200 at the time of writing — has a dual camera lens that produces fun bokeh shots, is fast enough for most tasks, and gives you the same MIUI 8 software experience. If you’re a newcomer to the brand, and are curious about all the fuss regarding Xiaomi phones, it’s a better starting point than the Mi5S Plus.

How long will it last?

Like the alternatives mentioned above, the Mi5S Plus isn’t water-resistant or particularly able to stand much wear. The screen isn’t covered with Gorilla Glass either, and it’s not clear whether an alternative like Dragontail is used instead, so a strong glass screen protector would be recommended here.

Xiaomi delivers regular updates to MIUI, adding new features and fixing bugs, but it’s not the fastest when it comes to version changes. The Mi5S Plus operating system is Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and it’s also lagging behind with security updates.

Should you buy it?

It’s close, but no, we can’t wholeheartedly recommend the Xiaomi Mi5S Plus. It’s a great value, it looks excellent, is really powerful, and the software experience is very user friendly, but the camera and connectivity let it down. Not having 4G LTE isn’t the end of the world, but we wanted the camera to be so much better than it actually is. It’s rather frustrating, because we’ve seen before that Xiaomi knows how to do good cameras. Why it didn’t go all the way with the Mi5S Plus, and make it a real Mate 9 and iPhone 7 Plus competitor, is a mystery.