Pocophone F1 by Xiaomi review

The bargain Pocophone F1 almost defies belief it’s so technically impressive.
The bargain Pocophone F1 almost defies belief it’s so technically impressive.
The bargain Pocophone F1 almost defies belief it’s so technically impressive.

Highs

  • Excellent performance
  • Good camera
  • Extremely competitive price
  • Long battery life
  • Kevlar version is eye-catching and unusual

Lows

  • Software glitches ruin experience
  • Currently import only
  • Not all listed features active yet

Rarely do smartphone reviews require much context ahead of talking about the device, but the Pocophone F1 is a phone that warrants a proper introduction. The name itself should be a giveaway as to why, because unless you’re plugged into the international smartphone world, this new brand may not sound familiar.

Pocophone’s partner in all this is Xiaomi, a name more will know. Xiaomi provides its manufacturing and software expertise, the benefits of scale — which includes buying power and industry connections — and years of experience. Pocophone isn’t Honor to Xiaomi’s Huawei, as it follows completely its own design and promotional path; but the F1 and presumably future Pocophone devices will be available almost everywhere Xiaomi phones are. That includes parts of Europe, and potentially, the U.K. and the U.S. in the future.

You’ll want the Pocophone to go on sale near you: It’s shockingly good, and all for an almost unbelievably low price. There are several companies out there that should be looking nervously back at Pocophone, and here’s why.

Thick, but comfortable

Xiaomi’s involvement isn’t a secret. The Pocophone’s box and case both say, “Pocophone by Xiaomi,” in case there was any confusion over the famous Chinese brand’s input. The phone will also be sold in India, where confusingly it’ll be known as Poco by Xiaomi. There will be a blue, black, and a red model sold, along with a special edition with a Kevlar rear cover, like the one you see in the pictures.

The phone’s body is made from polycarbonate, just like Nokia’s Windows Phone devices, and although it doesn’t feel very premium, it is hard wearing, protective, and low cost. This also means there are no visible antenna lines on the body. While the red color looks excellent, the Kevlar is a lot more attractive. It’s real Kevlar too, and the the weave shows through nicely. Two vertically-stacked camera lenses are set above a fingerprint sensor, and red flashes surround the lenses for some visual flair. Take a look at the top of the phone and you’ll see a 3.5mm headphone jack.

Pocophone’s partner in all this is Xiaomi.

This isn’t a slim phone at 8.8mm thick, but through some clever design tweaks — comfortably rounded sides, and the screen sitting slightly proud of the body — it doesn’t feel large in the hand. The IPS LCD screen measures 6.18-inches and it’s in a compact body, so it’s only slightly larger than the iPhone X.

The Pocophone F1 isn’t a stunner, but it’s far from being visually offensive. It’s mild-mannered, and definitely reminds us of early OnePlus efforts, such as the OnePlus 2. This won’t be the first time we bring up OnePlus either.

Large screen

The 6.18-inch LCD screen has a 2,246 x 1,080 pixel resolution, with a sizeable chin, small side bezels, and a notch at the top. We asked Pocophone’s head of product, Jai Mani, about this as the notch is quite large and noticeable. It’s a business decision, as it is the type of screen that’s easily available in the supply chain right now. In reality, it actually makes the phone look more modern, more so than it would with a standard aspect ratio and large bezels around the screen.

pocophone f1 by xiaomi screeb top
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Sadly, the notch isn’t that functional, as it’s not only very wide, but also quite deep, so any arguments that it gives “more screen real estate,” are rendered pointless. Dig into the software and the notch can be hidden, and we actually prefer the look of the Pocophone’s screen without it active.

Display performance is adequate. The screen gets covered in fingerprints and related mess, dulling the viewing experience; but Mani confirmed to Digital Trends there is an oleophobic coating over the Gorilla Glass 3 screen. Additionally, when watching YouTube videos there is a bluish tint compared to other phones, and it does lack a little in detail when compared with phones from Honor, which also offer great performance for a reasonable price. The overall quality of the F1’s suggests it was another cost-saving area for Pocophone. It’s not bad, just not as good as you’d expect from a high-price flagship. The F1 isn’t such a phone, which is why it still gets a pass here.

Fantastic performance

Expecting the Pocophone F1 to have a mid-range Qualcomm processor and a handful of RAM? Think again, this is a high performance smartphone with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 and 6GB of RAM. That’s the same chip and RAM configuration used in many flagship phones that cost between $500 and $1,000. The F1 does not cost that.

It’s still early days at Pocophone, which makes glitches more likely, but not less annoying.

The F1 is, well, F1-car fast. Fast for gaming — we played Reckless Racing 3 and Riptide GP2 with the graphics maxed out without issue — and fast for multitasking. Simply, if you want a phone with the fastest processor available now, and probably more RAM than many of the computers you’ve owned in the past, the Pocophone F1 will do the job.

We tried to run some benchmarks to see how it performs, but two of our usual three benchmarking apps — Geekbench 4 and 3DMark — refused to run on the F1.

  • AnTuTu 3DBench: 265,421

This AnTuTu score is higher than the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus, close to the OnePlus 6, and one step away from the 273,00 scored by the Galaxy Note 9. Don’t worry about performance on this phone.

The big chip is not the only thing the F1 shares with high-end phones including the new Galaxy Note 9. It’s also water-cooled, with a pipe running along the device’s spine to help keep the processor cool. By lowering the temperature, the device runs more efficiently, and the battery keeps going for longer too. The F1 did not get hot during benchmarking and gaming sessions.

We have been impressed by the F1’s speed and smoothness, factors that are crucial to making the phone enjoyable to live with and use each day. However, there are some inconsistencies and slight disappointments between our test phone and the official spec sheet. Bluetooth AptX HD is listed as a feature, but this did not seem to activate, or appear as an option. Also, the infrared scanner in the notch isn’t active yet, with secure face unlocking coming later with a software update. It’s still early days at Pocophone, which makes glitches more likely, but not less annoying.

Camera

The camera is perhaps even more important than device performance, and one of the main reasons we choose one phone over another. The Pocophone F1 borrows the main camera from Xiaomi’s Mi 8 and the Mi Mix 2S, meaning it’s a 12-megapixel sensor with dual-pixel autofocus, and is paired here with a second 5-megapixel sensor.

The results are startling, thanks in part to an effective artificial intelligence mode. Shooting on a slightly overcast day in London, the F1 made great use of the available sunlight, and the AI applied sensible scene enhancements when needed. During the changing of the Guard in Whitehall, the F1 captured a great photo of the stone buildings, clouds, and London scenery. We also love the shine on the horse’s coats as the parade passed by.

The dual-lens setup enables portrait mode shots, and we were really impressed with some of the results. In St. James’s Park, we got close to the ducks and took several photos using portrait mode. These were taken quickly, often in positions where it was difficult to see the screen, yet the camera sorted everything out and returned some really great photos. All the camera technology is supplied by Xiaomi, including the app, and the experience shines through. Edges are picked out effectively, and the blur is subtle for a pleasing composition.

All the camera technology is supplied by Xiaomi, including the app, and the experience shines through.

A software-driven portrait mode is also included on the 20-megapixel front camera, along with a beauty mode. The blur effect is very strong, and like most software bokeh systems, it’s confused by glasses and lots of hair. We like the various live filters though, including black-and-white mode. The beauty mode can be turned off if you don’t like it too. The front camera also has a Super Pixel system that combines four pixels into one, for better low-light selfies. We haven’t seen this make much of a difference yet, but will continue testing.

F1 photos can look quite processed, which instantly makes them suitable for sharing online, without the need to add filters. If you do want to play with the results, the app has a comprehensive editing mode.

We’ve really enjoyed taking photos with the F1, and haven’t stopped even though that part of the review process is complete — high praise indeed.

Software and battery

A massive 4,000mAh battery lives inside the Pocophone F1, which has happily returned two days of general use — that’s photos, social media, gaming, and web browsing — before needing a recharge. When that time comes, although the device supports Quick Charge 3.0, the included charger will take the best part of three hours to take the battery from almost flat to full.

The F1 has Android 8.1 installed with Xiaomi’s MIUI Global version 9.6 user interface installed. That means Google Play and all the associated apps are all present, making it easy to use anywhere in the world. Xiaomi’s MIUI is a well-established Android-based operating system, and it’s one of the better versions available. There are millions of satisfied users, after all.

We like MIUI because of its clean design, but anyone used to Android on a Pixel will be frustrated by the amount of extras that come installed, ranging from Xiaomi’s own web browser, an optimization app, a system cleaner app, a QR code reader and business card scanner, and a screen recorder app too. That’s along with a file manager, a dialer, a download app, and a contacts app. Xiaomi’s own apps cannot be uninstalled.

The F1 is, well, F1-car fast.

Sadly, our F1 had one rather annoying issue that definitely ruined our experience, and not one we’ve seen with MIUI before. Notifications did not always appear on the lock screen, and icons did not appear at all in the notification bar on the home screen. Pull down the notification shade and they’re all there, but this doesn’t help much. Notifications will be upgraded to a MIUI 10 notification system in a small software update after launch.

Despite this, MIUI is pleasingly fast, and if you don’t like the look, it’s ready to have any theme you want applied over the top. Pocophone needs to fix the notifications though.

Price, warranty, and availability

Available in India only from August 29, at least at the moment, the Pocophone F1 starts at about $300 for the 6GB/64GB model. The 6GB/128GB version costs about $340, and the 8GB/256GB version is approximately $400. The Armored Edition with the Kevlar back panel is $430. Next stop for the Pocophone F1 is Hong Kong, Indonesia, and France according to the company. The intention is to sell the F1 everywhere Xiaomi phones are currently available.

It’ll be possible to import the phone if you live outside one of those places, and provided you select the “global” version, it will come with Google Play, and MIUI will be in English. However, the modem bands may not operate with your chosen carrier, especially in the U.S.. In the U.K., where we tested the Pocophone F1, it happily connected to O2’s 4G LTE network.

Our Take

The Pocophone is impossible to ignore, due to a spec sheet that practically defies belief given the $400-or-less price; but it’s still early days for the company, which means putting up with a few glitches and features not working.

What are the alternatives?

Let’s list the sub-$400 smartphones with a Snapdragon 845 first. There, that didn’t take long, because there aren’t any. The Pocophone F1, for this reason alone, stands out as being astonishing value for money. To get an identical hardware specification, the minimum you’ll spend is $530 for the OnePlus 6. After that, the sky is the limit, all the way up to the $1,000 Galaxy Note 9.

What you’re abandoning is what we’d call premium design and materials. The Pocophone is plastic, not glass, and the design is simple. Neither of these things are bad, but they are one of the reasons we pay more for high-end phones. The camera performed well in our tests, but it’s not only up against the OnePlus 6, but phones like the 400 British pound Honor 10 too, both of which are excellent value for money.

The Motorola G6 and the Nokia 7 Plus would also be considerations when you’re spending this amount of money. The Pocophone F1 gives you more performance, more technology, and a bigger battery. It’s very hard to ignore these benefits.

How long will it last?

The Pocophone F1 is not a rugged phone, nor does it have water resistance; but the polycarbonate body will definitely be harder wearing than one made of glass. The weight makes it feel sturdy, and Xiaomi’s manufacturing expertise is immediately obvious in the great build quality. A simple silicone case is included in the box, which is a nice addition. Treat it sensibly by not getting it wet, and the phone should be a faithful companion.

Software is a little harder to judge. Xiaomi is good at delivering its own software updates on a relatively regular basis. It is also a Google partner, and Pocophone has said Android 9.0 Pie will arrive in the near future. Also, in the first month of release, a stable version of MIUI 10 will be available too. What’s more, MIUI is highly flexible, and Xiaomi will update the software dependent on the phone and its capability, rather than ignoring older phones entirely.

No, it won’t have the same guarantee of the immediate software updates you’d get from buying a Google Pixel 2 XL, but it won’t be left to fend for itself over time either.

Should you buy one?

If you plan on using the Pocophone F1 in the U.S., then no, because it may not operate properly on your carrier’s 4G LTE network. If you live where the Pocophone is officially sold, then yes, even with the glitches we have experienced, it’s too much of a bargain to pass by.

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