Xiaomi Mi 9 hands-on review

Want to see how powerful the Snapdragon 855 chip is? Just rev up the Xiaomi Mi 9

The Xiaomi Mi 9’s Snapdragon 855 chip gives it more power than you’ll ever need, and it’s matched by great styling, a decent battery, and a capable camera.
The Xiaomi Mi 9’s Snapdragon 855 chip gives it more power than you’ll ever need, and it’s matched by great styling, a decent battery, and a capable camera.
The Xiaomi Mi 9’s Snapdragon 855 chip gives it more power than you’ll ever need, and it’s matched by great styling, a decent battery, and a capable camera.

Highs

  • Spectacular performance
  • Beautiful styling and colors
  • Long battery life
  • Fast wireless charging
  • Reliable in-display fingerprint sensor

Lows

  • Capable camera could be better
  • Software needs improvement
  • Ads in pre-installed apps

When you get behind the wheel of a really fast car, there’s always a moment in the first few miles when it feels so responsive, so alive, that you say to yourself, “wow, this is quick.” That’s what happens when you start to use your favorite apps on the Xiaomi Mi 9, which has the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor inside. It’s an absolute monster, and for once, the marketing claim that it provides a 45-percent greater performance than its predecessor doesn’t feel like an empty promise. The Xiaomi Mi 9 is a superphone, in the same way a Ferrari 488 GTB is a supercar.

Speedy performance

Speed, in a smartphone at least, is relatively hard to measure. We’ve run some benchmarks for reference, but also want to describe the experience here. The speed comes across in smoothness — it’s just so damn silky, which is definitely what strikes you first when using the Mi 9.

Next it’s the speed with which apps open, and then respond. There’s no slow down, everything scrolls smoothly, and if there is a hold up you get the distinct impression it’s a network issue, rather than the device. The Xiaomi Mi 9 is so quick, it makes lightning bolts look sluggish and lazy.

xiaomi mi 9 xioami review 8
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

How about the benchmarks? We ran AnTuTu 3D and it returned 361,283, which trounces everything before it, even the iPhone XS. We’ll run more tests before our full review is published. The Mi 9 will be one of the first smartphones to use the Snapdragon 855, and its performance here makes us very excited about 2019’s flagship devices all round.

The Xiaomi Mi 9 is so quick, it makes lightning bolts look sluggish and lazy.

It’s joined by 6GB of RAM and either 64GB or 128GB of internal storage space. A version with 12GB of RAM will be released in China, but won’t make it to the U.K. apparently, which is a shame, although we’re not sure it would make the phone any quicker during everyday use.

Sleek design

The Xiaomi Mi 9 looks like a supercar as well. Sleek and curvy, the phone is made from glass, with Gorilla Glass 5 on the back, and Gorilla Glass 6 over the screen. The sides of the rear panel gently curve before meeting the chassis, making it immensely comfortable to hold. There are four different looks — a black version you see in our main photos, along with a blue, a lavender, and a transparent finish too.

We’ll save you some decision-making time. The lavender Mi 9 is utterly stunning, and the one we’d chose to buy. That said, the transparent model is also very eye-catching, with some very cool details. No, you’re not looking at the actual components under that piece of 4D curved glass, but see if you can spot the reference to the Battle Angel codename, and the wireless charging symbol too. We’re confident you want the Mi 9, it’s just a case of choosing between the lavender or transparent finish.

xiaomi mi 9
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Staying on the back, the triple-lens camera is set inside a large camera bump. It really is very prominent, and comes into direct contact with surfaces it’s laid on. However, Xiaomi has used sapphire glass over the lenses, meaning scratches shouldn’t be a problem.

We’re confident you want the Mi 9, it’s just a case of choosing between the lavender or transparent finish.

On the front, the 6.4-inch AMOLED screen has a teardrop notch, a 2,340 x 1,080 pixel resolution, and minimal bezels at the top and bottom. It looks excellent, and there are many customizations to make sure it looks exactly to your liking. For example, you can adjust the brightness in standard view or night mode, choose contrast and color levels, and automatically set a reading mode.

The downside of the glass body and subtle curves is the slipperiness. It simply doesn’t feel safe in your hand. There’s more grip on the average wet fish than there is on the Mi 9, and without a case, you tend to hold on so tightly the thin edges become a little uncomfortable. The glassy, glossy, slippery Mi 9 is an accident waiting to happen.

Camera

This is the first time Xiaomi has used a triple-lens camera on one of its phones, and it has chosen the new Sony IMX586 sensor with 48-megapixels to headline the array. We’ve seen this already on the Honor View 20, and expect it to be one of the best cameras out there over the coming year. It’s joined on the Mi 9 by a 12-megapixel telephoto lens and a 16-megapixel ultra-wide lens with a 117-degree viewing angle.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Like Honor, the 48-megapixel mode is not activated as standard. You have to open the Settings menu and choose it from there, which is rather clunky. It also means there’s a chance people will forget about it, as it reverts to normal mode after the camera app is put to sleep, or be completely unaware they’re not shooting photos at the full resolution. The reason Xiaomi has done this is the 48-megapixel mode is really only suitable for some situations, like scenes in good lighting. The camera takes 12 megapixel shots as standard, and uses pixel binning technology to draw in more light and increase performance.

What’s it like? For the most part, it’s excellent. The artificially intelligent night mode is effective at exposing more detail in low-light shots without sacrificing quality or detail, while not aggressively changing the image like the Pixel 3’s Night Sight mode. In sunny conditions, the blue sky pops in photos taken with the Mi 9, and the bokeh mode is great at adding subtle amounts of depth to a photo without taking away realism. We also like the flexibility and creative opportunity of having a wide-angle lens, a zoom, a night mode, various A.I. settings, and the large 48-megapixel mode all in one camera.

Left: Night mode on, right: night mode off Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

However, the software may need tweaking to bring out the best here. Exposure isn’t always very precise in standard mode, and a relatively pleasant blue sky late in the day came out rather grey and lacking in visual appeal. We also lost some photos when the camera app crashed after taking some 48-megapixel images, and night mode shots, both of which require longer processing time which is where the app fell over.

Overall though, there’s plenty to enjoy at the moment, and some potential for improvement through future software updates too.

Security, battery, and charging

Xiaomi claims the Mi 9 has the fastest wireless charging yet seen in a smartphone. It uses a proprietary technology built into a special wireless charger to pump 20 watts of power into the phone’s 3,300mAh battery. That means an hour and 40 minutes to full on the special wireless charging puck, or an hour and five minutes using the cable. However, you’ll have to pay extra for the fast wireless charger, about $25, as it does not come with the phone.

The Mi 9 has the fastest wireless charging yet seen in a smartphone.

Now you’re probably looking at the relatively small capacity on the battery and thinking you’re going to need the fast charging pretty often. The excellent news here is you won’t, as the Snapdragon 855 is highly power efficient, and Xiaomi’s MIUI is adept at managing its power effectively, as even after an 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. day of using the phone consistently, it still had more than 40-percent charge left. Even on heavy days, we have not fallen below 15-percent after 15 hours of use.

We’re also pleased with the new in-display fingerprint sensor on the Mi 9. It’s an updated version over the Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro, and it’s consistently more reliable than before. It’s more forgiving about finger placement, faster to unlock the phone, and works almost as reliably as a rear mounted fingerprint sensor too, although it still can’t quite match the speed. The Mi 9 doesn’t have face unlock, so this is an important step forward.

MIUI software

Yes, the Xiaomi Mi 9 uses Android 9.0 Pie, but it’s heavily disguised underneath Xiaomi’s own MIUI 10 user interface, seen here in its “Global” form and in version 10.2. The positives include the outright speed, the attractive animations and transitions, the minimalist and well-designed icons and menus, and the intuitive gesture control system.

On the negative side, the notifications aren’t very reliable — messages are missed, and icons constantly lie to you — and there’s no app tray option, so all your apps stay on the home screen. Plus despite having NFC onboard and setting it up, Google Pay refused to work in the U.K. on our review device. Software updates may fix these aspects in the future.

The most controversial aspect are the ads. Xiaomi is an ecosystem company, and in China runs its own app store along with a variety of other ways to make a profit, including serving ads on some of its pre-installed apps. This still exists on its phones sold internationally. It’s not constant, and it’s not in obnoxious places, but it can still be distracting and annoying. For example, download an app from Google Play, and MIUI will “scan” it for problems and let you know it’s fine … while displaying an ad.

These ads may also appear when using the installed music or video apps, and should perhaps be considered a necessary evil when paying so little for such a powerful device, although there are ways to disable them if you’re willing to spend time doing so. Whether you accept that you may be occasionally shown ads will be down to personal choice. We’re not fans, but because they never truly intrude on usage, we’re prepared to be slightly forgiving.

Price, availability, and release

The Xiaomi Mi 9 has been announced in China, and its international announcement will come on February 24. The Mi 9 will be available in the U.K., and we’re expecting it to also be sold in Xiaomi’s other European markets. It won’t be sold officially in the U.S., but keen buyers will be able to import the phone through a third party. However, while it’ll operate with GSM networks like AT&T and T-Mobile, the bands may not fully support 4G LTE. We tested the phone in the U.K. on the EE network and it operated without issue.

xiaomi mi 9 xioami review 7
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The price, at the time of writing, has not been confirmed, but we’ve been informed it will be compatible to the Mi 8 Pro, which costs 500 British pounds, or about $650. This puts it in competition with the OnePlus 6T, the Honor View 20, and the Samsung Galaxy A9 (2018). However, when the specification is considered — this has the latest Snapdragon 855 chip inside, remember — if it comes close to this price, it will be a hard act to beat due to the performance.

We’ll update here with the price and release dates as they’re made official.

Conclusion

The fastest smartphone we’ve used this year so far, the Mi 9 shows how quickly Xiaomi is maturing, and how much it’s working on creating smartphones that appeal to those outside China. The Mi 9 is a compelling, high performance smartphone with the potential to become one of the year’s best — provided some of the downsides are addressed in speedy software updates. The software is it’s biggest downside, yet there is still plenty to like about MIUI; it just needs refinement.

If this happens soon, and the price is as competitive as we’ve come to expect from Xiaomi, then the Mi 9 has the potential to become 2019’s shrewdest smartphone purchase, in terms of performance-and-features-per-dollar.

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