Xiaomi might not be a household name in the US, but the Mi 11 is one such smartphone that really ought to be available in North American markets as an alternative to the similarly solid Galaxy S21 series.

Filling the huge market gap left by Huawei in recent years, Xiaomi’s line of high-end devices has grown, but the associated asking prices are fairly consistent even with internals and hardware that compares closely to the best in the business.

The Xiaomi Mi 11 is another moderately priced flagship that at least on paper packs a serious punch. Just whether or not Xiaomi can tame themselves enough to make it a solid alternative to the likes of the Galaxy S21 remains to be seen.

Video — Xiaomi Mi 11 review

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Design & hardware

My first instinct when picking up the Mi 11 out of the box was how sturdy and “packed” it feels. I’m still undecided what “premium” really means when it comes to tech, but the Xiaomi Mi 11 certainly feels expensive or “premium.” I love a good flat display as much as the next person, but there is something tantalizing about curved glass. It’s soft, smooth, and the ice blue color finish looks like it will handle scratches and dings really nicely.

There’s a distinct weight to the Mi 11 that is hard to accurately comprehend unless you pick it up for yourself. The balance is good but the device is overall slightly top-heavy courtesy of a larger three-staged camera bump. It’s a big old chunky portion to have at the rear of your device, but it does pack in some pretty solid tech.

A recent trend at least from Chinese smartphone makers is to combine smooth, curved sides with flat top and bottom edges. It’s a design choice that I can wholeheartedly back, as it gives you something to grip and the Xiaomi Mi 11 is a real big slab of tech that I found myself shuffling around a fair amount. The flat edge makes it easier to maneuver than if all sides were equally curved.

Those flat edges are home to a stereo speaker pairing with sizable grills, while the bottom edge provides the SIM tray. A big bonus that often gets overlooked is the inclusion of an IR blaster along the top, which means that the Mi 11 can control devices such as your TV or stereo system with an added app.

mi 11

I can’t really say that I like the weird corner “caps,” but there is clearly a protection element for the display. The design is eerily similar to the Huawei P40 Pro in that regard but it just looks weird — as it did on Huawei’s flagship. The button placement is all focused on the right side of the chassis, which is okay, but having flitted between devices as of late, I quite like the volume rocker below the sleep-wake button. It’s a minor gripe in an otherwise standard fare.

Overall, the design fuses a number of good ideas into a fairly attractive package that is well put together yet manages to retain a uniqueness. This is something often lacking in the smartphone space but kudos to Xiaomi for achieving it with so many little things thrown into the mix.

Display

mi 11

The display on the Mi 11 really is flagship grade, and it provides one heck of a platform to enjoy your favorite apps, games, and video content. It’s large and spacious but the weird bezel arrangement and shape that happens to be the result of the almost notched corner bezels can be hard to get used to.

Only an upper-left punch-hole permeates the QHD+ display, and it laps the edges of the side bezels. However, there is a slight chin and mini forehead protruding through. It’s not enough to be a problem, but there are a few software-related issues to this design that I noticed. Simply put, the fullscreen gestures can be affected because of this design and MIUI 12.

I actually thought that the Mi 11 initially utilized an under-display earpiece, but Xiaomi has slimmed down the cutout to the point where it’s practically invisible. The punch-hole though does feel as though it’s justified to the right more so than I would personally like.

Those gripes melt away when the Mi 11’s QHD+ panel is in full flow though. Being able to run at 120Hz at that native resolution is a huge bonus although some apps will revert to 60 or even 90Hz, which you can sometimes notice.

There is an Apple True Tone clone here that tunes to your current lighting conditions, but I’d suggest just slapping into the Saturated mode and enjoying a real Technicolor experience. Sure, accurate color rendition is here but sometimes it’s nice to dial things up and with such a good panel I highly recommend doing so.

Software & performance

MIUI 12 ships with the Xiaomi Mi 11, and to borrow a very British cliché, it is very much like Marmite. By that I mean that you will either love it or hate it. I find MIUI fairly abrasive as sometimes there are changes made for the sake of differentiation that leads to confusion and — in many cases — bugs and UI issues.

A major case in point would be the notification shade. The layout is fairly standard but when connecting to Bluetooth earbuds such as the Pixel Buds, a notification can be unceremoniously cut in half. This leaves a portion of the actual notification missing, therefore lacking in some important detail such as earbud battery percentage.

The dark mode causes problems with multiple apps as MIUI 12 sees fit to change the color schemes in order to “fit.” To rectify, you need to delve into the heavily altered Settings menu to “turn off” dark mode on an app-by-app basis. Even if an app has a dedicated dark mode, it may look different on the Mi 11 as the OS applies another dark coat of paint over the top. It’s frustrating at times, infuriating for the most part.

Simple things can feel crowded and unorganized. The usage of an Apple-like “Control Center” is something you should disable immediately as it renders the swipe down from your home screen ineffective or at the very least convoluted.

mi 11

One major reason I find sticking with a Xiaomi phone for massively extended periods has always been the organization of the Settings menu. It’s just a chore to find things that would otherwise be in sensible places in other OEM skins. It takes quite a lot of effort to find your way around if you’ve become accustomed to other Android devices, and it makes things incredibly frustrating.

I cannot deny though that if you like extra features, then, boy, do you have them on the Mi 11. Xiaomi has a laundry list of extras that are available right out of the box. Floating windows, options to change the recent menu UI, a Zen Mode copycat, control center, plus way more.

To me at least, the software design and UI decisions hinder what is almost ludicrous performance courtesy of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chipset and 8GB of RAM. I’ve yet to try and do something that the internals can’t handle. Gaming, multitasking, rendering 4K video with Premiere Rush, the Mi 11 doesn’t break a sweat.

When gaming, things can get a little warm but not uncomfortably so. I did experience some heat when recording 8K video, but that is not something I suggest as barely any displays can really push so many pixels anyway.

The only issues I had with regard to performance I’d pin down as MIUI-related. Notifications would sometimes come way later than on other devices in my vicinity. Before updating to MIUI 12.0.5 I would regularly miss notifications, and to remedy this, checking apps every so often became something I had to do to ensure I would get them.

Things have improved, but there is a slight delay compared to, say, the Pixel 4a, which is very much at the opposite end of the scale in terms of daily performance levels. I can’t foresee anyone picking up the Mi 11 and having daily performance issues though. It is simply a beast that competes with the very best on the market right now.

Camera

I’m in two minds about the Mi 11 camera setup. On the one hand, the 108-megapixel sensor is awesome and provides plenty of flexibility as digitally cropping doesn’t hugely diminish photo and video quality. However, sometimes it would be nice to punch in and truly retain detail. If you’ve ever read a review from yours truly, you’ll know how much of a sucker I am for a periscope zoom or telephoto. Sure, a wide-angle-lens is nice, but get me closer to the action from afar, and the re-framing possibilities are almost endless.

Being able to take native 108-megapixel images is also quite cool, but the pixel-binned 27-megapixel or 5-megapixel “Super Pixel” shots are less noisy and still have plenty of added detail. The end results are very good. No, they are not the best you’ll see from a smartphone, but the Mi 11 really does hang in with that group. I’d personally say that I do often prefer the images produced to that of my Pixel 4a (my main device at the time of writing).

Dynamic range is solid and colors have been dialed back to be more accurate when the AI scene detection is deactivated. The massive sensor provides great depth of field rather than relying on a dedicated portrait lens, and the level of detail has me wanting to take images. Granted it isn’t all perfect, the Night Mode can be a little grainy and noisy, but then again show me a smartphone night shooting mode that isn’t.

There happens to be a ton of editing tools within the slightly cluttered camera app that might appeal to people wanting more tools to tweak their photos — and videos. The AI sky editing is actually very impressive as it allows you to superimpose various day and night conditions by detecting the skyline and making necessary adjustments. It’s a massive gimmick but one that produces eerily convincing results.

Xiaomi’s sky replacement is impressive

Video modes are similarly stacked with Mi 11 capable of shooting in 720p all the way up to 8K at 30fps. HDR video is also available up to and including 4K at 30fps. Slow-motion is offered at up to 1080p 480fps, but for most people being able to shoot at 60fps then slow in post is probably more than fine. There are plenty of other modes available with OIS helping ensure that things look silky smooth at whatever resolution you happen to shoot at.

The resulting video at various resolutions is very good, autofocus does kick into gear a little too frequently for my own taste and certain colors such as greens can be a little oversaturated, but I have been very happy with what video I have shot with the Mi 11. The OIS is pretty fantastic in my experience, even when shooting handheld.

Battery

mi 11

And now for the one area that sort of lets down Xiaomi’s efforts with the Mi 11 — the battery longevity. I find that battery life is normally one portion of a device that I find really hard to compromise upon. Sure the 4,600mAh cell is fairly big, it just doesn’t quite manage to outlast the competition.

Sure, you’ll get a day of normal or moderate usage with a bit of light gaming and some video streaming without too much stress. Stray into the “heavy usage” camp though and things start to get a bit precarious. By the end of the day, I could regularly see the % figure in the upper right of the Mi 11 display under the 10% mark.

I tried ditching the Wi-Fi for a fairly spotty 5G connection where I live and this hammered the battery life. I saw fit to charge at around 1 p.m. when the battery was rapidly approaching 40% remaining. I’m not sure if this is software-related problem or I have a rogue app doing damage in the background — which seems unlikely given MIUI’s ruthless background app process management.

So while the battery is a bit of a question mark, dang, is the 55W charging a godsend. The addition of 50W wireless charging with a supported charger is another big bonus. Just 10 minutes would get me 20% to 30% back, meaning any stress was alleviated. What’s even nicer is the inclusion of a GaN charger in the box, so you don’t even have to shell out extra to access such fast speeds.

It actually takes less than an hour to go from 0 to 100% with the bundled 55W charger. Just what that will do to the long-term lifespan remains unclear but at least for now, it’s almost essential if you plan on being glued to the Mi 11 for hours upon hours each day.

Xiaomi Mi 11: Tidbits

In-display fingerprint reader

It’s fast and accurate but it can get in the way of certain software UI elements. The placement is very good in an easy-to-reach position. More like this please!

Haptics

I commented during the Poco X3 NFC review that Xiaomi really has done a great job with the haptics on such a budget device. Well, that has continued here. The Xiaomi Mi 11’s haptics are nothing short of superb. Typing and tapping feels great with plenty of body, and although we’re still quite away from Taptic Engine levels of feedback, Android OEMs are really starting to catch up and get close.

Speakers

The Harmon Kardon tagged speakers on the Mi 11 aren’t bad at all. There is a fairly deep bass level that won’t “wow,” but all types of video and gaming content is elevated thanks to the speaker setup. The only downside is that the positioning means that you might muffle things accidentally when holding the phone in landscape.

Availability

The Mi 11’s limited North American “official” availability is a real disappointment as it stands toe-to-toe and even exceeds many of the established players within its price segment. If sanctions were removed and Xiaomi were able to sell to US consumers directly, we could see Samsung really push to improve devices sold to American buyers.

Final thoughts

My time with the Xiaomi Mi 11 has not been perfect, but there is no denying that if you can get it in your region, it’s a real contender for the best device of 2021 so far. Granted the pickings are slim and Qualcomm Snapdragon 888-powered Android devices are few and far between. I’m concerned about the software situation, as there has been little information as to how long the Mi 11 will be updated nor any update schedule forthcoming.

The camera is pretty fantastic but with a few quirks and traits that you will have to learn to love. It’s a shame a periscope zoom lens wasn’t added to the mix to really “complete” the camera package.

This isn’t a direct competitor to Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra, although it does encroach a little in most “core” areas. A Mi 11 Ultra is set to arrive in the coming months, which will likely bump the camera capabilities — and likely the price — to give the S21 Ultra true direct competitor. If Xiaomi can make a few tweaks, it might be among the best to hit the market at this early stage of 2021.

With all of those concerns put to the side though, the Xiaomi Mi 11 is a very impressive package that runs well, has a good camera, great display, fairly middling battery, and it comes in at a price lower than the base level Galaxy S21. In terms of sheer specifications alone, there is nothing out there right now that can compete in terms of value – it’s just a shame the software lets things down in terms of usability as MIUI 12 is the most feature-rich OEM skin that we have ever used.

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