If you're looking for value for money when buying a smartphone, it's the newer companies that will offer it. Samsung has a great phone in the Galaxy S10+, but stacking it against the Xiaomi Mi 9 will leave you scratching your head. 

For all of the refinement that you get in top-tier flagship phones, when you're getting that performance from a device that's nearly half the price, where does the smart money go?

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Great design, but go for a colour

  • 157.5 x 74.67 x 7.61mm, 173g
  • Glass back with holographic finishes
  • Under-glass fingerprint scanner 

If you've seen a Mi phone before then the Mi 9 won't surprise you. It's a little curvier but not hugely different in appearance to the Mi 8, apart from moving the fingerprint scanner off the rear of the phone and under the display. That was the same move made by the Mi 8 Pro, with its geeky transparent rear, meaning a sleeker look to the back, perfect for those glorious colours Xiaomi offers.

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Unless you're planning on putting the Mi 9 in a case, buy one of the coloured versions of this phone, because the holographic effect on the rear is really good, giving shimmer and depth. There's also a transparent version again, but it's likely to be more expensive. The review version here is the Piano Black. It's safe - a little boring - but will probably be the biggest seller. 

The combination of glass and metal doesn't differ wildly from other models out there as it now seems to be the flagship formula. Xiaomi doesn't do waterproofing, so there's no IP rating and that's one of the things that stands it apart from more expensive rivals like Samsung.

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Turning to the fingerprint scanner under the display, it's of the optical variety, meaning it uses light to scan your finger and will be confused by wet hands or dirty fingers. It's more prone to failure than ultrasonic scanners - as you'll find in the Galaxy S10 - and that plays out in the experience too. It's just a little less reliable than the more expensive version, but not by much. 

Tear drop display 

  • 6.39-inch AMOLED, 2340 x 1080 pixels, 403ppi
  • 600 nit brightness
  • HDR support

The display on the Mi 9 is actually pretty good. Firstly the design: it's a flat display, no curves here, which gives you a nice big usable space, and there's a tear-drop notch at the top. This sees the intrusion cut down to little more than a pimple and while it's not quite as exciting as punch-hole cameras appearing on phones like the Honor View 20, there's little to complain about. On the Mi 8 we found the notch jutting into the middle of some apps and here things are a lot better managed, so it's a better experience.

One of the things that lets Xiaomi minimise the notch is that it has a single front camera and that the speaker is pushed off the display to the top edge against the frame - a neat solution - but more on the speaker performance later.

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Like many Chinese companies, Xiaomi is pushing the fact it's using AMOLED - a Samsung sourced display - as a badge of quality. It is a good display and while it won't push those higher resolutions that more expensive phones offer, it performs well.

This is also a bright display with 600 nits and you'll see that when you step into bright conditions. Like Samsung, the brightness will ramp up to cut away reflections so you can still see everything, although this does also increase the vibrancy of some colours so they look a little unrealistic. 

It supports HDR, although it's not on Netflix's list of supported devices, so you're unlikely to find any HDR source content - not that that's a hugely important factor. Watching Star Trek: Discovery on Netflix resulted in vibrant and glorious colours, great handling of those darker scenes, playing to the strengths of OLED.

In truth, unless you crave more detail, there's very little to complain about.

Hardware and performance 

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 855, 6GB RAM
  • 64/128GB storage
  • 3300mAh battery
  • 20W wireless and 27W wired charging 

One of the exciting things about the Mi 9 is that it is one of the first devices to appear using Qualcomm's latest hardware, the Snapdragon 855. Certainly, in the absence of OnePlus announcing its new phone, this is the most affordable phones on this hardware. 

The Snapdragon 855 is paired with 6GB RAM and the experience is as powerful as you'd expect it to be. Everything happens with speed and this phone has no problem tackling busy tasks without hesitation. It'll offer to play your games at the top settings and skips around apps with ease for a flagship experience.

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With that said, it's not a hugely different experience to Snapdragon 845 devices, which are also excellent. While benchmarks will tell you it performs better, in reality, that's not something you really see in day-to-day use.

There are two storage options at 64GB and 128GB, but there's no microSD expansion, which is a bit of a limitation - opt for the 128GB version to make sure that there's enough space for everything you want to download and carry around with you, although it costs £50 more at £549.

In terms of the battery life, the Mi 9 is average in that it doesn't really deviate from other flagship phones. That means basically charging it every night unless you're a really light user. On light days the Mi 9 will survive well in to the evening without bother, but much depends on how you use it. Essentially, you'll be charging it every day.

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Charging has some advantages with this phone being the first to offer Qualcomm Quick Charge wireless charging rated at 20W, in addition to 27W wired charging. It's not as fast as Oppo, but how quickly do you need to recharge your phone?

When it comes to the speakers, there's only one on the base of this phone, so it's easy to cover with your hand. But the sound quality is better than previous Mi devices, giving a fuller sound with more bass - it's just a shame that the speaker is so easily covered when holding the phone in landscape - for example when gaming. There's no 3.5mm headphone socket either.

A new triple camera system

  • Main: 48MP, f/1.75
  • Zoom: 12MP, f/2.2, 2x zoom
  • Wide: 16MP, f/2.2
  • Front: 20MP, f/2.0

Xiaomi punches home its specs advantage saying that it has a 48-megapixel main camera on its triple camera system - but normally it shoots in 12-megapixel mode. You don't actually capture 48-megapixels unless you go and find that option and turn it on. Doing so then means you can't use a range of other functions - HDR, AI, portrait, zoom - so it's a bit of a double edge sword. You lose consumer features and what do you get in return? 

Well, that 48-megapixel camera will give you lots of detail, producing a larger file than it does in 12-megapixel mode, meaning it has greater scope for zooming and cropping. If you want larger images for display or want to zoom and crop at a later stage, the the 48MP mode will do that for you. For most people, however, ignoring the 48-megapixel mode will probably get you the best results, as you then have the full advantage of AI and HDR.

Using a 48-megapixel sensor isn't some sort of silver bullet - so much comes down to processing and other factors that you can't just say that more megapixels results in a better camera. (Since writing this review the 48MP mode in the camera app has moved from the camera menu to the list of photo modes you can swipe through, so it's now more obvious than it previously was.)

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It does raise a question over the 2x zoom too. The zoom lens is arguably the weakest link and we're left with a feeling that Xiaomi could have used sensor cropping on the 48-megapixel sensor instead, in the way that Nokia's old PureView did, suggesting that Xiaomi is as much playing to spec sheet marketing as anything else.

The zoom lens provides easy 2x optical zoom, accepting that the narrower aperture isn't as adept as the main camera at capturing light. That results in lower quality images and a slight change in white balance in many cases. In low light conditions, the Mi 9 does indeed drop the dedicated zoom camera and use the main sensor instead - even when you're just indoors.

The zoom camera is also used when you take portrait photos. That's right, it switches to the camera with the worst aperture for producing bokeh, and then uses it to make fake bokeh. It provides you with a lot of options, including depth adjustment (which is live), studio lighting and other effects. It can over-expose a little and putting it side-to-side with the Pixel 3 XL and its single lens solution, we found come occasions where the Pixel was just a lot better. It's not about the capture hardware and more about the processing, with the Pixel giving us a little more drama.

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We're actually really impressed with the main Xiaomi Mi 9 camera overall though. The main camera takes great shots in most situations, offering an AI mode that will try to boost the scene is recognises. It's not quite as natural as Samsung's offering on the Galaxy S10+, but it adds a keenness to Xiaomi's photos that will be popular with those sharing online, full of vibrancy in good conditions, like richer skies and grass, a sort of idealised vision.

The wide-angle is especially welcome. It's always been fun to use wide-angle on LG's phones but now you have more options for such capabilities. Xiaomi says it's great for macro photos too, but does struggle to focus if you're trying to take a close-up of something that doesn't really fill the frame.

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Low light shooting isn't as adept as the best out there. It's not as good as the Huawei P30 Pro and it won't turn night into day like the Pixel 3, but it will have a go - mostly through ramping the ISO up incredibly high. That's noticeable on the front camera particularly, where low-light selfies are a bit rubbish. There will be a Moon mode coming as a software update, so we know things are likely to get better.

Selfies from the 20-megapixel camera do give you plenty of options though. There's beauty and face-perfecting alterations you can make and an effective portrait/bokeh mode. 

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Video is generous as Xiaomi hits major spec points. Good, clean 4K at either 30 or 60fps is offered, along with more conventional full HD options, slow motion and timelapse. There is video stabilisation, although it can't match the skills of Samsung of Sony in this regard and it's not all that steady. 

Overall though, you're getting a lot for your money. There are phones just a little cheaper than the Mi 9 that don't get anywhere near this quality and that makes it really competitive. Most phones with this range of photography options cost at least a third more, so again, it's a highlight of the phone.

MIUI lags behind

  • MIUI 10
  • Android 9 Pie

Xiaomi's biggest problem - and the biggest failing of the Mi 9 - is software. The company's first product was MIUI back in 2010 and it doggedly sticks to its Android skin, giving Android a huge makeover. That sees lots of bloatware, lots of apps you can uninstall, and a change to just about every facet of Android.

A lot of this you can replace to make everything better. Using Google's own options will give you closer parity with your Google account - switching to Chrome, Messenger and Google Calendar is a start - but there's still a whole selection to round up into a folder called "junk", apps you can't delete.

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The experience is better than when we reviewed the Mi 8 as things get ironed out, but there are still bugs. We found that instant replies through message notifications put the reply text over existing text in the notification; a little concerningly, without any prompting, Mi Pay also appeared* on the phone. It can't be removed and won't be used, so does leave you wondering who is actually making the decisions about what you have on your phone.

(*Xiaomi have been in touch with the following statement: Mi Pay is Xiaomi's payment app which is integrated within MIUI and is pre-installed as a system app with every MIUI smartphone. In the global version of MIUI, Mi Pay has been hidden because the payment service is not yet available in many global markets. The recent appearance of Mi Pay on some users' phones occurred erroneously as Xiaomi is preparing for its launch in India. We are working on the updates and will notify the users as soon as possible. We sincerely apologise for any inconvenience caused.)

The long and short of it is that Xiaomi disappeared down a hole with MIUI a long time ago. It's still digging, rather than backing up towards something like Android One, and we can't help feeling that all the additions and changes really don't do huge amounts for the user experience. At this price that's not too concerning, but there's no avoiding that, on the whole, the OnePlus software experience is better, and the OnePlus 7 will likely be a huge competitor. It's software that keeps the Mi 9 from greatness, but if that's something you can accommodate, then this is a great phone.

Verdict

The Xiaomi Mi 9 is the most compelling phone we've seen from Xiaomi so far. Although the design isn't a revolution from the Mi 8, it does feel like it's a lot more advanced. The camera offers more fun with that wide-angle lens, the in-display fingerprint scanner keeps up with the latest trends and the display notch and handling is better. We've also enjoyed it more than the Mi 8 Pro too - the software just seems better on this newer model.

Xiaomi undercuts the big names significantly when it comes to price; what you lose here in refinement and experience from the Samsung Galaxy S10+, you gain in cash. Samsung has the better phone, but is that much better?

Xiaomi's natural rivals are from Honor - with the appeal of Qualcomm over Kirin hardware - and OnePlus - yet to release its latest phone. As we stand in early 2019, this is one of the best phones you can buy right now.

Originally published in March 2019.

Alternatives to consider

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Huawei P30 Pro

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If you want the best phone out there at the moment, then you'll be hard-pressed to find anything better than the Huawei P30 Pro. Evolving the offering of the Mate 20 Pro, Huawei offers power with huge battery performance, as well as a camera that's hard to beat. It offers excellent zoom and great low light shooting, but Huawei's prices now match the likes of Samsung - meaning it's a lot more expensive than the Mi 9. The Honor 20 is likely to be more reasonable - but you'll have to wait until later in May for that.

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Honor View 20

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Honor was quick off the mark offering a hole punch front camera and offering a mid-price phone with flagship specs, sitting on its latest Kirin hardware. It's a direct competitor to the Mi 9 offering parity in specs in a lot of areas and sitting around the same aggressive price point. Both rework Android fairly heavily, which is the biggest weakness of both.