The Xiaomi Mi Note 10 makes no hestitation in proudly shouting "first". For this is the first time a 108-megapixel sensor has made its way into a phone. Yes, one-hundred-and-eight megapixels. Not only that, the Note 10's penta camera arrangement means there are no fewer than five individual lenses and sensors, each there to deliver a different feature. This is a phone that wants to be all about photographic functionality.

It's also a phone that wants to be familiar in wider markets. Officially announced in China on 5 November 2019 as the Xiaomi Mi CC9, that name has dropped away for something altogether, um, more familiar: there's no doubting that the Note 10 name is certainly reflective of a propular Samsung Galaxy device (so Xiaomi's "CC" name is kind of ironic, as it could be read as "carbon copy").

Namesake aside, however, does the Xiaomi Mi Note 10's penta camera setup make for a genuinely impressive photo-focused phone, or is it just a lot of extras that adds relatively little? We've been living with one as our primary phone for a full week to test out how it handles.

Design & Display

  • Display: 6.47-inch 3D curved AMOLED, 1080 x 2340 resolution, 19.5:9 aspect ratio
  • Dimensions: 157.8 x 74.2 x 9.7mm / Weight: 208g
  • In-screen fingerprint scanner
  • 3.5mm headphone jack

Despite having a very clear camera-forward unique selling point, the Mi Note 10 arguably isn't a true flagship phone. Why? We'll get into the processor ins and outs later, but in simple terms it's because it's not the top-end hardware from Qualcomm.

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This perhaps sets the tone for why Xiaomi hasn't gone all-out in other design areas on the Mi Note 10. The screen, for example, hasn't gone down the waterfall display route, as embodied in the Vivo NEX 3, but Xiaomi has utilised 3D curved glass edges to both left and right sides to give the panel a greater sense of pop away from the phone's surface. 

That's not to say the Mi Note 10 doesn't look every bit the flagship though. The panel itself, a 6.47-inch AMOLED, is the same as you'll find in the Huawei P30 Pro – and given the demise of that Chinese company (due to US sancions and bans), Xiaomi is surely looking to establish itself as an obvious camera-heavy alternative here – with an elongated Full HD resolution. It doesn't excessively auto-dim, the colours have punch, while blacks are deep and rich. It's an attractive display.

There's a small notch up top of this screen, where the front-facing camera is tucked away, offering facial recognition unlock if you want it. We've preferred using the under-screen fingerprint scanner, though, which is about as good as such features get – it's quick and we've rarely had an issue logging in, although the Vivo Apex Concept 2019 is the device that really rules in this department (shame that's not a real device, eh?).

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The Mi Note 10 is somewhat chunky, in part because that camera arrangement demands it, but also because it has a huge battery capacity. To negate that chunkiness those curved screen edges help it not feel too massive – but they can cause some accidental touches, resulting in on-screen action – despite this phone's camera bump making it wider than the chunkier-framed OnePlus 7T Pro.

Interestingly, the Mi Note 10 comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack, which is becoming a rarer sight in smartphones these days. There's plenty of room within this thick frame to accommodate it, of course, so we're pleased the opportunity has been taken rather than not. As the front speaker quality is poor for calls, you might find yourself using wired or Bluetooth headphones for calls anyway.

Flip the phone over and you'll immediately spy that camera arrangement. The three main lenses feature in a considerable bump, which protrudes from the rear, well, just a bit too much. Lay the phone flat on a table and it'll wobble around as you tap it, given the to-the-side camera position. Perhaps the centre would have been a more balanced position for such a feature. Aside from the protrusion we like the way it looks; it's a lot more balanced and visually pleasing than the iPhone 11 Pro (although we do love that phone's green colour option).

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Otherwise the Xiaomi's rear is a glossy glass, featuring the company's new logo to the lower corner (only existing fans will notice the font change), finished here in a subdued grey (Xiaomi calls it Midnight Black, we're not convinced on the accuracy of that) that helps any obvious fingerprints from appearing too prominently. There's no fancy gradient colour finishes, but we're hopeful one of the more eye-catching colours (Glacier White and Aurora Green will also be available – there are also blue and red options, just not for the EU region it would seem).

Hardware & Performance

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor, 6GB RAM
  • 128GB storage, no microSD card slot
  • 5260mAh battery capacity
  • 30W USB-C fast-charge
  • MiUI 11 software
  • Dual SIM

And so back to our point about the Mi Note 10 arguably not being a true top-of-the-stack flagship. At its heart is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G, which is an overclocked version of the standard 730, bringing a little more graphical grunt and being designed to eke more out of camera and gaming applications thanks to separate chipsets on the platform. It's perfectly powerful enough, but it's no Snapdragon 855 – which you can find in the highly affordable Mi 9T Pro – as found at the top of Qualcomm's current offering.

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But does this really matter? Generally it doesn't for most things. Gaming is no trouble, with our evening hours whiled playing South Park: Phone Destroyer. Having multiple apps open and flicking between them is smooth. All that day-to-day work and play won't throw up hurdles or slow you down when it comes to a variety of apps.

The hindrance comes with some of the more demanding tasks that are inevitable from a phone with a 108MP main camera. The camera app isn't especially quick to flick between its different camera options, the processing time for a 108-megapixel shot is longer than we'd like (leaving the camera ineligible to shoot), and we suspect a more powerful hardware setup could further aid this kind of performance – as could some software tweaks.

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Speaking of software, the MiUI 11 skin brings its own set of challenges. If you're used to Google's Android OS, which this is based upon, then it's not a massive shift, but as Xiaomi is a Chinese brand it brings its own apps and store in addition to Google's Play Store (the former exists because it's a must-have in China for user security – apps aren't Google verified over there, hence the big brands handling this themselves).

That means we've had both Play Store and Xiaomi's own store updating different apps at different times, the latter all Xiaomi specific and system apps. Alerts can be a bit haphazard, with some repeating even once we've disabled them within the settings. The 'Silent' mode also isn't silent, requiring much deeper tweaks to ensure both sound and vibration are disengaged. But there are also useful features, such as Dual Apps, for duplicating apps that you may wish to use with a dual SIM setup (there's no microSD card slot, by the way, it's 128GB storage with no expansion).

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Given the dimensions of this phone's design, it's able to cram in a really large battery capacity. At 5,260mAh it's one of the most capacious batteries we've ever seen in a phone, which sets this device in good stead for super-long innings. While we've never had a problem making it through long days of use, the battery doesn't quite click into two-day mode, which is what we thought more likely. Still, getting through 20 hours with no issues when using all manner of apps shows decent longevity. There's 30W fast-charging, too, for when you need those rapid top-ups.

Five Cameras

  • Wide-angle (1x / 25mm equiv.): 108MP, f/1.7 aperture, 0.8µm pixel size, optical stabilisation (OIS)
    • Uses 4-in-1 pixel method for 27MP shots as standard
  • Ultra-wide (0.6x / 13mm equiv.): 20MP, f/2.2 aperture, 1.0µm pixel size
  • Zoom (2x / 50mm equiv.): 12MP, f/2.0 aperture, 1.4µm pixel size
  • Zoom (5x / 125mm equiv.): 8MP, f/2.0 aperture, optical stabilisation (OIS)
  • Macro: 2MP, f/2.4 aperture, 1.75µm pixel size
    • Doubles-up as depth sensor
  • Front-facing: 32MP, f/2.0 aperture, 0.8µm pixel size

And so we arrive at the Mi Note 10's big sell: its penta camera arrangement. Which, as it turns out, is a mixture of inspired and tired. We'll get the main two bad points out of the way first.

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Really the so-called fifth camera, a 2-megapixel macro for close-up shots, is something we've seen before on both the Moto One Macro and Honor 20 phones – and in all instances it's of limited use for a multitude of reasons, from its small scale output, to poor processing, and inability to function well in low light. The idea of shooting close-up to subjects sounds great, but the implementation is anything but a high-end feature.

Then there's low-light performance from the main camera set. It's just not very good. We shot some night scenes when on vacation in Toronto, Canada, and found the prominent grain in shots to be excessive, lacking the sort of night mode smarts that you'll find in the Apple iPhone 11 Pro, Google Pixel 4 or Huawei P30 Pro.

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For such a camera-focused phone to sit behind in this department feels at odds with its main sell. But part of this performance is down to the mixture of lenses: the main sensor is far better in low-light than the wide-angle or either zoom lens, for example, but a user might not think through that when framing things as they'd like.

There's also a dedicated night mode, said to be in version 2.0, but while it did a good enough job of capturing sunrise over the city in Toronto – see the shot below – it just lacks that intricacy of its main competition.

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Fortunately it's far from being all bad news. Those four main camera options enable versatility in shooting, whether that's ultra-wide or snapping a distant subject as if closer in the frame. However, switching between camera modes and zoom steps is too slow at present, as we said above, but the results between the different sensors look fairly consistent when shooting in daytime for best quality – which is something other makers, including Huawei and Oppo with its Reno 10x Zoom handset, have struggled to achieve.

The quality from frame to frame does differ on account of the available resolution, which is a given. The main sensor shoots 27MP shots by default (it uses four-in-one so-called "Super Pixel" processing, using the available 108MP resolution and pulling four pixels into one for optimum results), the 2x zoom is 12MP, while the 5x zoom is 8MP. Those are optical zoom solutions, meaning no cropping, for greater resolve. The 5x also comes with optical image stabilisation, which can be felt in use; it's like an added air-cradle to steady shots when shooting.

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At its best the Mi Note 10's shots have plenty of detail and colour. Take one look at the photo above of a T-Rex dinosaur statue located in the crazy golf park at Niagara, shot using the main camera, and the details of its scales are distinctive. When there's light, the Mi Note 10 is happy to deliver strong results.

However, at the full 108MP resolution – which is available through a dedicated mode – the main sensor doesn't function quite as well. First of all, it's more pixels than you're ever going to need. Second, the camera is poor at sensing subject movement, so despite there being optical stabilisation it doesn't make the best of situations through lack of an intelligent interface – we've got loads of landscape shots out of a plane window and all of them have movement in them, which a faster shutter could have fixed. Third, it doesn't deliver the sharpest of results, with some colour abberation oddities throughout the frame, as visible in the shot of Niagara Falls in the gallery below.

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So the Mi Note 10's big sell is, ultimately, a mixed bag. Sure, it's the first with a 108MP sensor, but that's best for taking potentially great 27MP shots rather than at its full resolution. Xiaomi currently seems to lack the processing smarts for low-light shooting across the board, while its night mode isn't a leader among the advancing pack, and in-camera operation is a little plodding.

It's often great, certainly versatile, and in a relatively affordable phone there's a lot to like about these cameras. But it's also an oversell in some regards.

Verdict

The first phone to bring a 108-megapixel camera to the fore brings some other interesting features, including a ultra-capacious battery, attractive OLED display, and decent in-screen fingerprint scanner.

But, as we all know from the old YouTube adage (yes, we're calling it that), being first isn't always being best. While the Mi Note 10 brings camera versatility, its macro is poor (a standard in the industry at present), its low-light capability can't compete with the best, the app and processing could be faster (perhaps a knock-on from using a mid-level processor), and those points all add up – especially for a phone that's supposed to be so camera centric.

That's the summary of the Mi Note 10: it's got some great prospects, runs smooth, but the foibles in those areas where it's supposed to be outstanding also can't be ignored. It's also a good first go at what a 108MP sensor can do with some processing trickery, as the 27MP default images here are loaded with potential.

Also consider

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Oppo Reno 10X

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This phone has one of the most versatile camera systems on the planet, a cool-looking pop-up camera, great battery life and software that is miles better than it was even two years ago. That said, it doesn't precisely better the Xiaomi with its main three cameras either.

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Huawei P30 Pro

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A personal favourite, Huawei began the charge for multi-camera solutions, with this ultra-wide and 5x zoom option being a great success. The designer is neater, the gradient options better looking, and the camera bump not quite as considerable as the Xiaomi.

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Apple iPhone 11 Pro

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We still think this triple camera arrangement is unsightly, but the results speak for themselves. If you're into Apple's iOS software approach then it's the best iPhone option going.

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Google Pixel 4 XL

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Although the battery life is poor, the Pixel has to be listed for its Night Sight low-light mode. There's nothing that can quite compete with that.