Xiaomi Poco F1 Review: The Budget Flagship has a New Benchmark

What’s super special? Nothing...and everything

by: - Last updated on: August 22nd, 2018

What’s so special about him? He only scores goals!

That question was asked by a very annoyed athlete about German football legend Gerd Muller, nicknamed Der Bomber (The Bomber). In an age of footballing artists like Pele, Tostao, John Cryuff and Frank Beckenbauer (Der Kaiser), Muller was the artisan. Relatively short in height, he was, however, blessed with very muscular legs. He would not turn heads in a crowd, and his football skills were good, rather than exceptional – he did not do fancy dribbles or pirouettes. But somehow, whenever a goal needed to be scored, there he was. Solid, reliable and with a kick that converted a football into something fired from a canon. No one knew quite how he did it. He just did.

The F1, the first phone from Xiaomi’s sister brand, Poco is so like that.

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Not meant to stand out visually

The design of the Poco F1 is going to be divisive. At a time when most manufacturers are going for various permutations of glass and metal as far as phone externals go, Xiaomi has decided rather boldly to go with polycarbonate way in two variants and with Kevlar in its high end one. While we got the Kevlar variant to review, we did spend some time with the polycarbonate ones too. And we have just two words to say about them all:

Rock solid.

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Remember those incredibly well-built polycarbonate devices we used to get from Nokia in the Lumia era? Well, cut out the flashy gloss and focus instead on the sheer solidity of those worthies, and you encapsulate the feel of the Poco F1. At first glance, nothing will really strike you about the device. The front is all about the 6.18-inch, “tall”, full HD+ display with a notch and relatively slim (though not Mi Mix class) bezels. The centrally located, vertical dual camera set up on the rear is perhaps the phone’s most eye-grabbing feature because the camera lenses are outlined in red on the Kevlar variant. But that apart, it is business as usual – volume and power buttons on the right, SIM tray on the left, a USB type C port and speaker grille on the base and hooray, a 3.5 mm audio jack on top. It is a slightly long-ish phone (not as two-handed as some but definitely one better handled with both hands), and about 9 mm in thickness, it is not the slimmest we have used, nor at 186 grams, the lightest. But it is perhaps the most reassuringly solid device we have held in our hands for a while. Of course, the Kevlar variant is especially tough – that is the same material used in bulletproof vests and ah, by that gent called Batman.

It might have turned most flagship design beliefs on their heads (the need to be slim, glassy, et al.), but the Poco F1 is not a phone that will scream for attention when you place it on the table. But neither will it make you scream in fear when it falls off it. No, we have not been dropping the phone all over the place, but it does seem built to last a fair bit longer than some of the glassy gizmos we have seen. Which is why while there is a translucent case in the box, we do not really think you should be using it. That is not something you say about too many flagship devices these days. In an age of lean, mean machines, the Poco F1 is more about chunky muscle.

Flagship specs, flagship performance

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And it does pack in some very hefty muscle hardware wise. The display is a bright one and is great for watching videos and playing games – colors are well handled, and contrasts are good. However, the real selling point as per many is what lies beneath it – the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip, which is pretty much THE flagship chip of the time. RAM and storage are also not in short supply – the phone comes with 6 GB/64 GB, 6 GB/128 GB, and 8 GB/256 GB RAM and storage variants, with expandable memory, provided you are ready to give up one of the two SIM card slots on the left. Then, of course, there is the reason for the girth of the device – a massive 4000 mAh with support for fast charging. Connectivity wise, the phone ticks the 4G, GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth boxes.

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On the software side, the phone comes with Android 8.1, with not just Xiaomi’s MIUI overlay (9.6) but also a launcher of its own, called Poco Launcher. It adds a few touches like an app drawer and the classification of apps in different categories. Of course, being based on MIUI at its core, it also comes with the usual Xiaomi apps including Mi Drop, Recorder, Compass, File Manager and so on. Android purists will frown, but honestly, we like the richer interface and the fact that you get gestures that work smoothly (we would recommend getting rid of those onscreen navigation buttons) and a more comprehensive 3D Face Unlock, which cannot be fooled by closed eyes!

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Of course, all that hardware goodness means that the Poco F1 is capable of handling pretty much everything you throw at it and then some. It handled PUBG at maxed out settings without any trouble at all, and games like Asphalt Legend and Hitman: Sniper literally flew on it. Xiaomi claims to have used a special cooling technology to ensure the phone does not heat it. Well, it certainly works because we never felt the F1 go beyond being very mildly warm. This is a phone for heavy-duty gaming, really. And that battery means you can actually do a lot of gaming and videos and STILL get through most of the day on a single charge comfortably. And if you are a more general user whose interests are more in social networks, the Web, mail and messaging, rejoice, because the Poco F1 joins the (much more expensive) Huawei P20 Pro as one of the few flagships that can last a day and a half of normal use on a single charge and with careful nursing can even get into two day territory. Sound quality is very good on headphones and decent on the speakers – it scores on volume even though the quality might have been better.

Cameras worth saying cheese to

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The cameras on the Poco F1 are not spec barnstormers – the rear cameras are a 12 and 5-megapixel combination, and the front-facing camera is a 20-megapixel shooter. Xiaomi, however, claims that the main rear camera is similar to the one used on its flagship Mi 8. And well, in good daylight, it certainly delivers very good results. There is an AI mode which identifies scenes and tweaks settings, but it is a far less aggressive performer than on the Huawei and Honor devices – you might notice saturation levels being upped ever so slightly when it comes to the sky and food stuff but never to levels that seem unreal or over the top (and you can turn it off if things are not to your fancy). In good light conditions, you are always going to get a lot of detail, even if some users might find colors to be a trifle on the saturated side. In those circumstances, it is every bit as good as the OnePlus 6 – we would even go as far as to say that it is more consistent than that Never Settler.

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Low light photography is a bit of an Achilles Heel, though and in some ways is reminiscent of the Mi A2 – colors come out well, but there is noise and details can get washed out. The selfie snapper delivers some great vanity shots, and once again, like the Mi A2, is surprisingly good in portrait mode, getting most of the edges right, and blurring out background beautifully. Videos are in general above average, but not exceptional. These are a set of cameras that might not be your first choice, but you will never regret having them around, because like so much of the phone, they just work.

Killer, but it ain’t just about the price

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It has great specs, great performance (that battery life!) and the most solid build we have seen on a phone for a while. What, however, is going to grab the most attention for the Poco F1 initially is its pricing. At Rs 20,999 for the 6 GB / 64 GB variant, Rs 23,999 for the 6 GB/ 128 GB variant, Rs 28,999 for the normal 8GB/ 256GB variant and Rs 29,999 for the 8 GB/ 256 GB Kevlar variant, the Poco F1 easily is one of the most affordable devices with flagship specs in the Indian market. The pricing might even remind some people of the Mi 3 – the phone that started it all for Xiaomi in India. And of course, there will be the a talk of wars with the OnePlus 6, the Asus Zenfone 5Z and the Honor Play, the other phones that are angling for that “budget flagship” crown.

It would, however, be a bit of an injustice if the Poco F1 were to be recommended only for its price. For, it is a bit of an odd fish in a very even pond. At a time when brands try to find defining selling points (displays, cameras, design materials, you name it) for their devices, the F1 is a marketing headache because it simply does… well, everything (yes, speed is supposed to be its forte, but there are other speedy devices in tech town). In some ways, we would say it sets a benchmark for the budget flagship simply because, in an era of specialists, it dares to be a durable all-rounder – a trait that is reminiscent of many Redmi devices. And that is not a bad thing, really, for no matter what the geeks say about benchmarks and other hardware and software nuances, at the end of the day, most people in the market for a flagship device mainly want great performance without getting into bank overdraft mode. The Poco F1 delivers that. In spades.

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It is not going to be the first phone that comes to mind when someone talks of cutting-edge design. Nor will it be among the contenders for the greatest camera or display. Yes, its battery life and speed of performance are brilliant, but again it does not really stand alone in those departments. There are others. Even its price edge might get eroded with time (price edges always do – just ask Motorola).

And yet when you need to get something done. Speedily. Reliably. You will be surprised at how often you will find yourself reaching out for the Poco F1.

Because it simply works. Very well indeed.

What’s so special about it? Nothing. And everything.

It does not turn heads. It gets the job done.

Der Bomber.

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