It looks good, packs in the best cameras and charges up mighty fast too. Xiaomi’s most complete premium flagship smartphone till date seems perfect from the outside. And most of that holds true on the inside as well, when it comes to performance and raw power. But after using it for a few weeks I managed to find a few shortcomings. These may not matter to most, but it may be a deal-breaker for some.
Regardless, this is Xiaomi’s best foot forward, and it’s easy to say that it has done its homework after its solid first attempt at the low-end of the premium segment with the Mi 10 in 2020. As the name aptly suggests, the Mi 11 Ultra is not the direct successor to Mi 10, but to the Mi 10 Ultra that never made it to India.
The Mi 11 Ultra is priced at a staggering ₹69,999 (just a 12+256 GB option), which means that it will be out of reach of Xiaomi’s usual set of customers (budget). It’s competing with the big boys now (OnePlus, Samsung, Apple) and that comes with a cartload of expectations; not just in terms of the number of features it packs in, but how it delivers them as well.
Big is beautiful
For a smartphone that costs around Rs 70,000, the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra sure looks the part, feels premium and comes with an IP68 rating as well. The skinny metal frame is sandwiched between a quad-curved Gorilla Victus glass panel on the front and a ceramic panel at the back. During the review period I used the phone as a primary device without any case, so I was quite surprised that both the front and back panels held up quite well and showcased no scratches.
And then, there’s that gigantic camera bump at the back, that literally takes up a third of back panel. It is abnormally large and protrudes from the rest of the body that measures 8.38mm in thickness. But unlike OnePlus’s Cyberpunk edition smartphone, that large camera island (or plateau in this case) serves a solid purpose. The camera protrusion is also very thick, but I’m glad that it runs from edge to edge as it prevents the phone from wobbling. And because the phone sits at a slant with the top end propped up, it also makes the display easier to read when placed on a flat desk. Xiaomi also sent across the actual sensor that goes into the smartphone. The 1/1.2” custom GN2 sensor (made by Samsung) is best described as gigantic. To give you a size comparison, a similar-sized sensor is also used on the Sony RMX100M7 point and shoot, which is quite thick. So, I am incredibly amazed as to how Xiaomi’s engineers managed to squeeze it into this smartphone, even after you consider that thick camera bump.
That camera bump does get in your way when you hold the phone, but I actually found that to be a good thing. The OnePlus 9 Pro’s construction is a lot slimmer with the cameras recessed into the back glass. It makes for a nice unobtrusive finish, but it also makes the phone incredibly slippery and hard to grip. The Ultra’s chunky camera module forms an edge (it’s a smooth one) and I often found myself resting the phone’s camera on my index finger that made this large smartphone quite easy to hold and operate. Despite weighing 234 grams, I did not find its weight as uncomfortable as with the ASUS ROG Phone 5 (238 grams). Xiaomi’s design team seems to have done a fantastic job at making the chunky camera useful and making this large phone quite manageable for one-handed use.
A tale of two displays
The 6.81-inch display is larger (and better) than the 6.78-inch display that fits into a ROG Phone 5, but it’s unlike the latter, it makes the phone easy to handle and increases the cosmetic appeal of the device because this is a quad-curved panel. While most displays wrap-around (or curve around) the left and right sides of the phone (when held vertically), the Mi 11 Ultra’s display also curves at the top and the bottom edges. Thankfully, the display does not curve too much on the left and right sides and the curve is barely noticeable at the top and bottom edges, so it’s mostly cosmetic, and does not interrupt the viewing experience. So, it’s a good balance of practicality and aesthetics as swiping from curved bottom edge did feel smoother.
The QHD+ unit features a 120Hz display refresh rate and there’s enough pixels to ensure that everything that’s displayed looks incredibly sharp at 515ppi. It also gets quite bright and is clearly visible both indoors and outdoors whether you are watching Sexify or catching up with Shadow and Bone. Dark scenes or bright ones, it all looks good on this OLED panel that supports both HDR10+ and Dolby Vision (where available).
The display at the back is decent at best and its usefulness is mainly limited to the camera. It is touch-sensitive, and you can check the time and view contracted notifications. But you cannot react to the notifications, with the exception of disconnecting (or answering) an incoming call, which is why I rarely found myself using it.
Same old MIUI 12
MIUI 12 indeed could be one of the few reasons to not go in for this phone. Those into stock Android will hate it and those into customisation will love it. I belong to the latter which means I had a good time tweaking and playing around with the numerous options the software offers. What I did not like were the app doubles, because there’s a Xiaomi alternative (Notes) for every Google app (Keep); and then you have the third-party alternatives (OneNote/Evernote etc.) that most will end up downloading.
The team has reduced the usual bloat of extra apps and games to a bare minimum, the only addition or unnecessary app was GetApps. The dialler and the SMS app have been replaced by their Google alternatives. I also did not come across any ads or promotions save for the usual prompt to update installed apps from GetApp, and the notification from the Themes app to download new wallpapers, both of which can be switched off.
With a 120Hz display, the software can be best described as fluid. It performed day-to-day tasks of opening and closing apps without breaking sweat and even managed to keep apps in memory for quite a while.
What I did not like, was how the software did not merge well with the display. With the odd curves on all four edges instead of two, the corner cut-outs turned out to be quite large. And that meant that content sitting in the corners often got hidden or had too much wasted space depending on the orientation. The status bar for example was the definition of wasted screen space as Xiaomi could actually fit another status bar into the wasted space above it. MIUI 12 is also quite buggy, I had several instances where the back navigation button refused to work, the Game Turbo floating bar just disappears mid-game and more. Indeed, these are minor hiccups that can be resolved with an upcoming update.
Plenty of performance with no hiccups
While the software experience was top-notch, performance while playing graphically demanding games kept up as well. As with most flagships in 2021 performance is not a problem. Call of Duty: Mobile at the highest possible settings delivered a steady 60fps during gameplay and the same can be said about Asphalt 9 Legends. The phone handled the temps quite well and got hot only after extensive gameplay.
This of course depends on the gaming profile you choose in MIUI’s Game Turbo app. It’s a tool like the ROG Phone 5’s Armory Crate, just not as elaborate, but quite useful, nonetheless. There are per game touch optimisations (under Additional Settings) in the Game Turbo app for things that matter to smartphone gamers, like edge sensitivity, sensitivity to double taps, touch sampling sensitivity, swipe sensitivity and more. And you can also crank up the GPU depending on the gaming profile you choose, but I did not find it useful as most developers won’t allow an override. Xiaomi claims that the display offers 480Hz touch sensitivity, and things felt like it should when you change the Touch Controls to Pro mode (default is Classic mode) profile. Simply put, the Mi 11 Ultra may not be a gaming smartphone with unthrottled performance like the ROG Phone 5, but it’s no slouch and gets you a way better camera, when you are not gaming.
There’s no 3.5mm headphone jack, but Xiaomi does throw in a dongle for purists. What this flagship does get you is phenomenal sound! Tuned by the audio specialists at Harman Kardon, the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra packs in quite a punch, offers a decent soundstage and remains clear even when maxed out that made it perfect for watching movies and gaming. I compared it with the ROG Phone 5 I had lying around, and I must say that Xiaomi does have something going with the collaboration and must pursue it with future flagships.
It’s all about that camera
Impressive engineering aside, the camera system’s capabilities make it totally worth the bulk that it adds to the design; just like the Nokia 1020 did back in 2013 with its gigantic 41MP sensor. This assembly consists of a 50MP primary (wide), a 128-degree 48MP ultra-wide (with AF) and a 120mm periscope telephoto lens with 5X optical zoom.
The binned 12MP photos clicked in daylight come out quite well, with a hint of colour saturation. The details and dynamic range are spot-on, which means there’s plenty of detail also available in the darker parts of a scene. There’s also no excessive sharpening like on most other phones, so the output looks quite mature and polished. This not only applies to the primary, but ultra-wide and the telephoto cameras as well.
The telephoto in particular shot really clear photos till 5X and delivered usable photos at 10X. Any photos shot beyond that range, ended up looking like paintings, which is something I expected. What I really liked about the large sensor was that I barely needed to use the portrait mode when shooting closeups of objects. The larger than usual size and optics meant that most photos ended up with a natural bokeh that looked so much better than artificial stuff we are used to on other phones with smaller sensors. At the same time the shallow depth of field meant that the focus area was really small, meaning that only a part of your subject would be in focus.
After sunset, things still held up quite well. There is an ‘Enhanced mode’ in the camera settings that basically forced the camera to take longer exposures and clearer images, but this also meant longer wait times. Still, I preferred keeping this setting on, as it vastly improved the low light images shot in auto mode, which often fell short on dynamic range in the darker and brighter areas of a low light scene. If you were wondering, the results are indeed similar to the photos shot in the night mode, so you do get some super clear shots that are low on noise, bright and thanks to the algorithms not over-sharpened either. Even the output from the ultra-wide camera and the telephoto (up to 5X) were quite impressive because all of them can be used in the Night mode as well.
Moving to selfies, the 20MP selfie camera shoots crisp selfies in daylight but isn’t all that impressive in low light because it lacks detail and sharpness. Thankfully, there’s the rear display that lets you use the primary camera as a selfie camera and the results are nothing short of spectacular.
And then there’s the video
Xiaomi is pitching the Mi 11 Ultra as a solid video mobile recording tool and to an extent, it turned out to be just that. There’s also a built-in mode called Multicam that basically lets you record one frame using any two cameras or different levels of zoom, all at the same time. It’s impressive stuff and I’m sure Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 (with its triple ISPs) plays a big role here.
Set it to 30fps or 60fps at any resolution and the video quality is impressive, with the camera shooting stable footage at a high bitrate and close to accurate colours, whether you are panning or walking. Crank it up to 8K @ 24fps and the recording packs in loads of detail, but that 24 fps just does not feel smooth enough when panning across a scene. Surprisingly, the video output was quite usable even in low lighting conditions.
Moving to HDR, there’s two types to choose from. So, there’s the bog standard (SDR) video that looks fine, with limited details in the shadows and some minor blown out highlights in the bright spots, given the limited dynamic range. Then, there’s the standard HDR recording that you enable by tapping the HDR icon in the camera interface. The phone did a fantastic job at it, balancing out the scene showcasing enough detail in the shadows along with the sky and the bright spots.
And then, I tried out HDR10+, which is supposed to be jaw-dropping with per frame metadata (as opposed to HDR10). And now that I’ve tried it out, I sure don’t want to go back to anything else! The contrast in the shadows is phenomenal and looked gorgeous on the phone’s display, that is also HDR10+ compatible. The colours pop quite a bit, and I also noticed some minor bright spots that I did not expect. But it sure dropped jaws when I showed it to a few people around me.
Sadly, it turned out to be a bit of a gimmick. That’s because you will literally have to upload it to YouTube or show it off on your Mi 11 Ultra, as most apps or social media websites will not be able to process it in the right way. Viewing these clips also needs a proper HDR10/HDR 10+ compatible display, so it’s a feature that you will mostly ending showing to others on your own phone… whenever you end up meeting them in person.
A battery that holds up to daily abuse
If OnePlus got one thing perfectly right with the 9 Pro it will have to be that LTPO display that lets it drop the refresh rate all the way down to 5Hz when there’s nothing happening. This helps the 9 Pro sip on power instead of gulping it all down that results in a 2-day battery life.
Xiaomi for some reason skipped on this and went with an equally impressive 120 Hz display with a 480Hz touch sampling to cater to gamers. Unfortunately, it isn’t as impressive when it comes to smarts and can only juggle between 30,60,90 and 120Hz when it comes to refresh rates. And that is not a good thing when you have a monstrous 6.81-inch QHD+ panel to power.
Despite having a sufficiently sized 5,000mAh battery, the Mi 11 Ultra only managed to give me a day of power, which means I had to plug it in at the end before jumping into bed. This isn’t bad by any means, mainly because my biggest battery drainers were gaming and the camera. So, someone who games sparingly will easily get a day and half of use. But it definitely isn’t a two-day smartphone. Of course, I could bring down power consumption by reducing the display resolution to 1080p and bringing down the refresh rate to 60Hz, but I don’t see any reason to do that given that it’s such a beautiful display.
Xiaomi may be bragging about those incredible charging speeds using the 67W charger, but the one that comes in the box offers 55W charging. The company seems to have run into certification issues in India for the 67W charger but regardless, it will only be available separately. And since it was not a part of the reviewers’ package, I did not get to experience the super-fast charging speeds (0-100% in 36 minutes) and the same goes for the 67W wireless charging, as the company did not provide us with a wireless charging stand either. Still, the 55W charging brick managed to charge up the phone in about an hour, which is not all that bad. But given how Apple and Samsung have skipped on the charging brick, you should be glad to see a 55W charger in the box!
It’s easy to conclude (and I’ve asked a few people too) that an Apple iPhone user will never switch to a premium Xiaomi smartphone, let alone a Samsung Galaxy device. But given the rather short selection of Android smartphones in the premium segment, the Mi 11 Ultra is a new contender that gets so many things right and brings features like wireless 67W charging, a killer camera, rock solid performance, brilliant heat management and a fantastic 120Hz OLED display.
And it’s all available at a sub Rs 70,000 price tag, which does seem like a bargain given that the phone competes with the Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra that’s priced at Rs 1,05,999. Of course, buyers will always hesitate to invest in a brand that’s mainly known for its budget smartphones in India. But then again, the Mi 11 Ultra gets you so much more at cut-throat pricing that it’s definitely worth a look, even if you are from the Galaxy camp.
Get a OnePlus 9 Pro… if you want a lighter smartphone, a not-so-camera-focussed-design with decent flagship cameras, excellent software and great battery life.
Get a Mi 11 Ultra… if you love bragging about specs, want the best possible camera performance from an Android smartphone, live and breathe wireless charging and are willing to deal with MIUI 12 and the heft that its cameras bring.