Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro review: More competition in the affordable flagship sector

Pros

  • Transparent back with view of internal circuitry
  • Plenty of internal storage
  • Dual SIM
  • Good performance
  • In-screen fingerprint reader

Cons

  • Battery life could be better
  • Poor speaker
  • No IP rating for dust/water resistance

Xiaomi is a reasonably familiar name to UK smartphone buyers, but until recently the Chinese company’s phones have not been officially available in this country. That has now changed, with Xiaomi’s UK and European launch featuring a number of handsets including the new flagship Mi 8 Pro. At £499 (inc. VAT), the Mi 8 Pro will provide competition for the likes of the £499 OnePlus 6T, the £379 Huawei Mate 20 Lite, and the £399 Honor 10.

It’s worth noting that Xiaomi is a top-tier smartphone maker, ranked fourth in worldwide shipments in Q2 2018, according to IDC, so its decision to enter the UK and European markets will cause the incumbents some concern.

At first glance, the Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro looks pretty standard — black chassis, rounded corners, edge-to-edge screen, minimal bottom bezel, notch. But flip the handset over and there’s something completely new: the glass back is transparent, with phone circuitry (although not the actual circuitry that powers the phone) clearly visible beneath it.

Glance at someone holding the phone and you’ll barely notice it, but it is a clear mark of difference, and a rather smart one at that.

xiaomi-mi-8-promain.jpg

Xiaomi’s 6.21-inch Snapdragon 845-powered Mi 8 Pro costs £499 in the UK. A standout feature is its transparent glass back, with smartphone circuitry visible beneath it.

Image: Xiaomi

The twin camera lenses are slightly raised from the backplate, offset to one side. The other notable design feature is the red power switch — as also seen on the top-end Huawei Mate 20 Pro. One area where more affordable flagship-class smartphones tend to compromise is dust and water resistance: as with the OnePlus 6T (and its predecessors), there’s no IP rating for the Mi 8 Pro.

xiaomi-mi-8-pro-181121-red-power-button-medium.jpg

The 7.6mm-thick Mi 8 Pro has a volume rocker and a red power button on the right-hand side.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Unfortunately, the phone’s glass back is incredibly smooth and slippery. It fell off the arm of my chair numerous times during testing — either because vibration notifications made it wobble around, or simply because it was unbalanced and had no friction to keep it in place. This is a perennial problem for glass- backed handsets, but no less irritating for that.

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The edges of the phone are sparsely populated. A volume rocker and (red) power button sit on the right long edge, while the SIM caddy is on the left. The upper edge is bare, and the bottom has a pair of speaker grilles and the single USB-C connector that’s used for charging and headset connection. If you need a 3.5mm headset jack, Xiaomi conveniently provides a USB-C converter.

xiaomi-mi-8-prospeakers.jpg

The Mi 8 Pro has two speaker grilles at the bottom (only one of them has a speaker behind it), flanking a USB-C port.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Although there are two speaker grilles, only one of them outputs sound. Quality isn’t bad, but it’s not great either — there’s a tinny, harsh quality at higher volumes. Moreover, gamers and video streamers may find they accidentally cover the grille with their hands, muffling the sound. Audio is not this phone’s finest feature.

The handset’s overall dimensions are 74.8mm wide by 154.9mm deep by 7.6mm thick and it weighs 177g. The screen nestles in the front of the handset nicely, offering up its 6.21 inches of viewing area in a near edge-to-edge format. The notch at the top of the screen is quite wide, and doesn’t leave a great deal of space for notifications and information.

With 2,248 by 1,080 pixels delivering 402 pixels per inch (ppi), text and graphics are both crisp and clear, but the AMOLED screen somewhat flat in terms of colour vibrancy. That’s not a problem, though, just an observation. There’s a reading mode that dramatically reduces blue light, and the colour temperature is adjustable.

As on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and OnePlus 6T, the Mi 8 Pro has an in-screen fingerprint reader. It’s easy enough to set up and I found it reliable to use, although it does take a shade longer than scanners built into the hardware, and requires a little pressure. I didn’t find any of this problematic, just different. There’s a big plus for in-screen fingerprint scanners as opposed to those on the back of handsets, and that’s the ease with which phones can be unlocked while face-up on a desk.

The Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro comes with Android 8.1 (Oreo), which means it’s rather behind the times, and Xiaomi’s overlay which is called MIUI. There are quite a few duplications of Google apps, including a web browser, music player, calendar, messaging app and video player. It’s a bit on the overwhelming side, but if you just want to stick to Google apps you can drop all the Xiaomi stuff into a folder and hide it away.

There are some useful tweaks in MIUI, and one I particularly like is Quick Ball: this is a circular icon that can be called up from the screen edge that offers easy one-handed access to five features. The defaults can be reconfigured, other choices including toggling torch mode, wi-fi and screen rotation, and launching apps.

The Mi 8 Pro is powered by Qualcomm’s widely-used Snapdragon 845 chipset, along with 8GB of RAM. This delivered good Geekbench 4 benchmarks: its average multi-core score (over three runs) of 9124 is a significantly higher than the 4GB Sony Xperia XZ3‘s 8630, and just a shade up on the 9043 scored by the 8GB OnePlus 6. Beyond synthetic benchmarks, the Mi 8 Pro is a solid performer with real-world tasks too.

Two SIMs are supported, but there’s no MicroSD card slot. However, as the Mi 8 Pro comes with 128GB of internal storage this isn’t a huge issue. Fresh out of the box, my review handset had 117.62GB free.

There are two 12-megapixel cameras at the back, one with a wide-angle f/1.8 lens (and optical image stabilisation), the other with a telephoto f/2.4 lens.

Automatic AI-driven detection is available for ‘up to 206’ different scenes, with settings adjusted accordingly. A tiny icon above the framing window is used to turn this feature on and off, and when it’s on the icon changes to indicate what the camera thinks it is seeing — ‘T’ for text, a knife-and-fork for food, and so on. This along with a range of filters, provides a lot of shooting options.

The front camera is a 20MP unit featuring an AI portrait mode as well as something called ‘3D beautify’, which has settings for different parts of the face — eyes, lips, nose, chin, risorius (I had to look that one up!). This didn’t seem to affect my selfies much, so maybe it’s in need of a firmware update.

One area where the Mi 8 Pro disappoints is battery life. The 3000mAh battery isn’t all that capacious compared to other 2018 flagship handsets, and the full discharge Geekbench test delivered 6 hours 41 minutes of life from a full charge, with screen dimming and adaptive screen brightness both switched off. In real-world use I managed a day’s use more often than not, but gamers, music fans, GPS users and media streamers might need to factor in daily battery boosts in the middle of the day. There’s no wireless charging, but QuickCharge 4+ is supported.

Conclusions

Xiaomi’s Mi 8 Pro is a competent flagship-class smartphone that should give other vendors operating in the £400-£500 price band pause for thought. This sector was competitive before Xiaomi showed up, and it’s even more competitive now.

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