Let’s take a trip down the memory lane, shall we?

While Xiaomi’s most popular smartphones in India include offerings in the Redmi lineup, the Chinese brand actually entered the subcontinent with a flagship (at that time) – the Mi 3. With its powerful specs such as Snapdragon 800, unibody construction and aggressive pricing of Rs 13,999, the phone was an instant hit. But for some reason, the brand wasn’t able to repeat the feat with its subsequent flagships – the Mi 4 and Mi 5. The company even introduced a full-screen flagship in the form of the Mi Mix 2 (review), but the phone didn’t exactly set the cash registers ringing for the company either, getting two price cuts in less than an year of its launch.

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So how does the recently-IPOed company aim to break into the Rs 20k+ segment? Well, by following the footsteps of its Chinese counterparts like Huawei (with Honor) and OPPO (with Realme) to launch a sub-brand dubbed POCO. The debut offering under Xiaomi’s new offshoot is the F1, a name which clearly hints towards its focus on speed. While only time will tell if it’s able to change the fortunes for the phonemaker, I’m here to tell you that the POCO F1 is the best smartphone you could buy south of Rs 25k. Intrigued? Stay with me to find out why I think so.

Specs at a glance

Display
Size 6.18 Inch
Resolution 1080 x 2246 pixels
Performance
CPU Quad core, 2.8 GHz + Quad core, 1.8 GHz, Snapdragon 845
RAM 6 GB
Storage
Internal memory 64 GB
External memory Up to 256 GB
Battery
Capacity 4000 mAH, Li-Polymer, Non removable
Talktime Up to 30 Hours (2G)
Camera
Primary camera 12 MP
Secondary camera 20 MP
Connectivity
Network support Dual SIM 4G
Other options Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, GPS
Others
Battery Capacity 4000
Operating system Android 8.1 Oreo

Performance: for those who crave the need for speed

CPU: Quad core, 2.8 GHz + Quad core, 1.8 GHz, Snapdragon 845
GPU: Adreno 630
RAM: 6 GB
Memory: 64 GB + Up to 256 GB
SIM Slots: Dual SIM , GSM+GSM

Let’s start with the biggest highlight of the POCO F1 – its flagship-grade internals. The handset proves that the Snapdragon 845 SoC isn’t just reserved for premium offerings. Yes, even though the phone is priced in the upper mid-range, it draws power from Qualcomm’s top-tier chipset. The 10nm octa-core chip is mated to 6GB or 8GB of LPDDR4 RAM, with the latter version being the most affordable device with such a RAM capacity. And as you can expect, the performance is simply flawless. I’m reviewing the higher-end model and the F1 literally flies through anything thrown at it with utmost ease. There’s nary an instance of lag while scrolling between screens, jumping in and out of apps or running heavy apps or games. With excellent software optimisation, there’s usually more than 5GB spare memory on RAM on the phone.

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Of course, gaming is the best way to push the hardware on a smartphone, and we tested that by playing the likes of Asphalt 9: Legends and PUBG. You can enjoy hours and hours of chasing the Chicken Dinners on PlayersUnknown’s Battlegrounds or racing in different settings in Asphalt, and the device will be able to handle it all without breaking a sweat. Thanks to the liquid-cooling system, the phone keeps the thermals under check as well. Even after more than 30 minutes of playing, the POCO F1 barely got warm.

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Depending upon the RAM variant of the POCO F1, you can opt for 64GB or 128GB of memory with the 6 gigs model, while the 8GB version ships with 256GB storage onboard. My unit offered more than 243GB space out of the box. And if the built-in memory isn’t enough, you can add to it by inserting a microSD card of up to 256GB. However, you’ll need to forego the dual-SIM functionality in such case.

Design and display: uninspiring, but ergonomic

Dimensions: 155.5 x 75.3 x 8.8 mm
Weight: 180 grams

From the fascia, the POCO F1 looks just like any other tall smartphone with a notch up top. The screen extends to the corners, the uniformity of which is broken by a cut-out up top and a small chin at the bottom. That said, the notch on the debut handset from Xiaomi’s sub-brand is sizeable and unlike other notch-toting displays, is quite noticeable while watching videos or playing games.

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Flip to the back and the first thing you’d notice is that the F1 features a plastic body for its 6GB RAM editions. The unit I’m reviewing however, is labelled the Armoured edition and comes with a Kevlar finish – which might not look as solid as metal-clad offerings or as sexy as glass-back phones – but looks good and offers a solid grip. The finish also ensures that the fingerprints are kept at bay. The smartphone comes bundled with a protective cover, though I rarely felt the need to use it, which is a huge plus.

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In terms of the design elements, the earpiece, front-facing snapper and an infrared sensor (for the face unlock feature) are available on the notch. The metal railing on the edges provides a robust feel and holds the volume increase and decrease buttons along with the power switch towards the right. The left spine holds the ejectable SIM-card tray, while the 3.5mm socket is available up top. The base is home to a Type-C port sandwiched between two grilles, although only one of them is a speaker. Talking about the sound output, it’s loud enough to fill the room, but might not be enough to be heard in a crowded metro.

At the back of the POCO F1, you’ll get a vertically-aligned dual-camera array, which is supplemented by a dual-tone LED flash. What I particularly appreciate is the fact that the sensors don’t protrude from the surface, unlike most smartphones these days, including Xiaomi’s latest launch, the Mi A2 (review). The camera module also includes a circular fingerprint sensor. Towards the bottom, you’ll find the brand’s insignia – ‘POCO by Xiaomi’.

The fingerprint reader works as advertised – it’s fast and accurate as well. But you don’t really need to use it, as you can unlock the phone with your face as well. Thanks to the IR sensor at the front, the face unlocking mechanism is able to authenticate the user across situations, including poorly-lit environments. While it’s not as fast as the FPS, it’s accurate and secure. The smartphone doesn’t unlock if your eyes are closed or part of the face is hidden. That said, it does miss out and shows a noticeable delay in unlocking the phone sometimes.

Thanks to its slim frame and lightweight body, the POCO F1 can be held comfortably for hours. Adding to the ergonomics is the fact that the company has opted for a 6-inch panel (5.99-inch, to be precise), a size that can easily be used with a single hand. I never had any issues accessing the corners of the screen, though at times, the palm rejection of the panel seemed a little iffy as there was some inadvertent scrolling or typing while using the phone.

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In terms of the display quality, the 6-inch panel on the F1 is a full HD+ affair. The screen is crisp and the IPS panel reproduces accurate colours. The display offers enough brightness levels to be read comfortably under harsh sunlight, and has good viewing angles also. You also get the reading mode which makes it easier for your eyes to read during the night.

Strangely however, the 19:9 screen on the POCO F1 isn’t really immersive while watching videos on YouTube. That’s because unlike other wide-screen smartphones, the device doesn’t offer the ability to pinch-to-zoom on videos, which means depending upon the aspect ratio of the video, you’ll end up seeing black bars on the top and bottom, or on the sides, in the landscape orientation. There’s no setting either to enable this, although videos shot in 18:9 ratio show up just fine. It must be noted that I only noticed this issue while using YouTube, and not on Amazon Prime Video or Netflix.

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If you want to see your missed notifications on the top pane, then you might be in for a disappointment with the F1. Considering the size of its notch, the phone only shows the battery icon, cellular connectivity and Wi-Fi signal strength (if it’s turned on) on the right side, with the left side completely empty. As with most notch-bearing handsets, you can turn it off from the settings. What I’d have preferred however is granular settings like the ability to see notifications from certain apps or customising what I could see on the right side of the pane.

Software: MIUI makes friends with Google’s Android 

Operating System: Android
OS Version: 8.1, Oreo

The first time I started using the POCO F1, I got confused whether the smartphone is running stock Android with a custom theme. That isn’t the case, but it’s the next best thing however, as the handset boots Oreo 8.1-based MIUI 9.6, which offers stock Android-like characteristics thanks to the POCO Launcher. You see, there’s a dedicated app launcher instead of just placing all the installed apps on the homescreen. And the way you can access the app drawer is exactly the same as on stock Android – swiping up from the homescreen. Interestingly, the menu not only offers the ability to quickly search for apps with a search bar in the bottom (you can also sort apps by means of the colour of their icons, though I’m not sure if it’ll be faster than typing the name directly) or swipe to see apps automatically sorted on the basis of various categories. You can change the placement of these categories or remove them altogether as well. The notification drawer is also similar to what you’ll find in the vanilla iteration of Google’s mobile OS. Moreover, breaking away from its slow schedule of bringing MIUI to the latest iteration of Android, the brand has already promised an update to Android P by Q4 of this year. 

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That’s not to say that the F1 doesn’t have features that we love about MIUI. There’s a Theme app that lets you customise the looks of the UI exactly the way you want, while the Security app gives you an at-a-glance view of the device status along with one-click cleaner and speed boost (not that you need to do that with the kind of hardware that powers the POCO handset). The app also brings various things like battery status, app lock, dual apps, Second Space at one place.

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If you want to exploit the potential of the full screen of the smartphone, then you can enable the navigation gestures. So instead of using software buttons for navigation, you’ll be using gestures like swiping from the bottom to return to the homescreen, while swiping from the bottom and pausing would bring up the overview menu. If you want to go to the previous screen, then you’ll need to swipe from the left or right edge of the screen. For accessing the options menu, you need to swipe from the left or right on the top portion. While it takes some time getting used to these gestures, for some reason I found them more intuitive than on the OnePlus 6. What’s weird while using gestures however is the fact that there’s no option to enable the split-screen mode letting you harness the large display at your disposal even further.

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As far as the preinstalled apps are concerned, the POCO F1 comes with quite a few, ranging from Amazon, Facebook and Netflix to Microsoft’s suite that includes Word, PowerPoint, and Skype Lite among others. The good thing is that you can uninstall these titles if you don’t want them. What I found slightly irritating is the inclusion of three browsers – UC Browser, Chrome and the default one. Additionally, the UC Browser sends continuous notifications as part of UC News, without any prompt or action from the user. 

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Imaging: capable cameras

Primary camera: 12 MP
Flash: Dual LED Flash
Secondary camera: 20 MP

In terms of imagery, the POCO F1 ships with 12-megapixel and 5MP snappers on the back. The primary sensor comes with a large pixel size of 1.4 μm and f/1.9 aperture, while the secondary lens helps in capturing depth information to offer better portraits. With the use of dual-pixel autofocus, the phone promises faster focusing speeds as well as better performance in dim settings. The shooters also use AI smarts to detect the scene being captured and enhance the output basis the subject.

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The viewfinder on the F1 offers a number of options and modes. In the vertical orientation, you’ll find the shutter button at the bottom, which is sandwiched between the selfie camera toggle and the preview gallery. Above it, you’ll find various modes such as Portrait, Square, Video, Short Video (lets you capture a 10-second clip), and Manual (allows you to adjust shutter speeds and ISO levels among other settings). Up top, there’s the option to enable flash, turn on HDR, AI mode toggle, apply real-time effects and access more modes such as Tilt-Shift, Group selfie, Beautify, etc. Hitting the settings menu lets you see granular options such as showing gridlines, adding watermark, use fingerprint sensor as a shutter key (it’s quite useful to ensure minimal shake while clicking a photo), change saturation or contrast levels, and many more.

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Quality-wise, the POCO F1 delivers good output. The images pack in lots of detail as well as reproduce colours well, which look pleasing to the eyes. However, some amount of sharpness is lost when you view the images in the full resolution. Close-ups also turn out to be quite good, with vibrant colours and faux-bokeh effect adding to the charm. However, there’s a considerable amount of noise in such shots too. Indoors, the smartphone is able to keep the exposure under control, which is quite good. The same thing continues in low light as well, as the F1 is able to ensure that there are no weird-looking halos around the street light and noise is kept to the minimum. However, the processing is harsh, and this means that there are lesser details in the scene. Strangely however, the HDR mode isn’t as effective and there’s not much of a difference between the normal picture and with the dynamic range enabled. Now instead of boring you with our comments on the camera prowess of the POCO F1, we’ll leave you with a few image samples to make your own inferences.

The F1 is quick to focus and has a fast shutter speed as well. The portrait mode is also impressive to say the least thanks to the secondary depth sensor. There’s separation between the edges of the subject and the background, and the end result is sharp too. AI mode however, incites mixed feelings. While it’s able to detect the subject or scenes being captured such as flowers, trees and low light, there isn’t much of a perceptible difference apart from slightly better contrast and exposure control (see the images embedded below).

With regards to selfies, the 20-meg sensor up front is slightly disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, the POCO F1, of course, has one of the highest-res front cameras in the market, but details don’t seem to be there. Additionally, even with the beauty mode disabled, the skin seems to be softened. There’s software-based bokeh mode for the front camera as well, and while it’s good, you’ll notice aberrations in certain parts of the subject. Videos shot from the smartphone are quite good, as it’s capable of recording up to 4K resolution along with slow-mo or time-lapse videos. However, the phone lacks OIS and only has electronic stabilisation, which does a decent job of countering for hand shakes.

Compared to the OnePlus 6, both smartphones seem to be at par with each other in most scenarios. However, in low-light situations, I personally liked the F1’s images as the OnePlus handset has a noticeable amount of noise visible.

Battery: backs the powerful internals

Capacity: 4000 mAH, Li-Polymer, Non removable
Talktime: Up to 30 Hours (2G)
Standby Time

While Xiaomi’s Redmi Note smartphones offer powerful battery capacities (usually 4,000mAh), the company’s flagship offerings usually come with smaller batteries. That’s not the case with the POCO F1 however. The handset packs in a beefy 4,000mAh cell ensuring that you won’t need to look for a charger during the middle of the day. Charged fully in the morning, the device was easily able to continue throughout the entire day even with my heavy usage consisting of streaming podcasts, watching videos, some amount of gaming, 20 to 30 minutes of calls, with 4G / Wi-Fi turned on constantly and the phone was also connected to my smartwatch via Bluetooth. I was usually able to get more than 4 hours and 30 minutes of screen-on time, which is quite impressive.

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The F1 also comes with Quick Charge 3.0 support. With the bundled charger, the battery juiced up from 5 percent to 100 in a little more than 100 minutes.

Blows the competition away

The base model of the POCO F1 is priced at a lucrative price tag of Rs 20,999, while the 6GB RAM + 128GB storage variant will set you back by Rs 23,999. The top-end model on the other hand, carries a price tag of Rs 28,999. Then there’s the Armoured edition – the one I’ve reviewed – which has a sticker price of Rs 29,999. All the variants of the F1 will be available to buy from Flipkart and Mi.com starting August 29th. 

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Just like other offerings from Xiaomi, which compelled us to rework our conventional definitions of affordable and mid-range phones, the POCO F1 is also making us rethink how do we define the upper mid-tier price band. At a price where most smartphones come with Qualcomm’s mid-budget 6xx series chipsets, the debut smartphone comes equipped with the best-in-class Snapdragon 845 processor. As such, there’s no direct competition for the 6GB RAM models of the handset, as they go against the likes of the Honor Play (review), Nokia 7 Plus (review) and newly-launched OPPO F9 / F9 Pro (first impressions). While Honor’s offering is quite compelling, it ships with the last year’s flagship SoC, which falls behind the SD845. The 7 Plus is fuelled by the SD660, which is already undercut by Xiaomi’s Mi A2 and hence doesn’t stand a chance against the F1. Same is the case with the F9 Pro, which ships with the Helio P60 silicon.

The fully specced-out variants of the POCO F1 takes on the base version of the ASUS ZenFone 5Z (review), which was hitherto the most affordable smartphone in India with SD845. While the phones match toe-to-toe, the F1 has 33 percent more RAM and four times the storage onboard along with a better battery life. That said, the 5Z edges ahead in terms of sheer looks.

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Pricing aside, the biggest competitor of the F1 is the OnePlus 6 (review). However, apart from the selfie cameras and an uninspiring design, it’s hard to find a fault with POCO’s offering, and when you add price to the equation, then the situation invariably tilts towards it.

Verdict

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Make no mistake – the POCO F1 is quintessentially a Xiaomi smartphone with a different branding. It’s made up of the same ingredients… a great display, flagship specs, powerful cameras and useful software capabilities backed by a long-lasting battery, available at a mouth-watering price point. While its selfie camera isn’t up to the mark, I’m willing to believe that’s something that can be fixed with future updates. All said and done, the F1 is the best foot forward by Xiaomi to establish itself in the Rs 20k+ segment.

Editor’s rating: 4.5 / 5

Pros

  • Compact build
  • Top-notch specs
  • Doesn’t skimp on any aspect to keep the pricing competitive
  • Stock Android-friendly MIUI
  • Powerful battery
  • Pricing that’s hard to beat by the competition

Cons

  • The design doesn’t stand out
  • Sizeable notch
  • Selfie camera could’ve been better

Photos by Raj Rout

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