Question is, can it stick around.
As much as it would have you believe that it makes its product choices very cautiously, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Xiaomi also has a daredevil streak to it. It’s sort of like the Hulk from the Avengers. Mostly it’s in control, but every now and then it would unleash the beast inside. Back in 2017, it chose to launch the unconventional Mi Mix 2 in India over the relatively run-of-the-mill Mi 6. In 2021, it has skipped the Mi 11 and brought the Mi 11 Ultra instead.
But while the Mix 2 was a gamble that did not pay off, with CEO Lei Jun later admitting it was not the right fit for the Indian market, the Mi 11 Ultra has its work cut out ever so slightly. It is coming at a time when the general awareness about the Mi brand is at an all-time high with Xiaomi taking the greater part of 2020 and early this year, carefully orchestrating the portfolio with a slew of launches ranging from the entry-level Mi 10i and Mi 11 Lite to the value flagship Mi 11X Pro. The Mi 11 Ultra is its swan song.
That is not to say it is not a leap of faith. That said, after spending over a month with this phone, I am all but certain that this is the Xiaomi phone to fall for in 2021.
Design and cameras
Unlike most phones, the Mi 11 Ultra is made of ceramic. This makes it the most durable phone in the market today, at least in theory. And, one of the heaviest. The outer frame is made of metal. The phone’s marquee feature is its camera island, rather, a continent if you will, floating on top of all that ceramic. There is just no escaping it.
The bump is so prominent, it makes the phone top heavy. By a sizeable margin. This is a phone that most certainly will weigh you down. Getting used to it will take some time. The only silver lining is that it does not wobble on a surface. A case is necessary.
In Xiaomi’s defence, there is so much tech inside this phone, it more than compensates for its atrocious dimensions. There is no shortage of gimmicks either. Case in point, the camera(s). Not only does the Mi 11 Ultra pack some of the most exciting set of cameras we’ve seen on a smartphone to date, you can also use them to take selfies using the bundled 1.1-inch rear AMOLED display. It’s a workaround alright, and limited in functionality, like for instance, you can’t record videos in this mode, but it works well enough.
The rear display additionally serves double duty as an always-on panel for showing time, date, battery stats and notifications although I am not totally convinced how many people will be willing to keep their phones front facing down to use this feature. And, for some curious reason, it is not really always-on per se because Xiaomi limits it to 30 seconds max.
Despite all the tech — and a sizeable 5,000mAh battery — the Mi 11 Ultra is still slimmer than the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max which is a remarkable feat of engineering. This is a phone that curves on all the four sides and while it does take away the grip — and makes it slippery — the heft helps make things easier. The premium build materials further enhance in-hand feel. The white colourway I have for review does not attract a lot of smudge and fingerprints. Bottomline is, there’s a method to the Mi 11 Ultra’s madness if you don’t get carried away by its paper specs–8.38mm, 234g. Regardless, it will require the attention of both your hands at all times. For context, the S21 Ultra is a better designed phone.
But where those specs do make a lot of sense is in the camera department. The Mi 11 Ultra has a total of three cameras on the back. There is a 50MP primary camera with a large 1/1.12-inch Samsung GN2 sensor (a first for this form factor) sitting behind an optically stabilised f/1.95 aperture lens. This is paired with two 48MP cameras (Sony IMX598 sensor), one with an f/2.2 ultra-wide-angle lens (128-degree field-of-view) and another with a periscope-style telephoto lens for a total of 120x zoom (5x optical).
Xiaomi claims the Mi 11 Ultra is the world’s first phone with Dual Pixel Pro technology for fast auto focus and the first Mi phone with multi-point direct Time-of-Flight laser focus system for higher accuracy. All the three cameras in the Mi 11 Ultra support night mode and can shoot in 8K (at 24fps). The powerful hardware inside the phone makes it possible to switch between the cameras on the fly while recording. And, unlike the OnePlus 9 Pro, the Mi 11 Ultra’s cameras remain usable even when the phone gets hot or when you’re shooting in a warm environment.
Coming to image quality, it’s great to see the Mi 11 Ultra put all that impressive hardware to good use. It is easily among the best — if not the best — camera phones in the market and it does this “consistently” across all kinds of lighting scenarios. The cameras are fun to use and photos come out with lots of detail and great dynamic range. It’s the best camera phone that Xiaomi has ever made. One that can give rivals, especially OnePlus, a run for their money.
Where it faulters, it’s not because it lacks something, it’s because of Xiaomi’s own inexperience in fine tuning its camera hardware, something that Samsung and Apple have been doing for years now. I won’t go so far as to say the Mi 11 Ultra lacks polish but I will say this, Xiaomi needs to work on its colour science. Colours shouldn’t look so oversaturated. In chasing those unrealistic, eye-popping colours, the Mi 11 Ultra often tends to clip highlights and loses out on fine details especially in the shadows. For a phone that is trying to compete with the S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max, every ounce of detail counts.
Credit must be given where it’s due and the Mi 11 Ultra shows not all ultra-wide-angle cameras need to be bad. Not only does it offer one of the widest field-of-views available on a commercial smartphone, it does an excellent job holding on to detail and limiting barrel distortion. The Mi 11 Ultra also comes very close to challenging Samsung’s “zoom” repertoire. At 5x and 10x, it all but aces the S21 Ultra. It is only when you shoot for the moon, when Xiaomi’s software kind of, sort of, takes a bit of a backseat. Samsung has simply done this a lot. In time, Xiaomi will hopefully get better too.
The weakest link of this phone is perhaps the 20MP front camera. It is barely serviceable and for some reason, can’t do 4K videos.
Display and performance
The Mi 11 Ultra has a 6.81-inch E4 AMOLED display with a 2K or QHD+ resolution and 120Hz refresh rate (480Hz touch sampling). Xiaomi has sourced it from Samsung and it’s easily the biggest highlight of this phone. It has great contrast and viewing angles and brightness levels are aplenty. It’s also fast and fluid and refreshes dynamically. Moreover, Xiaomi has thrown in so many toggles inside the settings (including DC dimming) you can tune the screen to your specific requirement. Such a level of granular customisation does not exist in any other phone in the market.
The phone is built for content consumption through and through and does not disappoint on any front. It can also play Dolby Vision content like the iPhone 12. The panel is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass Victus. For biometrics, it has an optical in-display fingerprint scanner which is fast but there is some room for improvement.
A pair of Harmon Kardon stereo speakers round off the package. These get quite loud and bassy with good stereo separation. There is no headphone jack.
Powering the phone is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 system-on-chip with 12GB LPDDR5 RAM and 256GB UFS3.1 storage. This is non-expandable. Software inside the phone is Xiaomi’s MIUI 12 which is based on Android 11. I have absolutely no doubt in saying the combination is a match made in heaven. The Mi 11 Ultra flies, or rather let me put it directly, MIUI flies like anything on the Mi 11 Ultra — and unlike anything we’ve seen from Xiaomi so far. Aside from a few occasional lags and jitters here and there, the experience is satisfying and, more importantly, enjoyable. I have had a lot of fun using this phone. I have played a lot of games on it (the phone has a tendency to run hot but it does not throttle). I have made it my daily driver. Not once have I missed a Samsung Galaxy or an iPhone or just about anything else. It’s peak Xiaomi.
But it is not perfect, the Mi 11 Ultra. As much as I have enjoyed using MIUI on this phone, it’s disappointing that it’s still running an almost “archaic” version, aka MIUI 12.0.2 with the March security patch, with no word on future updates, more precisely MIUI 12.5. A premium phone like this must not be about the hardware only. Software driving that hardware is equally important. Experience isn’t just about how slim or light a phone is, or how well it plays a graphically demanding game, it is about how it fares in day-to-day use and software plays a big part in that. It is also crucial from a future-proofing perspective.
For a “superphone” that costs as much as what the Mi 11 Ultra does, Xiaomi’s software choices could make or break its grand ambitions and future plans. It can’t compete with Samsung and OnePlus — or Apple — without offering a sense of security to buyers. That’s paramount. For clearly, Xiaomi has designed this phone for the long run outfitting it with as many as 13 5G bands (n1 / n3 / n5/ n7 /n8/ n20/ n28/ n38/ n40 /n41 /n77 / n78 / n79). The OnePlus 9 Pro supports just two.
Xiaomi also went on to add fast 67W wireless charging and 67W wired charging though it is only bundling a 55W charger in the box (battery life is good but not class-leading) and IP68 rating to this phone. That’s everything but the kitchen sink, for a Xiaomi phone.
Mi 11 Ultra final thoughts
The Mi 11 Ultra costs Rs 69,999 (12GB/256GB) in India. That’s same as the OnePlus 9 Pro while at the same time, it undercuts the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (starting Rs 1,05,999).
The keystone of this new Xiaomi phone is its unflinching focus on taking on, not OnePlus, but Samsung in the high-end smartphone space. It has comparable hardware. With high-end specs like high refresh rate curved screens and latest and greatest SoCs, big batteries and fast charging becoming a staple among most premium phones, it is how these phones use all this tech to make your lives easier that makes or breaks a smartphone today. For a phone that feels so ahead of its time, any uncertainty aside from general availability (the phone is finally going on sale in India in July, nearly three months after launch) stands out front and centre.
In the case of Xiaomi, there is also the baggage of perception.
With everything that the Mi 11 Ultra packs inside, it was expected to be a fast phone with a bright and colourful screen, top-notch audio, and good battery life. Its headlining feature, the camera(s), also lives up to the hype. But come to think of it, it does not really reinvent the wheel in the same way as the Mi 3 or even the Mix 2. It is great, potentially, but it is more the sum of its parts rather than being out-and-out revolutionary.
A new star has indeed entered the galaxy. Question is, can it stick around.
Pros: Premium ceramic build, Class leading display, Excellent performance, Great cameras (both picture and video), Loud stereo speakers, Fast charging
Cons: Unwieldy, Cameras need some tuning, Battery life could be better, Slow Android update rollout