Chinese electronics company Xiaomi finally entered the Australian market in April after closing last year as the fourth best-selling smartphone maker in the world, and is looking to make a splash with its aggressively priced flagship the Mi Mix 3 ($949).
That price makes it a good chunk cheaper than similarly-specced flagships from other brands using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 chipset and its paired Adreno 630 GPU like the Google Pixel 3 and some versions of the Samsung S9 from last year.
Mi Mix 3 buyers also get 128GB of storage and 6GB RAM compared to the 64GB and 4GB found at the base of the Pixel 3 and S9, both of which still retail for $1,199.
An admittedly rather strange quote from Xiaomi founder Lei Jun on the inside of the Mi Mix 3’s packaging states his claim he wants Xiaomi to “be the coolest company in the hearts of our users”.
This undercutting on price is a good start, and a good strategy for a company with a significantly lower local brand recognition, but Xiaomi looks to standout on more than just price.
The most noticeably attention-seeking feature isn’t the admittedly eye-grabbing, notch-less, 403PPI, 6.39-inch tall screen that covers the full face of the phone, but rather what’s hiding beneath it.
A flick of the thumb to slide the screen of the Mi Mix 3 down reveals a 24-megapixel front-facing camera (coupled with another 2MP sensor for depth).
This slide motion uses a magnetic slider Xiaomi claims is good for more than 300,000 slides, but I suspect it may be at least partially responsible for the Mi Mix 3’s comparatively hefty weight, weighing more than the similarly sized Pixel 3XL, Galaxy S10+ and iPhone XS Max.
Regardless the slide is a cool feature – I and the dozens of people I’ve insisted on showing it to over the last few weeks I’ve spent with the phone were all very impressed by it.
It’s a fun differentiator from most other devices on the market and a twee nostalgia invoker for those of us who first entered the mobile phone market during the slide wars of the mid-2000s.
The slide function can also serve as an app shortcut.
Sliding the screen down launches the chosen app, but honestly – setting it to anything other than the camera feels like a waste of time.
For selfie-takers, the rear fingerprint sensor can also be set to function as a shutter button, which does make better angles ever so slightly easier to achieve than the screen’s shutter.
One downside I noticed quickly is that the normally concealed platform containing the front facing-camera does act as something of a collection point for also sorts of particles.
Pocket lint, dust, and in my case – what appeared to be the dead skin or earwax of previous reviewers – all find their way in, waiting to surprise you next time you’re feeling cute enough for a selfie.
A quick blow has the area like new, but it’s not the only mild annoyance the slide offers.
Initially, I suspected the slide could cause problems for case users (which I ever so briefly became for the purpose of this review).
The included case presented the obvious, simple solution of just finishing the bottom edge of the case under the sliding portion of the phone.
Where trouble emerges is that the screen will not slide down if the phone is plugged in, but again, the included wireless charger means it rarely is.
Plugging the phone in does allow for faster charging, but in that case you’re probably too busy to be taking a selfie anyway.
As for the camera, it’s what largely we’ve come to expect from a flagship.
A dual-camera array featuring a wide angle and a telephoto lens produces 12 megapixel images.
There’s a portrait mode with increased depth of field, a night mode for better low-light performance, and a pro mode with increased control over shutter speed, focus, ISO, and switching between the wide and telephoto lens (which is also available in the normal mode).
Switching between these camera modes occasionally presents the odd hang, but for the most part the included app is responsive and capable.
Despite the addition of the pro mode and the inclusion of the Camera2API, the Mi Mix 3’s default app doesn’t shoot RAW, but this can be solved with a variety of third-party apps.
Strangely, the camera also features a watermark feature, which by default is set to display an ugly announcement saying whichever picture was shot on the Mi Mix 3.
This feature (though I prefer to think of it as a bug) can be edited to the user’s choice, or turned off completely, but the fact that it’s on by default I find just plain strange, and completely out of step with the “cool” company Xiaomi is aiming to be.
The trend continues in other areas where Xiaomi has largely managed to fulfil its pursuit of coolness in the face of a few flaws.
The Mi Mix 3 runs a customised Android 9.0 skin called MIUI, the design of which is visually reminiscent of iOS.
As far as Android skins go MIUI isn’t too bad, but it does offer a few annoyances.
For one thing, it seems almost insistent on corralling users to its own apps rather than alternatives.
When opening a link for instance, several times I was asked to choose between the default browser or my preferred choice of Google Chrome.
It takes several attempts to get the phone to recognise my choice of default browser, as the box to determine this mysteriously unticks when an alternative is chosen, meaning the process had to be repeated a few times.
Again, foibles like these are more of a mild annoyance than a dealbreaker, and after a climatisation period the phone presents few others.
Externally, the design of the Mi Mix 3 is familiar but doesn’t fall into the trap of directly copying other devices.
The phone’s ceramic back gives a striking mirrored finish that sticks well in the hand.
Unfortunately, this means it also doubles as a magnet for fingerprints and smudges, and while it wipes clean easily it doesn’t stay that way for long.
As mentioned, it does sit a little on the heavy side, but not pants-saggingly so, in fact the extra weight gives off a feeling of quality and dependability.
While some others remain dedicated to the 3.5mm jack, Xiaomi has opted for only a USB-C port.
A USB-C to 3.5mm dongle is included.
Xiaomi does make several USB-C earbuds which it would have been nice to see included, but at this price-point and with Bluetooth earbuds proliferating widely, its hard to complain too much about the dongle.
The aluminium outer casing features the usual volume and lock buttons, as well as an “AI” button with three settings.
By default this is used to open Google Assistant, but can be adjusted to perform other duties with double presses and holds, like turning on the flashlight or sepia-toned reading mode, or to do nothing at all.
Like many areas of the Mi Mix 3, this is one of those features that adds to the experience after a little customisation.
Given the highly personal nature of smartphones the best user experience usually requires a little tooling and tweaking.
For the most part Xiaomi has allowed that on the Mi Mix 3, and taking the time to get things how you want them is worth the reward.
In every other area but the price, the Mi Mix 3 feels truly top-of-the-line.
While unlikely to challenge Samsung or Apple on local sales any time soon, Xiaomi’s international strength should give it the backing to stick it out for as long as it takes to gain a foothold in the Australian market.
If Xiaomi keeps undercutting competitor prices while producing phones as good as the Mi Mix 3, it might take less time than you think.