Xiaomi, a recent entrant into the Australian market, is now looking to gain traction in the burgeoning “premium mid-tier” category with the Mi9T.
On paper it boasts of some good specs and looks to be a winner, but it’s going up against stiff competition as the likes of Samsung, Google and Huawei offer cheaper alternatives to their highly rated flagship phones, while established players such as Motorola continue their value focus.
With no carrier support and a low brand recognition down under, Xiaomi has their work cut out attracting attention to its devices, so it will be interesting to see how the company’s efforts for eyeballs help them stack up against the competition.
Tacky is a strong word but it’s hard to find another for some of the strange choices Xiaomi’s usually astute designers have made on the Mi9T.
Rather than the holographic rainbow hues found on the back of the Mi9, the Mi9T gets a collection of what appear to be racecar inspired designs on the back with what Xiaomi claim are “bold flames” that “flicker to life” when the light hits.
The model provided for review was the black, carbon fibre inspired design so unfortunately I didn’t get to experience the warmth of these bold flames in person.
To compensate, Xiaomi has decided to accent the carbon fibre look with a bold red on the hold button and ring around the camera.
These accents are hard to miss, but the phone would probably look better if they went missing.
The red theme continues into the lighting around the 20MP pop-up camera, which illuminates as it ascends from the body.
While this method for concealing the camera (thus facilitating a proper full-screen display, the only phone around this price point that does) is objectively sick as hell, in this context the red hue takes on a strangely sinister edge that’s a little too “HAL 9000” for my liking.
It becomes further unsettling when the camera rises unexpectedly, as happened to me several times when scrolling through Instagram and accidentally swiping my way into story mode.
Swiping back to the feed sends the camera shrinking discreetly back into the camera body.
Xiaomi adds drop detection they claim will retract the camera quicker if the phone is fumbled while the camera is deployed, evidently anticipating the startling nature of the unexpected camera deployments.
Independent testing verified this drop detection does work fairly reliably, though it’s hard to quantify whether the retraction is any quicker than usual, which I suppose could be called a credit to how quickly it normally functions.
The periscope like camera is a nifty feature but it’s not without its downsides.
I find the pop-up wedge on the Oppo Reno a touch friendlier, and I think the periscope camera on the Xiaomi may be partially responsible for the increased thickness of the Mi9T when compared to similarly priced phones.
I actually quite like the increased thickness (what the youth sometimes refer to as “chonk”).
It makes the phone feel solid and well-built, and at the end of the day, how thin do you want the super-computer in your pocket to be?
Some of that added thickness might also be due to the curved glass back.
Once again I’ll put up with the increased thickness for the premium feel, and while the casing can be a little slippery it’s much better than plastic.
The MiUI skin that sits over Android is by no means the worst custom Android skin I’ve encountered but it’s also by no means the best (nor, I would say, is any other manufacturer skin).
The MiUI does have very good navigational gesture support though, and feels more intuitive and reliable than gesture navigation on other phones.
One strange quirk of the Mi9T is the absence of an app drawer.
Instead, apps just sit on the home screen similar to an iPhone.
My usual practice when I set up a new phone is to firstly remove any pre-installed apps that are allowed to be, before removing the rest from the home screen and if possible, hide them in the app drawer.
This isn’t really possible here, instead bloatware needs to be thrown into a designated folder and stowed out of the way.
Additionally, MiUI has a tendency to preference its own apps over others, and this can be unusually hard to change.
The camera on the Mi9T uses the popular 48MP Sony sensor found on many other current triple-camera phones, with an 8MP telephoto, and 13MP ultra-wide.
The Mi9T uses the same “pixel-binning” method as many of their competitors, combining these pixels to get better low-light performance by using the 48MP sensor to deliver a 12MP picture.
The included camera does however feature a 48MP mode, which provides ever so slightly more detailed images when zoomed in.
Most users will be better served keeping it in the normal photo mode, saving on file size and getting better low light performance.
Other photo modes include the usual panorama, a quite decent “Pro” mode, portrait and night modes.
The Mi9T is capable of shooting 4K at 30fps, with higher frame rates at 1080p supporting slow motion videos.
Unlike the Mi9 and Mi9SE, the T variant still includes a 3.5mm headphone jack that Xiaomi claim will support high-res audio up to 24-bit/192kHz audio, as well as aptX HD for audiophiles who have cut cords.
The Mi9T comes with 6GB RAM and two storage options, 64GB and 128GB to store all your 4K video and high-res audio.
Like Samsung’s A70, the Mi9T features a 4,000mAh battery which returns decent performance and takes advantage of 18W fast charging to top back up in no time.
A Snapdragon 730 and Adreno 618 are in charge of processing and deliver a decent level of performance.
The company has also included its Game Turbo 2.0 software optimization.
Xiaomi has been an early entrant into the gaming smartphone sector with its Black Shark range and some of that gaming focus seems to be filtering down to their other devices, perhaps an intelligent move as gamers prepare for the cloud revolution.
Xiaomi only officially began selling its products in Australia earlier this year, but have had something of an underground presence for years thanks to grey importers and tech enthusiasts.
This market, while somewhat loyal, also tend to have more exacting standards than your average retail customer.
Its $649 price point puts the Mi9T in the same territory as Samsung’s A70 (though at that price the A70 has double the storage space), which is technically a “budget” device but neither phone feels or performs cheaply.
Which begs the question: how much can you reasonably expect at this price point?
The Xiaomi Mi9T is a well-built, high-performing phone let down by some poor, but at least adventurous design choices.
While it’s undoubtedly a little strange in some areas, it’s a breath of fresh air against some of its competitors and more than just a cut-price version of a better device.
The company will likely lose out on sales to Samsung’s A-series and other phones with higher name recognition and retail penetration in Australia, but those who do decide to order a Mi9T will likely be pleased with their decision.
Maybe pick up a more aesthetic case though.