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Xiaomi Mi 9T Review: May Not Be Original, But It’s Damn Good

The Xiaomi Mi 9T. Photo: Ben Sin

TL;DR Version

  • What’s good? Probably the best value if you want an all-screen phone with a wide-angle camera
  • What’s bad? No SD card support, so make sure you get enough storage. Also, the pop-up selfie camera plus 48-megapixel main sensor combo has been done quite a few times already by others this year.

I have to admit: when I first unboxed the Xiaomi Mi 9T and during the first few hours with the device, I rolled my eyes a lot. Another shimmery gradient-colored back? Yet another triple camera system with the same 48-megapixel sensor, wide-angle camera, and telephoto combo? A pop-up selfie camera thus eliminating the notch? Oh, it’s got the same in-display fingerprint sensor from Goodix too? The Mi 9T just felt stale coming in June of 2019, when there are approximately 58 other phones with all those same hardware features.

Okay, okay, that was hyperbole. There aren’t 58 phones with the triple-camera array and in-display sensor and pop-up selfie camera and 48-megapixel Sony sensor. That number is more like … 11. Fine. But still, the point is the Mi 9T is not new at all, literally everything about it has been seen plenty of times.

But then I realized that’s my spoiled-butt talking. I’m a phone reviewer based in Hong Kong — the place that gets more phones than anyone else — so just because the Mi 9T’s list of features bored me, that doesn’t mean others feel the same way. The reality is that, objectively speaking, the Mi 9T is still a relatively fresh collection of smartphone things for many people. And if you go by pure value, it’s one of the best ones on the market.

Pop-up camera.



The Mi 9T starts at around US$300, and in addition to the all-screen notch-less face, pop-up selfie camera and triple camera system, you get a Snapdragon 730 chipset, 6GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. You can bump internal storage to 128GB — highly recommended, as the Mi 9T does not support external storage — for another $40 or so.

The screen is a gorgeous OLED panel with great viewing angles and outdoor visibility. That in-display fingerprint scanner is, as mentioned, from Goodix, so it’s super fast and accurate. In terms of smartphone-things, you’re not going to have any complaints; the Mi 9T can handle calls fine, WiFi and cell reception worked with no issues in Los Angeles and Hong Kong, and the Snapdragon 730 chipset is more than powerful enough to handle any app from Google’s Play Store.

Optics

The 20-megapixel pop-up selfie camera is fine. It elevates and retracts at a decent speed (about half a second). It’s not as fast as the OnePlus 7 Pro’s elevating camera, but it’s not too slow. Selfies are fine, but struggles against backlight more than OnePlus 7 Pro or the Oppo Reno. To be fair, both of the latter phones cost more.

The main 48-megapixel sensor here is, like the other dozen sensors already out on the street, used to shoot 12-megapixel photos that are pixel-binned, and they look good. The 13-megapixel wide-angle camera is also distortion free thanks to software post-processing, but details are a bit soft. The telephoto lens, at 8-megapixel, is okay — I can’t get excited about 2X zoom anymore in 2019 after I’ve used the Huawei P30 Pro and Oppo Reno 10X zoom.

The Mi 9T cameras do capture great bokeh portrait images, with accurate edge detection and natural-looking depth-of-field blur.

A wide-angle shot.
Another bokeh image.
A bokeh portrait shot of my dad. And yeah the watermark is on by default — I turned that shit off immediately after this photo.
The selfie camera is fine.

At night, all three cameras suffer and churn out below-average photos. But there is a “night mode” here that lets you boost dynamic range and lighting. The results are generally pleasing, but the Realme X has a better night mode in my opinion.

Where the Mi 9T’s camera surprises is in video performance: the EIS (electronic stabilization) is excellent here, not just compared to other mid-tier handsets, but even against flagships. Videos shot at 1080/30fps and 4K/30fps are silky smooth even as I’m walking. Even wide-angle video footage is clean and smooth. In terms of video stability and image quality, only LG’s and Apple’s recent handsets are clearly superior.

Software: mostly good

The Mi 9T runs on Xiaomi’s MIUI 10 and it’s a fine skin. Chinese Android skins all used to be objectively terrible as recently as 2017, but Xiaomi and Oppo have really improved their respective software to be tolerable, even for a very critical power user such as myself. There’s plenty of customization options here, including a system-wide dark mode, and multiple navigation style to choose from, including a swiping gesture navigation that is so good, the next version of Android coming this fall will adopt.

We’ve been spoiled

The fact that the Xiaomi Mi 9T launched to little fanfare is understandable, considering Chinese phone brands are pumping out so many phones to the market. But it also reminds me of how spoiled we’ve been, or at least me, a reviewer based in Hong Kong, arguably the best place for a phone enthusiast.

I still remember the genuine excitement I felt when I first laid my hands on Xiaomi’s first “bezel-less” phone, the Mi Mix. Now, two and half years later, I barely gave the Mi 9T a second look when I took it out of the box. To trained eyes like mine, the Xiaomi Mi 9T isn’t exciting; not a single thing about it is new.

But if I take a step back and examine these developments through the eyes of the average consumer, and it’s hard not to be impressed by what Xiaomi is doing here. It is giving us features that were reserved for premium “expensive” handsets just a year ago in an affordable $300 package. There are few industries that continue to improve the value proposition for consumers like the smartphone space. At this rate of commoditization, we may be able to get those $2,000 foldable 5G phones that Samsung and Huawei are selling soon for $500 by 2021.