Review: Xiaomi's Mi 11 Ultra packs an impressive punch, despite obvious design flaw

If not for the giant camera notch, this could be a great option for Android fans.
If not for the giant camera notch, this could be a great option for Android fans Photo credit: Newshub

Xiaomi isn't necessarily the first name off the tongue when it comes to top-tier Android smartphones in Aotearoa, but the Mi 11 Ultra - launched last month - has big specifications to match its big price.

The Chinese tech giant is the world's third largest smartphone provider but only has around 2.6 percent of the New Zealand mobile market, according to statcounter.

The release of its latest premium flagship device is an opportunity to take on the likes of Samsung's S21 Ultra and Oppo's Find X3 Pro head-to-head and make some real headway in New Zealand.

So is this a phone that could persuade people to ditch perennial Kiwi favourite brands for a new one? 

I've been using the Mi 11 Ultra for the last month and here are my thoughts.

The good

I like my phones how I like my pizza - big and so tasty looking I can't resist digging in, and the Mi 11 Ultra certainly didn't disappoint.

It's beautiful black ceramic finish is sleek and I was surprised at just how much taller it was than my Apple iPhone 12 Pro, despite being a very similar width.

And it's curvy, too. There's not a single sharp edge on the front to distract from the impressive 6.8-inch, 120Hz screen. 

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
Photo credit: Newshub

There's always a danger that first impressions don't hold but I'm happy to say that wasn't true of the Mi 11 Ultra once booted.

Even as a long-term iOS user, it didn't take me long to have my Google profile attached and when it became time to play around I was immediately grabbed by the TrueColor display.

A quick adjustment to the brightness - I find manual control over the screen much better than the adaptive adjustments most phones make - and it looked as good as any phone I've ever used.

Xiaomi phones use the heavily-customised MIUI Android ROM. I found it intuitive and the 12.5 update, which dropped near the end of my review period, made the overall experience better without it being a spectacular release. As it should be.

And so what about that impressive sounding camera package.

The Mi 11 Ultra has a 50MP main camera, combining both Xiaomi and Samsung technology. Xiaomi says the new GN2 primary image sensor is the largest in any smartphone and dual Pixel Pro technology on the main camera also allows the shooting of 8K videos.

Detailing all the specs would fill a few pages, but it's fair to say the Mi 11 Ultra is trying to be the best on the market and redefine what is possible with a smartphone camera.

So does it do that?

To my non-professional eyes it did fantastically well. I've often attracted comments about how good my photographs are with my iPhone camera and, believe me, that's solely down to the quality of the hardware and software. This was more than replicated here.

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
Photo credit: Newshub

Using the automatic settings I was absolutely delighted with the quality of image produced and I have no doubts that someone who has the time, inclination and understanding to delve further into aperture, shutter speed and ISO will be able to capture many spectacular pics.

But I'm a simple man at heart, and I wanted my selfie to look good too. How impressed was I with the front-facing camera on show here? The first shot I took is now my profile picture on social media and email accounts. Mission accomplished!

The screen shape also provided for a great Netflix streaming experience. Compared to the iPhone with True Tone turned on, the Xiaomi bettered it in every way - not least because there were no bars across the screen to fit the movie's format.

Turning True Tone off makes it a much closer call in terms of colour depth and saturation - but if I had to choose just one to watch a movie on again, it would be the Mi 11 Ultra.

The bad

The elephant in the room with this phone is the giant camera notch on the back. Okay, it's not THAT big, but as a percentage of the overall width it sticks out like a sore thumb.

It also gives the phone a weird imbalance that I haven't noticed with others. It felt extremely top-heavy compared to other modern smartphones I've tried recently.

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
Photo credit: Newshub

There's a lot of camera power to fit into the device, so I understand the necessity of it going somewhere - but there's just something so unappealing about it that I struggle to get my head around just how this form made it to the final product.

The second mini display on that camera notch is also a bit of an unnecessary gimmick, in my experience. A double tap and it shows the time, the date and the battery icon - things already on the main screen.

Apparently it can be used when taking a selfie with the main camera to ensure you are properly positioned, which would be a point of difference. But, for the life of me, I could not get it to work and eventually I ran out of patience and will.

The last few things of note are unlikely to influence anyone's purchasing decision but struck me as annoyances worth documenting.

Much like the Oppo A94, the power and volume buttons on the right hand side being so close to the middle didn't feel natural to me. That combined with the imbalance meant it never felt truly comfortable in my hand.

I also got annoyed at constant pop-up requests to be able to control my Wi-Fi signal - often four in quick succession. I believe this was due to my need to install a profile to access work emails and I'm not sure if this is Android or MIUI specific, but it was distracting nonetheless. 

And, last but not least, the beautiful screen just seemed to attract dust and grime more than any other screen I've used. Maybe I just had a particularly dirty month, but I used my cleaning cloth more than ever.

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
Photo credit: Newshub

The verdict

The Mi 11 Ultra is a high-end device and, coming in at just a sniff under $2100, it needs to do more than just the basics well.

And it does, with dual SIM capability, Harmon Kardon sound, a 5000mAh battery, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor and 5G speeds (providing you have the coverage) ensuring your everyday functions are quick and well catered for.

The opportunity is also there for those seeking a top level experience, particularly with photography.

If you can forgive the camera notch (or can find a cover that minimises its impact - I couldn't) and want a device that's going to give you as much control as you can possibly want or need, then I can heartily recommend the Mi 11 Ultra.

If you like to keep it simple, stupid - like I have come to appreciate as the years pass - then you might need to spend some time evaluating it against other options.

Newshub was supplied a Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra with 12GB RAM and 256GB of storage for this review.