The Xiaomi Mi 6 review: A true budget flagship phone

If you’re subscribed to any of the big tech YouTube channels or pay attention to phone reviews, you probably already know how good the Xiaomi Mi 6 is. It’s been the darling of the tech community since its release earlier this year. But, if you’re a casual consumer, do you even know it exists? The Mi 6 isn’t officially sold in the US (thanks to Gearbest for sending over our review unit!) and importing it can be costly depending on which site you buy it from.

Given those hurdles, why would any regular person consider the Xiaomi Mi 6? This is the question I’ve been asking myself for the last three weeks while testing the device. Is the phone so impressive that I’d order it from a third-party website and hope for the best? I know what my answer is, but let’s take a full look at the phone so you can decide for yourself.

Build and Internals

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 quad-core clocked at 2.45GHz
  • Display: 5.15-inch 1080p IPS LCD
  • RAM: 6GB
  • Storage: 128GB, no microSD card support
  • Camera: dual 12MP rear camera, 8MP front-facing
  • Battery: 3350mAh, supports Quick Charge 3.0

The Xiaomi Mi 6 has class-leading specifications.

While it doesn’t have a 2:1 display that seems to be all the rage today, it does have one of the better displays I’ve ever seen. I’m partial to AMOLED displays and despite that, I’m still blown away by the quality here. The 5.15-inch screen is small, but that’s a bit of a relief after using monster phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus for a few months. One-handed operation is something I’ve certainly missed. The colors are vibrant and the screen gets both very bright and very dark. This is great for usage outside and while laying in bed at night.

I’ve never once been bothered by the resolution. Some have stated that phones in 2017 should always have 1440p displays, but I couldn’t disagree more. The pixel density is still very high at 428 ppi (pixels per inch) and I’ve never been able to pick out individual pixels no matter how hard I try. I think a higher resolution display would’ve done nothing but consume more battery and done so needlessly.

Below the display is three hardware buttons for back, home, and multitasking. The home button houses a lightning quick fingerprint scanner. Fingerprint scanners have become pretty standard these days but the Mi6’s scanner is among the best I’ve tried for speed and accuracy.

Above the display sits the 8MP front-facing camera, some sensors, and an earpiece that doubles as a loud speaker. The earpiece actually teams up with the bottom-firing speaker for stereo sound. It could be louder and add more bass, but we do appreciate the inclusion of dual speakers nonetheless.

The rest of the phone is made up of a glass back and aluminum sides. There’s a ceramic version available too that’s said to be gorgeous but we don’t have one of those in house. Our version has the slipperiest back on a device I’ve ever seen. I can’t put this thing down without it ending on up on the floor. It’s also a fingerprint magnet so I like to keep the case Xiaomi included in the box on the phone at all times.

Before we venture inside the device, we’ll take a quick pit stop to the bottom where the USB Type-C port and speaker are. What you won’t find here, or anywhere else, is a headphone jack. It’s becoming all too common these days to leave the headphone jack out to add a bigger battery or taptic engine, but it just sucks. I don’t want to have to rely on a dongle or Bluetooth connectivity.

At least the battery is pretty big. At 3350mAh, it’s one of the biggest batteries in a small device out there. In fact, it’s bigger than the batteries in the HTC U 11, Moto Z2 Force, Samsung Galaxy S8, and OnePlus 5- all larger devices. We’ll get into how long the battery lasts in the performance section but so far, we’ve been pretty pleased.

The rest of the internals are as pleasing as the battery life. We’ve got a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 CPU clocked at 2.45GHz, an Adreno 540 GPU, 6GB of RAM and either 64 or 128GB of storage. Only the OnePlus 5 offers better specs on a flagship smartphone today.

Software

Believe it or not, but the Xiaomi Mi 6 is one of the only devices on the market with the most up-to-date version of Android. According to GSMArena, 77 devices currently have Android 7.1 or 7.1.1. 77 might sound like a lot but there are thousands of devices on the market right now and We can’t find one you can walk into a physical carrier store and buy in the United States besides the Pixel.

While it’s great that it features the newest version of Android, you’d never know it. Xiaomi features the famously heavy MIUI 8.0 skin and completely removes any semblance of Stock Android. While there are some nice features in MIUI, it feels much more like a college grad’s take on iOS rather than a fully fleshed out OS.

The colors are bright, but all over the place. Options that gimp the phone’s usability are turned on by default. Apps crash and occasionally, the entire phone locks up. When things are running smoothly, it’s fantastic. I can’t remember any dropped frames in the few weeks I’ve been using the phone, but when things go bad, it’s extremely frustrating.

Sadly, there’s no app drawer.

It’s not all bad, though. Xiaomi gets points for including creative features and apps that other Android OEMs would be smart to steal, I mean develop for their own. My favorite among these features is called Second Space.

Second Space feels like running Boot Camp on your phone. No, I don’t mean making it climb rope ladders and go on runs while Drill Seargents are yelling at it. Boot Camp is a MacOS application that allows you to run a virtual version of Windows. This allows you to have one entirely contained environment and run the apps you need. I use a Second Space for work and have all of my useful applications right on my homescreen. When I’m done for the day, I switch back over to my first space where Facebook, Kik, and Reddit all are. It’s fantastic for keeping me focused and off my phone when I should be working.

I can see parents creating a separate space for their child to use their phone, but there is a dedicated Child Mode built in too. Child Mode is a tighter control on your phone rather than Second Space which gives you free roam. In Child Mode you can restrict sending messages and which applications can be opened. It’s great to turn it on, hand my kid the phone with games already running and let her enjoy.

The final feature I want to point out is App Lock. There are certain apps that I don’t want anyone else to have access to. I tend to have sensitive work emails sitting in my Inbox so I restrict the access to that app in particular so someone can’t pick up my phone and rifle through my emails. I do have a fingerprint and passcode set up on my phone, but this just adds another layer of protection.

There are other things to love like a really powerful and plentiful Theme Store, but we’re going to turn to one of the most frustrating aspects of the Mi 6 and that’s how it manages background apps. For a pretty long time, I had no idea why emails were showing up on my Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, but not the Mi 6 depsite the accounts being synced on both devices.

Then I found it.

Within the battery menu, you can manage apps battery usage. The Power Saving Mode was turned on and that was limiting the ability for anything to refresh in the background. It’s a smart idea to limit these apps, but when the rules are so strict that I can’t get emails or messages on Facebook Messenger, it’s time to rethink your strategy.

If you’re looking for something completely different, the Xiaomi Mi 6 might not be for you. While MIUI is a heavy skin, it doesn’t stand out to me as something you should lust after. It feels like every other skin on a Chinese phone I’ve ever used. It’s heavy and bright and doesn’t perform that well. Unfortunately, the software is just something you have to deal with when you buy this phone for it’s amazing hardware and specs rather than being an asset to the overall package.

Performance

I metioned in the software section that when things were bad, they were really bad but when things were good, they were really good. I might not like the software but on a day-to-day basis, it performed pretty well.

I’m still frustrated by my Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus dropping frames or lagging so using the Mi 6 was a bit of fresh air for me. Apps opened quickly and stayed in memory forever due to the 6GB of RAM. Games, even more demanding ones, ran fine without dropping frames and scrolling through long lists like on Reddit was perfect.

Another stand-out performer was the GPS chip in the Mi 6. Normally I wouldn’t point out how the GPS did unless it failed hard, but I was very impressed at how fast GPS locked on and nothing could shake it. There were several times that we missed an off-ramp on the highway and it kept up with us instead of assuming we were continuing on the desired path. I was very impressed.

Not as impressive but still good was call quality. Both the other caller and I thought voices sounded clear and crips during voice calls. Going back to the speakers we were talking about earlier, the speakerphone could be a little louder but it’s a minor complaint considering.

Battery life is as good on the Xiaomi Mi 6 as any phone I’ve ever used, although there is a caveat. I’m a heavy user and the Mi 6 got me through every day no matter what, normally with about 40-50% of the battery left at the end of the day. Usage ranged anywhere between 7 to 10 hours on a single charge with a ton of idle time.

The caveat, unfortunately, is that the Mi 6 doesn’t support any LTE bands on T-Mobile’s network. Since it wasn’t using those radios, battery life was better than it would’ve been otherwise. I still think that the Mi 6 will get you through the day even if you are connected to LTE on another network outside the US.

While not having LTE is great for battery life, it sucks for daily usage. I was confined to HSPA+ speeds which got me by, but you can certainly feel the difference when you’re trying to load something in a pinch. Going from 100+ Mbps speeds on my Galaxy S8 to 3 – 5 on the Mi 6 was rough. I tried to stay connected to WiFi hotspots at all times and occasionally asked my wife to tether to her phone so I could speed up my downloads.

Camera

Like pretty much every flagship device, the Xiaomi Mi 6 features a dual-camera setup on the rear of the phone. The 12MP shooters come with f/1.8 and f/2.6 aperatures respectively and allow the Mi 6 to have a 2x optical zoom. Optical zoom on phones is, in theory, better than digital zooming because it allows the camera to pick up more detail when zoomed in.

In practice, I was never really blown away by the Mi 6’s camera. Sure, there are a ton of modes including Pro, Beautify, Tiltshift, and Group Shot among others, but the end result was always just average for me. Perhaps my expectations are a bit askew because I’m used to Samsung’s excellent cameras, but the Mi 6 never did anything that stood up to my Galaxy S8 Plus.

In great lighting conditions, the camera did very well but I think that’s probably the case for any phone in 2017. While you can find some budget devices that take bad pictures regardless of lighting conditions, the Mi 6 is a flagship device and should be expected to output great pictures. The colors look nice but it quickly falls apart when you try to edit them at all because the dynamic range is just lacking. Raising the exposure at all left pictures blown out so keep that in mind if you’re a shutterbug.

Low light pictures were also a bit of a mess. There always seemed to be some sort of artifacting or ghosting in the pictures. Sure, they were passable for social media purposes, but they left a lot to be desired. Again, the lack of great dynamic range hurts here too if you try to raise the brightness or contrast in a photo editing application.

The Mi 6 can record in up to 4K at 30 fps which is pretty standard on flagships, but what the Mi 6 lacks is support at recording at higher frame rates. While most other devices can record in either 720 or 1080p at 60 fps, the Mi 6 never gives you an option to do so. This is disappointing, to say the least.

The four-point optical image stabilization that helps keep pictures crips also helps with video but the lack of any electronic image stabilization means jerky movements or video while walking is still pretty messy and jarring. This is something I believe that can be added in a software update so let’s hope the next version of MIUI has it included because it can make a massive difference. Hopefully, Xiaomi can also add support for the 2x zoom in video recording as well since there’s currently no way to use it.

While I’ve mentioned some points of contention with the camera in this section, don’t let those criticisms fool you into thinking that this is a bad camera. It certainly is not. While I don’t think it stands up to other flagship devices, it still does take good pictures that are worthy of sharing through SMS or on social media. One thing I really love is how fast the shutter is even with HDR on. Also, the Pro Mode is pretty good. It doesn’t top LG for the best on the market, but I did enjoy using it.

Click here to check out our Xiaomi Mi 6 photo samples

Final Thoughts

While my review may sound pretty critical, I have really enjoyed my time with the Xiaomi Mi 6. I think Xiaomi has figured out a really nice balance of excellent hardware specs, cool software tricks, and excellent battery life that will keep customers coming back. The build quality is something that really stands out to me. Almost every phone these days are made out of “premium” materials but the Mi 6 feels better than most at almost half the cost.

A lot of the issues I had with the phone can be solved by throwing a third-party launcher like Nova on it and finding a nice theme. There are certainly innovative software features in here but the OS can bit a bit of a mess. Some Stock goodness would surely help out. The XDA community for the Mi 6 is rather active so I think I might try to put Lineage OS on it and see what happens.

Unfortunately, Lineage won’t fix the lack of LTE coverage in the US. If you can live without it, I think that the Mi 6 is a nice option to get the best hardware on the market for a decent price but I found during my testing that it was really hard to leave LTE in the past once I became used to it. This won’t be much of an issue for our international fans since they should get better LTE coverage, but it definitely hurts the Mi 6’s case for the states.

And that’s a good example of the sacrifice you’ll have to make with the Mi 6. It comes in at a price that no other flagship can beat, but you are going to have to make some big sacrifices. If you don’t mind them, snap one up while you can!

Gearbest was nice enough to send over some coupon codes to save you some dough if you do decide to buy one. Here they are: