Mi 11 Ultra review: Dial it up to 11
The word ‘ultra’ owes its origins to the Latin word meaning “located beyond, on the far side of” and is part of our informal vocabulary to represent “going beyond what is usual or ordinary”. In the smartphone segment, the ultra moniker has come to represent a brand’s all-out product, phones that go the ultra-distance in terms of design, specs list, cameras and at least one OTT feature…and quite often, an ultra asking price. The Mi 11 Ultra is Xiaomi’s answer to every Ultra phone launched by the competition, a culmination of the best hardware Xiaomi can cram into a smartphone…yet one that is ambitious by any past Xiaomi standard in India. It’s backed by healthy momentum of the brand making strides in the premium 20K-45K segment, but does the Mi 11 Ultra do enough to claim triumph over the likes of the S21 Ultra and the OnePlus 9 Pro?
In the hand, two somewhat polarizing elements of the Mi 11 Ultra’s design strike you immediately. The first is its sheer size – this is an unabashedly big phone in every sense of the word, right from its 164.3mm x 74.6mm dimensions to its healthy 234g weight. Granted, much of that chunkiness is courtesy the ceramic back which gives the Mi 11 Ultra its premium hand-feel, but there’s no way you can get around the elephant in the room – that massive camera bump. It surpasses…nay, even dwarfs camera bumps on other phones, and forms a key part of the phone’s visual identity (not to mention, a significant contributor to the weight). The ergonomics are bound to be divisive for some, and well, Xiaomi did call it a Superphone…no kidding! To Xiaomi’s credit, the expansive camera module does pack in three big camera sensors and a tiny 1.1-inch AMOLED touch screen for glanceable notifications, viewing the time or basic music control…or as a camera viewfinder for selfies from the main camera. I know, it sounds like a party trick, but in the Mi 11 Ultra’s case, this is a party trick done right.
Elsewhere, you get Harmon Kardon tuned stereo speakers that sound rich, clear and distortion free even at high volumes, plus high-res certification for wired and wireless audio playback. There’s IP68 dust and water resistance, an infrared blaster (a Xiaomi staple), fast wireless charging, a tactile set of buttons and snappy biometrics via the in-screen fingerprint scanner and face unlock. The lack of a headphone jack was expected, though you do get a Type-C to 3.5mm dongle in the box. What’s odd is that the Type-C port works at USB 2.0 transfer speeds, and while this may not make any difference to most wireless warriors, it is an odd compromise to make. That said, there’s a certain cohesiveness and completeness in the Mi 11 Ultra design that rightfully earns it its Superphone badge.
Around the front, the Mi 11 Ultra continues to deliver the goods, with a massive 6.81-inch AMOLED screen packing a QHD+ resolution, a 120Hz refresh rate and peak brightness of 1700 nits that comes in handy for HDR10+ content. It offers 10-bit colors off the 8-bit panel, which allows for 1.07 billion colors to be rendered on the panel (jaw-droppingly gorgeous on some HDR content I played), and you can adjust the screen for RGB, saturation, gamma and saturation levels if you have a more-than-average proclivity for tuning colors (for most, the auto calibration will work just fine). You can switch between 60Hz or 120Hz, and if you select the latter, the phone switches between 30/60/90 and 120Hz depending on the content you’re viewing – 120Hz for the UI or 60Hz for videos. The fluidity is impressive, and overall, this is a great panel to watch content on, bar none…and the Harmon Kardon speakers certainly help its case.
Now, an early-2021 Superphone wouldn’t be super enough if it had anything less than the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip with 12GB of the fastest LPDDR5 RAM and 256GB of UFS 3.1 storage, and the Mi 11 Ultra delivers in spades, particularly if you prefer the raw, untamed power of the chip above all else. No surprises then that the latest games like Genshin Impact run at the highest settings, and since the phone doesn’t have the tendency of throttling the performance as much as the OnePlus 9 Pro or the S21 Ultra, it sustains peak frame rates and performance for longer. This also means that the Mi 11 Ultra does run a little hotter around the mid frame if you push the performance envelope as compared to say the OnePlus 9 Pro which prioritizes keeping the phone cool. Battery performance is a shade compromised, with the phone delivering just over five hours of screen on time with all the bells and whistles turned on. You get a 55W charger in the box (0-100 in an hour), although you can put down a bit extra for the 67W wired charger when it launches in India. There’s 67W wireless charging support too, although Xiaomi’s proprietary charger is probably further out from launch here.
Expectedly, MIUI 12 flies on this hardware, and one hasn’t seen MIUI this responsive on a Xiaomi phone – animations are slick, apps load quickly and the fluidity of navigating the interface is addictive. MIUI 12 feels well-mated with the high-end hardware, although I couldn’t help but imagine how much better the Mi 11 Ultra would have been had it launched with MIUI 12.5 (delayed as the sale was anyway). Xiaomi confirmed that the update should be knocking on the Ultra’s doors really soon which will, among other updates, allow you to remove most first party apps alongside a bunch of other performance enhancements. As it stands, MIUI 12 is a pleasant experience on the 11 Ultra, although there is the odd notification spam to contend with from the first-party apps. The GetApps store, in particular, is not a good look on Xiaomi’s most premium smartphone experience.
Yet, it was the camera that, for me, would be where Xiaomi could truly justify its seat at the premium flagship table, as it’s often this feature that seperates the truly great from the wannabes. It started on the right foot, by kitting the Mi 11 Ultra with a massive 1/1.12 inch 50MP sensor for the primary camera, along with 48MP cameras for the periscope zoom and ultra-wide shooters. I’m strongly in the camp of better, larger sensors over pure megapixels, and I’m glad Xiaomi’s bucked the trend it started. To good effect – the main shooter captures stunning images, irrespective of lighting conditions. Details are on point, contrast levels are tastefully controlled and dynamic range is *chef’s kiss*, as is the gorgeous bokeh in the images due to the razor thin depth of field. The latter also makes it slightly harder to accurately focus on a subject, so there’s that to bear in mind. The bigger sensor struts its stuff in low-light conditions, scooping up large amounts of light for ‘brighter than your eyes can see’ low-light images.
The ultra-wide retains a similar color science as the primary shooter and captures detailed images even in dimly lit conditions, albeit with some amount of distortion around the edges. It’s the telephoto that left me wanting a bit, more so since I came off an excellent telephoto experience on the S21 Ultra. You can still shoot usable 10x-30x shots, and go longer with 120x zoom if all you care about is to capture a subject, details be damned.
The 20MP selfie shooter is just about usable, but should you really care if all you need to do to capture higher resolution images is to flip the phone over and use the secondary display to frame the shot using any of the rear cameras? It’s a neat way to take a better shot, as long as you’re happy with using the main Photo mode – you can’t use the portrait mode, video or Pro mode via the rear display. Video is exceptional at 4K/60fps and there’s the option of going 8K, should you want.
2021 has already seen exceptional premium flagships by way of the OnePlus 9 Pro and S21 Ultra, and Xiaomi’s Mi 11 Ultra stands tall against the competition, particularly on the value it delivers without any obvious deal-breaking compromises. It’s superior to the OnePlus 9 Pro in almost every conceivable fashion, and while the Samsung S21 Ultra shoots better telephoto shots and is, in my opinion a better design overall, you’re paying a lot extra for that benefit. This is Xiaomi bringing its A-game to the big boys table, and going the ultra distance really helps it stand out.
Mi 11 Ultra
Pros: Excellent display and speakers, great primary camera, fluid unfettered performance, great value
Cons: Design may not be for everyone, runs hot under strain, average battery, telephoto camera needs tweaks for quality
Price: Rs. 69,999
Tushar Kanwar is a tech columnist and commentator, and tweets @2shar