Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro hands-on: Pretty, but for a pretty big sacrifice

I’m a total sucker for cool-looking smartphones — I can’t help it, I’m just naturally drawn to the device with the impractical motorised cameras, or the coolest new sliding mechanism. Or, in the case of the brand new Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro, the one with the most transparent back.

But the problem with a lot of these fancy smartphones is: There’s a high chance that you’re giving something crucial up just so you can own that cool new design or mechanism. And unfortunately for the Mi 8 Pro, it looks like you’re giving up something pretty significant — something I don’t think Xiaomi really needed to do with this line of smartphone.

Avid followers of Xiaomi — or even avid followers of our humble tech site — would know by now that the Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro is basically the “mass market’ version of the company’s Mi 8 Explorer Edition device. Well, except that it doesn’t keep all the Explorer’s features. 

But it does keep a lot of it, and the most obvious feature that was carried over is that striking transparent back. Yes, HTC did it first, but I think Xiaomi went way harder than HTC did. And yes (if the transparent back is identical to the one on the Explorer Edition), the “components” you see through the transparent back aren’t actually the parts powering your device, but you can’t deny that the effect is stunning.

Xiaomi Mi 8 Pro Malaysia

And it’s not just a pretty face either. This phone feels very nice in the hand. It’s got a slim body and a very manageable footprint for my hands. The gentle curves on the back help it nestle in the palm of your hand the same way the Mi 8 does — which I guess shouldn’t be surprising since it’s basically the same phone. It does feel a little lighter to me than the Mi 8, though it’s not something immediately noticeable, but it still has a good enough heft that the phone doesn’t feel cheap. 

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Up front, the smartphone also packs the same kind of 6.21-inch AMOLED display that pushes a Full HD+ resolution. It still looks more than good enough, though I believe many will probably take issue with the sizable notch at the top of it. 

But that notch is there for a reason, naturally. Not only does it house the smartphone’s 20MP selfie shooter, it also houses the sensors necessary for the smartphone’s Infrared Face Unlock. It’s not the 3D Face Unlock that you’d find on the Mi 8 Explorer edition, but it’s the same one you’d find on the regular Mi 8. The phone does still pack the Explorer Edition’s pressure sensitive in-display fingerprint scanner though, which is about as fast and as accurate as the Huawei Mate 20 Pro‘s.

Besides that, the smartphone retains the high-end performance figures of the Mi 8. At its heart, the device is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor that’s mated to up to 8GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage. 

Naturally, performance is as smooth and snappy as any flagship, but the device does run on Xiaomi’s MIUI so you’ll immediately know whether you like it or not. Interestingly, the Mi 8 Pro I have with me (global version) doesn’t have MIUI 10 just yet — something our Mi 8 (also global version) already does — so you’ll have to make do with MIUI 9.6.5 in the meantime. Unfortunately, this phone also only comes pre-loaded with Android 8.1 Oreo, and knowing Xiaomi’s habit of only updating MIUI, not the Android version it is built on top of, this will likely remain unchanged.

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For photos, this handset comes with a dual-camera setup at the back. It’s the same 12MP f/1.8 + 12MP f/2.4 module as the one on the Mi 8 and Mi MIX 2S, so you can expect it to perform very similarly. I haven’t had a lot of time with the phone, so I haven’t been able to test the camera just yet.

But now we come to my biggest problem with Xiaomi’s Mi 8 Pro: Its tiny battery. This device only comes with a 3,000 mAh cell, which is tiny by modern Android smartphone standards. It’s even smaller than the Mi 8’s 3,400 mAh cell, which is worrying. Yes, Xiaomi’s MIUI is pretty frugal — my colleague rates his Mi 8’s battery life at “average” with between four to five hours of screen-on time — but shaving 400 mAh off is not insignificant.

That said, the thing that irks me is that Xiaomi didn’t really have to do this. The Mi 8 line is the company’s mainstream smartphone that’s designed to give the consumer the best smartphone for their money. And by all accounts, good battery life is a key ingredient in the making of a good smartphone.

This pretty, transparent exterior looks cool and futuristic, sure, but I never thought of the Mi 8 line as the futuristic smartphone. It should be the best of today with meaningful innovations that add function. Sure, a pretty new form is great and all, but I wouldn’t have elected to make this trade if it affects the usability of my smartphone — not when this is designed to be a proper daily driver.

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Xiaomi has the Mi MIX line for their crazy innovations and futuristic form-factors, it doesn’t need to bleed into the Mi 8 line of smartphones in this kind of way. Just as I was disappointed in the fact that the Mi MIX 2 felt too mainstream for its namesake, I too feel like the Mi 8 Pro may have made too big of a trade-off in function for a more “experimental” form.

However, I will hold off on further criticism until after I get a chance at a full review of the smartphone. I hope my concerns are unfounded, but we will see.

In any case, this smartphone will be available for purchase on the 10th of November onward at all authorised Mi Stores throughout Malaysia. We’re getting only one variant of this smartphone — the 8GB RAM + 128GB Storage version in Transparent Titanium — and it’s priced at RM2,399. That’s a full RM500 more than the regular top-spec Mi 8 with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, by the way.

Photography by Zachary Yoong with the Sony A7 III.