Xiaomi Mi Mix 2: Just the Right Chemistry

 

K Madhavan Pillai tests the Xiaomi Mi Mix 2, to find out if this is the best all-rounder for the serious, multi-tasking photographer.

Xiaomi Mi Mix 2

Xiaomi Mi Mix 2

Leave it to Xiaomi to stir things up! The launch of this concept phone in November last year (as a flagship killer) inspired Samsung, LG and Apple to feature 18:9 displays in their respective flagships, and got Chinese copycats really excited (I counted six other phones called ‘Mix’).

The Xiaomi Mi Mix 2 is an elegant, strikingly good looking phone, with a four-sided curved ceramic, scratch-resistant back plate on an aluminum alloy frame, and 18-karat gold-plated camera rim. What adds to its appeal is a near bezel-less 6-inch, 2160×1080 pixel IPS display, with rounded corners, making the overall size as small as (or smaller than) phones with 5.5-inch screens. It runs on an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, supported by an Adreno 540 GPU, 6GB of optimised RAM, 128GB of high-speed storage, and a 3400 mAh battery, all of which are numbers visible on the most expensive flagship devices today.

On the regular ‘Photo’ mode, a fair level of detail is retained. I did not tap to focus with this shot because I wanted to see what Mix 2 would do, left to its own devices. With the backlighting and a patch of bright sky, the phone selected its exposure well.

On the regular ‘Photo’ mode, a fair level of detail is retained. I did not tap to focus with this shot because I wanted to see what Mix 2 would do, left to its own devices. With the backlighting and a patch of bright sky, the phone selected its exposure well. Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

In Photographic Parlance…
The Mix 2 comes with a 12MP f/2 rear camera with a Sony IMX386 sensor (one of their best performing sensors) with 1.25μm pixels, phase detect AF and 4-axis OIS. It is accompanied with a two-tone continuous source LED. The camera supports a 99-shot burst mode, face recognition, HDR, a full manual mode and can shoot panoramas. There are 13 creative colour / B&W filters (albeit that can’t be used while shooting video), a HHT (Handheld Twilight) mode that combines multiple exposures in low light for better noise performance. There is also an interesting digital tilt-shift mode. It works normally (on the horizontal plane, when the phone is held vertically) or as a circle. The area in focus and the position in the frame can be controlled. Unfortunately, it does not save RAW. The front camera is 5MP, and is rather oddly positioned below the display, to enable the display to extend to the top. While this helps viewing experience and allows a reduced length of the phone, right-handed use for selfies requires you to flip the phone all the way around. The shooting screen automatically rotates 180° too, even if auto-rotate is off and the volume buttons facilitate shutter release. It has a Beautify mode with ‘smart profiles’, 1080p video call with real-time Beautify, selfie timer, face recognition, and a mirror mode.

The Mi Mix 2 is capable of 4K at 30fps and 720p slow-mo at 120 fps. While the regular video mode allows continuous capture, a Short Video mode lets you fire off a clip of 10sec. It also offers time lapse videos. Dual ADC HD recording ensured clear audio both for video and standalone audio recording. For photographers, it is pertinent to note that the phone does not come with water or dust sealing (standard for flagship phones).

Though filters are not available while shooting video, there is a host of fun options to edit them, including trimming, adding filters (some of which are a lot of fun), music and title or credit text. These are meant for short segments (about a minute), preferably in full-HD, and quick edits, rendered within the phone. Videos in 4k, of the same duration, take a very long time to encode and render. There are a some limited options to edit photos as well.

Can a Thing Be Too Good?
The dark, mirror-finish ceramic back or the phone looks so gorgeous that, along with the display, the Mix 2 easily competes with the most expensive flagships in terms of visual appeal and design. One would want to use it without a cover all the time. Yet,  it can slip, especially in sweaty hands. And it certainly gets attention… not entirely desirable when you want to go unnoticed. The Mi Mix 2 ships with a matte back cover that affords a more comfortable grip, and makes it appear low-key.

Another significant aspect is the display. As a photographer, I prefer the IPS screen of the Mix 2, with its slightly toned down, more realistic colours than the oversaturated AMOLED displays. The screen has a good gamut. So when you do need to bump up saturation, it shows extremely well.

AMOLED does have the advantage of consuming less power, but the battery of the Mi Mix 2 is no slouch. It easily gets me about 13 hours of constant use—shooting for several hours (stills and video), browsing, calls, writing this review, and a couple of hours of watching videos as well. I’m personally not into gaming, but the Mi Mix 2 is a speedy phone, with no lag.

The Camera In Use
The Mix 2 handles well. The controls, shooting, editing, and image gallery options are simple and intuitive. The phone responds quickly and is ready to shoot on a swipe without unlocking the home screen. An added advantage with the Mi Mix 2 is that the extremely fast fingerprint sensor also doubles as an instant shutter release, but one needs to be careful that the tip of the finger does not come into the field of view of the lens. Apart from the double tap touch shutter directly on a the image, volume buttons can also be enabled for focus or release.

The manual mode of the camera is quite useful. In conjunction with the OIS, I was able to move down to 1/8thsec, with four of five handheld photos perfectly sharp. Slow shutterspeeds extend all the way to a useful 32sec. High shutterspeeds end at 1/1000sec, which could have been faster. The One Plus 5T (the immediate competitor), for instance, offers up to 1/8000sec.

The Low Light Story
AF readily acquires focus in practical low light conditions (good room illumination), and images show reasonably good detail. In the Photo (auto) mode, with increasingly lower levels, lower shutterspeeds cause shake in images, unless the photographer and the subject are both very still. Noise reduction begins to kick in heavily, with terribly executed smoothening that eliminates grain and detail (an issue that continues to plague every smartphone today). The flash is both effective and recommended for portraits in low light.

Lower light levels cause a dip in shutterspeeds. Moving subjects inevitably blur, and this can be used to produce some interesting effects.

Lower light levels cause a dip in shutterspeeds. Moving subjects inevitably blur, and this can be used to produce some interesting effects.  Photograph / K Madhavan Pillai

For those who want excellent results in very low light, the only viable option is to shoot in the manual mode by fixing the ISO manually between 100 to 400, fixing the phone to a tripod, enabling the self timer (or holding the phone if you are adventurous), and manually selecting an appropriately low shutterspeed. Beyond ISO 400, there is a drop in quality because of overprocessing. At this point, I found myself wishing the Mix 2 saved original RAW images.

While I was not displeased with the results for a phone at this price level, the more expensive flagships from Google and Apple clearly begin to show their advantages.

What’s It Got And What It’s Not
One very obvious feature missing in the Mix 2 and available in its closest competitor, the recently launched OnePlus 5T, is a dual rear camera setup with a portrait mode. Honestly, I did not miss it. Portrait mode technology and processing, even with flagship phones, need improvements before I would rate it as a useful feature for serious photographers. What I did miss, however, was a 2x optical zoom (while the 5T sports a smartly processed digital version, an optical 2x is available on the much more modestly priced Mi A1).

Corner-to-corner detailing at lower ISO settings is exceptionally good, and so is its rendition of tones.

Corner-to-corner detailing at lower ISO settings is exceptionally good, and so is its rendition of tones. Photograph / K Madhavan Pillai

On my wishlist is RAW functionality (available on the 5T), much more comprehensive photo / video settings (for instance… customisable Auto ISO, JPEG compression options, manual settings for video, etc.), more editing options, and better weather sealing. That said, other phones at this price range lack all or most of these features too.

Where the 5T does go beyond the Mix 2 is in gaining half an exposure stop with its aperture of f/1.7 on both rear cameras (16 and 20MP) and in how it processes low light images. In practice, there is a tiny, but distinctly visible, advantage in the detailing delivered by the 5T, in low light and this becomes more pronounced if I downsize 16MP images to 12. The 5T also shows slightly lower levels of ‘bad’ noise processing at high ISO, leaving more detail intact.

However, the deal clincher for me would be the Mix 2’s performance in good light, which is better than the 5T in two ways—it shows a clear advantage of a sharper lens, especially towards the edges and corners of the frame (invisible at high ISO because of poor processing). And it shows slightly more detail in good light.

In Conclusion
The Xiaomi Mi Mix 2 is extremely competitive at its price of Rs. 35,999. It may lack certain bells and whistles, and is not as efficient in very low light as some of the more expensive phones, or its closest rival, the OnePlus 5T. But it does has all of what a serious photographer would demand, including a sharper lens. And It does an exemplary job in good light.

Where I think it really shines through is that it comes across as operationally intuitive, ergonomically refined, and speedy, with a superb display. It is also easily the most visually appealing phones out there at the moment, better than the flagships by other brands. It makes an excellent buy.

AT A GLANCE
SPECIFICATIONS 6-inch bezel-less display, 12MP IMX386 rear camera, OIS, Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, 6GB RAM, 128GB storage, Rs. 35,999
WHAT WE LIKE Compact (for a 6-inch display), speedy, intuitive, fingerprint sensor shutter
WHAT WE DISLIKE No RAW, 2x optical zoom, or weather sealing
WHY BUY IT It is an excellent all-rounder, ergonomically excellent, produces good results in most practical conditions, and looks fabulous too.
FINAL RATINGS 88%
CAMERA FEATURES 12MP rear camera, OIS, 6-inch display, ceramic back 21/25 
IMAGE QUALITY  Good all-round performance in practical conditions  26/30
VIDEO QUALITY 4K (30fps), 1080p and 720p (30fps), 720p Slow-mo (120fps) 13/15
HANDLING  Intuitive interfaces, fingerprint shutter, included back cover helps  14/15
SPEED & RESPONSIVENESS No lags whatsoever, speedy phone 14/15
Tags: Better Cellphone, better photography, January 2018, K Madhavan Pillai, Xiaomi Mi Mix 2