A cheap phone that does most (or all?) things as well as a much more expensive top-of-the-line device – that’s always been the idea behind the ‘flagship killer’, ever since OnePlus invented that phrase. It stayed true when Poco(phone) initially took the world by storm with its first handset some years ago, but can this still be true in 2021? Is the Poco F3 this year’s quintessential ‘flagship killer’ or just a phone that tried to ride that idea but ultimately failed somehow?
Well, let’s see. Over the years, the flagship killer formula has stayed rather intact, although there have been alterations here and there. You need a flagship-level chipset, to enable great performance, an adequate (at least) level of smoothness, good (if not great) battery life, a good (but not necessarily perfect) screen, and some cameras.
So far so good for the Poco F3, at least on paper. But real life sometimes beats even the most detailed spec list, which is why we decided this is an intriguing enough phone to use for a long time and see what’s what in the day to day. With its price now solidly in the range once occupied by the original flagship killers, it seems to have a fighting chance indeed.
But there’s always more to the story, and we were curious to see how the specs translate into daily use. Will the Poco F3 live up to its theoretical mantra of punching way above its price point? Or will it have some downsides that can’t really be overcome? Well, if you want to find out just what exactly is the deal with the Poco F3, please join us over the next few pages as we relate to you what it was like to live with, as our one and only smartphone for an extended period of time.
Spoiler alert: it mostly delivers exactly what the spec sheet would have you expect, but there are some welcome surprises too, as well as some areas where costs were very clearly cut. How much that might impact your personal opinion of this phone really depends on what your priorities are, and we tried to lay out the case for and against the Poco F3 in the most detailed way possible in this review, so you have all the data you need for a truly informed decision.
Unlike the Poco F2 Pro last year with its motorized pop-up selfie camera, the Poco F3’s general design doesn’t stand out in any way in a sea of slab phone lookalikes. That’s both a bad thing and a good thing, depending on how you look at it. On one hand, there are no weird experiments going on, so no chance of them going wrong. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an exciting departure from what basically every other mainstream phone looks like, well, then you’re in for a disappointment. The only way to make this one stand out even remotely is to opt for the Deep Ocean Blue colorway, with its angled lines and huge Poco logo – if you’re into that, of course.
Poco F3 in Moonlight Silver and Night Black
Our review unit comes in the much more subdued Night Black hue, which is really a sort of gray and not black at all – so don’t let the name fool you. The Poco F3 has all of the design features you’d expect in this day and age, without really going overboard with anything. There is a rather large camera island, and its design is vaguely reminiscent of other creations from the Xiaomi/Redmi/Poco stable. The back glass curves into the plastic frame very smoothly, and while the display element still looks like it sits on top of the frame, the transition is the smoothest we’ve seen from a Xiaomi/Poco/Redmi phone yet.
That’s because the frame itself is slightly curved, and that curve is continued by the display edge somewhat. There’s still a ‘seam’ you can feel where the flat display ends, but it’s much less ‘in your face’ than other phones we’ve long-term reviewed, so this is definitely a plus in our book.
Overall, though, we’d call this design forgettable, for lack of a better word. And that’s interesting because while it kind of looks like every other phone, the attention to detail is not lacking, as we’ve described above. It almost seems like all of the design team’s attention went to that, and there was no room for anything even remotely out of the ordinary. But you know what? We’ll take it. Boring as it may be, this design does simply ‘just work’, and that’s probably what a lot of people are looking for.
Owing to the Poco F3’s under-200g weight, handling is perfectly fine for this reviewer with his big hands, but as usual with big phones, if your hands happen to be smaller, you may always find that you need to employ both of them to ensure the handset doesn’t fall off. Speaking of that, the glass back is, of course, slippery, but on our unit, thanks to the glossy finish, it picks up fingerprints pretty fast, and those help make it ever so slightly less slippery. Because of this, matte glass backs (with very few notable exceptions) are generally much more consistently slippery than glossy ones. But the glossy ones always look worse once they get fingerprinty, so it’s never a win-win here.
The back has a reasonably subdued Poco logo, but also a lot of regulatory information etched below it, and that is a bit much, honestly. It’s also hilarious that while Poco insists it’s a totally independent brand, “Xiaomi Communications Co., Ltd” is literally etched onto the back of this phone, right above “Designed by Poco”. Not to mention that the charger in the box is Mi branded.
The camera island is a two-stage affair, with the lower part housing the LED flash and an inevitable inscription, this time, it’s a “48 MP AI triple camera”. That’s completely unnecessary, of course, but it’s also not the worst such etching we’ve seen next to a camera arrangement, so we mostly chose to ignore it.
The upper level of the island is where the three sensors actually live, along with an ingeniously-placed microphone – that sits in a camera-like circle in the middle. It’s a cool design element, and who knows, it may even fool people into thinking there are four cameras on this phone, if they look at it from far enough away. Does anyone actually do that, though? On the street, do you casually peek at how many cameras everyone’s phones feature? Does it even matter? Would you rather take five bad cameras or one good one? So many questions, but we digress.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a clear case in the box. It’s not the sturdiest we’ve seen, but it should mostly do the job just fine. It does have one annoying aspect, which seems to have become a staple of bundled cases in Xiaomi/Poco/Redmi land, and that is the flap that covers the USB-C port for some reason. It’s fiddly, it’s flimsy, and it makes plugging-in the phone much more of a hassle than it needs to be, so honestly, we’d just cut it off if we were to purchase this phone and use the case that comes in the box with it.
The 3.5 mm headphone jack is gone, by the way. It looks like this year, even flagship killers are joining this trend. The Poco F3 does have stereo speakers, employing Xiaomi’s latest solution for the top one – there is one speaker at the top, but the sound comes out of both the earpiece and dedicated holes on the top part of the frame. This makes phone calls less private if the volume is all the way up, but it does mean a better media consumption experience is provided without the need to have two different speakers in close proximity. It’s one of those cost-cutting (and space-saving) measures that actually makes perfect sense to us.
Speaking of the speakers, the sound they put out is by no means the best we’ve heard, nor is the volume the highest. But we’ve never really had an issue with either. Quality is about what you can expect from most phones today, and in terms of volume, you’ll only feel the need for more of it when you’re in a noisy environment. So while the speakers aren’t record-breaking in any way, we feel like they are perfectly adequate for most people in most scenarios. We’ve never been left wanting more from them in our extended period spent with this phone.
The side-mounted fingerprint sensor sits flush with the plastic frame, which is a rather recent innovation, and it also happens to be by far the best side-mounted fingerprint sensor this reviewer has ever used. Before using the Poco F3, we assumed that it was the reviewer’s fingers to blame for very lackluster previous experiences with side-mounted sensors, but those were just bad fingerprint scanners.
From a bunch of missed readings with other phones, we went to more than 99% accuracy with this one. It really is that good, but the usual caveat applies – take care when you enroll your fingers to cover as much surface area as possible, since the sensor isn’t as wide as an under-display one would be.
As usual with Xiaomi/Redmi/Poco phones running MIUI, you can set it to unlock when you touch it or when you press it. We always go with the latter option because, first of all, that ensures there are no accidental unlocks when we just handle the phone (especially when taking it out of a pocket or putting it back in), and also because it’s just such a natural action to press the power button to wake up the screen. This fingerprint sensor is so good that honestly, after a while, you kind of forget that there even is a fingerprint scanner embedded in the power key; it’s that seamless.
Face unlocking is also an option on the Poco F3, but with the fingerprint sensor being that good, we never really felt the need to use it. By the time it starts looking for your face, the fingerprint authentication is already complete, and the phone is unlocked anyway. But, if for some reason you can’t or don’t want to use the fingerprint scanner, know that face unlocking is there, and it also works pretty fast. It doesn’t work with your eyes closed, but since it’s camera-based, it’s much less secure than fingerprint recognition, so we’d stick with that.
As much as we were impressed with the fingerprint sensor, we were disappointed by the proximity sensor. The recent trend where some companies stopped using actual physical sensors and relied on software and accelerometer reads to achieve the same purpose is definitely one of the more annoying trends we’ve seen in the mobile world. And the Poco F3 definitely seems to use such a software-based solution, and it’s not good at all.
It’s not the worst implementation we’ve had the displeasure of using, but it’s actually very close. When you pick up the phone to put it to your ear, you need to make a very exaggerated movement in order for the “sensor” to realize what you’re doing and turn the screen off. But what’s most annoying here is that even small movements of the phone while it’s on your ear and you’re talking with someone will trigger the screen to wake up – and then your ear and face will randomly touch things on the screen, constantly. Not fun, this, not fun at all.
We assume that not using actual sensors is down to cost-cutting and space-saving, but some such cuts simply aren’t worth it – and we’re not talking huge sums here anyway. Hopefully, this trend will die a sudden death soon, for the sake of all the people out there who still use their smartphones for talking – and directly, not with headphones of any sort. We’re assuming that those people still exist, but who knows, maybe it’s just us.
The Poco F3’s vibration motor is not on the same level as the best out there (seen in flagships left and right), but it’s also a step above entry-level ones featured on cheaper budget devices. It’s very average, but that’s not a bad thing per se, when you factor in the phone’s current pricing, because you do get slightly more than what you’re paying, so to speak. It’s on par with what we see (or rather, feel) in more expensive handsets, but not with the most expensive ones.
Since MIUI makes a lot of use of it with gentle nudges here and there, the experience won’t feel bad, but it does definitely feel much better on a Mi 11, for example. Then again, that phone is twice the price.
Display quality and settings
The Poco F3’s display is best characterized as “fine”. Not amazing, not bad, but okay. Let’s expand on that a bit, shall we? While the numbers claim some decent brightness possibilities, in real-world use, when in direct sunlight, it is legible, yes, but barely. We’ve definitely seen better. Its other main issue is the amount of glare it’s prone to, and this might actually impact sunlight legibility, too, come to think of it.
We honestly don’t remember when we’ve last seen a smartphone screen with so many reflections. There are much worse offenders in the cheap laptop space when it comes to glare, but this has to be one of, if not the most glare-prone smartphone we’ve ever reviewed long-term.
That said, compared to most phones, it’s only about 10-20% worse at this, so it’s not by a huge margin, but it was definitely always visible throughout our use. No smartphone screen is glare-free, but we assume there’s a certain amount you can tolerate without even noticing it. The Poco F3 definitely broke that barrier for this reviewer, but your mileage will definitely vary according to how sensitive you are to this.
The point here is that numbers don’t always tell the whole story, and while for indoor spaces the F3 definitely gets bright enough for any amount of light, outside on bright sunny days, we’ve seen better performers recently – though it has to be said that all of those are more expensive. On the flip side, the Poco F3 has the rare AMOLED panel we’ve handled recently that actually goes dim enough on its lowest brightness setting, and this is a blessing for using it in pitch darkness. For some reason, these days, a lot of the cheaper AMOLEDs can’t pull this off, but this one can, and we were happy to see that.
Also, the auto-brightness curve has been entirely flawless for our preferences, we don’t remember ever having to manually adjust it. We’re continuously happy to see these auto-brightness curves getting better and better across the industry in the past couple of years or so, regardless of any phone’s price point. The Poco F3 also seems to have an additional ambient light sensor on its back, because it responds very quickly to changes in ambient light that happen in that direction too. This was initially only a feature on the top of the line flagships, but it’s nice to see it trickle down to flagship killers like this one.
The usual display settings are all there, including a bunch of Color scheme options, of which the default, called Vivid, is the one we used since it promises to adjust the colors based on the content that’s displayed. An additional toggle lets the phone adjust the colors to the ambient light too, and then you can pick from a color wheel or three presets for color temperature. We normally go for Warm, and we did that here too because both the Default preset and the Cool one feature whites that are way too blue.
The Advanced settings portion of the Color scheme settings lets you tweak things further, picking between a bunch of color spaces, including sRGB and P3, as well as manually adjusting RGB levels, the hue, saturation, value, contrast, and gamma. We think this is by far the most customizable Color scheme menu we’ve ever seen, so it’s very unlikely that you won’t find something that works for you, no matter how picky you may be.
MIUI’s blue light filter, called Reading Mode, is present here too, and in its fullest most recent incarnation, which makes it the most customizable blue light filter we’ve ever seen (although it’s not unique to the Poco F3, basically every device running MIUI 12.5 or later should have the exact same thing). You get Classic Reading Mode, which does what most other blue light filters do, and, of course, there’s a color temperature slider too for you to pick how warm you want the colors to become.
But then, there’s Paper mode, which also changes the texture of the display, making it more or less paper-like depending on how you want it (there’s a slider for this too). Finally, Paper mode can employ full colors or “Light colors” or even go black and white. It’s mind-boggling how many choices you get here, and we wish all blue light filters would be like this. Oh, and of course the filter can be scheduled too – automatically based on sunrise/sunset or with a custom schedule you pick.
The Poco F3 has an always-on display, and it too is insanely customizable (spot a trend here?). This is a feature of MIUI 12.5, and you get the full experience on the Poco F3. There are many designs to pick from; you can customize most of them to your liking, and the AOD is also schedulable to only be active between certain hours.
Text color is customizable for a lot of the designs, with a lot of options, and you get to pick whether you want the battery capacity and notification icons to be shown.
All in all, we’d definitely rate the AOD experience in MIUI 12.5 as among the best out there at the moment, so you won’t be left wanting.
The Poco F3 has two refresh rate options, 60 Hz and 120 Hz, although when picking the latter, it doesn’t mean it will always be at that specific level. Instead, there’s some very rough around the edges switching going on, with 120 Hz at work throughout system apps and system UIs, and reverting to 60 Hz when showing static images for battery life purposes. In the Recents menu or in Picture-in-picture mode, it goes for 90 Hz instead. Additionally, when you are in video apps like Netflix, YouTube, Prime Video, and the likes, you’re only getting 60 Hz.
That’s definitely not the smartest auto-adjusting refresh rate system out there on the market, but it’s probably good enough for most people. Seemingly the main selling point for being able to go more granular is to save even more battery, but as you’ll see in the Battery life section of this review, the Poco F3 does very well with that as it is.
The 120 Hz refresh rate of the screen is paired with a 360 Hz touch sampling rate, which is not as high as the Mi 11 and Mi 11 Ultra’s 480 Hz, but is still incredibly high and beats most other smartphones out there. The refresh rate and touch sample rate work together to bring you a very smooth experience, as detailed in the Performance section below.
The Poco F3 uses last year’s flagship chipset, which has been rebranded as Snapdragon 870 in a smart marketing move intending not to make it feel old. This may seem controversial since the F2 Pro, for example, used a very similar chipset in 2020, but in real-life use, the thing is most people for most mundane things probably wouldn’t be able to tell any difference compared to the Snapdragon 888.
And aside from (we assume) being more expensive than the 870, the 888 also doesn’t do great when it comes to the sustained performance/heat production ratio, so maybe picking the 870 has at the same time allowed Poco to save some money and some headaches in designing proper cooling and tweaking throttle thresholds.
Obviously, this isn’t the fastest phone around. It can’t be. But unless you really want to push it with the most demanding games, it will seem incredibly fast no matter what you do with it, minute after minute, day after day. Just from the point of view of performance alone, we never felt like we were not using a flagship device while we had the Poco F3 for this review.
It’s a very similar story when it comes to smoothness. Our current reigning champ on that entirely subjective metric is still the Mi 11, of all the Android phones we’ve had for a long-term review, but the Poco F3 is not far behind. It’s definitely on par with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, if not pulling slightly ahead, and just look at that price difference! So for the price you’re paying, the Poco F3 is probably the best smoothness bang for your buck at this particular point in time. It also helps that it performs very well too.
If, for some reason, the RAM amount the phone comes with isn’t satisfactory for your needs, you can now also “add” 3GB of RAM by occupying storage. This is off by default, but you can flip the switch to On if you want, in Settings. We doubt this works as advertised, so we guess it’s suitable for some very niche cases or apps.
Battery life on the Poco F3 has been very good. With our use case (detailed below), we’ve always managed to get at least 5 hours of screen on time in a day with around 20-ish percent of the battery remaining at the end. And aside from one weird outlier day (portrayed in the first screenshot below), we’ve actually always achieved more than 6 hours. That’s a lot, but not necessarily record-breaking for a device that’s been reviewed long-term. A lot of times, however, we saw even 7 or 8 hours of screen on time with the same use, and we’d call that a great result.
We wouldn’t call the Poco F3 a two-day phone unless your use is way less intensive than ours, but we think for most people it should get through one day just fine – although if you spend most of your time out and about on mobile data, the screen on time numbers will inevitably drop, and the more the phone hunts for signal in bad areas, the more they will go even lower. That’s just the usual disclaimer, we were very happy with the Poco F3’s endurance overall.
Our use case involves 12-17 hour days of use with primarily Wi-Fi 6 connectivity, an hour or two on 5G, about an hour of phone calls, Bluetooth and location always on, an hour or two of listening to podcasts or music through true wireless earbuds, and about half an hour to an hour of GPS navigation with Waze or Google Maps.
There’s no wireless charging, which really is no surprise considering the ‘flagship killer’ positioning and the history of such devices omitting flourishes like this. The wired charging is nothing special (unless your previous phone was a Samsung, in which case you’ll be positively surprised), but we’d call the charging time very adequate indeed for the price point here.
The Poco F3 goes from empty to full in just under an hour, which is still a very commendable result. We never felt the need to do quick top-ups during the day, but if you’re so inclined, you won’t be disappointed by how fast they replenish the battery. It’s not going to be a constant “wow” either, like with 120W charging, but so far, that’s only featured in more expensive offerings anyway. Some similarly priced handsets do fare better than the Poco F3, but the difference isn’t as wildly noticeable.
MIUI 12.5 Enhanced, updates
It’s starting to feel a lot like Xiaomi has an irrational fear of the number 13. Think about it – when we were all expecting the announcement of MIUI 13, what we got instead was MIUI 12.5. And now guess what’s rolling out (and made it to our Poco F3 while we had it for this review)? MIUI 12.5 Enhanced.
Light joking aside, MIUI 12.5 Enhanced didn’t actually deserve the MIUI 13 moniker because it doesn’t change almost anything that you can actually see (unlike every single big MIUI iteration before it). Instead, it’s all about making things smoother, more bug-free, and more future-proof, and we’re all for that.
In the time we’ve had with the Poco F3 since getting the MIUI 12.5 Enhanced update, we did notice that things seemed a bit smoother overall, and we took that into account when thinking about the phone’s overall smoothness (as detailed on the previous page of this review in the Performance section).
MIUI 12.5 Enhanced is basically MIUI 12.5, just more optimized under-the-hood, and if you’re like us, you also believe one can’t possibly have enough under-the-hood optimizations in software. There’s always something that could be made more efficient, smoother, or both. And that’s the story here. Hopefully, Xiaomi’s claims about future-proofing also pan out, but we can’t vouch for that right now.
While we did get this big under-the-hood MIUI update, when it comes to underlying Android versions and security patches, Xiaomi is one of the worst offenders out there. We’re being blunt here, since there’s point in sugarcoating this. Don’t expect big Android versions to be timely. And don’t expect your Xiaomi/Poco/Redmi phone’s security patch level to ever be current, no matter how much your device costs.
These are givens at this point, but when it comes to big Android updates, there’s always a caveat we have to mention, and that is that the big new user-facing features most of the time arrive in new MIUI versions, which are uncoupled from the underlying Android version. So you can have MIUI 12 on Android 11 or Android 10, for example, and usually, the Android version bump only has effects under-the-hood. However, things may be different with Android 12, if Xiaomi decides to incorporate the new auto-theming system into MIUI. That’s a big if, though.
Our Poco F3 unit was most recently on MIUI 22.214.171.124, the Enhanced edition, with Android 11 underneath and the August 2021 security patch level. Keep in mind that this update arrived in October, so at that point, the security stuff was already two months behind. Now, in November, it’s three months removed from the current ones. As we implied above, you need to get used to this as it’s always been the way things are in Xiaomi land.
Now, taking a look at this MIUI 12.5 Enhanced, we see it basically looks exactly the same as MIUI 12.5 non-Enhanced, and we’ve seen this one before a few times in long-term reviews, most recently in the Redmi Note 10 Pro, but also in the Mi 11 before that.
The skin is an evolution of MIUI 12, and that means no huge design differences are present, but there are a lot of functional enhancements and some more customization options here and there. MIUI, as it is now on the Poco F3 (we’ll refrain from using the phrase “MIUI 12.5 Enhanced” every time, but that’s what we mean) is really at its peak in terms of maturity, smoothness, and overall coherence.
If you used to hate MIUI a few years ago, maybe it’s time to give it another try because it sure has grown up in the meantime. That doesn’t mean it comes devoid of any weird bits and pieces, but they mostly don’t detract from a very good user experience.
Yes, by default, you get an ad page after each app installation, even if it’s from the Play Store, but that is easily disableable forever by tapping on the gear icon in the top right and turning off the scanning of apps from the Play Store as well as showing “recommendations” (the perfect euphemism for ads, if you ask us).
On the Poco F3, you can only have one type of Recent apps menu, which is weird because in other devices running MIUI 12.5 you can finally pick between the traditional vertically-scrolling two-column view and a horizontally-scrolling version that looks more in tune with what every other Android skin has been doing for a few years now.
But on the F3, for whatever reason, you’re stuck with the vertically-scrolling Recents, and we don’t like that. For a skin that’s all about options, randomly keeping this one from some phones just feels petty. Or maybe this is one of the things that makes “MIUI for Poco” stand apart from its not-for-Poco twin, who knows. Whatever the reason, we can’t help but think it’s quite random.
We’ve praised MIUI’s gesture navigation system from the beginning, and it has consistently stayed on top of our list of best out there. It works very well, and even better in MIUI 12.5 Enhanced, with zero perceived lag from when you start a swipe to seeing feedback to it on the screen. Unlike Google’s messy implementation of the side-swipe to go back gesture, MIUI has kept its much smarter idea of having that gesture work in the bottom two-thirds of the screen. And if you come across an app that still has a hamburger slide-out menu, you can get to that by swiping from the side in the top third. Easy and intuitive, we’d say.
Of course, you still swipe up to go to the home screen, and you swipe up and hold to reveal the Recent apps display, and this is the only area where things aren’t entirely smooth sailing. The animation that places the app screenshots in the vertically scrolling two-column Recents view is slow and cumbersome at best, and it’s always slower to respond than any other gesture. Again, we think the easy fix here is to allow horizontally scrolling Recents, but that’s still not in the Poco F3’s software.
In past MIUI iterations, you could enable fast switching to the previously used app by swiping from the side (as if to go back) and holding a bit, but that’s now a dead and buried feature. However, you can achieve the same effect by swiping up just a bit and then left or right. That would make more intuitive sense if the Recents display was horizontal, because upon that small swipe up you’re basically seeing the outlines of the other apps left and right, but we digress.
A new thing that’s technically a gesture is the ability to tap the back of the phone, either twice or three times, to make something happen. This is off by default, but you can easily activate it from Settings, where you can pick an individual action for both double tap and triple tap.
If we stretch the definition of “gesture” just enough, we can also tell you that we really like the fact that we can set the Camera app to be opened by either a double press of the power button, or a double press of the volume down button when the screen is locked, or both of these. Additionally, you can have it so pressing and holding the power button activates Google Assistant after half a second (to get the power menu you just keep pressing longer).
Dark mode, System apps updater
While on most MIUI 12.5 phones the entire UI turns dark when you employ Dark Mode, on the Poco F3 the System apps updater stays white. Why? We wouldn’t be able to tell you, but it makes for a jarring look. In case you were thinking of asking, we also still don’t know why the System apps updater needs to exist, considering the fact that, despite what its name may imply, it doesn’t actually update all system apps, just some of them. The others get updates through the Play Store. This still doesn’t make any sense.
Speaking of the Dark mode, it’s there and still great, although we think we’d like to see more companies offer the choice to customize the level of darkness you want, a la Oppo’s ColorOS. Even so, MIUI lets you schedule the Dark mode automatically based on sunset/sunrise or with a custom interval of your choosing.
You can also let the phone darken the wallpaper when Dark mode is on, and tweak contrast, so things are easier on the eyes (the “Adjust text and backgrounds automatically” setting), and we especially like the latter. It just shows a lot of attention to detail.
Perhaps disappointingly, MIUI still automatically forces Dark mode onto all apps, regardless of whether they have a dark theme of their own, and this can sometimes lead to weird visual artefacts in some apps. When or if you encounter such a thing, you then need to jump into Settings > Display > More dark mode options and turn off the automatic dark-ification for that specific app once the list loads.
It’s a cumbersome process, and we wish there was a “select all” option at least. Also, now that more and more apps actually do have dark themes, maybe the best behavior here would be off by default, and then if you want to force an app into dark mode, just do that manually on a case-by-case basis. Even Facebook, long the biggest holdout, has somehow managed to concoct a dark theme of its own!
The Poco Launcher has been around for a while now, and most of its features have made it to Xiaomi’s System launcher (used on non-Poco phones) recently. It still works very well, and has some rather unique features like App categories, but it feels like its last big update was years ago – maybe it’s time for another one? Introducing new features, perhaps? We don’t exactly have a list of things it has to contain, but surely the Xiaomi/Poco developers can think of a few new things to add? Otherwise, it does the job very well. It just feels a bit stale, for lack of a better word.
Like with most recent Xiaomi/Poco/Redmi devices, you can choose to have the Google Discover feed show up to the left of your leftmost home screen, where the Mi Vault used to reside in years past. You can’t get that one back, by the way, you only have a choice between showing Google Discover or not showing anything there. Since we were never fans of the Mi Vault (or OnePlus’ Shelf, or various other such things), we are happy that it’s gone from that part of the UI, and we were amazed to see that sometimes the Discover feed presents us with a few things we’d actually want to read. Shocking, that.
New Control center
A new feature in recent MIUI builds is the option to use the “new” Control center, which is basically “inspired” by Apple’s. Thankfully you can still have it the old way, with Quick Settings icons in the top of the notification shade, and you can then swipe down again to expand that view to show even more Quick Settings toggles.
We went back and forth here a bunch of times but eventually settled on using the “old” way of doing things because we were more used to it and because if you enable the “new” Control center, you have to swipe down in the leftmost third of the screen to actually get to the notifications – otherwise you’re getting the Control center.
We think Xiaomi should tweak this to be 50/50, it seems fairer that way. As it is, this reviewer being right-handed, and the Poco F3 being as big as it is, it was cumbersome to hit that leftmost third to bring down the notifications a lot of times, which is why eventually we decided to go with the “old” method.
The Poco F3 being a ‘flagship killer’, you’d expect cameras to be one of its weak spots since traditionally that’s been the case for such devices trying to maximize the bang for your buck. And you’d be right.
Even on paper, its setup is anything but impressive, with a 48 MP main camera with a ½” sensor and 0.8um pixels (that are binned to 1.6um). We’ve seen this formula for years now, and it’s anything but high-end anymore. Still, it should be a competent enough solution for the least camera-focused people out there, especially during daytime. That’s what the specs would have us believe, but let’s take a look at some samples.
Indeed, the main sensor throws out good pictures in daylight, with reasonable amounts of detail, great contrast, decent dynamic range, and colors that ever so slightly ‘pop’ without changing too much compared to what the scene was actually like in real life. On the other hand, the images have this sharp look to them which is probably what people prefer on phone screens, but the instant you go and pixel peep, you’ll notice that all of that sharpness comes at the cost of detail on grass, bushes, texts, and so on.
It’s over-processing 101, and we assume the software couldn’t really do much more with the hardware on offer here, and thus the choice was to emphasize the crisp, sharp look and hope no one zooms into the finished shots. You can shoot 48 MP images, but we decided not to as usual for long-term reviews, because most people wouldn’t even know about that and just use all of the auto settings. Plus, the 48 MP shots are noisier than the pixel binned ones, and they really don’t look any better – unless you count the marginal levels of increased detail on foliage. It’s not worth it, though.
The ultrawide camera is fixed focus, so no macro shots from this one. Then again, the phone has a dedicated macro cam with autofocus if you’re into that sort of thing, and it’s among the better ones out there, but it’s even lower-res than the ultrawide, and as such, the results aren’t great. As usual, we decided to skip this one for the long-term review, as most people probably wouldn’t even know it’s there. And those who do, we’d wager, would take a few shots once and then promptly forget about it.
Anyway, back to the ultrawide. The 8 MP resolution already tells you that this is a low-end setup, and it shows in the images it produces. These are very average-looking pictures, with a lot of softness everywhere, thanks to the very aggressive noise reduction. Dynamic range is fine, but not more than that, the colors are pleasant, and it’s actually quite a wide ultrawide if you pardon the pun. The problem is that the quality of the images is very obviously much lower than even those produced by the main sensor, and that’s not outstanding, to begin with.
There’s a 2x option in the camera viewfinder, but don’t think this is ‘lossless’ zoom or anything like that. It’s just normal cropping and upscaling. Still, a few times, you may find that you absolutely need to use this, and for such rare use, it’s mostly fine. The images look quite good on the phone’s screen, but again – don’t go pixel peeping, or you’ll be really disappointed. The look is almost identical to that of the 1x shots, which is hardly surprising considering the same sensor is used.
At night, the main camera takes surprisingly decent photos, with nice exposure, good color saturation, and good levels of contrast. These are far from the best nighttime samples we’ve seen, but they’re also far from the worst. Pretty much smack dab in the middle, we’d say.
If you choose to use Night Mode, you obviously have to keep the phone still for a few seconds, but if you can manage that (and it’s not helped by the lack of OIS), then you’ll get brighter pictures with some details restored in the shadows. These shots are also sharper, although some details will be smeared if the software doesn’t have enough light to work with. Still, if you have the time and the non-shaky hands required, we’d recommend you go with Night Mode as much as you can.
The ultrawide at night is not good at all. It produces images that are almost always unusable, with a lot of softness and, once again, like in the daytime, extreme levels of noise reduction. They’re also dark, but you’ve probably noticed.
Using Night Mode on the ultrawide improves things ever so slightly, at least providing brighter images, but the overall quality isn’t a lot better. We’d recommend skipping the ultrawide entirely at night since it can be a very frustrating experience (considering Night Mode takes a few long seconds to do its thing too). Of course, you may desperately need the wider framing this camera provides, and for such cases, it’s fine – but the fewer, the better.
Nighttime 2x shots come out okay, but slightly worse than the 1x ones for some reason. These are only really useful for a quick social media share and not much else.
Night Mode 2x photos are brighter than the non-Night Mode ones, once again at the cost of having to keep the phone steady for a few seconds. They have some restored highlights, but not a huge improvement overall, and there is a lot of oversharpening going on, to sometimes hilarious effect. Also, when there isn’t a lot of light in the scene, the image starts looking a lot like a watercolor painting. Like with the ultrawide, it’s probably best to avoid 2x shots at night unless you really can’t.
Selfies are nice with good skin tone rendition, pleasant-looking colors, and good contrast too. They just don’t seem very sharp, at least compared to a lot of other phones, but we wouldn’t call them too soft either. Portrait Mode selfies aren’t great, with subject separation that’s sometimes a bit lacking, but still with somewhat okay simulated blur.
At night, things degrade quickly to the point where you need to have a lot of lights around to capture an image where someone looking at it would even be able to distinguish what’s in there. That is, without the screen flash function. With it, things do improve to the point that it’s clear what (or rather, who) is in the photo, and the colors are once again rather pleasant. As with all screen flash technologies, you have to account for the extra time to capture.
As an overall conclusion, we think this is a case of “what you see” (on the spec sheet) “is what you get”. If you know your way around mobile camera specs, you’ll have instantly noticed that the Poco F3 is equipped with hardware that could be described as middling at best, which directly translates into the results you get when using the cameras.
We’re not saying they’re bad per se (well, the ultrawide at night is, and even during daytime it’s not not bad), but you need to have your expectations in check. Clearly, other aspects of the Poco F3’s experience were more important, and so the cameras are definitely one area where costs were cut to get it to its price point. That’s not a good or bad thing; it’s just a fact – and you can decide how much or how little this affects you personally.
The Poco F3 uses the traditional, time-tested ‘flagship killer’ formula to a T. That can be viewed as both a good thing since you pretty much know exactly what to expect, as well as a not-so-great thing, as there are definitely no surprises here. And after so many years of flagship killers left and right, perhaps it’s finally time for them to grow up a bit and improve the areas where they have historically been lacking. Or not – maybe if that happens, they would compete too much, and too head-on, with the proper flagships each company makes, and that would mean bad things for overall profitability (and thus future R&D investments and innovations, indirectly).
All of this is to say that like every other good flagship killer before it, the Poco F3 does the performance aspect very, very well, even though it breaks with tradition in that it’s not using the year’s top of the line chipset. But that may be a blessing in disguise, given how the Snapdragon 888 has been rather iffy on the sustained performance/heat production metric. Also, the Snapdragon 870 may just be a rebranded 865++ or something like that, but for most tasks for most people, it’s perfectly high-end even today.
Going hand-in-hand with the great performance is the Poco F3’s perceived smoothness, a measure that’s inevitably subjective, but while it’s not the top performer, it comes really close to that, and at a literal fraction of the price. We wouldn’t have expected more, but we weren’t disappointed in any way either.
Battery life has also been very good, if not record-breaking (spot a trend here?), and for most people, we’d call this easily a ‘one full day’ phone, although it would go further than that only for those with the least demanding use cases. Still, endurance is pretty much on par with every good new flagship coming out this year, so that’s something to celebrate.
Where things become less rosy is in the camera department, where all flagship killers usually take a shortcut. This is one of those areas that will be neglected in the service of hitting an attractive price point, and that’s exactly the story here. The cameras on offer are decent, for lack of a better word, but don’t really shine in any task.
The main camera, for example, is okay, but the slightly cheaper Redmi Note 10 Pro has a much better one, all things considered. Then again, compared to that phone, the Poco F3 is miles ahead in performance, so between these two, it’s a tale of picking what your highest priority is – the better main camera and slightly better battery life in the Redmi, or the better performance and smoothness of the Poco. We’ve pretty much made the same point in our Conclusion of the Redmi Note 10 Pro’s long-term review, and it still stands.
Next up, we have the screen, which is the other area where flagship killers have always been found wanting compared to more expensive offerings, and this is once again the case here. The Poco F3’s display is fine, and that’s about the best thing we can say about it. Unless you’re really sensitive to glare and reflections, it will probably not disappoint you in day-to-day use (even if some squinting is required to see it in bright sunlight), but it won’t impress either.
It’s a decent panel, and the high refresh rate is very welcome (especially considering that last year’s Poco F2 Pro skimped on that) and aids in the perceived smoothness. But overall, the quality of this panel is very proportional to the price you’re paying for the phone, it’s not really punching up in any way.
This is basically the story of the Poco F3 in a nutshell. There are some other more minor things to mention too. On the plus side, the fingerprint sensor is amazingly fast and accurate if you set it up correctly, the speakers are perfectly adequate for the job in most scenarios, and the vibration motor is slightly above what you’d expect in quality at this price, but not much more so.
On the flip side, the proximity sensor seems to be of the software kind, and it’s just really bad software at that, resulting in a lot of frustrating accidental face-touches while on calls if anyone even does voice calls without headphones anymore. Speaking of headphones, the 3.5 mm jack is gone, being relegated to the even cheaper Poco series like the X and M families, at least for now. Who knows when, but we’d wager its disappearance from there is inevitable also.
The software doesn’t really fall into either “plus” or “minus” categories neatly because MIUI has pretty much always been polarizing. And while we get that about earlier versions, we’re sort of baffled by why a lot of people still seem to hate it overall. Yes, it’s a pretty big design departure from anything ‘stock’-like, but it has its own design language, and at least that has some internal logic that’s (almost) never broken.
It also comes with a lot of customization options and a Settings menu that’s comprehensive while only slightly random-seeming in its order. This reviewer doesn’t love MIUI, but likes it very much and enjoys the small touches popping up recently, like the nudge vibrations here and there and the seemingly growing attention to detail of the team behind it.
That said, it’s not perfect, and perhaps the biggest objective point of contention with it is the update cadence, which is best defined as “not great” even for flagships, not to mention cheaper phones. The Poco F3 did receive the update to MIUI 12.5 Enhanced while we were using it for this review, and that new software version does deliver on its promise to make everything smoother and more bug-free. But the security update is old and will probably never be current.
So, in the end, the Poco F3 is a flagship killer through-and-through. Nothing less, but also nothing more. It is, thankfully and perhaps surprisingly, cheaper than its predecessor, the F2 Pro, and that fixes one of the problems people seemed to have with that one. It also has a high refresh rate screen, which rectifies another of the F2 Pro’s failings, but the cameras seem slightly worse, the motorized pop-up selfie camera is gone, and thus the F3 doesn’t have any real issue that stands out in any way.
But perhaps that’s the point. This is a workhorse phone you get for not a lot of money to do most of what devices 3-4 times more expensive do, and it’s a very reliable day-to-day companion if you can live with its downsides like the average-at-best camera quality, proximity sensor issues, and just how little it stands out from the crowd of lookalike devices we have these days. At its current prices, it’s definitely a best-buy unless you want a better main camera and are willing to sacrifice performance to get that in this price segment.