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Xiaomi 12S Ultra: From an iPhone clone to a global powerhouse – the student becomes the master?

For those who don’t know, Xiaomi is much more than just a smartphone company. Sort of like Samsung, the Chinese brand makes/produces home appliances, but it also has a bunch of “side hustles’, like the Xiaomi Electric scooter (one of the best-selling electric scooters worldwide), and, more recently, a prototype EV set to be unveiled by the end of August. All that aside, of course, I’d like to focus on Xiaomi’s phones, which started off with… well, not with a phone, but with a customizable launcher called MIUI. But over ten years later, Xiaomi’s reached this very point where other brands can look at its phones and learn something from them – as little or as much as they’d like, really.

Interestingly, though, Xiaomi’s flagship smartphones used to be the ones that took (and still take) some cues from the competition. While that’s far from uncommon for a newly-established brand (take a look at the Nothing Phone, which resembles an iPhone 12), it left many with the impression that Xiaomi was one of those “Chinese knock-off brands” – like the 130401284 ones that actually exist.

But that’s not the case…

Xiaomi’s journey: From a unique identity, through desire to fit in and all the way back…

Software: MIUI isn’t afraid to be a little bit like iOS and a little bit like Android

Before talking about hardware, I can’t skip highlighting that Xiaomi’s modern version of MIUI strongly resembles another OS – namely iOS.

While Xiaomi is far from the first and only brand to take after Apple’s app drawer-less and minimalistic home screen, it’s probably the company that comes the closest to delivering a tasteful Apple-like visual experience on Android.

Still, despite Xiaomi’s apparent and openly-admitted iOS influence (Xiaomi’s CEO has made positive remarks in regards to Apple on many occasions), there are notable differences in the way iOS and MIUI behave. For example, the iPhone won’t let you freely rearrange icons and widgets, but MUI (being Android) does.

MIUI also happens to be one of the most (if not the most) customizable Android skins as a whole. A mix of iOS in terms of looks and Android when it comes to functionality, some might see MIUI as the best of both worlds. That might make Xiaomi phones one of the good choices for those ready to switch from iPhone to Android – an unlikely transition, but certainly one that makes a bit more sense than you might’ve thought.

Hardware: Xiaomi phones prior to 2020 looked uninspiringyet somewhat inspired (by the likes of the iPhone and Galaxy)

Here’s where things get more interesting…

Xiaomi’s hardware journey has gone through a couple of notable transitions. When it comes to flagship phones, the Xiaomi Mi3 – Mi6 cycle was when one could say that Xiaomi phones had their own design flair.

Design-wise, the Xiaomi Mi 5 and Xiaomi Mi 6 were one of the most praised Android phones of their time, with glass/ceramic builds, slightly curved screens, and sophisticated paint jobs. However, the ancient Xiaomi Mi 3 was the most easily recognizable Xiaomi flagship that I can think of, and that’s probably because it didn’t look like an iPhone or a Galaxy…

But of course, as the story often goes, the Chinese brand (like many others) fell into a familiar mainstream trap – the one of visual assimilation. I sort of made up that last term, but it simply means that the Xiaomi Mi 8 flagship took the company’s phones from ones that had their own look to… iPhone clones.

Sure, Xiaomi didn’t make 1:1 iPhone knock-offs, but the resemblance between the iPhone X (September 2017) and Xiaomi Mi 8 (May 2018) were uncanny. Xiaomi borrowed:

  • Apple’s notch and Face ID, but with its own (slightly less advanced) infrared sensors together with Xiaomi’s own Animojis
  • The iPhone X’s rear design, including the camera layout

On paper, it might look like two simple design elements, but really the notch and rear camera layout are what made the iPhone X an iPhone X and, therefore, what made the Xiaomi Mi 8 look like Android’s iPhone.

Xiaomi Mi 10 – Xiaomi Mi 11 series: Xiaomi finds its own identity (again)

As Bob Ross says, there are no mistakes – only happy accidents…

Xiaomi quickly realized that being heavy influenced isn’t the way to establish itself as a brand that can influence

At this point, Hugo Barra (former product lead at Google) had already joined Xiaomi as the company’s new Vice President. Note, not VP of design, or something else, but VP… period. Hugo Barra’s role wasn’t only to point Xiaomi’s products in the right direction but to help establish the brand as a player outside of the Chinese market – this was the real challenge.

Anyway, it seems to have worked out well! Barra left Xiaomi last year (to join Facebook’s Oculus project), but he also left the company with a newly-found identity of a brand that knows how to be itself and stand out in the pool of slabs.

That could already be seen in the Xiaomi Mi 9 series, which escaped the iPhone’s design shadow, but it was the Xiaomi Mi 10 series (especially the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra), and Xiaomi Mi 11 series (again, especially the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra) that turned heads and dropped some jaws. At least mine, anyway.

Unnatural selection: “The Huawei ban” puts the beginning of Xiaomi’s Ultra age

Until 2020, Huawei was undoubtedly the most aggressive player in the smartphone market, thanks to the company’s advances in hardware, mostly revolving around the camera. Of course, the US trade ban had Huawei out of the picture, but it also rolled the red carpet for the other big Chinese phone-maker, and boy, was Xiaomi ready to walk the regal rug!

Little Rice (which is what Xiaomi means) went for it! The Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra looked like nothing else on the market (of course, it was still a slab phone). Still, most importantly, it was Xiaomi’s entry into the newly-established ultra-premium flagship segment. It took everyone by surprise and delivered a show-stopping camera and incredible charging speeds. Then came the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra, which took things to a completely new level. Not just for Xiaomi but for Android as a whole. The 11 Ultra had the largest camera sensors on a phone (all three of them), an unmistakable ceramic Panda colorway, and a literal display on its back to let users take (probably) the best selfies we’ve ever seen come out of a phone’s “selfie” camera.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra: Taking over the smartphone world – what is Xiaomi missing?

But forget Apple and Huawei…

And that’s how we come to the present and Xiaomi’s latest flagship phone. The new Xiaomi 12S Ultra isn’t just a phone with a unique identity, but one that plays by its own rules and, frankly, in its own league. That has a double meaning, which you’ll discover below.

The design of the Xiaomi 12S Ultra is a paradigm shift and a departure from the four-year-old iPhone copy that was the Mi 8, but also from Xiaomi’s prior Ultra flagships. Xiaomi is playful and not afraid to reinvent itself at this point, but the good news is that things only get better below the surface.

Xiaomi Problem 1: Global availability

And that’s the moment for me to get a bit more personal…

I had a beef with Chinese phone-makers. It has to do with the fact that they’re keeping their best phones for the Chinese market, and I’m out here drooling over the likes of the Xiaomi 12S Ultra, Huawei Mate XS 2, and a ton of awesome mid-range phones that often don’t make it out of Asia or do so way too late.

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra brings the best camera hardware I’ve ever seen on the back of a phone. It’s frankly one that must be protected at all costs, which is probably why the Leica-powered cameras come with a case that has a protective camera cap to go with it. If that doesn’t make the Xiaomi 12S Ultra feel like a “real camera”, then I don’t know what does…

But why is Xiaomi also “protecting” the 12S Ultra from… western markets?

Yes, global availability is the main constraining factor that holds Xiaomi’s top flagships back from challenging the Apples and Samsungs of the world. It looks so simple, doesn’t it? The Xiaomi 12S Ultra is ready to rock and roll! All that’s needed is to start selling it globally and make the competition extremely nervous and customers extremely happy. Anyway, I’ll discuss why Xiaomi might be keeping the 12S Ultra domestic-only in a future story.

Xiaomi Problem 2: Too many mid-range phones

One thing worth mentioning is that although Xiaomi’s ultra flagships are the most impressive phones the company sells (or doesn’t sell, depending on where you are), it’s the mid-range Xiaomi devices that helped put the company on the map.

Xiaomi’s budget and mid-range phones are best-sellers in several European countries and dominate the Asian market, alongside Samsung.

The problem lately has been that there are too many of them! Xiaomi has created several sub-brands like Redmi and Poco and launches budget phones virtually every couple of months – left and right. Most of them share specs and looks and only confuse customers and… tech writers.

Remember the iconic Xiaomi Mi A2 (with clean Android)? What about the Xiaomi Poco F1, which broke all the rules and made OnePlus’ “flagship-killers” look overpriced and underperforming? And what about the Xiaomi Redmi K20 and K20 Pro that brought the pop-up camera-flagship chip combo to the mid-range segment?

I honestly struggle to think of better value phones from any company at any moment in smartphone history. The above-mentioned phones were that good, and the reason I remember their names is because they weren’t accompanied by five other Xiaomi phones that sort of looked like them (and also because I’m a phone nerd).

Anyway, Xiaomi’s now trading blows with Apple for the second spot in global smartphone shipments, and I truly believe it’s not far from permanently taking the spot behind Samsung and even getting to the very top.

So, Xiaomi, if you’re reading this, I got two things:

  • Give me my Xiaomi 12S Ultra (to replace my Pixel 6 Pro) before I come to China and get it
  • Bring back the tradition of the standard-setting mid-range phone release – but just one every year, OK?

I’ll go and get a life now…