We don't often discuss Xiaomi's software layer here on Android Police, but it isn't for lack of desire to. Most of our team lives in the US where Xiaomi doesn't officially operate and, even if we were to import units there, they wouldn't be compatible with most carriers' LTE bands. I'm based in Lebanon, and the first limitation applies here as well, but imported devices do work (we have LTE band 3), so I've been trying to get my hands on some of the companies' phones to test them out. Until now, that's been the Mi A1 and Mi A2 — two Android One phones — so the Poco F1 and its MIUI 9.6 software were a great departure from that. My full Poco review is coming up, but before that, I wanted to take some time to discuss its software experience separately.

It's still Android

I've used LG, Samsung, and Huawei phones and tablets extensively, so I'm familiar with non-stock Android and I appreciate it. But until now, my only understanding of MIUI was from the few reviews I've read online and the heated comment threads where fans of the brand repeatedly argue its merits.

For those of you who haven't used MIUI, you should know it is nearly the same Android we know and love, with a design language that borrows some cues from iOS. It's a departure from stock, sure, but I don't find the colors, icons, toggles, or any of that offensive or jarring per se. (For the record, I chose the Poco theme on my phone.) However, I do miss the more uniform experience of using a Pixel/Android One device, because Xiaomi's built-in apps for contacts or calendar (for example) don't look anything like Gmail or Maps. When you hop between those in daily use, you can't help but notice the different philosophies in the UI and UX. You could install Google's apps to avoid that, but we're here to discuss the MIUI experience out of the box.

Looks like Android.

The bare minimum of Google apps is present (Duo, Drive, Gmail, Google Search and Assistant, Maps, Photos, Play Store, and YouTube), and I was a little surprised to see Gboard as well since most OEMs like to include their own keyboards. Xiaomi doesn't skimp on the additions though: there's a duplicate browser and gallery, as well as a calculator, calendar, clock, contacts, phone, messaging app, and music player. On the Poco F1, you also get the POCO Launcher and some useful additions like a compass, a file manager, a notes app, a voice recorder and a screen recorder, a theme manager, and a scanner for barcodes and documents. There's a bit more bloat too, but it doesn't get in the way... more or less. Thankfully, Facebook, Skype, Outlook, and the various Office apps you see below can be uninstalled.

Poco Launcher's app drawer with pre-installed apps out of the box.

Better than stock in some aspects...

I like the themability of MIUI, it reminds me of using a Samsung or Huawei phone. A couple of taps and your device takes on a completely new look. You can download themes, new wallpapers, ringtones, fonts, and customize every aspect separately. There's nothing stopping you from using the icons of one theme with the status bar and notification drop-down of another.

Themes, fonts, and customization. There are even Android P themes to download.

I also like some of the features included in MIUI: a data counter and connection speed counter in the notification drop-down; multiple contrast profiles for the display, plus complete customization over its color temperature, Reading mode, and Night mode; a scrolling screenshot feature. These are the kinds of options I wish my Pixel 2 XL had every day.

   

Left to right: Drop-down data counters, display customization, screenshot editing and scroll.

MIUI lets you set up a second space with a completely different homescreen and apps, and unlock it with a dedicated fingerprint or pincode. There's a dual apps feature to duplicate any app that normally doesn't allow you to login with a second account (WhatsApp, for example). Beyond that, MIUI has a built-in app lock feature for restricting access to certain apps, a super fast way to securely share WiFi network passwords, and multiple gestures and shortcuts.

 

Left to right: Second space, Dual apps, App lock, WiFi sharing.

... But worse in others

However, MIUI shows some weird omissions. The first thing that annoyed me was that any slider (say for volume or brightness) can not be tapped to quickly move to the position you want it to go to, you need to slide your finger to carry it there.

Then there's the lack of graphs in both the battery and data usage screens — it's a simple visual that makes patterns and oddities easier to spot. Quick Settings icons are limited to eleven and you can't have more toggles or pagination if you wanted. And Direct Share doesn't seem to be supported when sharing between apps.

  

Left to right: Data usage, Battery usage, 11 toggles in Quick Settings, no Direct Share. 

MIUI's gesture implementation is also half-baked. You can swipe up to go to the homescreen, swipe up and hold for the recent apps menu, and swipe from either side to go back. The first two gestures are not easy to differentiate so I found myself triggering one when I wanted the other, and the back gesture interferes with apps that have a side menu. Xiaomi says you'll have to swipe higher to get the menu, but that's inconvenient and, in my experience, not very reliable.

Gestures are nice but not very reliable.

Add the lack of any gesture replacement for Google Assistant or the Alt-Tab quick switch to the previous app, and you'll likely try the gestures once and go back to the regular buttons in no time.

 

Left to right: Gesture options, button shortcuts, and Assistant shortcut options.

And then there are the oodles of questionable permissions being requested every time you launch a MIUI app for the first time. Why would the Weather app require access to calls and refuse to open without that permission granted?! Maybe it's developer laziness and it's not really required, maybe there's something shady going on, and maybe it's legitimate; I just have no way to know.

Weird permission requests.

Some apps even offer a policy and terms you have to agree to in order to use them (like collecting your data), despite having agreed to the general Xiaomi terms when first setting up the device. Other apps require a Mi account. The name "Cheetah Mobile" popped up a few times too. I'm not a privacy nut, but I sure grew suspicious each time something like this would happen, and I avoided a few MIUI apps and services because of it.

All those terms and conditions to agree to...

The notification icon "tragedy"

Throughout my entire time with the Poco F1, none of the above annoyed me as much as the notification situation. The issue that I'll describe below isn't true of all MIUI devices, but at least it's there on the F1 — and possibly other Xiaomi phones with a notch.

Due to the top cutout, there's very little free space on the status bar. The battery and connection indicators go on the right, but Xiaomi took a very uncanny approach for the left side. On the lockscreen, you see the operator's name; on the homescreen, you see nothing; and in all apps, you get the clock. There's no scenario in which you can see a single notification icon in that left space. DND or not, small display DPI or not, it doesn't matter. No notification icons means no notification icons, ever.

Left to right: Left side of the notch shows operator (lockscreen), nothing (homescreen), clock (apps).

I am flabbergasted by this decision. It's very iOS-like and incomprehensible. I keep my phone silent to avoid a barrage of pings and rings from my two jobs, so there's no way for me to know I've received a notification while I'm using it. Picture this: I'm looking head on at the F1 for half an hour, browsing Instagram or Chrome. Nothing calls up my attention, there's no icon in the status bar to indicate I've missed something. Then, I drop down the notifications and see 20 unread messages, 5 new emails, a couple of reminders, and more. HELL, I TELL YOU!!!

No notification icon but 3 notifications.

The situation is made even worse by the fact that MIUI defaults most app notifications (at least all third-party ones) to only badges. No LED light, no floating notification. You want those, you'll have to remember to enable them for each app, separately. Who wants to scroll through their entire app drawer to see which app has a little badge dot?

Default notification settings for most apps.

And you'd think it doesn't get worse, but it does so, just a little bit more. Like Huawei's EMUI software, MIUI doesn't show old notifications on the lockscreen. Once you unlock your phone, the slate is wiped clean and only new ones will appear. So if you're used to keeping notifications to remind yourself of something, they won't appear on the lockscreen and you'll have to unlock to see them. Another incomprehensible omission is the lack of notification snoozing — it was added to stock Oreo, but it's nowhere to be found here. And finally, some MIUI apps don't bundle notifications reliably; the main culprit is the messaging client which often sent 3 or 4 separate SMSes to my notification drop-down.

 

Left: Bundled Messaging notifications. Right: No bundle.

Coming to the Poco F1, I was prepared to struggle with notifications, but I thought it would be the delay and untimeliness that would undo the experience for me. In the past, most Chinese OEMs used to kill as many background processes and apps as they could to avoid battery drain, but that wasn't the problem with the F1. Notifications were delivered in a timely manner, it's just that I never saw them arrive.

Ultimately, this issue is very personal, and the experience might be fine for those of you who don't live or die by their notification icons. But both of my jobs depend on me being quickly reachable and this change broke my flow on Android. It should at the very least be an optional setting, either replace the clock with icons or push it to the corner to allow for one or two icons. As it stands, every "solution" to this unnecessary problem requires a compromise of sorts.

MIUI, like any other Android skin including stock, has its advantages and downfalls. Having plenty of additional features built-in without the need for third-party applications is convenient, though it's primarily the omissions that rattle you the most when you come from other Android devices. My time with the Poco F1 has given me more understanding of both of those, but you'll have to excuse me if I put my SIM card straight back into my Pixel once the review is done. I need to be productive and easily reachable again.

Changes in MIUI 10 stable

As many commenters pointed out, the stable version of MIUI 10 had just started rolling out to the Poco F1 as I was finishing my review of the software. My phone didn't receive the OTA officially, but since the timing was quite unfortunate, I had to quickly grab the update and apply it manually in order to verify what's been fixed and what hasn't.

With the stable MIUI 10.0.4.0, which is still based on Oreo 8.1, a few things have indeed changed for the better. Notably, there's a new gesture to switch to the previous app by swiping back and going almost to the other side of the screen. A little vibration indicates you've triggered the switch action and the previous app's icon shows up instead of the back button. It looks and feels nice, though I've found it a little cumbersome as I have to reach my finger really far to the side to trigger it. There's still no gesture replacement for Google Assistant.

MIUI 10 also adds notification snoozing, though again, it's a little half baked compared to stock Android. Swipe any notification to the left and you trigger its settings + snooze options. Swipe to the right and you can dismiss it. You can't dismiss by quickly swiping to the left, which is the gesture I always use when I don't want to see a notification anymore. I'm happy the snooze function is there, I just wish it wasn't at the detriment of dismissing with a left swipe.

And finally, Quick Settings tiles are paginated, so you can have more than 11 toggles there. There are other changes in the drop-down, which looks a little cleaner now when there are several notifications pending, a new interface for recent apps that uses two columns of cards, and volume toggles on the side of the screen like in Android Pie.

However, several of my other complaints, which I expected to be fixed, were not. The notification icons still don't show up and there's no setting for them yet. Volume and brightness bars are swipe-only, there's no way to tap to quickly move them to a specific level. And there are no graphs for data and battery usage (edit: a battery graph is there, but it's hidden 3 levels deep in the Battery settings).

According to a few comments, these should be fixed in MIUI 10, but I think they weren't rolled out in the global stable version. I grabbed the latest MIUI beta 10.8.10.25 from the official page, but it seems to require a wipe to install and I'm currently working on my review, so I can't afford to test it just yet. I will, however, apply it as soon as I can and make note of the changes in my final review.