POCOPHONE F1 hands-on: How have they done it?

It has come to a point where a flagship smartphone is never just a smartphone anymore. It’s your camera replacement, your home theater solution, your PC in a pocket and even your swim buddy. This desire to add more and more to a wafer thin handset has become a bit of a double edged sword. Yes, bold new ideas are a great way to push the industry forward, but many of them tend to become nothing more than a gimmick while also adding a significant price premium to your handset. That’s why it has become almost a norm for flagships to cost around RM4,000.

What happened to the good old flagship smartphone that’s only focused on giving you the best smartphone experience? Focused on giving you a smooth and snappy performance with a battery that can last? And most importantly, at a price that more people can afford.

Well, that’s where a brand like POCOPHONE comes in. This small, Xiaomi-backed team of individuals have set out — with laser focus — on doing one thing and one thing alone: To give people what they want. And their first product, the F1, is probably the most focused device I’ve seen launched in a while.

POCO-what now?

POCOPHONE. It’s an interesting name, no doubt, but you can’t argue that it doesn’t serve its purpose. It is memorable, easy to pronounce and easy to spell — all things a name should be. And POCO isn’t just a collection of syllables, it actually means “a little” (un poco) in Spanish, which is both an homage to their main brand Xiaomi (where Xiao means small in Mandarin) as well as a reflection of the size of the current team behind POCOPHONE.

Nevertheless, a brand’s name often derives more meaning from what they produce than anything else. That’s where the F1 comes in, and from the looks of things, it’s set to make a huge splash.

OK, what’s so special about the POCOPHONE F1?

In a word? Performance. In a couple of words? Performance per ringgit. While everyone else is trying to make motorised cameras, dual curved screens and triple cameras work on their flagship handsets, the POCOPHONE F1 is only concerned about giving you the best performance your wallet can afford.

As a result, this handset has some of the best internal specs you’ll find in the market. It’s got a top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, up to 8GB of LPDDR4X RAM and 256GB of UFS 2.1 internal storage. Pair that with a large 4,000 mAh battery that supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 (via USB C) and you’ve got basically the best kind of phone hardware money can buy.

But that’s not where this obsession with performance ends. POCOPHONE F1 also runs on software that the company says has been specifically tuned to help it run smooth AF. No, it’s not stock Android. Instead, it’s a customised version of Xiaomi’s MIUI that I think can be best described as how Google would make MIUI.

POCOPHONE have been meticulous in their pursuit of performance. They said that in addition to over 20 deep system optimisations, they’ve also optimised UX animation so that it’s more responsive and tweaked swiping performance so that it’s now 21% faster than MIUI.

And it shows. The phone is so snappy — OnePlus 6 levels of snappy, in fact. Everything opens really quickly and swiping is super responsive too. I can’t objectively tell you if “swipe performance” is faster than other handsets because it could just be a placebo, but the phone is certainly responsive to your input. That said, one of my favourite things about this MIUI for POCO is that it comes with a stock-Android-like app drawer that can be accessed by simply swiping up on the home screen.

This app drawer can also intelligently organise your apps based on function as well as app icon colour. There’s even a hidden corner of the app drawer (accessible by swiping left twice when you activate it in settings) where you can hide your apps if there’s ever a time where you’ll need to do so.

Oh and yes, in case you haven’t picked up on it, the smartphone does have a notch in it. And it’s a really big one, probably the biggest I’ve ever seen. But the good news is that the handset’s 6.18″ Full HD+ IPS display still looks pretty good. It’s got good viewing angles, is visible even outdoors and is nice and sharp.

Wow that sounds great. But how is this possible? Are there any obvious drawbacks?

Well, yes, this isn’t some miracle device. POCOPHONE has definitely made a number of cost-cutting measures to keep this handset affordable. The first thing you’d notice when picking the phone up is that the back of the phone is actually made of plastic. POCOPHONE calls it a polycarbonate body, but it definitely feels very plasticky.

And, while I think the display looks pretty good on its own, you won’t be able to use it in its portrait orientation with polarised sunglasses on — just like the Mi A2 and Redmi Note 5 from Xiaomi. Of course, if you don’t wear polarised sunglasses then this won’t matter to you, but I wear a pair almost every single time I’m out, so to see this phone suffer from this problem too is a big bummer.

Then, we’ve got the software. Yes, for the most part I do like it as a compromise between MIUI and Stock Android. But it isn’t without its flaws too. There’s bloatware pre-loaded (apps like Booking.com and Lazada) as well as duplicate apps for the gallery and a bunch of MIUI-specific apps. This is definitely not a clean experience.

It also features MIUI’s poor widget scaling and I can’t seem to find a way to have my notifications appear as icons on the notifications bar — something that my colleague Hanif has also noticed on his Mi 8. From the looks of things, MIUI just isn’t super well optimised for a notched display. The only silver lining here is that at least it isn’t as bad as Huawei’s when you’re in applications like Instagram.

Next, we’ve got the speakers. Yes, on the spec-sheet it says that the phone features stereo speakers but the distribution between the speaker in the earpiece and the one at the bottom sounds like 5%-95% in terms of volume. Odds are you won’t even notice it until you cover the bottom grille and put your ear up to the earpiece.

Despite being a flagship smartphone, the POCOPHONE F1 definitely sacrifices a lot of what people today would describe as “flagship” features. Stuff like IP67/IP68 dust and water resistance, wireless charging, and NFC are all absent on this handset.

That’s a bummer. What about the camera? Did they skimp out on that too?

To answer you with 100% certainty, I’ll need to give this smartphone a full review with photos in a whole bunch of different lighting conditions. My brief time in Jakarta was surrounded by haze so I didn’t think that was a fair situation.

But, I have spent a short amount of time with the camera and from what I can tell, it’s not awful.

The POCOPHONE F1 features a dual camera setup at the back with a 12MP main sensor (Sony IMX363, same as Mi 8) with an f/1.9 aperture lens and a secondary 5MP sensor for depth effects.

There’s a 20MP selfie shooter at the front too with beautification features, though none of the cameras feature optical image stabilisation (OIS). The main shooter does have EIS for videos, however.

From the time I got to spend with the camera, I’d say the smartphone performs about the same as a good smartphone in its price bracket does. I’d compare it to the Xiaomi Mi A2 and Redmi Note 5 as far as image quality goes, but I’d give the edge to the POCOPHONE when it comes to speed. It’s quick to launch, focus and capture the shot which is always a nice thing. Its biggest weakness is in the low light where you have to hold very still or you’ll end up with blurry photos like these:

The good news is that POCOPHONE were able to leverage Xiaomi’s good edge detection for their Portrait Mode photos so you’ve got quite a decent shooter in the F1.

Decent for its price point anyway. Don’t expect Galaxy Note9 or iPhone X levels of image quality out of this guy.

OK. Final question: Is it worth the money?

That’s always the hardest question to answer because it really depends on you. Like I said, this smartphone is one of the most focused devices I’ve seen launch in a while. The handset is designed to go fast in the same kind of way a track car is designed for power. There’s no air-conditioning, no plush leather heated seats, no power windows and no carpet. POCOPHONE has stripped the device of everything but what is needed to help it go fast and last long.

But it’s less like a showy track car that’s made for sponsors or to race in a big-time event. It’s more like a DIY sleeper mobile, with its understated looks and practical form factor. You can also tell that despite the stripped down nature of the handset, the people who made this also intended for it to be practical. After all, POCOPHONE F1 still comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack, microSD storage expansion via a hybrid dual-SIM slot, a fingerprint scanner at the back, and IR face unlocking at the front.

And because it’s such a specialised device, this isn’t a phone for everyone. Some people want the extra features like a premium build, a flagship-class camera, IP68 dust and water resistance, as well as wireless charging. Some want a stylus, while others want to be told they can’t unlock their handsets with their fingerprint. If you’re one of those people, this isn’t the device for you.

However, if you’re willing to lose all of those “unnecessary” features, then you’ll get the reap the biggest benefit this smartphone has to offer: A killer price tag.

In Malaysia we’re only getting two variants. The base model with 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage is priced at just RM1,237 while the high-spec variant with double the storage (128GB) will retail for only RM1,428. That’s a crazy affordable price point. Think about it, before this you could only get a paltry mid-ranger with something like a Snapdragon 636 or 660 for that money. Now, you can get a flagship-class Snapdragon 845 instead. Even after SST gets implemented, the base model is still only RM1,299 while the high-spec device will retail for RM1,499.

Because of that, it becomes hard to fault this handset. If you’re looking for out-and-out performance, I think that right now there’s only one device worth your money. Forget about handsets like the honor Play or the Huawei Nova 3i. From where I’m standing right now, it looks like your answer should only be POCOPHONE.

Nevertheless, I will hold off from a hard recommendation of this device until after I give it a full review. Right now, though, things are looking really good for this brand new handset.