POCO F3 Long-term Review: Attractively Priced ‘Flagship Killer’, But Some User Experience Compromises

  • The POCO F3 is powered by the 7nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 870 SoC.
  • It features an AMOLED 6.67-inch screen with a 120Hz refresh rate.
  • Price starts at $350, making it the most expensive POCO model to date.

POCO was carved out of Xiaomi as an independent brand in early 2020. As Xiaomi seeks to expand its product coverage, it has now defined the Xiaomi (previously named Mi) series as the one meant for the high-end market. Then comes the Redmi series with its focus on budget options. POCO attempts to fill the gap between Xiaomi and Redmi series by offering ‘affordable premium’ models.

Similar to other smartphone manufacturers’ practices, POCO has its own management to deal with product development, P&L, sales and marketing. However, it shares resources with Xiaomi for R&D, supply chain, manufacturing and after-sales service. This reliance on Xiaomi for supply chain and manufacturing is especially important given the current industry-wide semiconductor shortages, as without the entire parent group’s weight, it would have been difficult and uneconomical for POCO to source ‘Tier 1’ components.Xiaomi Global Smartphone Sales by Sub-brand Share, 2020 & 2021 (Jan-Aug)

POCO now has four product series — F as the most premium, C and M for budget models and X for the gap between F and C-M. The POCO brand has always identified itself with one target audience – tech enthusiasts looking for premium specs at affordable prices. The POCO F3, which was launched in March 2021, is the most expensive POCO model to date. While cheaper variants are mainly being sold in India now, wider availability, along with more premium models, is expected in international markets in the coming days. The device is already one of the best-selling models in China, though, as a caveat, it is marketed there as the Redmi K40 along with two enhanced versions – Redmi K40 Pro and Redmi

K40 Gaming.

POCO Smartphone Sales by Geographical Share, 2020 & 2021 (Jan-Aug)

According to Counterpoint Research’s Model Sales Tracker, sizeable market penetration has been witnessed for the POCO brand in APAC, Europe and MEA regions over the past year, reducing reliance on the India market at the same time. We think this move is meaningful and unlikely to be a blip because the increase in penetration in these regions coincides with Xiaomi’s overall strategy during the past year, which is to broaden both the portfolio and brand footprint. In fact, POCO has more than exceeded Xiaomi’s own lofty performances in the past year and half – with sales achieving a 123% increase in the first eight months of 2021, as compared to 73% for the entire group.

Looking at the price range and sales channel of POCO products, they were found to be closely matching Xiaomi’s overall numbers in different regions. As such, it is not difficult to imagine POCO actually following Xiaomi’s overall strategy, despite lower volumes as compared to the Mi and Redmi series. Notwithstanding the varying degrees of sophistication across markets, the POCO brand seems to have captured a sizeable niche market. Having four product series also helps the brand cover a wider range of price points and needs of customers.

POCO F3 Long-term Review

We have been using the POCO F3 for about five months, giving us a closer look at how the device would fare on a day-to-day basis and after systems updates.

Impressive specs

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 870 5G (7 nm) processor
  • Sub-6GHz 5G support but no mmWave
  • 6GB/8GB RAM, 128GB/256GB storage (no expandable storage)

Positioned in the tightly contested mid-range 5G segment, the POCO F3 is packed with noteworthy features at an equally eye-catching price point. This compares favorably with models in the range.Sub $400 Smartphone Comparisons

Looking at the POCO F3’s features, the one thing that stands out is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 870 5G chipset, which makes regular appearances in rival flagship models such as the vivo X60, OPPO Reno 6 Pro and Motorola Moto G100, all priced above $500. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 870 5G chipset has a prime core that can achieve up to 3.2GHz of clock speed. With the Adreno 650, it also packs one of the most powerful GPUs around. With a polished design, fast-charging battery and a 6.67-inch AMOLED display featuring 120Hz refresh rate, the POCO F3 appeals to tech enthusiasts looking for all-round entertainment, particularly gaming experience.

Slick, Mirror Finish but A Fingerprint Magnet

  • Corning Gorilla Glass 5 protection on both front and back
  • IP53, dust and splash protection
  • Glossy finish

The most immediate first impression of the POCO F3 is the curved glossy back, which looks impeccable. It is clear that the design tries to woo tech-savvy and demanding gadget players. We obtained the Night Black version (Arctic White and Deep Ocean Blue are also available), and the strong reflection from the back almost makes it double up as a mirror when the surface is clean. However, this super-glossiness is a magnet for fingerprints and looks terrible when not clean. This also goes against the prevailing trend of major OEMs mostly opting for a matte finish.

POCO F3 BackPOCO F3 Back Fingerprint

The POCO F3 uses Corning Gorilla Glass 5 on both sides, with a not-so-thin curved plastic frame, sprayed with grippy paint that feels metallic. We were delighted with the side-mounted fingerprint sensor that is built into the power button. It is extremely fast compared to the mixed experiences we had with other models opting for under-display sensors (optical). These are mature designs, a clue that the device isn’t a premium flagship model. But it has a fairly pleasurable hold and manifests design character.

POCO F3 Side

Good camera performance for its price

  • Triple rear camera setting
    • 48MP, f/1.8, 26mm (wide), 1/2″, 0.8µm, PDAF
    • 8 MP, f/2.2, 119˚ (ultrawide)
    • 5 MP, f/2.4, 50mm (macro), 1/5.0″, 1.12µm, AF
  • Selfie camera: 20 MP, f/2.5, (wide), 1/3.4″, 0.8µm

For a device in the sub-$400 range, the POCO F3 cameras perform fairly well. They can capture some stunning shots under the right conditions.

POCO F3 Camera

Below are some photos shot from the primary camera in daylight conditions. Overall, the sensor seems to have captured enough detail, and the contrast is also crisp. However, upon closer inspection, high-frequency detail such as the hair on the teddy bear and the pores on the fried chicken skin look sullied and over-processed.

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The following photos were taken during strong daylight (around mid-day). No AI function was used (though the camera app comes with the AI function, which can automatically detect objects such as grass, flowers, trees and buildings). The photos look decent under the right settings, and qualify for most social media purposes.

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We then took some close-up shots, with mixed results. In the samples below, while colors are well preserved, the same cannot be said of the details. In particular, edge detection looks weak. The algorithms that are supposed to separate the background from the foreground seem to be off.

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Portrait selfies, however, do a much better job. The first shot had AI and HDR off while the second one had them on. Curiously, while the AI has smoothened the skin, details on facial hair and the shirt have become sharper. There were also no problems with recognizing the background from the foreground. Overall, the selfie quality is surprisingly good.

We then took photos at night. The pairs of photos below were taken with default settings and low-light mode. In short, the low-light mode is able to capture much more details without unnecessarily distorting the contrast. The quality of details takes a noticeable hit in the default mode, but no such issue is observed in the low-light mode.

Therefore, we conclude that the POCO F3 cameras perform as expected and are in line with similarly priced competitors. However, under the right conditions, they can take good photos, such as the one below, which was taken with default settings.

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Superb display enables smooth gaming experience

  • 67-inch AMOLED, 120Hz refresh rate, HDR10+, 1300 nits (peak)
  • 1080 x 2400 pixels, 20:9 ratio (~395 ppi density)

The POCO F3’s display is probably the biggest selling point. At 6.67 inches, this AMOLED screen is huge but necessary these days for a prime gaming experience. At 1300 nits peak, the screen is very bright (sometimes too bright at night), and the color saturation is decent at all brightness levels. The screen resolution is the typical extended 1080p. But with better positioning of the punch-hole camera, the visual ‘real estate’ has not been compromised.

The POCO F3 supports 120Hz refresh rate and 360Hz touch sampling. The refresh rate does automatically adjust between these two frequencies depending on the app, but for the sake of saving battery, we manually had it on 60Hz default for most of the day except for games and videos.

POCO F3 - Refresh Rate Settings
In the video below, we played Honor of Kings under 90Hz refresh rate at 60fps frame rate – the top video quality available for this game. Overall, the quality of the video was great, able to reflect finer details such as the flapping movement of our character’s robe and the movement of the minions. Most encouragingly, video quality consistency is on display at the 0:35 mark, where our character performs a rushing move when multiple objects are in view, and the 0:45 mark, when multiple characters are performing dynamic actions. The performance was stable throughout the game as the display rarely deviated from the targeted 60fps frame rate (seen at the top right of the screen).

For comparison, we played Call of Duty: Mobile. The game was played under 60Hz as the higher 120Hz is only available on the Sony Xperia 5 II. While we did fairly well and killed four opponents in the sample, you can see that the smoothness of the video quality takes a dive compared to the previous sample, especially in near-field dynamic environments, such as nearby objects when moving the cursor and zooming in to shoot.

Another interesting gaming feature is the Game Turbo mode. It allows the device to automatically detect ongoing gaming sessions, and can stop notifications and calls. Additionally, one can slide open the menu the top left of the screen to see further features. Useful ones include GPU, CPU and FPS performances, as well as memory boost, screenshot and video recording. One can even access other apps through a pop-out screen – useful for filling moments of inactivity when playing ‘idle’ games. POCO F3 - Game Turbo Mode

POCO F3 - Game Turbo Mode, WhatsApp

Perhaps one drawback of the POCO F3 screen is that it can dim unexpectedly under very bright sunlight, probably due to overheating and subsequent thermal throttling. However, it can be fixed by manually adjusting the brightness. We experienced this issue 3-4 times in the first month but much more frequently in subsequent months.  This is consistent with the complaints seen on Xiaomi forums.

Dual speakers with Dolby Atmos add to entertainment value

The POCO F3 has a pair of decent speakers in the earpiece and at the bottom of the phone, with Dolby Atmos surround sound solution providing the loud audio experience of true stereo. While a hand may cover the speakers when playing a game or watching videos in the landscape mode, we found the speakers doing a good job at projecting sound. We tested the phone in the shower (tightly sealed of course as the phone comes only with an IP53 rating) and even received calls on the speaker in busy shopping malls – with positive results.

There is a range of equalizer options (see below) for those with particular tastes in audio experience. We streamed a range of music from Spotify and concluded that the POCO F3’s speakers projected a decent range, especially at mid-tones. However, the sound seems to be slightly distorted at the highest volume.

POCO F3 - Audio Settings

Reasonable battery and charging performance, more would be nice

  • 4520mAh battery
  • Fast charging 33W, 100% in 52 min (advertised)

The POCO F3 has a battery of 4520mAh, which is decent at its price range. We saw about eight hours of screen-on time on 60Hz and five hours on 120Hz on 4G connectivity (numbers based on the Screen Time App). However, the apps used were somewhat less ‘intensive’ than what one would find in a typical product review test, and more representative of one’s general daily usage. In our view, the battery will probably be just enough for a day’s average usage, but a power bank or charging wires are a must if one plays games or watches videos during the day.

POCO F3 - Battery

Luckily, the POCO F3 comes with a 33W adapter, which charges around 66% in 30 minutes and 100% within an hour. However, the slight drawback is that playing games on 120Hz while charging can lead to overheating, as seen below when the battery reached 44°C. Inevitably, we experienced some lags while using heavy payload apps like gaming or AI photography.

POCO F3 - Battery Temperature

Software is a huge drag on performance

Now we come to the biggest disappointment in the POCO F3. The device runs on Android 11 with the MIUI 12 skin. The customization is pretty thorough, and the POCO launcher uses a fairly distinct system theme, which can be changed. One of the key alterations is a redesigned app drawer, which has fewer rounded corners and automatically sorts apps into different categories. The first page still displays a vertical list of everything you have installed, but it takes a bit of getting used to. We have avoided navigating for apps in the categories view (Communication, Entertainment, Photography, etc.) as much as possible, due to the confusing sorting of some of the apps.

Compared with other Android competitors, the MIUI takes a fair amount of effort to get its settings sorted out. This may not be an issue for tech-savvy users or those with previous experience of using MIUI, but it is an unnecessarily high barrier for average users looking for a simpler experience. Furthermore, the range of bloatware is alarming. The POCO F3 also has its own clock, calculator, voice recorder and music player – none of which can be uninstalled. The system frequently pushes notifications to update these, which we strongly advise against.

Xiaomi users are fairly active on online forums, and MIUI bugs tend to be quite frequent. Disappointingly, this is a legacy issue that works hugely against the brand, which it seems unable to rectify. With the POCO F3, there is the possibility of upgrading to Android 12, but we do not expect a major boost to the phone’s performance.

In summary, while the hardware in the POCO F3 packs a punch, the bottom line is that software does not do the hardware justice, and the phone is powerful only on paper.

Conclusion: A value-for-money smartphone for tech-savvy users and gamers

The POCO F3 inherits the brand family DNA with top-notch design, excellent display and gaming performances, which will no doubt attract techy-savvy customers who know exactly what they are looking for. Its flagship chipset, the Snapdragon 870 5G, and the AMOLED screen with 120Hz refresh rate will be especially popular among its targeted buyers. While we have found the phone to be fairly reliable in terms of day-to-day general usage, the software weakness can be frustrating for the average user. Despite this, if one can bear with the fidgety initial setting-up processes, the phone is capable of doing its job.