A cheap phone that does almost every 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 brand 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 level of smoothness at least, good (if not so great) battery life, a good (but percentage of perfection) 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.
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 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.Bio-metrics.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.