I was at least one bottle of wine deep when I unwittingly plunged myself, and my iPhone XS, into a hot tub.
To no one’s surprise, the stewy, chlorinated waters only soothed one of us. My phone sat soaking in the pocket of my shorts for an excruciating 30 seconds before my last last two brain cells registered the drunken misstep. My device was absolutely soaked.
After The Swim came The Rice, then The Blow-Drying, and then the final stage of phone grief, The Frantic Googling. But the deed was done, and no amount of homeopathy or research could conjure my XS back to life. So, after several faithful years it was off to the farm for my trusty phone — un-backed up pictures and all.
With death, however, comes rebirth, and a glimmer of hope remained for my life as a toxically connected human being. On this particular trip, I happened to bring a second phone, the M4 Pro 5G from Xiaomi offshoot, Poco.
Poco recently sent me an M4 Pro for review, and before packing for a Thanksgiving trip to Florida to visit my parents, I decided to toss it in my bag last minute for some testing.
Looks like I was in luck… or so I thought.
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A brief Poco history
Poco is a former sub-brand of Chinese mainstay, Xiaomi, that first began purveying phones in 2018. In early 2020 it officially spun off from Xiaomi, however, forming Poco India and eventually going fully independent on an international level in November the same year.
Their phones, while not popular in America, are unmitigated successes in markets like Europe and India. Just this year, Poco announced that it sold more than 17.5 million devices since its formation in 2018, which by any measure is a lot of phones.
Those sales are partially fueled by Poco’s price point, which is decidedly on the budget side of the phone cost spectrum. The model of M4 I’d been testing — the Pro 5G with 128GB of storage — clocks in at $312 MSRP. That’s about $500 cheaper than the base model iPhone 13.
It’s easy to see, from a numbers perspective, how a relatively name brand phone at that price point could entice prospective smartphone owners, but price isn’t always enough. The conceit of a good budget phone, to my understanding, is this: the concessions you make in hardware / software do not outweigh the cost savings.
I assume no one, not even Poco, would suggest its device can win in a head-to-head with the likes of top-of-the-line Samsung phones like the Galaxy S21 Ultra or Apple flagships like the iPhone 13 Pro, but even value phones need to keep up appearances to some extent.
So, that begs the question: Does the Poco M4 embody the Faustian bargain of a proper budget phone?
The M4 Pro
Poco’s M4 phone feels good in my hand. The plastic body is light, somewhat matte, and comes in a pleasing “cool blue” / silver gradient color which I find refreshing compared to even the more fun, “loud” colors options for the iPhone or Galaxy series.
Inside that nice silvery blue shell, however, is what I can only categorize as a world of junk.
Pre-loaded apps include favorites like Crypto.com, LinkedIn, and PUBG Mobile, which might actually make some gamers happy — that is if they can shimmy past the stark warning from Poco’s own OS that they’re about to download something potentially deadly.
Sometimes apps simply just do not work on the M4. ESPN’s fantasy football app, for example — which I downloaded to set my lineup for the week following my hot tub mishap — would not let me login.
Subtle tweaks to Poco’s MIUI 12.5 software — a Xiaomi shell built on top of Android 11 and not the latest Android 12 — can make the phone very unhappy. Turning on dark mode made the M4 Pro incapable of rendering Snapchat properly. When I switched dark mode off, the app was back to normal.
Hardware-wise, the M4 is perfectly serviceable. The MediaTek Dimensity 810 5G chipset makes for a smooth, fast experience for everyday smartphone stuff like web browsing, video playback, or using social apps.
I watched several hours of TV on my flight to Florida, and rank the M4’s 90Hz LCD display on par with Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop remake — totally fine! The rear camera module — a 50-megapixel wide and 8-megapixel ultra-wide — is also perfectly okay for a budget phone, though hints of junkware creep in here too. The pictures are okay, but nowhere near as impressive as what you get with pricier phones like the OnePlus 9 Pro, Google Pixel 6 Pro, or Galaxy S21.
As pointed out by Input’s senior review editor, Ray Wong, the camera bump contains two useless circles (this red dot and one with the letters AI in it), which without full knowledge of the phone’s design, look to me like attempts to make the module seem like it has more sensors than it actually does. Gross, if so.
Given the assembled hardware for the price, it’s actually a shame that the actual experience of using Poco’s M4 Pro phone is so mired by subpar UI and icky junkware. At the end of the day, what I really want is to be able to brick my phone in a hot tub with a little peace of mind. Poco didn’t really make my partying any less painful the day after.
Requiem for a phone
I mean it when I say I truly want the M4 Pro to be good. The prospect of having a whole world of budget phones out there just waiting to be discovered is an exciting one for me, not just as a consumer, but as a person who likes gadgets.
But in order for that world to exist, so does the value. When I’m using Poco’s M4 Pro I find myself asking if the $100 I could save buying an M4 compared to, say, an iPhone SE (a price discrepancy based on an MSRP that most people won’t end up paying in full), is really worth it.
It comes down to preference to an extent, but also just base quality. Personally, I like my phones intuitive and bloatware-free, and if that means shelling out a little more to ensure my experience is smooth, that’s money well spent.
I’m by no means a budget phone connoisseur, but as a first experience with stepping outside of my usual, domestically available devices, the M4 Pro doesn’t inspire what I’d call confidence.
For now, if I give my future device a fatal dip in the pool, I’ll be slinking to the big names for a replacement, because the only thing worse than not having a device, is using one with this much wasted potential.