A friend recently asked me for buying advice, a fairly commonplace occurrence given I write about tech for a living: "what phone should I buy, the Xiaomi Mi 10T or Poco F3?".
I haven't actually tested either of those phones, but I've tried the Mi 10T Pro, Poco F2 Pro and enough other Xiaomi phones, and obviously I know how to read a specs list and our own reviews. So I dove into our coverage to compare the two, and checked the prices, to see which was best.
The phones are very similar. Not only did they cost exactly the same on Amazon when I checked, but their displays are near-identical, their processors are too similar to have any noticeable performance differences, and they have the same software. Even the differences, like slightly different camera resolutions or battery sizes, won't really be noticeable to an average smartphone user.
So which phone did I recommend to my friend? While this obviously wasn't my answer, I was very tempted to reply "I don't have a clue". The phones are too similar to make one better than the other, even if my friend has a particular thing they're looking for in a new handset.
This speaks to a larger issue though, something I've noticed covering Xiaomi phones of late. The brand has been flooding the market with its devices, and it makes it almost impossible to work out which (if any) to buy.
If you're wondering 'does Xiaomi really have that many phones out?' - well, yes. In the last twelve calendar months - say, since August 2020 - there have been 17 launched in the UK (where I live).
In the Mi series alone there has been the Mi 10T Lite, Mi 10T, Mi 10T Pro, Mi 11 Lite, Mi 11 and Mi 11 Ultra. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Then there's the Redmi 9T, Redmi Note 9T, Redmi 9C, Redmi 9C NFC, Redmi Note 10 5G, Redmi Note 10S, Redmi Note 10 Pro, Poco X3 NFC, Poco X3 Pro, Poco F3 and Poco M3 Pro 5G.
That's not counting phones like Mi 11T series, Mi Note 11 series, Redmi 10 series, Redmi Note 11 series and Mi 12 series that we're expecting in the coming months. Plus, there's the Black Shark 4 and Black Shark 4 Pro, which are technically from one of Xiaomi's sub-brands. And thankfully I don't need to get into the myriad other phones launched in other regions as would muddy things further.
And breathe. That's a lot of phones, more than we've been able to review. And, at least for the Mi Lite, Redmi and Poco phones, they all occupy the same high-budget low-mid-range price market, so they've got similar prices and specs.
So how can someone recommend one low-cost phone after another? To answer that question, it's worth mentioning how we value those phones in the first place.
In the budget and mid-range phone markets, good isn't good enough. There are so many phones jostling for your attention (and companies fighting for your money), that devices have to be really great in a particular department to be worthy of recommendation. As a result, handsets that are just 'fine' are really hard to get excited about.
Take, for example, the aforementioned Redmi Note 10 Pro. It stands out from the crowd for its great cameras, boasting a 108MP snapper that you wouldn't generally find at this price point. The Realme GT, which I tested recently, stood out for having lots more processing power than you'd expect for a phone at its price.
With 17 recent phones, including 13 cheap or mid-range ones, it's impossible for Xiaomi to make them all unique - there just aren't enough things for handsets to specialize in. But that leaves too many 'good, but not great' mid-range phones for people to pick between.
The Xiaomi Mi 10T and Poco F3 are just that - good, but not great, handsets. That's why it was so hard to recommend one to my friend.
It seems that Xiaomi's plan to flood the phone market is paying off - just days before my friend sent me the aforementioned message, news broke that Xiaomi has stolen Apple's spot as the second-biggest phone vendor in the world.
But for your average smartphone buyer - by that I mean, someone who just wants to buy a new phone every few years, and doesn't follow all the tech news and releases (probably not you, if you're reading this) - it's all a big nightmare.
That kind of buyer can have trouble working out which iPhone is best for them, and Apple only puts out about four handsets on its busiest year. With 13 different Xiaomi devices to choose from, people who have heard good things about the brand and want to try its tech out have way too much to think about.
If that's you, and you somehow weren't put off by that massive list of new smartphones posted in the prior section, just know your confusion isn't yours alone. Even us tech reviewers have trouble recommending certain Xiaomi phones over others, with so many similar models to pick from.
All I can recommend is checking out our list of the best Xiaomi phones, checking outlet sales to see if you can get a phone at a bargain, and also considering phones from other companies. Xiaomi's hold on the mid-range and budget-phone markets are getting weaker by the day, especially with increasingly fierce competition from alternatives like Motorola and Realme.
Hopefully, Xiaomi will realize that attrition isn't the best phone release strategy, at least for the average buyer, and cut back on the Redmi and Poco handsets launching incessantly. That'd make it easier for people to choose which phone to buy - and also give tech writers a break from constant coverage of the newest devices.