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Featured Review: Xiaomi Hongmi Redmi Note LTE

October 12, 2014 - Written By Nick Sutrich

When looking for a phone, what’s one of the first things many people think about?  Price of course, and it’s price that rules the roost in the vast majority of phone purchases today.  Once only a richer mans game, smartphones have increasingly been brought down in price and up in quality, bringing up that bottom line to something that was once considered only the highest end.  Now we’re at the point where, at least on paper, specs of high-end all the way day to entry-level phones appear to be generally the same, sporting quad or octo-core processors, 13 megapixel cameras and huge batteries and screens.  But are these specs actually similar, or just appear similar, and how is the overall user experience when compared to that of a more expensive phone?  That’s what we’re going to find out in this review.

Specs

  • 5.5-inch 720p IPS LCD
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 1.6GHz (MSM 8928)
  • Adreno 305 GPU
  • 2 GB of RAM
  • 8GB Internal Storage
  • MicroSD Card support
  • 3100mAh Battery
  • Android 4.4.2 MIUI 5
  • 13 megapixel rear-facing camera
  • 5.0 megapixel front-facing camera

Looking at that spec sheet you’d expect to find most of these components in a much higher end phone.  The size of the battery, the amount of RAM and even the megapixel count of both front and back cameras are basically on par with phones costing two to three times as much.  The display, processor, GPU and internal storage space is where Xiaomi cut costs to make this phone feel cheap, but honestly it doesn’t really feel like it when you’re using the device.

Display

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What can be said about a 5.5-inch screen that’s only running at 720p?  Basically the screen feels like it belongs on a two year old phone in more ways than one.  Color reproduction is just fine, there is some ghosting but it’s not too noticeable everywhere, and in general it’s not as sharp as some other displays out there.  To be completely honest though I never once found myself at a disadvantage for not having a 1080p display, as Xiaomi has set the DPI to properly reflect the size of the screen so it doesn’t feel like you’re running a massively oversized UI because of the lower resolution.

The digitizer Xiaomi is using here feels more responsive than any other phone I’ve used in the past two years.  I’m not even kidding, and it surprised me more than once.  While it doesn’t handle multi-touch too well when fingers touch eachother, most touchscreens don’t anyways, so it’s hard to fault Xiaomi here uniquely for that.  Because of the particular vibration motor and the sensitivity of the digitizer, using the Redmi Note was an incredible joy the entire time.  Typing just feels so good, as every key really feels like a press because of the particular style of vibration the motor uses.  I can’t praise this part of the display enough.

Hardware and Build

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Being a $200 phone you’d expect the Redmi Note to feel a little cheaper than some other devices out there, and you’d definitely be right.  While it doesn’t feel hollow the weight of the device is just off compared to higher end phones.  It almost feels as if the components inside aren’t as tightly packed together or something, and given that it’s a little thicker than most phones on the market that’s probably one of the reasons for this feeling.  It’s also made of a horrendously slippery plastic that’s been a massive annoyance in the world of smartphones for the past few years.  While I never actually dropped the phone I almost did twice, and that’s more than I ever have that happen with any other phone.  Get a case, don’t even think about it.

The back cover of the Redmi Note is removable, and is rather easy to do so.  The only downside is that it doesn’t have a notch to grab, so you need to stick your finger in between the edge and pop it off.  This gives you access to the removable battery, SIM card tray and MicroSD Card slot.

On the front of the phone you’ll find three capacitive buttons for navigation.  From left to right you have the menu, home and back keys.  They are red in color and stand out quite a bit, and actually look rather nice against the black face of the phone.

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Performance and Memory

Given that the Redmi Note is powered by a Snapdragon 400, which also powers basically all of the Android Wear watches out there, you’d think the phone wouldn’t be the fastest thing in the world. I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case, and it’s partially so because, while this is still labeled a Snapdragon 400, it’s a significantly more powerful processor than the ones packed inside Android Wear watches.  Four cores at 1.6GHz will handle everything that you throw at it with ease, and I never once saw an abnormal bit of slowdown while using the phone.  To be honest this is one of the smoothest phones I’ve used in a long time, and that’s impressive given that it’s nowhere near as powerful as many high-end phones.

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Gaming performance was good, and the phone held up even to the likes of Dead Trigger 2 and some other more graphically intensive games, but that’s taking the default settings which are turned down a bit.  Still the games looked and played excellently, and I have nary a complaint especially, again, given the price tag of the phone.  You’re not going to feel at a disadvantage to everyone else here by having a slightly less powerful phone, because it handles gaming with ease.

Multi-tasking was fantastic, and I never had a time where an app had to redraw.  First of all the phone is only 720p, which is a much smaller memory footprint versus a 1080p screen.  Couple that with the fact that it’s got just as much RAM as the majority of high-end phones out there and you’ve got a winning combination.  I still can’t stand MIUI’s handling of the recents screen, which just shows the icons of the apps open in a horizontal scrolling row, slowing down the process by requiring you to identify the icon rather than the screen of the app in question.  It’s also further slowed down by having to hold down the home button to access the recents menu: something that could be easily fixed by having a recents button.

Battery Life

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Epic battery life can be found on the Xiaomi Redmi Note, and it’s got everything to do with the lower-power processor and the massive battery that goes alongside the phone.  Again coupling the battery size of a high-end phone with much lower-power components gives this phone a winning combination.  I literally couldn’t kill the phone in any single day that I had it, no matter what I did.  I even had a marathon YouTube session where I let it sit on the desk for 4 hours playing YouTube videos and I still had 15% battery left at the end of the day.  That’s an incredible user experience no matter how you slice it, and it’s something I wish more phones could boast.

Standby time is also pretty mind blowing.  Looking at the screenshot above you can tell exactly when I stopped using the phone for the day, and the battery usage basically flatlines after that point.  It’s difficult to find a phone that does standby this well, even with all the Google services syncing as they normally do in the background.

Software

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Xiaomi’s MIUI 5 is what powers the Redmi Note, built upon Android 4.4.2 KitKat, and sports a very similar interface to many other Chinese OEMs’ phones.  All the theming, security, data management and the rest of the user interface are all here from the rest of Xiaomi’s phones, and again you won’t feel left out on features just because you spent a little less money on this phone versus a more expensive one.  It’s a great feeling to get all the perks of the high-end phones without the high price tag.

Google Apps are not pre-loaded on here, but it’s easy enough to add them.  The Xiaomi Market, which is the pre-loaded app store on the phone, features an app called Google Installer which will walk you through all the Play Store apps as well as the rest of the Google suite of apps you’re used to.  Most of Xiaomi’s apps are rather nice, including the messaging app which features pop-up messages which allows you to quickly respond to messages instead of having to open the app, or the browser which features a simple and friendly interface, but I found myself going right back to the Google version of said app after a few hours of use.

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Theming is system wide but works best when you stick with Xiaomi’s built-in launcher, which unfortunately doesn’t feature an app drawer rather a wall of icons like iOS.  Thankfully you can space these apart however you’d like them, stick them into folders, and even add widgets like most all Android launchers allow.  There’s lots of options with the launcher too, like screen transitions and other effects throughout.  I still can’t stand MIUI 5’s lock screen, which can be changed via themes, but I can never find one that I like.  Not only that but you can’t customize the shortcuts on the screen, so if you’re not using the Xiaomi messaging app for instance the messaging shortcut on the lockscreen doesn’t do anything.

It’s this weird mesh of custom apps and interfaces that breaks a bit of what makes Android a little more special than other OS’s out there: being able to choose default apps for certain situations.  Yes you can go into settings and change your home launcher, preferred browser or messaging app, but the Xiaomi apps always seem to come back alive no matter how much you try to bury them.  I’ve had plenty of links open up through Xiaomi’s browser even though Chrome is my default browser.  This is annoying but it’s only something that will affect you if you try to change the default app that launches via certain actions.

For more of Xiaomi’s interface check my Xiaomi Mi4 review, as the entire interface is the same between the two phones.

Phone Calls and Network

I used the Xiaomi Redmi Note on AT&T’s network and had zero issues with it.  I was disappointed to see that LTE doesn’t work on AT&T’s network, only HSPA, and AT&T’s HSPA network leaves quite a bit to be desired in terms of raw speed.  T-Mobile’s HSPA network is considerably better, and multiple times faster, although you’re not going to get as much coverage.  Pick what works best for you, but T-Mobile works best in my area for HSPA data.

Phone calls were clear and about as good as you could ask for a regular quality phone call.  Using Hangouts gave me HD Voice capabilities and that’s always a win if you’re able to make the connection with someone else that’s got HD Voice capability.

Sound

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Sound output was pretty fantastic, and while it wasn’t the absolute best I’ve ever heard come out of a phone’s headset jack, the built-in equalizer helps even things out on all kinds of sound systems.  Xiaomi ships the phone with a built-in music player which supports tons of file formats and even has a pretty amazing lyrics engine built in that’ll show you the lyrics of the song as you listen to it.  Again I’m more of a Google Play Music kind of guy, and that worked just fine on the phone, so use what you prefer.

The speaker on the phone was definitely louder and clearer than anything that I’ve ever heard come out of a Samsung phone, but nothing quite as good as the HTC One series.  Still I never once had an issue hearing notifications, loud speaker or other noises from the phone no matter what situation I’m in.  I even drove with the windows down a few days and never missed a notification because the speaker can be turned up so loud.  That coupled with the fact that it’s distortion free even at those volume levels and you’ve got a great experience.

Camera

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This is the one area of the Redmi Note that I was completely disappointed in.  Many phones nowadays, even the cheaper ones, tend to ship with more than passable cameras.  To be completely honest I would never use this phone for a camera unless I absolutely needed to.  Taking pictures of something just to send to a friend, or maybe even whatever you’re eating, is about all you’re going to get here.  No matter what I did all the pictures came out hazy, fuzzy and just generally super low quality.  While this seems odd given that it’s a 13 megapixel sensor, not all sensors are created equally, and it’s painfully obvious here.  It’s almost as if the lens or another component of the phone has been poorly designed, or maybe even defective.  Oddly enough I thought it fared better under low light situations, which is the complete opposite of most phones.

To be honest I think the front-facing camera takes better pictures overall.  There’s no haze, no glow and no weird distortion of the image.  It’s unfortunately not reasonable to try and use the front facing camera to take all your pictures as you can’t see what’s going on, so it’s not actually a replacement.  At the very least the software Xiaomi packed in with the Redmi Note is quite excellent, and features almost everything found on our recently reviewed Mi4.  The biggest exceptions were the inability to adjust exposure on the fly without having to open a menu, no live HDR, no HDR video and no slow-mo video.  There is timelapse video though, and the overall quality of the video taken from the camera isn’t horrible but it suffers from the same overall fate as the camera does; hazy, washed out images that just generally aren’t all that pleasant.  Check out the sample shots below:

Conclusion

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For $200 it’s going to be difficult to find a better phone than the Redmi Note.  Packing plenty of horsepower, a decent screen, long battery life and excellent touch response, the Xiaomi Redmi Note was a joy to use the entire time I had it.  It’s compatible with any GSM network, and even has LTE capabilities if you’re in an area with the supported bands.  It’s got a great speaker that’s loud and clear, and good sound output for jamming out in the car or through headphones.  The biggest downside here was the camera, which was terrible no matter what situation I tried it in.  If you’re not too concerned with the quality of the pictures from your smartphone you’ve got nothing to worry about here, as it’ll do just fine with social networking and sharing daily life pictures with friends.

Xiaomi’s MIUI Android skin is quite possibly the only other big negative I can find, and that’s of course completely up to personal taste.  I didn’t really have any issues with the OS during my time of using it, and while I could do without their horribly designed multi-tasking interface and the use of capacitive buttons on the front of the phone, it’s not a deal breaker in most situations.  The large screen on the Redmi Note makes every day tasks a little bit easier, granted you’ve got to either have some big hands or be willing to use both hands instead of just one, and I can imagine most casual phone users being more than happy with the phone in general.  If you’re in the market for a new $200 phone and really like Xiaomi’s features, check out the Redmi Note.

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