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Featured Review: Xiaomi Redmi 2 – The Prince and the Pauper

February 27, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Specs

As is customary with a sequel, Xiaomi has upgraded the internals when comparing the Redmi 2 to the Redmi 1s.  Included in this upgrade is Qualcomm’s latest entry-level CPU the Snapdragon 410, which is Qualcomm’s first 64-bit chipset.  The phone comes in two flavors, an 8GB and a 16GB version which doesn’t just differ in internal storage space but the 16GB also features double the RAM, so with 8GB internal storage you get 1GB of RAM, and with 16GB of internal storage you get 2GB of RAM.  Let’s take a look at all the specs together and see how it fairs for the $149 retail price.

 

 

Display

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At 4.7-inches a 720p display is really all that’s needed, and Xiaomi recognizes that by not dropping a full HD 1080p screen onto the smaller body of the Redmi 2.  The pixel density is 312, which is essentially retina quality, and provides a rich, clean experience that doesn’t tax the CPU too much because of the relatively lower resolution when comparing it to 1080p or even Quad-HD.  Color representation is good and in general much better than some other Xiaomi phones when tend to bias towards high saturation levels, which tend to make things look super bright and colorful but ultimately unrealistic.

Of course there’s negative qualities too such as plenty of ghosting when scrolling through things, and the black levels are less than stellar.  Light bleed can be seen from the sides of the screen especially when you tilt it to the side, although there’s no color change as some cheaper screens exhibit.  On the bright side the digitizer is super sensitive and accurate, which can’t be said about all phones in this price range.  Kudos to Xiaomi for investing in the parts that really create negative user experience here.  I would rate this a little higher than most phones in this price range, especially when it comes to touch sensitivity, but it’s nothing that’s going to blow you away nowadays.

Hardware and Build

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Xiaomi tends to stick to a certain design for all of its products and generally keeps things the same throughout a product line.  With that said you’ll find a phone that looks basically identical to the original Redmi or the Redmi Note LTE.  In general this feels like a higher quality version of the previous Redmi series with a tighter plastic build that doesn’t give as much when pressed, as well as an ever-so-slightly thinner frame.  The bezels could definitely be smaller when compared to other phones out there, but they don’t feel as huge as seen on the Redmi Note either.

On the face of the phone you’ll find the standard capacitive keys found on most Chinese Android phones anymore, from left to right a menu, home and back button.  These are tinted red on the black face and generally look quite nice for capacitive buttons, however there’s a weird issue with the phone that makes me feel this one was a bit rushed: the menu button doesn’t function as a menu button, it functions as a recents button.  This just feels like a sloppy design decision Xiaomi made to get the phone out.  Long pressing the menu button will make it work as an actual menu button, but Xiaomi needs to change the visual appearance of the key to show what it actually does.

On the right side you’ll find both the volume rocker and the power button, which is situated below the volume rocker in this case.  The top of the phone features a 3.5mm headphone jack, and the bottom has a micro USB port situated near the right side of the device.  On the back you’ll find a protruding camera lens with the LED flash to the left and the speaker to the right meaning that all the sound is naturally pointed away from you; a design decision I will never understand for the life of me.  Because of the protruding camera lens placing the phone down on the table means you can still hear the audio as it’ll reflect off the table instead of being muffled by the surface.

Performance and Memory

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1GB of RAM isn’t a whole lot for a modern phone, and unfortunately it feels that way here with the version of the Redmi 2 that I have.  You can open around three apps tops before you start to see reloading when switching between apps, and this becomes particularly annoying when you’re trying to quickly perform tasks or browse the web and do other things.  I’ve seen other phones with 1GB of RAM perform better than this too, and quite honestly it doesn’t even feel like the OS is using RAM like it’s supposed to.  With around a dozen apps open the recents tray says I still have 180MB of RAM free, meaning all the open apps should be ready to go without reloading, however the actual act of opening apps proved otherwise.

MIUI 6 still features the incredibly awful row of icons when multi-tasking too, making it more annoying than anything to switch between apps.  Not only this but some apps just have bad icons no matter what theme you choose.  For instance Google Hangouts still features an old Gingerbread-style Google Talk icon that makes it almost unidentifiable from the regular icon, making you sit there an extra second or two before you realize what app you’re switching between.  MIUI features a little trick where you can swipe down on the icon of the app in the recents menu to lock the app into RAM, but this doesn’t actually seem to work.  Locking a handful of apps into RAM still causes plenty of reloading of the app, taking anywhere from 3-7 seconds to launch an app instead of the instant switch it should be.  This phone is a bad multi-tasker, and I’m not sure even getting the version with double the RAM would help much given the way it uses RAM in the first place.

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Performance wise the Snapdragon 410 does a pretty good job of handling what’s thrown at it, but again I feel like other phones in the same performance class do a better job.  For instance web browsing on either the build in MIUI browser or Chrome was sluggish and often was met with slowdown, poor scrolling framerate and an overall poor experience.  Pages take a long time to load even on a fast WiFi connection and it was generally an annoying experience to browse on the Redmi 2 compared to other phones out there.  Sure the Snapdragon 410 isn’t a processing beast in the same way that the Snapdragon 805 is in a higher end phone, but again I’ve reviewed plenty of phones with a Snapdragon 400 and never ran into this problem.  You can’t blame resolution either as all of those phones used a 720p screen too, so something else is at play here.

Gaming performance is about what I expected too coming from the Redmi Note LTE.  Everything ran just fine, including more graphically intensive games like Blitz Brigade which you see above.  The screen size makes it a little difficult for me to enjoy games like that but I’m used to using a 5.5-inch or larger screen, so those with smaller screen preferences likely won’t have the same qualms.  Just don’t expect to game and socialize at the same time unless you like losing your progress, as again everything reloaded on me once I exited the game.

Battery Life

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Here’s yet another category that the Redmi 2 doesn’t exactly shine in.  A 2,200mAh battery is incredibly small by any standards nowadays, and even though the screen size is smaller than something like the Redmi Note, that screen size difference doesn’t make up for having such a significantly smaller battery.  I struggled to get a full day out of the phone with heavy usage, often having to charge it mid-day just to make sure I made it past whatever evening plans I had for that day.  Gaming and other performance-intensive tasks will obviously suck the battery dry quicker, but it’s an accelerated rate from most other phones just because the capacity of this battery is less.  Standby was certainly better than normal though, with tasks sleeping instead of running in the background and keeping the phone awake, and I was able to let the phone sit for 2 whole days after light usage and still had 10% battery left.  If you’re going to carry this one in a bag and not use it often you’ll be fine, otherwise expect to bring a charger or battery pack along for the ride.

Software

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Xiaomi’s Redmi 2 is the first phone of theirs to ship with MIUI 6 out of the box, but that doesn’t mean it’s the first phone to have MIUI 6 on board.  We reviewed the Mi4 last year, which shipped with MIUI 5, and was updated to MIUI 6 fairly shortly after launch.  All the drastic visual changes seen on the Mi4 are present here on the Redmi 2, and quite honestly the phone feels exactly the same as the Mi4 in terms of functionality and design.  In fact there’s very little to distinguish this phone from every other Xiaomi phone out there when you just look at it, and even when considering features you’d be hard pressed to find any differences whatsoever.  For this reason I found myself bored with the phone, not really having anything new or interesting to work with.

On one hand this is really a great thing; Xiaomi has done a great job with aligning their software to what their customers want and put that experience on every phone.  On the other hand it’s a shame because you don’t really feel like you get anything new moving between devices, and Xiaomi doesn’t ever seem to fix certain problems with their OS in general.  Lockscreen music is completely missing for the vast majority of lock screen themes I tried, and even when it is present it’s half done, showing no album art for any song I ever played on Pandora or Google Play Music.  This sort of clunky experience is seen elsewhere in the OS too like the notification shade, for instance, which doesn’t show any icons even when notifications are available, so if something is waiting for you like a message you would never know it until you pull the bar down.  There’s also no single-finger expansion of notifications, so to expand a notification you’ll need to use two fingers to pull it down and reveal any actions you can perform on that notification.

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On the flipside there are plenty of apps here that are downright gorgeous.  Xiaomi takes plenty of Apple’s design language and adds their own flair at times giving a very minimal tech look to everything.  The clock app isn’t just gorgeous it’s very functional and designed with user experience in mind.  Switching between functions requires just a simple swipe of your finger left or right, the way an Android app should be designed.  The compass app features a really cool augmented reality mode when you hold the phone vertically and a regular looking compass when held flat down.  It’s these design decisions that are puzzling, simply because they are so well done while a lot of the rest of the OS feels so clunky and old, even though visually it looks very modern.

MIUI is probably my least favorite of all the big Chinese manufacturer’s skins and it’s mainly because of all the negatives.  On the bright side it’s easier to Google-ify the OS by replacing the very iOS-like launcher with any other one, as well as installing the Google Play Store and any other Google apps.  Some Chinese Android skins don’t let you set defaults, but MIUI at least does, so some of the more painful parts of the OS can be replaced with better versions.  We’ll put up a tutorial on how to get Google’s services on MIUI 6 easily too if you decide to pick the phone up.  There’s also theme support which MIUI has had practically forever now and carries into MIUI 6 without issue.  The theme store has thousands of different themes, both paid and free, however it’s almost exclusively in Chinese so you’ll have to rely on visual information if you don’t know the Chinese language.

 

Phone Calls and Network

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Here’s one area where the Redmi 2 really excelled.  While there’s no US LTE support because of the bands involved you’ll find great HSPA speeds here.  On T-Mobile I was able to pull down an incredible 15.5Mbps download speed consistently across the Orlando area.  These are LTE-level download speeds and sometimes better depending on the area, but of course latency and upload speed suffer because of HSPA technology.  Both the AT&T and T-Mobile networks, as well as their MVNO’s like Straight Talk and Cricket will work perfectly on the phone, and I found the call quality to be phenomenal.  Unlike plenty of phones out there Xiaomi isn’t afraid to turn up the volume on this earpiece, as I could hear the caller on the other end even when driving with the windows down.  There’s also dual-SIM support for those that need it.

Sound

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Xiaomi has quite a few options for tinkering with the sound output on the phone via the 3.5mm headset jack.  There’s not only a headphone sound enhancer which helps equalize the usually less than stellar sound quality on earbud type headphones, but there’s also a full customizable equalizer as well.  You can choose from about a dozen different preset equalizers or build your own, saving them and renaming them as you see fit.  In general though I found the audio output leans too far to the mid and low-range of the audio spectrum and not enough toward the high-end.  This left less bass-heavy songs sounding flat and unbalanced, and no matter how much I played with the equalizer I couldn’t straighten the sound out.  Different types of headphones and stereo equipment can help with this but it’s definitely not the best sound output I’ve ever heard, but the inclusion of the built-in equalizer helps bring it into average territory.

Camera

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As phones start to fall under the $200 price range there are usually a few things that drop in quality along with that price.  Screen and camera are usually the first things to go, as they are the most expensive and most complex parts of the phone.  Thankfully Xiaomi didn’t skimp with this camera as much as they did on the Redmi Note, and I think I can happily say that this is the best camera I’ve seen in this price range.  It’s not going to go toe to toe with anything that I’ve used above $200 but it’s definitely got the crown under that.  Xiaomi again included the full MIUI 6 camera software on here, giving you access to plenty of features as well as live filters to enhance your photo taking experience.

The interface is what you’d expect to see on an iPhone, nothing surprising there from Xiaomi, but features a different way of navigating.  Swipe to the left to reveal the live filters, swipe to the right to change modes and access settings.  Press the red record button to switch to video mode, and click the white photo button to move back to photo mode.  Swipe down to toggle between the front-facing and rear-facing cameras, and of course the most recently taken photo is sitting in the lower left corner waiting to be clicked.

The 8 megapixel sensor used here features pretty large 1.4 micron pixels, which I expected to give me good results even in lower light.  While this wasn’t the case when comparing to more expensive phones it’s definitely true of cheaper phones.  This sensor produced some pretty stunning images in good light, ones that would definitely make people say wow.  Lower light wasn’t anything special though and looks like it was taken from a phone that came out a couple years ago.  Even modes like HDR were really good and actually worked well unlike plenty of other phones out there that continue to struggle with it including some that are far more expensive.

Shutter speed is very fast and more often than not pressing the shutter button ends with an instantly taken picture, which is yet another thing some more expensive phones still struggle with.  Burst mode is activated by holding down the shutter button and results in dozens of pictures taken in just a few seconds.  There are other modes like panorama, hand jitter reduction (for lower light situations) and a manual mode that gives you access to white balance and ISO.  In settings you’ll find tons of options pertaining to image quality like sharpness, saturation, contrast and overall quality.  Video isn’t anything special but it’s not bad, providing up to 1080p video recording as well as time-lapse with configurable speed intervals.

Conclusion

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Xiaomi’s follow up to one of their most successful phones ever, the Redmi, is a pretty mixed bag.  For $149 you can’t expect a whole lot from a phone, especially given the fact that most flagship phones cost at least four times as much or more.  With that being said there’s a lot of competition in the $200 or less market; considerably more than when Xiaomi first entered that market with the original Redmi.  Because of this I feel like the Redmi 2 just isn’t up to the name Xiaomi has made for itself by providing higher quality components at cheaper prices.  Not only this but MIUI just feels like an older version of Android even if it looks very visually appealing.

The camera, network speed and call quality are definitely the high points here, surpassing nearly every phone I’ve tried in this price range.  The screen is average for the price, as is the plastic build of the phone.  For me the software experience is what’s going to differentiate a phone in this price range the most, and while Xiaomi doesn’t dumb down MIUI for its less expensive phones I still strongly dislike MIUI as a whole when compared to almost any other Android skin out there.  If you’re a MIUI fan, however, and are looking for a phone under $150 this is likely the one you want.  I would highly recommend getting the version with 2GB of RAM, as the multi-tasking performance on my 1GB model was less than satisfactory.  In the end it feels like Xiaomi played it safe with this one, and that’s probably not a great thing in a world where competition is as high as it is.

If you would like to purchase this phone it can be bought from our trusted reseller Spemall as they have the Xiaomi Redmi 2 for the low price currently of $149.99 plus shipping.