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Featured Review: Xiaomi Mi Note LTE Bamboo Edition

May 3, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

As a company Xiaomi hasn’t been around nearly as long as most of its biggest competitors.  Having just celebrated its fifth birthday a few weeks ago the company also celebrated a victory in China in 2014, having overtaken Samsung as the largest smartphone manufacturer selling phones in the country.  Xiaomi has gone from yet another faceless Apple clone manufacturer to a truly powerhouse company, shaping the way the smartphone industry works in the country and bringing affordable, quality phones to as many people as possible.  It’s this affordable yet powerful mantra that’s being a bit challenged with the company’s latest smartphone, the Mi Note LTE Bamboo Edition, which sells for quite a bit more than most of the company’s other offerings at around $500.  It’s this premium that pushes it from the powerful budget category that the Mi 4 sits nicely in and plunges it into the realm of more expensive phones, but is the experience worthy of the price tag?  Let’s find out.

Specs

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This isn’t the first time we’ve reviewed the Mi Note LTE, that was back in February when the phone first launched.  Since then Xiaomi has updated MIUI significantly from version 5.2.7 to version 6.5.1, bringing plenty of changes and optimizations to the overall experience.  Not only that but seeing as this is the bamboo edition the build is going to be a bit different from the metal and glass build that was on our previous version.  The internal specs are all the same though, as Xiaomi has yet to release the super charged Mi Note Pro.

  • 5.7-inch 1080p IPS Display
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 MSM8974AC 2.4GHz Quad-core CPU
  • Adreno 330 GPU
  • 3GB of RAM
  • 16GB internal storage, no microSD card support
  • 3,000mAh battery, non-removable
  • Android 4.4.4, MIUI 6.5.1.0
  • 13MP rear-facing camera, LED flash
  • 4MP front-facing camera
  • 155.1mm tall x 77.6mm wide x 7mm thick
  • 161g

Display

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Much like the Mi4 the display on the Mi Note is pretty close to as good as it gets for an LCD panel at this size and resolution.  Colors are vibrant and slightly oversaturated, although not nearly as much as on the Mi4.  Black levels are good and good viewing angles keep the picture from fading away as you rotate the device, however there’s an obvious light bleed along the top of the panel which is especially noticeable as you tilt the device down.  There’s no noticeable ghosting at all and the general refresh rate of the panel is phenomenal.  The digitizer is equally as good and will take every kind of input you give it no matter how complex or fast and is a refreshing thing to see in the land of Chinese phones with cheap digitizers.  At first I actually thought this might be the QHD version until I ran AnTuTu to find out for sure, so the screen is incredibly crisp and clean for a 5.7-inch 1080p one.

Hardware and Build

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Some say that first impressions are everything, and in that regard the Mi Note Bamboo Edition would be making lots of friends right away.  The build quality of this phone is so superb I had to constantly pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.  Xiaomi’s Mi4 was a beautiful fusion of glass and metal, and the regular Mi Note followed that up by tapering the edges along the sides of the back of the phone to create a natural contour for your hands.  The Bamboo Edition brings that one step further by integrating real bamboo into the back of the phone, creating a truly natural feeling piece of technology.  The bamboo has palpable grain that feels really good in the hand, and since it’s wood it won’t ever look the same on any other Mi Note either.  One thing that often doesn’t get talked about is the vibration motor, which feels downright amazing on the Mi Note.  This motor combined with the bamboo and the incredibly thin 7mm body feel super high quality and give yet another feeling of premium nature to the phone.

The metallic edges of the phone feel just as good as before, with buttons that have a satisfying click and feel super premium.  Both volume rocker and power buttons reside on the right side of the device, with the dual SIM card tray placed on the left side.  Up top is a 3.5mm headset jack and an IR blaster, while the bottom holds a single speaker and microUSB port.  On back of the phone you’ll of course find the beautiful bamboo exterior with a small camera lens and dual-tone dual-LED flash on the top left of the back.  The front of the device of course holds the front-facing camera, earpiece and miscellaneous sensors above the screen.  Three capacitive buttons reside below the screen, recents on the left, home in the middle and back on the right.  Xiaomi seems to like to keep the recents button looking like a menu button, which is utterly confusing, but long pressing the button will make it act as a menu button at least.

Performance and Memory

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No surprise here that the Mi Note is an amazing performer, packing a 2.4GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 and a 1080p display this hardware is runs in perfect harmony.  AnTuTu pegged this one at 45k which puts it in the same category as the Meizu MX4 Pro, OnePlus One and plenty of other phones at this price point, meaning it’s going to handle everything you throw at it with ease.  There was never a slowdown and Xiaomi’s optimizations of Android show with MIUI 6’s quick animations and minimal look.

Multi-tasking was phenomenal but only after I changed one incredibly important option.  By default Xiaomi has the phone clear out all RAM after 5 minutes of the screen being off.  I’m not sure if the software team doesn’t know how RAM works or not but this is not the way to run an operating system and it needs to be turned off immediately.  Without being able to keep apps in RAM Android has to work extra hard to relaunch and reload your apps every time you open them, wasting battery and time with every app launch.  Xiaomi also needs a massive overhaul of their absolutely terrible multi-tasking interface, which is nothing more than a simple row of 4 icons that can be scrolled horizontally in a paginated fashion.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that they’ve updated plenty of icons to represent their actual default icons this time around too, for example Hangouts has had a Google Talk icon on MIUI for years even though the app has been redesigned as Hangouts for years too.

Battery Life

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Battery Life falls right in line with everything else at this size and price, giving me a full day’s use no matter what I did with the phone.  Plenty of time was spent talking on the phone, using it for chats in Hangouts, web browsing, streaming music and videos and of course taking lots of pictures and video for the review.  During this time I never ran into a situation where the phone had to be recharged before bedtime, which is a great benchmark to reach.  Absolutely no complaints in this department.

Phone Calls and Network

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Another area where the Mi Note excels is network performance.  In the US you’re likely to only ever see 3G HSPA, which normally pulls around 10Mbps download and 2Mbps upload for many US-based GSM carriers.  As usual I used the Mi Note on T-Mobile’s network and had zero problems, but of course at this point T-Mobile’s coverage is best when you have LTE support.  Needless to say Chinese users will have full LTE compatibility with the country’s unique LTE technology and will enjoy much faster speeds than the 3G network.  Phone calls were as crisp and clear as regular quality calls over a cell network can be, with the only step up being HD Voice if your carrier supports it on this phone.  With dual-microphone noise suppression you’re guaranteed a call mostly free of background noise, which always makes it easier on the person on the other end.

Software

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MIUI has long been a personal bane for me, easily being my least favorite Android skin out there.  Much of this comes from the nuisance design decisions Xiaomi made in order to make it feel more like an iPhone, often doing things like gimping Android’s powerful notification system, ruining the multi-tasking interface, etc.  I can happily report that this latest version of MIUI, version 6.5.1.0 as of the review, has significantly improved many areas of the OS where I had issues with, and I could comfortably use a phone with this version (or greater) of MIUI without much complaint.  There’s still issues with the notifications such as not being able to expand them with one finger and many actions just plain missing even when notifications are expanded.  On the positive Xiaomi has finally added an option to show the icons of notifications in the status bar, making it obvious when a notification is waiting for you to view it.  Xiaomi’s notifications are also dynamic and full of information, telling you which WiFi you’re connected to at a glance for example instead of having to long press to open another screen to find out.  There’s still plenty of improvement to be made in the notification area but Xiaomi has also provided plenty of features above and beyond stock Android too.

Getting some of the negatives out of the way first there’s no NFC support at all, which is a game breaker for anyone wanting to use this for mobile payments or sharing.  Xiaomi is still keeping things locked down pretty hard too, with the built-in permissions manager completely blocking ways to set some default apps.  For instance when I tried to use Google Messenger over the Xiaomi one I had to click OK on a popup allowing Messenger to send messages every single time, creating a quick annoyance that I couldn’t clear.  This wasn’t a problem in previous versions of MIUI for me and I wonder why Xiaomi made the change, other than to force users to use its apps of course.  There’s also much difficulty switching out some apps like the launcher even with permissions manager turned off, and while our tutorial for getting Google Now Launcher works like a charm it has to be redone every time the app updates, as the Xiaomi launcher always forces itself as default whenever the default launcher is closed.

There’s still no lockscreen music on the default lockscreen, and while the lockscreen can be changed there’s still issues with album art and music control in many of the custom lockscreens.  Xiaomi’s theme engine is back and just as good as ever though, allowing users to change out almost all of the user interface for a design they like.  Most of this is aesthetic stuff though, so you won’t be able to fix the somewhat broken notifications system or change how some of the UI works as a whole.  There are thousands upon thousands of themes though, and it’s super easy to browse the store and choose your favorite free or paid themes, albeit most of them being in Chinese (if that’s an obstacle).

There are no additional apps included with the Mi Note Bamboo Edition over other MIUI powered phones, so if you’ve read one of our reviews of the Mi Note, Mi4, Redmi 2, etc. you’ll know what to expect here.  What has been added are an absolute boatload of features in the OS.  Xiaomi recognizes that most people won’t be able to one-hand a device that’s got a 5.7-inch screen and as such has included a way to shrink the screen temporarily as Samsung did on the Note series.  Swiping from the home button to the left or right will shrink the screen in that direction, and the size of the screen is determined by what you choose: 3.5, 4 or 4.5-inches.  In addition to this the capacitive buttons can be reprogrammed to perform a number of different actions as well, and users can customize short and long presses as different actions too.

Sound

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Sound output in general on the Mi Note Bamboo Edition is nothing short of phenomenal.  To this day nothing quite seems to exceed the sound quality that comes from the OnePlus One via 3.5mm headset jack or Bluetooth thanks to its ultra-powerful equalizer, but the Mi Note is probably the closest I’ve heard to that quality.  Xiaomi not only includes a built-in equalizer that’s powerful, has plenty of presets and gives the option to save countless custom EQ’s, but also includes a HiFi Audio option.  The HiFi Audio option seems to add an additional measure of power to the DAC inside the Mi Note, audibly changing music for the better in every respect.  There’s also presets for different types of headphones that change the audio based on what sounds best for these smaller sound drivers.

Audio from the speaker on the device itself is loud and clear and can be heard even in a vehicle with the windows down on the highway.  That’s incredibly impressive for any phone much less one with a single speaker configuration located at the bottom of the device.  These speakers aren’t anywhere near the quality of an HTC One phone but then again nothing quite is.  As it stands you’re more likely to plug the phone into headphones or an audio system anyway if you’re looking to listen to quality music, and in that respect this is going to deliver every single time.

Camera

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Pictures from our phones are more important than ever, and that’s because all of us generally take our smartphones everywhere we go.  The Mi Note excels at everything from action shots to low light shots, artistic macros to sweeping vistas and beyond.  There was really nothing I couldn’t get the Mi Note to do well in taking pictures or video, and it’s here where Xiaomi has likely improved the most over previous iterations of their phones.  Sure the Mi4 and other Xiaomi devices were no slouch when it came to taking pictures but there was plenty to pull apart, from the overly aggressive denoise filters to the just plain bad HDR in many cases.  The Mi Note suffers from none of this and it still retains the supremely excellent software experience from the other devices.  To put it bluntly the Mi Note kicks the snot out of Xiaomi’s other cameras without question.

Xiaomi’s overall camera interface is an interesting one, melding ideas from other phones while creating plenty of its own unique traits.  Swiping to the left gives you a list of live filters that can be applied to photos and seen while you’re taking them, while swiping left will reveal different photo modes that can be switched to as well as going to settings.  All of these sections are separate from the video portion, which controls the same but features completely separate filters, shooting modes and options.  One of my personal favorite features is the easy manual exposure ring that appears when pressing on the screen to focus on an area.  Rotating this ring clockwise or counter-clockwise adjusts the exposure on the fly and there’s even a convenient shutter button in the middle so you don’t have to readjust the phone when taking the shot.

The Mi Note’s 13mp sensor provides plenty of detail, fantastic low light performance and an overall quick shutter and jitter free result thanks to the advanced Optical Image Stabilization on board.  The sensor itself actively moves based on how you move the phone, attempting to keep the phone as still as possible when taking photos even when the shutter is held open for a long time.  We’ve seen this on plenty of phones already and it’s great to see a manufacturer as big as Xiaomi bringing it to their devices as well.  I can’t express how happy I was with the performance of the denoise filter here.  This is something that many phones do terribly wrong and it ends up resulting in lost detail in almost any lighting condition, especially low light.

HDR is a highlight of the Mi Note for a number of reasons.  First off it’s completely instant and can be set either to auto, off, always on or live preview.  Auto is the default setting, much like an iPhone, and will provide the best picture based on the calculated scenario.  I found that I like to use HDR a little more than the phone does on auto, but either way your shot is absolutely instant as soon as you press that shutter button.  Manual mode provides options for full shutter speed and ISO adjustments, as well as a manual focus mode that’s as easy as can be.  The only thing missing here is RAW support to make it truly viable to users wanting a more professional photo editing experience after the fact, which will likely be added in the upcoming Lollipop update anyway.

Video performance was just as good as the photo experience, providing jitter free video in many conditions even up to 4K resolution.  There’s even HDR video that can be used at any resolution, providing an experience that helps minimize those super bright or super dark areas and bring the whole shot’s light levels into balance on the fly.  This is toggled right above the record button and doesn’t take any hunting to find at all, a refreshing change from other manufacturer’s designs in this respect.  One issue I had with the video camera software specifically was that it always reset my resolution settings, so every time I opened the camcorder I had to change it back to 4K.  The default is unfortunately 720p too, not even full HD or 4K as it probably should be, resulting in plenty of users likely taking sub-par resolution video unless they adjust it specifically.  Hopefully Xiaomi can fix this in a software update, as it’s not only annoying but definitely a big problem when you realize you only shot most videos in standard HD resolution.  Check out the gallery of shots below and let us know what you think!

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Conclusion

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What was likely already Xiaomi’s best phone yet has become better with the addition of a real bamboo back.  The elegant lines and super premium build of the phone are accentuated by this new material, which is made to feel even better by something as simple as the vibration motor feeling completely different through the wood’s material.  Xiaomi has also tightened the software experience here, adding more features in the latest updates of MIUI and bringing features back to parity with many other OEM skins of Android, including better notification support.  Even though it’s only running Android 4.4 KitKat Xiaomi has taken many Lollipop features like lockscreen notifications, pop-up notifications and more to aid users in feeling not so left out for the time being.  There’s a Lollipop update in the works which will further enhance this already phenomenal phone too.

The camera is absolutely among the best out there, with simple to use software that provides as many advanced features for those looking to use them.  Xiaomi’s new Optical Image Stabilization unit keeps pictures still and clear even in low light, and provides non-jittery video even when walking or riding a bike.  The sound output is among the best I’ve ever heard from any phone too, offering a HiFi mode that supercharges the DAC and provides a superior audio experience beyond most phones on the market.  Overall this is one of the best phones in the $400+ range to buy without a doubt, and it easily competes even with the biggest and baddest out there from Samsung or LG in most ways.

You can purchase the Xiaomi Mi Note LTE Bamboo Edition at our trusted retail partners honormi.com for the low price of only $419.99 on sale now.Happy Shopping!