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Featured Review: Xiaomi Redmi Note 2

November 19, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Xiaomi is well known around the world for delivering phones with excellent specs and excellent prices; prices so low you would think these have to be more budget-specced phones than they actually are.  This has been the hallmark of the company since its inception at making hardware and this year’s devices are no different.  Xiaomi’s Redmi Note 2 is the followup to last year’s Redmi Note and proves that a large device can still be in the budget class price range but not feel like it physically.  It’s a marked improvement over last year’s handset in every way, but is it enough to keep customers on Xiaomi’s side with so much competition out there?  Let’s take a look.

Specs

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Like the Mi 4C this one comes in two varieties and features some different specs for each variety, both separated by price rather than size.  The processor inside is the MediaTek Helio X10 (MT6795), and comes in either 2.0GHZ or 2.2GHz octa-core Cortex-A53 64-bit CPUs depending on the device configuration you choose.  It’s got a PowerVR G6200 GPU in both models and the less expensive one features 2GB of RAM and 16GB internal storage while the more expensive model features 3GB of RAM and 32GB internal storage.  There’s microSD card support here for expandable storage, so the biggest differences will be paying for RAM and a slight CPU speed bump.

A 5.5-inch 1080p IPS LCD screen sits up front next to a 5-megapixel shooter, while a 13-megapixel camera is loacted around back next to a single-LED flash.  Beneath the removable back you’ll find a removable 3,060mAh battery, two micro-SIM card slots and a microSD card slot as well.  Dual-band WiFi up to 802.11ac is supported here and MIUI 6.0 sits atop Android 5.0.2 with an upgrade coming for MIUI 7, which runs atop Android 5.1.1.  The whole package is well sized at 152mm high by 76mm wide by 8.3mm thin and weighs 160 grams.

In The Box

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Contents of the box are pretty basic, with the phone, wall charger and usb to micro-USB cable included, as well as some simple manuals for basic operation of the phone and button placements.  It’s a pretty simple affair that should be expected at this price, as most of the value is wrapped up in the phone itself rather than the contents of the box.

Display

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LCDs have come a long way in nearly every segment in which a display is measured at, and this is certainly an overall good IPS LCD panel.  1080p resolution at this size produces a crisp and clean image, colors are excellent and accurate and the overall picture really looks superb at first glance.  A closer look reveals that the black levels aren’t great, but they aren’t too bad for an LCD panel.  Viewing angles are superb without color change or much black level change, but it does dim a bit at certain angles.  Refresh rate is mostly good although there are some noticeable trails depending on the contrasting colors on screen.  If you don’t care for the screen saturation levels or the white balance you can easily adjust it in the display section too.
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The digitizer is better than some phones at the under $200 price range but doesn’t come close to what we saw in the Xiaomi Mi 4C in terms of speed or accuracy.  Most touches registered just fine but every couple of touches, especially when typing quickly, wouldn’t register at all, resulting in a few weird looking words here or there that are missing letters.  Overall there’s little to complain about here, and it’s definitely a well calibrated panel that looks better than many at this price range.

Hardware And Build

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Last year’s Redmi Note was a cheap phone that felt cheap in every way.  This time around Xiaomi has exponentially increased the build quality, and while it’s still plastic it feels substantially better than the old phone from just a year ago.  Gone is that hollow, nasty bendy plastic from the old phone and here is a much slimmer phone who’s body actually encases its components well.  There’s no empty spots for the plastic to give, and bending and twisting the handset a tad doesn’t lead to creaking or other sounds to make you feel uneasy about its quality.  It not quite as well built as the Mi 4C, but it does have a removable back, creating an artificial weak point that’s difficult to get around at this price level.  Behind that removable back you’ll find the battery and microSD ports, as well as the dual micro-SIM trays.

On the right side you’ll find the power button situated just above the mid-point of the device, while the volume rocker is above this and much closer to the top.  On the top side of the phone sits the 3.5mm headset jack and IR blaster, while a single left-sided microUSB port and microphone are on the bottom.  Along the back you’ll find a fair sized circular camera lens with single LED flash below it, and a volume bar just below the Mi logo at the bottom.  On the front are considerably smaller bezels than last year’s phone and come up quite slim compared to plenty of other phones in 2015.  Below the screen are the 3 capacitive buttons which work as multi-tasking, home and back buttons by default.

Performance And Memory

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As one of the first Helio-powered phones to the market, the Redmi Note 2 generated a lot of buzz from customers wondering how well the new Helio range of processors would fare in both performance and battery life. MediaTek’s latest doesn’t fail to impress either, as it sits somewhere in between the performance of the previous MT6753 processor from MediaTek, and the Snapdragon 808 present in the Mi 4C.  It also performs just slightly above the Snapdragon 617, the same processor found in the considerably more expensive HTC One A9.  Daily use is mostly excellent with only a few hiccups here and there, something that’s not uncommon in most Xiaomi phones no matter what processor powers the experience. Gaming experience is phenomenal thanks to that powerful PowerVR G6200 inside, and games like Lara Croft Go and Dead Effect 2 ran perfectly, and in fact, ran them better than the Snapdragon 808 did in the Mi 4C.

Multi-tasking is almost perfect if it weren’t for Xiaomi’s insistence on that awful multi-tasking interface that they’ve stuck with for years now.  Pressing the dedicated multi-tasking button, which is to the left of the home button, brings up a horizontal scrolling row of 4 icons showing which apps have been recently opened.  This is a terrible interface not just because it doesn’t display the thumbnail of the app, something Android has been doing as a stock feature since 2011, but when using the built-in theme engine users are likely to have a hard time identifying which app is which because of the icon change.  Thankfully switching between apps is fast and fluid, and I never found an app reloading even if it was RAM heavy app like Chrome.  Internal storage speed was super fast and multiple times faster than Xiaomi’s other recent phone, the Mi 4C, and eclipses many phones in this price range.

Benchmarks

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We went through our normal suite of benchmarks, however the Redmi Note 2 couldn’t run the 3DMark Slingshot test on OpenGL ES 3.0 or 3.1 at all.  There appears to be some odd incompatibility with it even though it shows being able to run both OpenGL ES 3.0 and 3.1, but neither test was actually able to start.  There’s also a performance mode here that you can run to turn off the thermal throttling for the processor, giving you the raw untapped potential of the SoC inside but risking overheating the device.  We can AnTuTu on both modes and you can see the palpable difference, however, this is not going to be worth the risk of overheating if you’re constantly using the device to do something process intensive.  The rest of the tests show the performance we expect from the SoC inside the phone.

Phone Calls And Network

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International phones tend to struggle with compatibility in the US, where technologies and spectrums tend to vary from networks in other countries.  That being said the Redmi Note 2 worked perfectly for me on both AT&T and T-Mobile’s US 3G HSPA networks, but there’s no 4G LTE compatibility for either network since bands 2, 4, 12 and 17 are not supported.  Call quality was great and the speaker was perfectly loud and clear enough for me to hear, even in a moving vehicle on the highway.  I’ve got no complaints here about signal quality or reception for voice or data.  There’s also built-in data calling support when you use a Xiaomi account if you don’t want to use Hangouts, Skype or one of the other various services out there.

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Check out all the supported bands below:

2G Bands: 900/1800/1900MHz

3G HSPA Bands: 850/900/1900/2100MHz

4G FDD-LTE Bands: 1/3/7/38/39/40/41

Battery Life

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Battery life tests were right on point with this phone, and I found that the Redmi Note 2 gets a full day on a single charge almost no matter what you do with it.  Days of heavy usage gave me around 3.5 hours of screen on time, while lighter days lasted all 18 hours of the day without issue.  Even on the first day when I was setting up my Google account, downloading apps, benchmarking and running the phone through the full suite of tests it lasted the entire rest of the day, something that many phones simply can’t match.  MediaTek’s power saving technology in its latest processors is definitely paying off here and shows a huge difference when compared to other phones in this price range.  There seems to be a bug with phone standby though, namely the dual SIM functionality.  When only a single SIM is in the tray it seems like the phone constantly searches for a SIM card even though there isn’t one, creating the artificial battery drain you see below in the phone idle screen.

Sound

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Xiaomi has made some absolutely monumental strides in audio output quality over the past year since the original Redmi Note launched, and it’s astounding to hear just how good this phone sounds when hooked up to good headphones or a good sound system.  The built-in equalizer works hand in hand with the hardware, and any adjustments made only affect quality to your liking, not volume as some phones do.  Speaking of volume, the audio output on this phone is super loud and ranks among the loudest phones I’ve ever used when utilizing that 3.5mm headset jack up top.  Users with headphones will find a handful of presets specifically designed for different kinds of headphones including earbuds and over-the-ear types.  This phone absolutely rocks in the audio department, and I can’t stress enough just how good it sounds.

The speaker on the back is another story altogether though, and was mediocre at best in any situation.  It’s not a loud speaker at all, and I had a hard time hearing anyone out of it when trying to use the loudspeaker functionality while on the phone, especially if I was in a vehicle driving on the road.  Playing YouTube videos was better, although the quality leaves quite a bit to be desired.  It’s just flat sounding and feels cheap, and on top of that it’s located on the back of the phone which is the worst place to have a speaker for a number of reasons.  It’s not the worst speaker I’ve ever heard but it’s not great either.

Software

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The Redmi Note 2 we have for review shipped with MIUI 6 running atop Android 5.0.2 Lollipop, however MIUI 7 is available for the phone if you’re willing to flash it manually.  Using the built-in software updater and even the Xiaomi Mi PC Suite tells me MIUI 66.66.77.00 is the latest build available for this phone, which doesn’t seem accurate given that MIUI has weekly update releases on plenty of devices and this release was available in August.  Even the official update.zip provided by Xiaomi wouldn’t work on either the PC suite or the recovery boot on the phone, so we’re stuck with MIUI 6 at this point unless you feel like modifying the software on your phone further.

MIUI 6 is likely nothing new for existing Xiaomi owners, as that software update had been rolled out to a significant number of Xiaomi’s devices quite a few months ago, and with the MIUI 7 update and subsequent rollout having begun in August, most owners will be looking forward to that if they haven’t received it already.  Regardless of this fact since many Redmi Note 2’s will be shipping with MIUI 6 we’ll be covering that here instead, as many stores that sell internationally will preload it with additional software and Google Apps to make it more compatible with non-Chinese markets.  MIUI 6 was a significant redesign for Xiaomi and represents their steps toward making MIUI a more modern looking skin of Android.  It follows far more closely to iOS rather than Google’s Material Design, and that even includes things like general navigation, settings and even notifications at times.

UI, Themes and Notifications

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Notifications in the pull-down shade are kept to single lines for the most part and are normally not expandable as they are supposed to be on Android.  This is irritating to say the least and isn’t really fixed in MIUI 7, so expect that regardless of which version you’re running.  Quick toggles are found by swiping to the left in the notification shade and are completely customizable, and you’ll find both a persistent settings button, music controls that work in conjunction with the most recent music app running, as well as a dedicated brightness slider.  This is one of the best parts of Xiaomi’s UI design and works incredibly well.

Overall the UI represents a clear Apple design influence down to the single colored status bar up top, thin fonts and simple flat elements throughout and even transition animations.  Everything is fully themeable via the included theme app, which includes a full theme store with both free and paid themes.  All elements of the UI can be themed and are often included in any one of these theme packs.  Those wanting to piecemeal single elements from themes into another one will find that not all options are able to be chosen for this piecemeal approach, but choosing your favorite base theme and changing out the available elements will work best.  There are thousands upon thousands of themes available and they all work flawlessly.

UI customization is another big part of the experience and extends to changing rudimentary things like displaying AM/PM on the clock, or percentage on the battery icon, all the way to completely changing out the lock screen for one with a very differently design.  You can basically change this phone to make it look like what you want, with a few exceptions here and there of course.  There’s quite a bit of care put into parts of the design too, and it shows that Xiaomi is working to get rid of some of the old annoyances and replace them with carefully crafted stuff.  For instance when using the torch functionality from the notification shade the entire shade itself will darken when the torch icon is pressed, helping to reduce the glare created from a bright screen in a dark area.

Security, Data and Privacy

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To show they take privacy seriously, Xiaomi has shipped this phone (and MIUI in general) with a security center that gives easy access to app permissions, malware scanning and other security related features.  It’s prominently placed on the home screen and is super easy to use, with a giant scan button taking up over half of the screen.  This utility is incredibly useful except for a few nagging things, namely pretending like Xiaomi’s absolutely horrid browser is the one you want to keep as the default.  The fact that it scans your system for issues including apps with weird permissions and other important categories as you’ll find in the screenshots below really makes it a truly useful tool.

Per-app permissions are here and enabled by default and will pop up a window letting you know when an app asks for a permission it hasn’t yet been granted.  All permissions can be adjusted here at any point in time and you can find out any app’s given permissions via this screen too.  In addition to this you’ll also find the universal block list for keeping those annoying or harassing contacts from getting ahold of you, a virus scanner, storage cleaner and even a place to monitor data usage and battery life.  You can even pin common security controls to your notification shade to monitor free memory, changing battery profiles and managing spam or unwanted contacts.

Camera

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Cameras on Xiaomi phones have always been pretty hit or miss, sometimes excelling wildly in one situation while failing miserably in another.  The Mi 4C, for instance, took great daylight shots but horrendous low light shots, and thankfully the Redmi Note 2 doesn’t follow in its footsteps.  The picture quality on the Redmi Note 2 is generally quite excellent, especially for the price, and goes toe to toe with some of the best in this price range without a doubt.  In a way this is a shame because there’s some features here from other Xiaomi phones that aren’t available, like slow motion video or advanced manual controls, but at least it’s a great point and shoot camera that you won’t have to fuss with.  This one has a Samsung 13-megapixel sensor on the back, and while Samsung’s sensors can be pretty hit or miss sometimes this one seems to be a good one, or at least Xiaomi’s utilization of it is pretty solid.

The camera UI is exactly the same as on any MIUI 6 or 7 powered device, and features a very iOS-like interface with live filters available with a swipe to the left, and the mode selection available via a slide to the right.  Swiping up and down will toggle between front and rear-facing cameras and clicking on the camcorder or camera button will switch between each mode with a few seconds loading time between each.  It’s this loading time and animation that’s the most irritating thing about the interface, as plenty of camera interfaces out there allow you to record or take photos with a single button press without having to move between modes.  Options are pretty deep and allow users to adjust saturation, sharpness, contrast and a ton of other factors.  Live exposure adjustment is available via the focus ring that pops up when pressing to focus via an adjustable dial, while a shutter button in the middle of this ring allows users to take a picture without having to shift the phone in their hands to press the dedicated shutter button.

Picture quality in general is downright excellent in almost any lighting condition, and shows plenty of detail even in lower light.  The biggest issue is the shutter speed in lower light, which tends to be far too slow and allows in too much hand jitter.  About half of the photos I took in low light were pretty shaky looking and could have done with a faster shutter and higher ISO to help with this if OIS wasn’t an option.  Regardless, the heavy denoise filters that Xiaomi tends to favor in other phones didn’t seem to be here, and as such detail is preserved even in times with higher ISO and noise levels.  White balance and color reproduction were quite accurate, and in general things were very balanced and accurate looking.  HDR is mostly useless here due again to an overly slow shutter that just lets in too much hand jitter, creating double images and other typical exposure bracketing problems.

Video quality was also good and provides 1080p and 720p video at 30FPS, along with customizable intervals for the timelapse mode.  Video is crisp in daylight and pretty good in lower light, with few weird framerate issues or blurry video as the ISO levels climb to allow for more light into the sensor.  The biggest offenders are a lack of slow motion video of any kind, as well as a lack of any kind of stabilization, making video a bit shaky when there’s any movement.  Check out the picture and video samples at the gallery below and see for yourself.

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The Good

Great overall performance and multi-tasking

Phenomenal audio output through headset jack

Good display for the price

Above average battery life

Generally inexpensive price

Mostly excellent camera

Removable back and battery

MicroSD card support

Dual SIM card support

The Bad

Low light camera shots can be shaky

Plastic build feels cheap

MIUI has too many negative quirks still

Updating to MIUI 7 was an issue

No NFC

Final Thoughts

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For under $200 this is an incredibly well-rounded device, with a processor and RAM that will rival some considerably more expensive phones.  Overall performance and multi-tasking was impressive despite the poor multi-tasking interface, and many of the components found in the phone are excellent.  MIUI as a whole is still a questionable skin with plenty of problems, but it also brings a lot of great features to the table.  If you don’t mind the generally awful interface and unfortunate changes to some of Android’s heart this is an excellent device that’ll rival the rest in this price group with ease.  The highlight here is unquestionably the sound output quality via the 3.5mm headset jack, which absolutely beats even some super high-end phones thanks to its great equalization and the ability to adjust the audio output yourself with no degradation in quality or volume.  When the basics are nailed down, as they have been here, it’s certainly easy to overlook some faults and enjoy the positives more than anything.

Buy Xiaomi Redmi Note 2 at Gearbest.com for $167.11