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Featured Review: Xiaomi Redmi 3

February 16, 2016 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Looking back at the evolution Xiaomi has made just in the last few years is nothing short of breathtaking.  When the Redmi line started it was really just a way to get cheap phones into the hands of people who wanted the smartphone experience, and they did little beyond that.  Small plastic devices were all too common in those days, and the magic price point of something good for under $200 really hadn’t been reached yet.  Since then Xiaomi has continually lowered the price barrier for entry-level phones, all while pushing specs and build quality higher than anyone could have imagined just 2 years ago.  Looking back at our review of the Xiaomi Redmi 2, and even further back to the Xiaomi Redmi Note it’s pretty astonishing to see that we’ve arrived at a $160 phone that’s build entirely of metal and glass, all while pushing specs that rival those of flagship phones not too long ago.  While this is impressive the market around Xiaomi has also evolved significantly since these early days, so is Xiaomi still on top in their smartphone game?  Let’s find out.

Specs

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As has become expected from Xiaomi the specs on the Redmi 3 are incredible given the measly $160 price.  That all metal body sports a frame that’s tiny compared to most modern smartphones, measuring 139.3mm high by 69.6mm wide and 8.5mm thin, all while weighing a light 144 grams.  The gorgeous pattern on the back gives off an elegant feel not known to previous Redmi devices and comes in Gold, Dark Gray, Silver and Classic Gold colors.  Up front you’ll find a 5-inch 720P IPS LCD screen and a 5-megapixel camera with f/2.2 lens.  Around the back sits a 13-megapixel Samsung camera sensor with Phase Detection Auto Focus (PDAF) as well as a single LED flash.  Inside is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 616 MSM8939v2 processor made up of a 1.5GHz Cortex-A53 quad-core processor and a 1.2GHz Cortex-A53 quad-core processor.  CPU-Z appears to read the processor wrong, but it’s definitely a Snapdragon 616, not a 615 (the main different in that the 615’s slower quad-core runs at 1.0GHz).

An Adreno 405 GPU powers the graphics side of the house while 2GB of RAM is included.  16GB of internal storage can be found with optional microSD card support for expandable storage.  Dual-SIM trays include a nano-SIM and micro-SIM slot for extra compatibility with various carriers around the world, while WiFi-802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.1 make up the wireless capabilities of the device.  An FM radio tuner and IR blaster are also here, as well as a massive non-removable 4,100mAh battery inside that’s guaranteed to get you through just about anything before needing charging, and there’s even fast charging here for when it does need some juicing up.

In the Box

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Given the specs and build of the phone it’s not surprising to see almost nothing else in the box.  You’ll get a set of manuals, SIM ejector tool, microUSB cable and a wall charger.  There’s no pre-installed screen protector or anything like that in the box, so if you were hoping for extras you’ll be a bit disappointed.

Display

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Well balanced LCD displays have been a staple for Xiaomi, and the one on the Redmi 3 is no exception.  This display is bright, crisp and clean despite a relatively low 720p resolution.  As is common for cheaper LCDs the black levels are somewhat poor, averaging more of a gray than anything near black even in the darkest spots, and viewing the screen from any angle diminishes the black levels even further.  There’s no light bleeding from the edges but the screen loses contrast pretty significantly almost immediately when tilted, and gets even worse at extreme angles.  Still I didn’t find this to be a problem when viewing, but it’s really obvious that this is a cheaper display.

Color accuracy was pretty good, and the display overall trends slightly cooler, giving those whites a minor blue tint.  Saturation levels are pretty high by default but a number of parameters including overall contrast and color tone are adjustable in the display settings.  The digitizer is nothing short of phenomenal and ranks among the absolute best in this price range, and is every bit as good as any premium phone out there.  This is important in delivering a good user experience as it gives users the ability to type fast and accurately, among other multi-touch gestures that can be frustrating on poor digitizers.  That sort of thing is still all too common in the under $200 segment, and it’s refreshing to see this constantly improving.

Hardware and Build

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To say this is a monumental leap over previous generations of Redmi devices is absolutely selling the Redmi 3 short.  The sturdy metal build of the Redmi 3 feels every bit as premium as considerably more expensive phones and absolutely trump the cheap plastic designs of previous generation Xiaomi phones.  Metal builds are becoming increasingly more common in this price range, but most of them aren’t build anywhere near this well.  It feels solid in the hand, and the compact nature fits the components inside in such a way that it feels incredibly snug and secure.  The new elegant pattern etched into the metal plate on the back looks gorgeous and would fool anyone into thinking this is a much, much more expensive device.  If you don’t like this pattern the phone is also available in a flat metal look.  Above and below that metal plate are smooth plastic sections that house the radios, giving the Redmi 3 strong signal that metal alone can’t.

On the back you’ll find a speaker bar below the metal plate, while the 13-megapixel camera and single LED flash reside towards the top left.  What’s great here is that the camera sensor is completely flush with the back of the device, only jutting out a tiny bit toward the top as the body of the phone curves inward.  In fact all corners of the phone are rounded off in a way that makes it feel a bit fat, or very similar to an old iPhone 3G for some real world reference.  The left side holds the dual-SIM card tray that also has a microSD card slot, however you’ll only be able to use one of the SIM cards if you want to have a microSD card in the tray at the same time.  On the right is a well-placed power button positioned just slightly above the midpoint of the phone, while the volume rocker is uncomfortably high on the device and is nothing short of annoying to use while holding the phone up to the ear.

Up top is the 3.5mm headset jack while the IR blaster is positioned right in the middle next to a noise-cancelling microphone.  On the bottom is a lone microUSB port and the main microphone.  On the front below the display are 3 capacitive keys that look the same as on every Xiaomi device and are functionally Overview, Home and Back buttons from left to right.  Bezels around the display are tiny, and you’ll find a front-facing camera next to the earpiece up top as well as a sensor suite.  The overall size and weight of the phone feel good, but for someone used to much larger phone it’s uncomfortably small.  Those who want small phones will be in love here, it’s everything you’ve wanted in a pint-sized device and more.

Performance and Memory

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We’ve seen the Snapdragon 615 choke in plenty of phones out there, so when Qualcomm announced the slightly bumped Snapdragon 616 we were hopeful.  For the most part the experience is definitely better than many 615-powered phones, and while the Redmi 3 stuttered and froze a few times it was nowhere near as bad as what we’ve seen with the 615 on some phones.  MIUI has also always been a very fast and fluid skin of Android, often times besting even stock Android in terms of speed and fluidity.  As such the overall speed and general experience is a great one in which you’ll almost never find yourself waiting for things to load excessively or transition from one screen to another.  The power behind the Snapdragon 616 and Adreno 405 mean that most gaming and intensive applications run nearly perfectly, with only a bit of hitching or stuttering in the most challenging of games.

Awful multi-tasking interface
Awful multi-tasking interface

Multi-tasking is a mixed bag, but mostly trends on the negative side.  First up is the horrendous interface that Xiaomi continues to use year in and year out.  This includes a row of 4 icons that are called up via the dedicated button on the face.  These icons show the apps that were recently used and can be found in a paginated fashion, although there’s no clear indication that there are more than 4 apps that can be accessed by swiping side to side.  The problem with this icon-only approach is that icons change depending on the theme you’re using on the phone, making it confusing when switching between themes and looking for that app you just used.  On top of this the RAM management itself is extremely poor and I found almost every app that was launched had to be reloaded when I called it back up.  This led to longer than needed load times between apps and having to find my place on a webpage or something similar when switching between apps.

Benchmarks

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The Snapdragon 616 isn’t exactly a powerhouse, nor is the Adreno 405, and that lack of power when compared to other chipsets on the market shows in the benchmark results.  It’s at the bottom of the charts here for modern smartphones, and although it doesn’t feel it in real-world usage this likely won’t scale too well a few years out.  3DMark wasn’t able to be installed on the phone due to some odd incompatibility with the software, so that’s omitted from our usual suite of benchmarks.

Phone Calls and Network

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Primarily a China-only device, the Redmi 3 works quite well internationally on GSM networks in general.  I was able to achieve up to 3G connectivity on T-Mobile US, and overall signal strength and call quality was great.  It’s worth noting that the dual-SIM tray here supports both a micro-SIM and a nano-SIM, although if you’re planning on using a microSD card as well you’ll only be able to use the micro-SIM slot.  No 5GHz WiFi support is available, although WiFi 802.11 b/g/n are supported at 2.4GHz.  Check out the full list of supported bands below:

2G bands: 900/1800/1900MHz

3G Bands: 850/1900/2100MHz

4G LTE Bands: 1/3/7/38/39/40/41

Battery Life

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To say the Redmi 3 has epic battery life is quite an understatement.  Part of the charm of having a lower power processor like the Snapdragon 616 is that it consumes less power (duh), which means even an average sized battery would last longer in this phone.  But Xiaomi didn’t put an average sized battery in here, it put a considerably larger one, a battery that’s 50% larger than most flagship phablets, let alone many phones of this stature.  That means it’s a hair thicker than some phones out there, but at 8.5mm we’re still talking thinner than basically any phone was just 2 years ago.  This excellent tradeoff means users will never have to recharge their phone after a single day, no matter what they do.  Over a 48 hour time span I got over 7 hours of screen-on time, a figure that likely could be much higher depending on your usage.  The PCMark battery test we run showed over 14 hours of possible daily usage, a number that’s well over triple what we see on most phones.

Software

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While all of the above sections were mostly positive, this section is going to be a total mixed bag, and it all depends on how you look at Android.  Ever since its roots MIUI’s slogan has been “redefining Android,” and while that slogan has gone to the wayside the general look and feel of MIUI hasn’t changed.  Many parts of the OS feel more like iOS than Android, a trend that’s been running wild on Chinese phones for years.  Unlike some other OEMs that mainly skin Android or add an iOS-like launcher to replace the home screen, Xiaomi actually modifies some deep aspects of Android and ends up changing it significantly in many respects.

The most negative behavior changes here are in the default app settings which usually let you change any app defaults to one that you prefer, so if you’d rather have Textra for your text messaging app instead of the built-in one for instance, you can simply change it in the app or system settings.  While these options are still here they have been severely handicapped, and it’s obvious that Xiaomi wants you to use their apps exclusively much like Apple would do in a similar ecosystem.  Attempting to change the default app doesn’t always work though, as with text messaging for whatever reason.

The default messaging app has issues with MMS in that it doesn’t group them into a threaded conversation-type view as text messaging apps have done for years.  No setting fixed this for me, and unfortunately, changing to another messaging app meant that I didn’t get any MMS at all.  Not even a failed MMS, can’t download message, etc., absolutely no word of any MMS at all.  This resulted in me completely missing messages for a few days until I realized what was happening, a problem that’s absolutely unacceptable by any standard.  These sorts of problems vary throughout the system but are found in some other places too, and at times cause some big problems.

Per-app permissions just don't work right with some apps
Per-app permissions just don’t work right with some apps

For instance, the way Xiaomi has created per-app permissions.  Before Android 6.0 Marshmallow there were no built-in per-app permissions in the system, meaning OEMs that wanted their phones to have this feature had to built it into their own software.  Most of the time this works out just fine, but because Xiaomi has created a very paranoid system it restricts even the most basic of permissions and doesn’t ask you for them at times, leaving apps to simply not work at all.  Android Wear, for instance, cannot send text messages or perform some of its other normal actions because of this odd permissions structure, even after all requested permissions were enabled in the security section of the phone.

This leads to frustrating incompatibilities with certain products, and the list doesn’t stop there either.  Some of my favorite apps like Fleksy keyboard, or the 3DMark benchmarking app we run on all reviewed phones, cannot be installed from the Play Store thanks to something Xiaomi modified on the system side of things.  It’s been shown many times that when you mess with Android on a fundamental level like this, it often times doesn’t play well with everything Google has built the OS to do.

Features

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While default behavior change may be annoying, the sheer amount and quality of features found in MIUI 7 are astounding and are absolutely welcome in the world of sub-$200 where the feature set tends to be pretty minimal.  Xiaomi’s apps and services are certainly a main reason to be using the phone, and given that many of them are targeted for or exclusive to China, users in China will likely find many of these services to work incredibly well.  The list of included Xiaomi apps has grown rather large to say the least, and includes Xiaomi Music, Mi Wallet, Mi Remote, FM Radio, Mi Home, Mi Video, Mi Talk, Mi Games, Mi Weather, Mi Store, MIUI Themes, Mi Cloud and a handful of others.

These apps have deep integration with the OS, and in general it’s best to stick with them when available in your country of residence.  In all honestly, it may be worth checking other phones out if you’re not planning on using Xiaomi’s services and apps simply because of the way they’ve integrated their own products into the OS.  The issues we ran into during testing of this phone, and even plenty of other Xiaomi phones in some cases, clearly show these devices are built to be used a certain way.  When using the phone as Xiaomi intends it absolutely hums, and the cloud-based services in particular are a dream come true for users wanting a messaging app that combines data and SMS/MMS in a good way, not to mention the other apps and services included.

Looking at other features available like Child Mode, for instance, allows you to restrict the phone’s usage to certain apps while this mode is enabled.  One-handed mode allows you to shrink the screen’s virtual size to 4.0 or 3.5 inches if one-handing a 5-inch phone is too much for you, which is done by swiping left and right on the buttons below the screen.  Mi Drop is a quick way to share content with other folks who have Xiaomi phones or compatible phones running MIUI, and works by enabling a local area network hotspot and sharing files quickly via personal WiFi hotspot.  Reading mode changes the hue of the screen to a more gentle warm color that’s easier on the eyes while reading lots of text for a long period of time.  There’s even quick buttons for changing to guest mode and locking the buttons on the face of the phone in the quick toggles section.

Customization and Notifications

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Ever since the start of MIUI one of the biggest features of the OS is customization.  While you can’t change the behavior of the OS you can completely transform its look via the MIUI Themes app.  5 themes are included with the phone, and there’s a market that has thousands of free and paid themes with new themes hitting the store practically every minute.  It’s an incredibly powerful theme engine too that allows you to switch out everything from the font on the system, icons, status bar color, boot animation and more.  Even some built-in Xiaomi apps will be themed depending on the theme itself, and all of these components can be mixed and match between themes to give you that one-of-a-kind look for your phone.

The notification shade will be familiar to anyone who’s used MIUI, EMUI or many other Chinese Android skins out there.  Pulling down the shade gives you a single column of notifications, of which are not expandable no matter how much information is in them.  A button for quickly hiding notifications from nuisance apps (or ones you want to keep private) is found on the top, while a swipe over to the right will bring up the quick toggles and settings button.  Dedicated music control is found on this screen as well and works as a system-wide music control, so it doesn’t matter what app you’re using to listen to, this will control its playback.

Sound

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Overall sound output via the 3.5mm headset jack on the phone is pretty good, but is equalized by default to be far too bass heavy for most types of music.  This drowns out the mids and the highs and leaves the audio feeling muffled and overpowered by bass.  The built-in equalizer helps balance things out but overall it’s not the most well-balanced audio output in the world.  Still it’s a high-quality DAC that provides good quality audio even if it’s not balanced.  Audio from the rear-facing speaker was actually incredibly loud and nice sounding, which is both surprising for a single rear-facing speaker and a phone in this price range.  It’s not going to compete with any phone with front-facing speakers, but often times this rear-facing speaker can best many bottom-facing speakers out there in every measurable way.

Camera

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Xiaomi’s efforts to improve its previously bottom-of-the-barrel camera experience on inexpensive Redmi devices is felt here without a doubt.  This is absolutely among the best cameras you’ll find at this price range and even a bit beyond too.  Overall picture quality is excellent and exhibits great lighting balance, color accuracy and details.  The 13-megapixel sensor here picks up lots of detail, and Xiaomi’s excellent denoise filter helps keep noise to a minimum all while keeping details sharp, something many OEMs could learn a lot from.  The problem with this camera isn’t the sensor or the software per say, it’s the ISO priority mode that’s used rather than a shutter speed one.  This means the camera attempts to keep the ISO level from rising too high by keeping the shutter open longer.  Anyone who’s ever used a phone that works like this knows what this means; even in good light you’re bound to get blurry photos.

This is because the shutter is kept open far too long, even in direct daylight, in order to keep noise down so that the denoise filter doesn’t have to work too hard.  The fear of noise from so many OEMs out there is nothing short of puzzling, especially when the tradeoff is blurry and unfocused pictures.  The results are picture that often times feel almost there but not quite, as many aspects are done so well but the overall image still keeps it feeling like it was taken from a budget phone.  This effect will get worse as the light does, although the sensor actually picks up a ton of information even in dark lighting (see the moonlit shot below).  It’s really unfortunate to see this given how good the pictures do look when the phone gets it right, but you’re best off using the burst mode in many situations and then cherry picking the best one.  There’s no automatic interface to do this with like Google Camera has, for instance, but it’s better than a blurry picture.

The speed of taking a picture is super fast though, and that’s all part of how the camera app is set up.  Designed to grab the picture at a moment’s notice, sometimes it’ll take the picture so fast the sensor won’t have time to properly focus the image before the shot.  You’ll likely want to pause for a second before snapping the picture for this reason, but if you’ve got to grab a quick snap for social networking or something similar the lack of proper focus might be an OK tradeoff for getting the shot on time.  The software design itself is your typical iOS look-alike fare, but it’s nothing different from what we’ve seen from Xiaomi in the past.  Feature wise it’s finally up to snuff with what we saw way back in the MIUI 5 days, something that couldn’t be said of the camera software on MIUI 6, and features tons of modes, live filters and options as well.  Even with some of the silliness above this is still an incredible camera for the price, and you’d be hard pressed to think the images below came from a $160 phone.

HDR mode is a bit obnoxious and ends up jacking the saturation up way too high, creating cartoon-like images, which is unfortunate because the picture taking is instant and processing is minimal.  The front-facing camera is quite good, especially for your standard selfies, although it doesn’t include a front-facing flash as some phones have started to do.  Even still the overall quality of the shots in this mode are great for selfies, and you’ll likely not complain.  Those who enjoy using the image-softening beauty mode will be happy here too, as it’s enabled and set to half strength by default.  Video quality is pretty good overall, but in 1080p mode I found there were quite a few weird artifacts on the screen, particularly on high contrast edges (such as objects in the foreground of a sunset).  Still this video quality is considerably better than most phones in this price range, and it’s definitely worth checking out.  See all our sample shots and videos at the Flickr link below.

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The Good

Amazing build quality

Great screen at this price range

Mostly excellent camera

Epic battery life

MIUI features and service value (in China)

The Bad

Lots of pre-installed apps could be considered bloat

Deep changes in Android break some apps

Problems with MMS

Conclusion

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Hit or miss performance and somewhat mediocre sound output are among the only negatives if you’re a fan of MIUI.  There’s no doubt that Xiaomi’s UI and overall OS changes in Android are going to turn a lot of people away, but likely just as many people will love the phone for the deep integration of Xiaomi’s Mi services for the same reasons.  There’s a reason Xiaomi has grown as it has, and it’s not just because they offer an incredible bang for the buck, but because their services are so good.  This is still a phone that works best primarily in China though, and because of the hooks that Xiaomi has in MIUI over stock Android your experience will likely be marred by lots of negatives when not using said Xiaomi apps and services.  This one’s definitely up to you, so be sure to put it all together and see if the negatives of Xiaomi’s heavy software modifications are less of a burden than they were for me, or if they might actually be positives in your situation.  If you like what you see check it out at GearBest below!

Buy The Xiaomi Redmi 3