Last week, I was in San Francisco at Xiaomi’s first US press event. It was more of a fireside chat, where Xiaomi was basically introducing the company to the US media. Android Headlines has been covering Xiaomi for quite some time, so a lot of the info that was shared at this event, we already knew about. But we hadn’t gotten our hands on the Xiaomi Mi Note which was just announced back in January alongside their Mi Note Pro. Xiaomi sent us home with a review unit of the Xiaomi Mi Note and I’ve been using it as my daily driver for the past week or so on T-Mobile, and I must say, it’s a pretty decent smartphone, and MIUI has definitely come a long way.
Editor’s Note: We’ve been using the Xiaomi Mi Note (the Chinese version) on Android 4.4.4 KTU84P and MIUI 5.2.7 Beta (Remember this is a beta, and we’ll be noting that in the software portion of this review as well). We’ve been using this smartphone on T-Mobile’s network which supports EDGE, 3G and HSPA but no LTE.
Xiaomi explained to us at their presser that their vision of their smartphones was to bring top-of-the-line hardware along with a low price tag. Which I think they’ve done just that with the Xiaomi Mi Note. We’re looking at roughly a $320 smartphone that features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, 3GB of RAM, 16GB of storage (there’s also a 64GB model), 3000mAh battery, and a 5.7-inch 1080p Display here. Pretty good specs for a $320 smartphone, right? Xiaomi also has Corning Gorilla Glass 3 on the back and front. On the back it’s curved at the edges, almost like the Galaxy Note Edge, but not as much of a curve. By doing this, it makes the Mi Note feel really nice in the hand.
The Mi Note is a great looking smartphone, and it feels great in the hand. It has a nice aluminum unibody, which looks amazing with the glass on the front and back. On the bottom of the Mi Note we have the speaker and micro USB port. On the left side is the dual-sim card tray (more on that in a minute), on the right is the volume rocker and power button. Up top is the 3.5mm headphone jack. On the front we have the 4MP camera along with the 5.7-inch display, and three capacitive keys at the bottom. There’s a menu/recents key, home and back key. On the back there’s the 13MP camera with dual flash. We’ll be talking more on these cameras in a bit.
In China, for those that don’t know, it’s common to have two SIM cards in your phone and switch between two carriers. It’s also common in South America. Because China is so large that China Unicom, and China Mobile really don’t have great coverage everywhere. Usually we’d have two trays, one for each SIM card. But Meizu and Xiaomi have started putting them both on one tray, which is very convenient and looks even nicer on their phones.
As far as the display goes on the Mi Note, we have a 1080p (1920×1080) IPS LCD display here, at 5.7-inches. Now it’s not QHD, which is what I’m kind of used to. But it’s still a great display. Everything looks amazing on this screen, and gets nice and bright and can get pretty dim as well. Additionally, the viewing angles are almost perfect, at least for me they were.
Performance shouldn’t really be a question here as we have a Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM powering the Mi Note. But I know people are going to want to know. It handles game play quite nicely, and multi-tasking is pretty decent as well. Through my time using the Mi Note, I didn’t really notice any issues with lag at all. Everything was nice and speedy and quick. Always nice from a smartphone with a Snapdragon 800-series processor.
Xiaomi uses MIUI on their smartphones and tablets. MIUI was born a few months after Xiaomi was in 2010. IUI gets updated every Friday, and it gets new features from it’s users. What we mean by that is that you can go and request features in the MIUI forums and they will be added in a future update, more than likely. So it’s an OS for the users, by the users. Admittedly, before using the Xiaomi Mi Note, the last time I had used MIUI was when I flashed it on my HTC EVO 4G (Sprint) back around 2010, which was when MIUI was brand new. So a lot has changed. MIUI is nothing more than a skin on top of Android. Think of Samsung’s Touchwiz, or HTC’s Sense, or Sony’s UI on top of KitKat or Lollipop.
First thing you’ll notice about MIUI is how colorful it is, and how customizable it is. There are custom icons by default, but those are customizable. If you jump into the Themes app, you can choose from a variety of themes for MIUI, which can change the wallpaper, icons, fonts, and much more. There’s thousands if not millions of themes available too. Some of the other things you can customize is the notification icons, connection speed and show service provider. So you are able to show the notification icons in the status bar or hide them. Also you can choose to see your connection speed, which is interesting to say the least. And finally you can select to show or hide your service provider.
There’s also the Mi Account. Which is similar to Samsung’s account. Where you can use it to download apps from their app store, their theme store, as well as back up your data to the cloud, including accounts and devices. They give you 5GB of cloud storage to start with, which is about average. There’s also talk that you get 1GB of storage each year, but it’s hard for me to confirm that since I haven’t had this device for a year, nor had a Mi Account for a year.
In the notification panel, you can swipe over to the toggles. Similar to how you can on Sony’s smartphones. There you have your music player controls at the top. Followed by the toggles which are customizable. Below that is your brightness slider and setting shortcut. One of the other things you’ll quickly notice in MIUI is the fact that you have no app drawer. This is something I’ve noticed on a lot of phones coming out of China. For instance, Flyme from Meizu, Huawei’s Emotion UI and Lenovo’s UI don’t have app drawers, and all of these companies are Chinese.
There’s so much we can go into here with the software, but we’ll leave some of that stuff for you to find out. One of the main things that’s missing is the ability to expand notifications. You have to expand them with two fingers like this is still on Jelly Bean or something. Which takes a bit of getting used too, but it’s not too bad.
The Xiaomi Mi Note does have a hefty 3,000mAh battery inside, which should give you plenty of power. And for me, I was able to get through a full day’s use a few times, and sometimes even longer. Now it’s no match for the Xperia Z3 or Droid Turbo (the two phones I was using prior to the Mi Note), but it can definitely last throughout the day. As you can see from the images above, I was able to get almost 4 hours on screen time with close to a day and a half off of the charger. Now this included both WiFi and 3G/HSPA+. While the graph shows WiFi was on the entire time, it wasn’t connected the entire time.
Xiaomi also has a few options included in MIUI to maximize your battery life which I think are quite amazing. There’s the sleep mode which will disable all network functions and only allow the Alarm clock to go off. There’s also “Marathon” which will turn off WiFi and data services. You can also create your own profiles, which I think is pretty sweet. This includes changing the CPU usage, cleaning the memory, brightness, sleep, airplane mode, WiFi, and more.
The camera on the Xiaomi Mi Note was actually quite good. Lately, it’s been hard to find a smartphone that’s high-end and even sometimes mid-range that has a bad camera. Xiaomi has a 13MP camera on the back along with OIS included, so we expected some pretty decent shots, and we were not disappointed. In the gallery below you’ll see images taken from San Francisco while I was there, and the rest are from the Frozen Tundra, aka Detroit.
As far as features go with the camera, there are some pretty unique ones here Like Auto HDR, which isn’t really unique as most phones have that now. But if we flip around to the front for selfies. You will see that it can depict your gender and age. Sometimes it tells me I’m a 49 year old Male, which is not correct. It also has an age and gender beautification algorithm which makes selfies look a lot nicer than most other front-facing cameras. Although I’m sure the 4MP sensor also helps there. MIUI also has the selfie timer up at the top of the screen, so that you are essentially forced to look at the camera instead of the screen, making your selfie shots even better.
This was the first time I really got to use a Xiaomi smartphone in depth. I had used the Xiaomi Mi4 before, but I didn’t use it that long as I was busy with other reviews at the time. I have to say, I came away pretty impressed and excited. I’m impressed with how great their product is, and their software given that they were founded in 2010, and hardly make any money on their hardware, it’s all in their software and services. I’m excited because we know Xiaomi is going to expand out of Asia eventually, we just don’t know when. Although they are bringing their store to the US at some point this year, it won’t have their smartphones or tablets (which we kind of expected, but it still sucks).
While Xiaomi may build phones that look like the iPhone and use MIUI that looks like iOS, it’s very far from that. And if you get to spend some time with their hardware and software you will realize that as well. Sure there are some quirks in their products, but name a perfect smartphone? I’ll wait.
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