Being consistently in the top 5 largest smartphone manufacturers in the world creates quite a shadow for a company and the products it releases. Xiaomi has been in this situation for some time now, and with every smartphone release it seems the hype and demand grows exponentially. This is in part because Xiaomi almost always pushes specs to their limit for a given price range, surprising even those of us used to Xiaomi’s games at this point. The Mi 4C is one of the latest out of the company’s stables and it pushes the $200 envelope with its internal specs rather than its build quality, offering a processor that’s normally found in phones twice its price. Is the rest of the package just as good or did Xiaomi have to cut serious corners to get the Snapdragon 808 at this price? Let’s find out.
For the most part here Xiaomi really pushes the spec envelope for this price point. Starting with the most impressive hardware we’re looking at a hexa-core 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor running at 1.82GHz and 1.44GHz, as well as an Adreno 418 GPU running at 600MHz. 2GB of RAM is found inside the unit we’re using and there’s 16GB of internal storage to work with, although are are other models with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. In the camera department we’re looking at a 13-megapixel shooter of either a Sony IMX258 or Samsung S5K3M2 sensor for the rear camera and a non-specified 5-megapixel front-facing shooter. A 5-inch 1080p screen is found on front and the whole thing is running on MIUI 7, which is built upon Android 5.1.1 Lollipop. There’s a 3,080mAh battery inside, and a USB Type-C port here too with QuickCharge 2.0 capabilities as well as dual-SIM card support.
The package is rounded out at 138.1mm high, 69.6mm wide and 7.8mm thick while weighing just 132 grams. Prices between the two models are 1,299 Yuan (about $205 USD) for the 2GB RAM/16GB internal storage model, and 1,499 Yuan (about $235 USD) for the 3GB RAM/32GB internal storage model.
In The Box
The out of box experience is about as barebones as they come. Inside you’ll find the phone, wall charger, USB to USB Type-C cable and a SIM card tray ejector tool inside of the brief manual. There’s no USB Type-C adapter here for micro USB accessories, but at least one end of the cable is a normal sized USB port, meaning you can still plug it in to those existing peripherals as long as they have this port, but remember no microUSB accessories will plug in here.
Xiaomi ships this one with a 5-inch 1080p “sunlight” display, a name likely stemming from the fact that it’s bright and easily viewable in direct sunlight. There’s some obvious advantages to this type of screen and that extends most to anyone who works or plays outside often. Given that it’s a screen optimized for sunlight readability Xiaomi ships this one with automatic contrast adjustment meaning the brighter the screen has to get outside the lower the contrast will drop, effectively making the screen look brighter at significant expense to black levels. Since this is an LCD the black levels are already marginal at best and can’t compete with anything in the AMOLED sector, and the further this contrast change moves, the further away from good black levels you’re going to get. This also has a negative affect on colors, but honestly in bright sunlight you’re struggling to just see the picture, not actually see much quality from the image.
Just as automatic brightness can be turned off this automatic contrast feature can too, or users can adjust contrast and color levels of the panel to their liking. By default the color temperature of the screen is nearly perfectly balanced, with a simple slider to move it warmer or cooler depending on your preference. Color accuracy is excellent overall but black levels are only decent, and get worse as you turn the display to the side. Viewing angles are mostly fantastic and there’s little color or black level shift even when held at an extreme angle, although there’s some dimming at angles somewhere in the middle of the full tilt. There’s light bleed from the top and from some parts of the sides, which is mostly unnoticeable when holding the phone straight. Refresh rate is alright, sitting somewhere in-between decent and passable. The digitizer here is absolutely phenomenal though and represents some of the absolute best you’re going to find on the market, price or otherwise. There was never a struggle or annoyance when typing as fast as I could or swiping quickly in games.
Hardware And Build
Such high-spec innards means Xiaomi has to skimp somewhere, and it’s the overall build that suffers a bit from it. This phone is made completely of a matte plastic on the back and sides and just looks cheap at first glance. Picking it up gives a more reassuring feeling, as the phone is about as solidly build as a plastic phone comes and has no obvious give when pressed in and doesn’t creak at all when trying to slightly bend it. This is about as good and solid as a plastic build could possibly get, no doubt, but it’s still plastic in the end and feels cheaper. You may also want to get a case just for the sake of it not slipping out of the hand since there’s no place to grip it from. Colors available range from white, grey, pink, yellow and blue. The curves on the body are unique looking and come together cleanly with the 5-inch panel up front.
On the right side you’ll find the power button situated slightly above the mid-section of the phone, with the volume rocker just above that. On top is the 3.5mm headset jack and IR blaster, while the USB Type-C port and microphone sit on the bottom of the phone. The left side holds the large dual-SIM card tray with two micro-SIM card slots inside. On back you’ll find a speaker bar near the bottom with a slight nub to keep the phone from resting on the table, while the dual-LED flash and small camera lens are situated near the top left of the backside. Turning the phone over to the front you’ll find the necessary earpiece speaker, front facing camera and sensors above the display and three capacitive buttons below representing multi-tasking, home and back buttons. Xiaomi has clearly moved into their own styling here and it’s refreshing seeing the difference from Xiaomi phones of yore that looked like modified iPhones.
Performance And Memory
We’ve been saddled with the lesser of the two versions of the phone, and it feels like it in every way. You’d never know that the same Snapdragon 808 hexa-core CPU inside this phone was the same one powering the Nexus 5x, as it struggles with every day tasks that even more budget CPUs have no issue with. Initial bootup and launching of apps is smooth, and everything feels sleek and modern, as Xiaomi’s transition animations and cool effects permeate every aspect of the touch interface until you start using more than a couple of apps at a time. The old, horrible icon-laden multi-tasking screen is here and just as awful as ever, giving you only icons of open apps instead of full-screen thumbnails or the proper Android multi-tasking Overview carousel it should. This makes identifying apps difficult, especially when a theme is applied, and is generally just an awful interface for such a task.
On top of this multi-tasking was just plain bad no matter what I did. Checking CPU-Z for RAM usage shows the phone with under 500MB of free RAM at bootup, and that RAM consistently slid downward as I sat there watching the screen for just a few seconds. This was felt when switching between apps as most apps would reload after even navigating away from them one time, and sometimes I even found apps like Inbox and Hangouts completely unloading out of RAM when I just turned the screen off. Something is broken here as I’ve never seen MIUI multi-task so horribly, and 2GB of RAM on a 1080p screen certainly shouldn’t yield these results. The 3GB RAM model will likely do better, but this feels like a software problem, not a hardware one.
Performance in gaming overall was at least great though, and represented some of the best mobile platforms had to offer. Playing graphics intensive games like Lara Croft Go and Need for Speed No Limits showed nearly equal frame rates to the Nexus 6p, a phone that’s a little over twice the cost of the Mi 4C. This shows Xiaomi’s brilliance in getting the Snapdragon 808 in here instead of one of the more budget chips, but there’s also a slight issue with both of Qualcomm’s latest flagship chipsets when unchecked; thermal emission. This phone gets pretty hot after just a few minutes of gaming, significantly hotter than the Nexus 5x which also houses the same processor, and is likely a dual side effect of the super thin build of the Mi 4C as well as staying slightly higher clocked for longer. This isn’t enough to burn you or anything, but it’s definitely noticeable and may become uncomfortable after a while. A case will solve this issue, but at least I didn’t find that there was any slowdown or obvious throttling due to thermal output.
Oddly enough given the thermal issues I cited above this one scores less than the Nexus 5x, which again is powered by the exact same processor and amount of RAM as this phone. In some cases we’re talking significantly less, even as much as 30-40% lower than the Nexus 5x in some of the tests, showing some possible thermal throttling to keep that processor heat in check. Some of the shorter tests showed as much as a 15% performance increase over the Nexus 5x, which again, tells us that Xiaomi has a higher thermal envelope than Google does when throttling this SoC down. Memory speeds were also incredibly disappointing, scoring around the same as the Nexus 5x but not shipping encrypted, meaning it’s considerably slower overall internal storage speeds.
Phone Calls And Network
Just because this is a phone sold mostly only in China doesn’t mean you can’t get it elsewhere in the world, but you might be dealing with decreased network compatibility because of it. That being said we had no issues on either T-Mobile or AT&T’s US 3G HSPA networks, with the phone holding both carrier’s signals just fine on these bands. T-Mobile has the best 3G network in the US where coverage is available without a doubt, although AT&T will net you better 3G coverage overall if you’re not in a metropolitan area. LTE is likely out for both companies as bands 2,4, 12 and 17 are not supported at all, marking off all the bands both carriers support from the list. Call quality was as good as standard calls get though, and I found myself satisfied with the results, although of course HD calling support would make it better. Check the list below for all bands supported by the Mi 4C and check with your carrier of choice to ensure compatibility before purchasing.
2G Bands: 850/900/1800/1900MHz
3G HSPA Bands: 850/900/1900/2100MHz
4G FDD-LTE Bands: 1/3/7/38/39/40/41
Qualcomm’s latest chipsets were designed with speed and battery life in mind, and that’s achieved in the Snapdragon 808 by a pairing of a low power quad-core to handle menial tasks and a high-power dual-core for the heavy lifting. With this in mind it might be surprising, especially when considering that the Mi 4C a sizable 3,080mAh battery, to find out that the battery life was pretty bad by any account. Battery tests show it somewhere around 5 hours of screen on time, but that was a figure I could never get close to achieving. The day I used the phone the heaviest I could only eek around 3 and a half hours of screen on time, and this was only with 6 hours of total usage before it was below 10% battery. Other days I gave it a little more breathing room and tried to stretch it out all day, however I found that I was never able to last more than halfway through the afternoon before needing a sizable recharge.
QuickCharge 2.0 is here for faster 10 watt charging, but this still means around an hour and a half for a full charge from zero to 100%. Charging for 30 minute gave about 40% battery, which might last a few more hours at the absolute best. This phone definitely has battery issues and it could be a problem too with that USB Type-C charger, as you’ll need to be extra diligent to carry around an extra one since no microUSB charger will work on this phone.
Sound output from the 3.5mm headset jack and via Bluetooth were excellent after some slight tuning. Default audio output was a bit flat in the mid and upper ranges and tended to be a bit bass heavy, but the built-in equalizer actually works incredibly well. This is in large part due to a properly powered DAC and software that’s configured to take advantage of the hardware, as adjusting audio levels doesn’t lower the volume as many phones on the market do. Xiaomi includes a number of different audio profiles for different types of headphones, most specifically designed for Xiaomi branded headphones, and all of them make the output sound very, very different. Your mileage will vary on these selections depending on the audio equipment you’re using.
Output from the speaker on the back is unfortunately pretty bad. Volume levels were at least fantastic, and you can easily hear the audio coming from the speaker without issue, even in a moving vehicle on the highway. The problem here is that anywhere above half volume levels the speaker starts to vibrate and distort significantly, reducing the effectiveness of the volume level considerably. The audio quality from this speaker was also awful and tinny, producing hollow sound that really was barely worth mentioning. Add this to the fact that the speaker is on the back of the device, the absolute worst place to put a speaker, and you’ve got a pretty bad audio experience coming from the device itself.
MIUI is arguably one of the better points of any Xiaomi phone, and most of this hinges on two main benefits. First off the list of features is huge and spans the gamut of Xiaomi’s phones with rare exception. This means that no matter how much or little you want to spend on a Xiaomi phone you’re likely going to get the same set of features, unless there’s something hardware specific that has to be provided in order to enable a feature. There’s also the fact that Xiaomi sends out weekly updates for its OS, a feat that remains unmatched by any OEM in the marketplace by far. This means constant bug fixes, security updates and sometimes even quick updates to the base version of Android. Heavy modifications made to Android make this last point a little moot, but it’s still worth noting.
Overall design of MIUI 7, the latest version of MIUI that just launched and ships pre-installed on this phone, still remains very heavy iOS influenced but is becoming more unique with age. This is a similar path that’s being taken with Xiaomi’s hardware and I imagine this time next year we’ll continue to see an evolution toward Xiaomi’s own look and feel rather than just trying to copy Apple’s. Navigation has been made simpler, particularly in the settings menu which was overwhelming in MIUI 6 to say the least. Boatloads of options exist in nearly every category within the settings menu and will likely take most users days or weeks to go through before they’re comfortable with the setup they have.
Gestures and Notifications
The notification drawer has been slightly visually tweaked but still retains some the problems that we’ve seen in previous versions of MIUI, including no ability to expand individual notifications with a single finger (or sometimes at all), and no ability to swipe away notifications on the lockscreen without pulling the notification shade down first. Lockscreen music control finally feels like it works properly though, and the music playing actually works either via the lockscreen notification controls or the persistent music controls on the notification shade pulldown. In previous versions of MIUI, this would only work properly if music was played through the official music app, and now it’s got a proper system-wide music control.
Double-tap to wake is here and works very well, using the proximity sensor to determine whether or not the phone is in your pocket to prevent pocket dialing and other shenanigans. In addition to this there’s a full notification management section to alter the behavior of notifications for individual apps, so if you don’t want an app displaying notifications on the lock screen or as a pop-up message you can disable it easily. Edge controls are new to the Mi 4C and are triggered by double tapping on either the left or right side of the phone. When in the camera this activates the shutter, with a single tap refocusing the camera while a double tap takes the picture. Elsewhere in the system double-taping the sides works like the back button. I never found myself using these gestures, but with some muscle training it’s possible that you could start to use this more than the buttons on the bottom of the phone.
Customization and Themes
Xiaomi’s theme store is here in all its glory, giving you full system themes that completely change the look and feel of your device. You can select from the thousands of full themes that are available or pick and choose between elements of downloaded themes to fully customize your phone. Things like the lock screen style and look, system icons, home screen style and more are all changeable via the Themes app, and are all a few button presses away. Plenty of themes are free while others cost money, so your cost may vary depending on your tastes. Other customizations that can be made are modifications to the persistent status bar up top, including displaying or hiding individual notification icons, changing the system time, battery percentage display and more.
Security, Data and Privacy
While Google is just now implementing app permissions and other security features into Android 6.0 Marshmallow, Chinese OEMs have been ahead of the game in privacy and security for a long time now. Xiaomi is one of the foremost defenders of privacy and security in the Android realm, and their built-in security app ties it all together in one neat and tidy place. While there’s no fingerprint scanner on this phone there’s plenty of other security features including per-app permissions, app startup restrictions, data usage stats and controls and much more. If you’re really paranoid about security and want the extra protection of a virus scanner there’s even one built-in here that receives regular updates with cloud definitions.
Per-app permissions are enabled by default, and will ask you for approval or denial of permissions the first time an app requests them. You can change these permissions from within the security app at any time, so if you don’t want a specific app gaining access to your contacts or GPS location for instance, you can deny those on an individual basis. In addition to these permissions there’s a well designed blocklist here for phone numbers of people that might be harassing you via text message or calls. This isn’t new to Android by any means but it’s all well organized in a single section, making finding these sorts of options a little bit easier.
Xiaomi’s cameras are hit or miss, and a lot of this has more to do with the cost of the phones rather than anything else. Xiaomi’s software has always been incredibly full featured, and while there’s some really obvious iOS design here it at least lends a familiar interface for some. Still, a more unique interface would be appreciated to make it at least look different from the swaths of iPhones in the wild, but the swiping gestures to move between live filters and camera modes make it easy to work with. Swiping to the right opens up the camera mode menu, allowing you to select from a dozen different modes. Some of these modes aren’t well explained or labeled though and might require a little playing around with to understand what they do. Swiping up or down switches between front and rear cameras, and swiping to the left reveals a dozen live filters to enhance your pictures for more style.
There’s a slight annoyance when launching the camera from the lock screen, as there’s no way to get out of it without turning the screen off first. Outside of this the software works well enough and has a friendly interface, although a dedicated shutter and record button would be a better design than the weird switching system used here, where the record or shutter buttons will actually go through a mode-switching animation before allowing you to move between picture and video mode. The exposure ring is brought up after clicking to focus and is a genius design that gives users the instant ability to adjust exposure on the fly, a must for anyone trying to focus on an overly light or dark subject so that the scene can be balanced out again.
Manual mode is a thing of beauty and is one of the best designed manual modes I’ve ever seen on a smartphone. Simple controls are labeled just above the shutter button and sliders pop up with the information necessary to adjust what’s needed. There’s not as much information on screen so it’s not quite as accurate as LG’s implementation of manual mode, but it’s less overwhelming because of the limited information presented on screen. Perhaps what’s most brilliant is that focus peaking is available for manual focus mode, which actually makes manual focus mode useful. This feature places a grid of red dots on screen and sits in the area where the camera is focusing. Since there’s no easy way to tell what’s in focus and what isn’t on this size of a screen, and without any tactile feedback to give a better feel of what’s in focus, this is absolutely the best way to do it.
Moving between the daylight shots in my samples below and the shots in lower light looks like they’re coming from a completely different camera. In daylight this camera takes the absolute finest images I’ve ever seen in this price range and maybe even a bit beyond, offering incredibly crisp, clean and detailed photos. White balance is excellent, shutter speed and ISO are generally kept super low, and even automatic HDR mode works well when needed. There’s one picture in particular in the gallery below with a Bird of Paradise flower where you can very clearly see the ants crawling on the flower, a feat that’s not easily achieved even by higher resolution sensors. HDR works best on this phone when there’s no movement and really only in direct sunlight, as the shutter at that point is nearly instant and captures quite a bit of detail. There’s added shadow detail but also additional saturation that makes photos unrealistically colored. Still it’s better than we saw on the original Mi4 last year and marks an improvement in Xiaomi’s HDR methods.
Moving into lower light though destroys any positive sentiment I can give this camera. ISO levels shoot up exponentially with lower light and shutter speeds are reduced drastically, creating both overly noisy images that almost always turned out blurry for me. Higher ISO and more noise means the aggressive denoise filter comes in and erases noise but also takes the detail with it, giving you muddy pictures that look unfocused and soft, and the slow shutter means any hand shake or movement in the scene at all will produce a blurry image. This is a terrible low light camera in every way and I simply would look elsewhere if this is important to you.
Video quality was generally good, although there’s no optical or digital image stabilization present to keep the video steady when walking or when other hand movements are involved. 1080p 30fps is the highest quality available here and those wanting higher frame rate will get 60FPS at 720P or 120FPS at 480p. There’s also time-lapse video with custom intervals available too. The codec used for video is high quality and the optics Xiaomi uses are good, but there’s nothing ground breaking to find on the video mode on this camera. Check out the photo and video samples below to see for yourself.
Great daylight camera performance and quality
MIUI gets lots of updates, has tons of features
Lots of added security over Android Lollipop
Excellent touch experience
Fantastic audio output, especially for the price
Poor multi-tasking performance
Poor battery life
Bad low light camera performance
Plastic build won’t please some users
Once again Xiaomi pushes the spec envelope for the price, offering a processor that’s generally only found in phones twice the cost. At that they’ve also provided a bigger battery, better quality camera sensor, higher quality screen and a phenomenal touch experience when compared to many in this price range. MIUI 7 launches here and provides some additional feaures over MIUI 6 all while having a more refined user experience. Constant updates make MIUI a great value, although the interface will no doubt drive some users crazy. Little nitpicky things that Xiaomi still carries over from the old MIUI days have grown more annoying over the years, but on the other hand they’ve also fixed a significant number of these via updates.
Given the poor performance of the lower end version we’ve reviewed here, it’s difficult to recommend it regardless of the value for the price it lends in some segments. Users that are able to spend the extra $30 for the higher specced version will likely have a better experience, although there’s no guarantee as the multi-tasking issues present here seem to be present on plenty of other Xiaomi phones regardless of the specs. An extra $50 nets a OnePlus X, which is a superior phone in almost every way, but folks out there not willing to spend more might just want to shop around a bit more, as this one is pretty flawed in quite a few respects.