5 years ago when the original Galaxy Note launched, it ushered in a new wave of larger than life devices that would soon become the norm in the world of smartphones. For a time we saw phones balloon into what were essentially tablets, only to then shrink back down to anywhere between 5.0 to 5.7 inches. As such it's not expected that one of the largest OEMs in the world would launch a product that's larger than almost any other phone ever made, but Xiaomi has done just that in 2016. The Xiaomi Mi Max is a gargantuan phone by any standard, with a screen that measures 6.44 inches diagonally, dwarfing anything released this year. At an ultra affordable price tag, is such a massive phone worth looking at, or will the saying "the bigger they are, the harder they fall" come true? Let's take a look.
Following recent trends in the entry-level to mid-range smartphone market, Xiaomi sells two differently specced configurations of the Mi Max. $300-$350 isn't a price you'd expect to pay for a phone that's not only as large as the Mi Max, but also made completely of metal too. Xiaomi's first behemoth phone weighs in at a hefty 203g and measures 173.1mm high by 88.3mm wide by 7.5mm thin, and tacks on a 6.44-inch 1080p IPS LCD display as well. Both models come with a 4,850mAh non-removable battery as well as support for microSD cards in the first slot of the dual-SIM tray. Both phones also feature a 16-megapixel camera on the back with an f/2.0 lens, as well as a 5-megapixel camera on front with an f/2.0 lens as well. You'll find support for WiFi 802.11 up to ac, as well as 2.4GHz and 5GHz support. Bluetooth 4.2 is here as well as an FM radio built into the chassis on both devices.
Where the two models differ are in their SoC and RAM configurations, as well as internal storage space. Around $300 will net you a hexa-core Qualcomm MSM8956 Snapdragon 650 Soc with 3GB of RAM and either 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. Upping the price about $100 will give you an octa-core Qualcomm MSM8976 Snapdragon 652 SoC with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage. Both models feature the Adreno 510 GPU for great 3D performance as well, and both ship in black, white and gold colors. The Mi Max launched a few weeks ago in China running MIUI 7, but has since been updated to MIUI 8 in time for the India release, which runs atop Android 6.0 Marshmallow.
In The Box
As is usually the case with Xiaomi's phones, the real value in the package is the device itself. The phone is placed atop everything else inside the simple white box and is pulled out via a handy little tab that makes grabbing the phone a bit easier since it's such a tight fit. Underneath you'll find a handful of manuals, a SIM tray ejector tool, microUSB to USB Type-A cable and 5v/2a wall charger.
Albeit being massive, which will certainly be a theme throughout the entire review, the panel sports tons of great features but still ends up coming out as fairly average at best. Lighting is essentially perfectly even across the panel, and it gets incredibly bright too. In fact this might be one of the easiest phones to see in direct sunlight in recent memory, and I didn't have to squint or even bother covering the screen with the sun shining straight on it. Color reproduction would be good if it weren't so marred by the terrible white balance of the panel, which sits at an uncomfortably cool tone. This doesn't just make white colors feel more blue, it carries over to everything and ends up making the display feel a bit off and even a little bit harsh because of it. Refresh rate of the panel is excellent and doesn't exhibit any noticeable ghosting at all, even on high contrast objects.
Viewing angles are decent at best but dim quite a bit even at minor angles, and while dimming is typical of IPS displays this one dims quite a bit earlier and more harshly than other IPS panels we've seen lately. You'll also notice a sharp contrast change when viewing at almost any angle too, something that's not very typical of good IPS panels and signifies this is a significantly cheaper panel. Black levels are also typical IPS LCD levels of dark gray, and while you'll likely not notice them when a lot of colors are on screen, go in a darker room and you'll instantly notice how poor they really are. This is a problem with the technology as a whole though, not the panel itself, so there's not much that can be done there. Surprisingly enough the panel is quite sharp, even though it's a 6.44-inch 1080p panel. Many users will be used to the crispness of quad-HD on a 5.5-inch or smaller panel by now, or at least 1080p on a significantly smaller screen, but Xiaomi has chosen a panel with a good pixel structure to help hide the lower relative resolution to its size.
Hardware and Build
It's been said plenty of times already, but it absolutely cannot be stated enough. This device is huge. Absolutely gargantuan. At 6.44 inches this screen is about an inch larger than your average smartphone nowadays, and while an inch isn't a big difference in most scenarios, it absolutely makes a huge difference in the smartphone world. This phone looks more like a tablet than a phone, make no mistake about it, but people who love large phones are going to be in heaven with what Xiaomi has produced here. What's most important is not the screen size itself though, it's what has been done to ensure that the screen takes up the most space possible on the face of the phone and not the bezels or other tertiary hardware, and thankfully that is absolutely what Xiaomi has achieved.
Bezels on the phone are effectively nonexistent, meaning there's almost no material between the edge of the glass and the edge of the phone on the left and right sides of the device. This carries over to a certain extent to the top and bottom bezels too, which are exactly the same size as the ones found on the Mi 5 and don't feel too big or too large. Other areas where Xiaomi has clearly considered the size of the device are the placement of the capacitive keys below the screen, which are brought in a bit on the left and right sides, leaving plenty of room to grab the phone from a corner without pressing buttons or the screen accidentally. The phone also feels incredibly thin, which is actually a combination of illusion from the size of the rest of the device, and the fact that it's really not thinner than any other modern smartphone, including the Mi 5.
The weight is pretty hefty too, and it's quite a bit heavier than your average smartphone by about 50g or so. This should be expected given the weight, and it doesn't feel out of place given the size, but it's still pretty heavy and gets uncomfortable to hold up to your ear for a phone call after a few minutes. The build itself is solid though, which might be expected given the weight, and is made out of a metal plate taking up about 90% of the back, with the top and bottom sections carrying a metal-like plastic material for transfer of signals. What's also notable here is that Xiaomi put the fingerprint scanner on the back instead of the home button like the Mi 5 has. Google cited with the 2015 Nexus lineup that rear-facing fingerprint scanners are more ergonomic than ones below the home screen on large device for several reasons, and the comfort level of holding a large device like this without having to reach way down to unlock and possibly unbalance the phone in your hand is genius.
Both volume rocker and power button are located on the right side of the phone, but I found that they were a little too high up on the chassis for comfort when using the device as a phone. They're both made of metal and have nice clicks to them, not too difficult to click but also not too easy so as to feel cheap. The bottom of the phone holds a centered microUSB port with speaker grilles flanking it on both sides, however only the right one is actually a speaker. On top sits a 3.5mm headset jack, which is situated all the way to the left side just before the curved edge, and next to it sits an IR blaster and microphone. The left side of the phone only holds the dual-SIM card tray.
Performance and Memory
As a mid-range SoC the Snapdragon 650 or 652 are both admirable performers which will likely surprise you in many ways when it comes to what is expected from a mid-range CPU. General OS usage might fool you into thinking it's a significantly more powerful chipset, as everything flies by with nary a hitch, executing tasks and launching apps with no obvious delays. Web browsing, chatting and all the normal day-to-day app usage works as perfectly as can be, and it's only when playing extensively detailed 3D games that you'll start to really notice the difference here. While the Adreno 510 is an admirable GPU for sure, it seems to hitch a bit when the going gets tough. Frame rates were acceptable to good in most games, but every now and then I'd come across a title, especially VR based ones as well be discussed below, where performance was a bit lacking.
Multi-tasking is an interesting affair this time around too. MIUI 8 has finally moved to a more modern thumbnail-style multi-tasking interface, and even introduces nesting among these thumbnail "cards" too. A feature that appears to be exclusive to the Mi Max for now, apps with more than once instance running at a time, say a separate browser tab or multiple Google searches, will now show up in a vertically nested card of that app. This gives a horizontal flow of different app thumbnails, while different instances of the same app are vertically nested. It's a genius design but it doesn't work 100% as designed quite yet. I only ever saw 2 instances of an app at the same time, and even then not all apps work correctly with this feature. It's something that'll be awesome once it gets better implemented, but for now it's just a good idea.
Multi-tasking performance was mostly a poor experience though. 3GB of RAM on a 1080p display should never see this much reloading, but going back more than 2 or 3 apps in the multi-tasking window will result in reloading of an app every single time. Don't let the thumbnail image fool you, this is just a quick screenshot taken when navigating away from the app, and will quickly refresh into the app itself when switched to. On top of that I found most apps won't run properly in the background, even though the power management section of MIUI was turned off. This left me without email notifications or other important things that are the very basis of owning a smartphone. This is more common on MIUI based smartphones than it should be, and needs to be fixed. We had this same problem on the Mi 5, but it's not just Xiaomi that's guilty of this practice; we've seen it on heavily skinned phones like Huawei or some other more high profile Chinese OEMs too.
Virtual reality has taken a long time to materialize as a consumer product for a good reason; it requires ample processing power to keep up a frame rate that won't make users sick. On top of this you still want to keep a level of visual fidelity that helps users become immersed in the worlds they're seeing. The Snapdragon 650 can do that sometimes, but there will definitely be games and apps in VR that won't run at an acceptable frame rate to satisfy any user, let alone users who are prone to VR motion sickness.
VR performance isn't just about the actual frame rate of the content being displayed on the screen though, it's also about the quality of the display. While we mentioned issues with the display for regular smartphone type use, VR use is a completely different tale to be told. Most commercial dedicated VR headsets use a 6-inch display in them, and for very good reason. Aside from the low resolution of 1080p for the Mi Max's display, the physical size is the absolute perfection of what's required to immerse you in virtual reality. It's amazing just how immediate the feeling of immersion is when you put on a VR headset with the Mi Max at the helm, and it really has a lot to do with the fact that you're not seeing the oval-shaped windows around each eye, as the device is larger than your peripheral view likely can cover.
This results in the best screen I've seen yet on a mobile device for VR, and it has far more to do with size than anything else, and ends up making up for any limitations that color accuracy or resolution inhibit. On top of physical size this display has an excellent low persistence rate that reminds me much more of an OLED panel than an LCD one. There's no noticeable blurring or shadowing when movement appears on screen, again helping to suck you into the VR world more deeply. For me this caused no eye strain the way some other phones do, and resulted in a mostly positive VR experience.
When it comes to benchmarking applications, the Snapdragon 650 shows that it can almost match Spring 2015's flagship phones without struggle. It's impressive how quickly technology leapfrogs over previous generations to say the least. Check out all the benchmarks we ran below.
Phone Calls and Network
As a phone that's primarily sold in China, India and elsewhere in Asia, the Mi Max isn't necessarily designed to perform at its fullest extent outside of those territories. It's possible that Xiaomi will make an international version that's friendlier to LTE signals worldwide, but for the time being you're going to get the best experience on networks in the countries it's officially sold in. At least there's worldwide 3G HSPA support though, which is decent enough nowadays and will provide good connectivity, although the latency level of 3G networks is significantly higher than most users are used to on an LTE network. Call quality was good too, although being here in the US I'm missing out on the advanced Voice over LTE features that Xiaomi has on the Mi Max. There's no NFC support here, but there is support for Bluetooth up to v4.2 as well as WiFi 802.11 up to ac speecs, as well as dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz support. Check out the full range of supported spectrum for the Mi Max below:
3G HSPA: 850/900/1900/2100MHz
4G LTE bands: 1/3/7/38/39/40/41
Keeping in proportion with the screen size differences between this and the average smartphone on the market, the battery on the Mi Max is also about 50% larger than your average smartphone battery. At 4,850mAh this battery is anything but tiny, and is likely the single factor in causing the heavier weight of the device in general. Subsequently you can expect at least 50% more battery life than your average Android phone, and even heavy users can likely expect 2 day battery life, or close to it, even through large bingefests of shows and other media consumption. Standby is phenomenal as well, likely due to the aggressive background task killing that MIUI has built in and enabled by default, and with this enabled you'll likely see some significant gains in battery life at the expense of missing some notifications for things like email and the like. Battery life here is great but at a cost, as it's not just the larger battery helping the phone stay alive longer, but also the overly intensive app killing algorithms happening too, so while it's nice to have the extra battery life the negatives of how this is done unfortunately outweigh the positives.
Xiaomi's Mi Max won't be winning any awards for sound quality any time soon, and this shouldn't be a surprise if you've ever used a Xiaomi device either. Sound quality has never been a forte on any Xiaomi device we've reviewed, and the Mi Max doesn't break any new ground there. If you're using headphones you'll likely not have issues unless they are particularly high quality ones, as the output on the Mi Max is best mixed for headphone use. There are also a number of presets for different types and styles of headphones to help balance sound quality, but if you're listening on larger speakers and don't want to equalize the heck out of the sound, you're plum out of luck. It'll get the job done for sure, but overall it's overly bass and mid heavy, with little love shown for higher range sounds in particular. I found lots of nuances were nearly or completely lost thanks to the poor sound mixing from this phone, and in general left a lot to be desired.
Sound quality of the single bottom facing speaker was about as good as you could hope for a single speaker, but nothing great or stand-out in any way. It's got a good volume level but tends to rattle a bit at max or near-max volume, and in general the range of the speaker itself isn't great. You can try to listen to music on it if you really need some tunes in your life, but just about any other way of listening to audio is going to be better than using this speaker. It's thankfully pretty good for using loudspeaker on the phone though, primarily because of its volume level.
MIUI 8 deviates from MIUI's past in a few significant ways that are important for consumers going forward. Most of this is UI based or how the OS interacts with the user themselves, so we'll over those details below. Features wise there are a few very significant additions and enhancements that you might not notice until you dive a little deeper under the surface. We've used the phone on and off since it's Chinese launch with MIUI 7, but full time since last week including updating to MIUI 8 when it was released.
Second Space is a brand new feature from Xiaomi that's akin to Android for Work, or something similar, and enables users to essentially have two completely different profiles to work from. These profiles are completely different in every single way and literally act as if you've got two completely different phones in your pocket rather than one single device. This includes everything from installed apps to even system settings, where all of these things can be and are completely separate from one another.
Second Space is a completely different feature from Child Mode, which is designed primarily to restrict the installed apps and features to a specific set so a child can't mess with apps or settings that you'd rather them not to. Second Space is designed to allow you to completely differently design the phone in one of two ways, and while no example uses are provided it's more or less obvious that this should be used for work type of situations if nothing else. It's pretty surreal to have a completely different device like this and it's easily switched between by clicking the toggle in the notification shade.
Another similar, but different, feature is Cloned Apps. While Second Space is designed to make your entire phone feel completely different when switching between the two spaces, cloned apps are literally what they sound like. This is a copy of an installed app that allows you to use it completely separately from the original app, such as having dual profiles in a game that wouldn't normally support it. This doesn't work for every app though, and I found something common like Google Chrome crashes immediately when trying to launch the cloned version. There's definitely some work to be done here but it's a unique and very useful feature when it's working, and will vary wildly per app.
Not everything was rosy for me during the review period though, and a lot of it has to do with trying to run Google apps on a Chinese ROM. Android phones in China are sold with Google services stripped out of them, and instead the individual manufacturer's services are usually found within. While there is a Google installer on the Mi Apps store and it generally works pretty well to get your Google account and Play Services on the phone, I ran into a number of serious issues with Google services in general on the Mi Max. For days my contacts wouldn't sync, no matter what I did, and one day I woke up to find that they had finally been put on my phone for some bizarre reason, even though I didn't make any changes that should have fixed that.
Google Now on Tap isn't available, at least not yet or not on this ROM, and instead you'll need to go to the Google App to get Google search. There seems to be no way to select Google search for the drop-down search that's available in the notification shade, or any other preferred service for that matter. Android Wear didn't work right at all on the Mi Max, and while it would sync with my watch I found that notifications wouldn't show up at all on the watch even though notification access permission was granted to the app, and all other needed permissions as well. In addition to this after some time the Mi Max would disconnect with my Android Wear watch and I would have to manually reconnect. The list goes on and on, but in the end I found that using Google services on the Mi Max was nothing short of annoying, and I can't recommend the phone at this time if you're tied to Google services in any significant way.
Xiaomi's services will more than make up for most of Google's though if you like to use them. Particularly in China, India and other markets where Xiaomi has really built their brand, Xiaomi's services and app store are significantly better than offerings from most other Chinese OEMs that offer such services, and cover the gamut of what you would expect from a modern smartphone. Cloud-based features including even cloud messaging and other excellent services are available here, and they all work brilliantly. If you're a Xiaomi services user this is one seriously excellent phone that you'll likely love quite a bit, and it's clear that Xiaomi has built MIUI with its services in mind.
As the Mi Max is a massive phone, there are some things that should be done from a UI perspective to help aid a user's comfort level when using the device, not to mention utilizing all of that extra space for something useful. While it's not unique to the Mi Max, the shortcut menu feature comes in handy for this particular device more so than it might for a smaller device like the Mi 5. Shortcut menu is a floating bubble that can be moved around the screen and provides a quick way to access 5 different shortcuts of your choosing. By default these are basically just the navigation buttons, but can be customized with over a dozen different actions or to any app of your choosing.
MIUI 8 introduces a brand new notification shade that's significantly enhanced over previous versions of MIUI. This notification shade brings MIUI into a more modern styling, but far more importantly it adds some significant feature enhancements over previous versions of MIUI. Proper expansion of notifications, along with their action buttons, now finally works here. In addition to this users now have the option to add the quick toggles to the top in a horizontal scrolling row like Samsung and LG have done for ages now, or to continue using the second full page of quick toggle tiles.
The top of the notification shade now displays real-time weather information based on your location or another location of your choosing. It also changes color throughout the day to a few preset colors, although there doesn't appear to be any way to turn this off or chose a color you prefer. In general colors have been completely flattened over the entire UI too, including Xiaomi's apps. This moves away from Google's Material Design guidelines and more into iOS territory, which isn't surprising given Xiaomi's past designs but also falls in line with what Samsung and others have done this year too. In addition to this change the volume adjustment panel is now a proper volume panel, including expandable options to adjust ringer, media and alarm volumes at any time. This is a sigh of relief to anyone who has used MIUI in the past got likely got annoyed at the inconvenience of only being able to adjust the currently active volume without having to navigate deep into the settings menu.
Some enhancements to the UI that benefit the Mi Max specifically include the ability to bring the text size all the way down to XS (extra small), allowing tons of information to be displayed on screen at once. This is a new feature in Android N coming up, but Xiaomi has preempted Google here and provided a way to take full advantage of that screen real estate. In addition to this the new multi-tasking interface, discussed in the performance section above, helps bring some new large-screen type aids to the experience.
There's also the one-handed mode to consider, which doesn't make as much sense in other smaller Xiaomi phones, but absolutely is essential for one-handed use here. Swipe on the capacitive touch keys below the screen to the right or left and you'll bring the phone's screen down virtually to a smaller, more manageable size temporarily. Swipe back the opposite way to go back to the full glorious, giant screen.
Fingerprint and Security
The fingerprint scanner on the Mi Max sits on the back of the phone and is the most ideal position for a device of this size and weight. This will unfortunately be an annoying position for anyone who prefers to unlock their device while it's still sitting on a table or other surface, which given its size migth be a more convenient way to use it casually. There's positives and negatives to any of these types of scenarios, but in general this is more ideal than not for the phone. Speed and accuracy are fantastic too, and you'll not be left wanting for either of these categories.
Xiaomi's security app is here and as good as ever. Unlike what we experienced with MIUI 7 running on Android 6.0 Marshmallow on the Mi 5, MIUI 8 works exactly as you would expect in regards to permissions. Permissions are requested the first time an app asks to use them, with rare exception, and these can all be managed from either the security app or nested a little deeper into system settings. You'll also be able to manage things like apps that are allowed to automatically start with the phone, install via USB and even give root access without having to do anything with your device. This last section will likely make some users jump with joy, and it's an amazing thing to see such support out of the box.
Camera software here is essentially just as full featured as any major Xiaomi phone ever has been, including the fairly recently launched Mi 5. The biggest difference is going to be in the sensor's capabilities rather than any software limitation, and features like slow motion and 4k video recording are all available here even though most Snapdragon 650 devices don't offer such things. Xiaomi hasn't held anything back from the Mi Max in any way, despite some lower end hardware when compared to the Mi 5, and users who are expecting a certain feature will likely find it, especially if they're already used to Xiaomi's software.
Camera Performance and Results
Xiaomi has been an OEM focused on quick focus and shutter speed for a long time now, and the Mi Max fits right in with that mold. Pressing the shutter button instantly takes a shot, focused or not, but thankfully focusing time is generally super quick. I found that it took only fractions of a second to focus in most cases, with the autofocus only getting muddled up a bit if the contrast in the scene wasn't high enough. Even the shutter speed in lower light situations seems to be quick and without delay, prioritizing a fast shutter speed over low ISO in every situation I tried it in.
That doesn't mean there wasn't any blurring or other issues that tend to crop up in lower light though. HDR mode works quite well in the day time or in higher light situations, but should ultimately be turned off when in darker areas. You'll see from some of the shots in the gallery that the speeds between exposures when HDR was on in low light situations end up making the scene blurry, but not to a point that you'll likely notice it if you're just swiping through the gallery on the phone or a social network where you wouldn't necessarily blow the photo up too large.
Speaking of details, the processing and general detail level on this 16-megapixel sensor varied wildly with available light. During the day details were high, with minimal processing being done to eliminate any noise or other artifacts from the image. When the light gets low though, watch out, as that processing picks up quite a bit. It's definitely not the most offensive processing we've ever seen, but it's noticeable as you move into darker situations. This sensor also doesn't seem to have great dynamic range either, and will often under or overexpose shots depending on lighting conditions. You'll notice in many daytime shots there's a lot of shadow detail lost in order to bring out detail in overly bright places (like the sky), while lower lighting and indoor shots show the opposite problem.
The front facing camera does the job, but won't win any awards as far as quality is concerned. Still, those just wanting a quick selfie of where they are for their latest post likely won't mind, but it's not going to give you quality shots that will blow your mind or look great in photobooks in most lighting situations. Video is crisp and clean with good quality 4k playback and even good 720p slow motion video. There's no optical image stabilization, so there's no smoothness to movement on screen, meaning walking or other kinds of hand jitter will always be seen in videos. Check out the gallery below for all our sample shots and videos with the Mi Max.
Solid build quality and weight
Lots of new features in MIUI 8
Great battery life
Huge size offers different ways to experience content
VR performance overall
Good overall performance
MIUI offers tons of additional user security
Too large for one-handed use
Mediocre display in most cases
International cell signal mostly limited to 3G
Bad multi-tasking performance
Poor sound quality
Big problems with Google services
The Mi Max is big in stature and in its feature set, but comes off as being more of an overly large average phone at best. It certainly excels at some things, like some pretty fantastic battery life despite a few tricks to get there, and an overall great build quality. Performance for the price is pretty good too, but ultimately getting a smaller phone like the Mi 5 will net you significantly better performance for the same price. While there haven't been too many corners cut to get a device of this size to be priced so affordably, overall the phone feels like a bit of a disappointment coming from the Mi 5. An average camera and poor overall sound output quality really don't do it any favors for a media creation or consumption device, and despite the large screen there are no new productivity features that seem to take advantage of its size. That doesn't mean Xiaomi didn't do anything good or interesting to make a phone this big feel worth it, but it feels like they just didn't do enough in almost every area to make it worthwhile.