Once upon a time Xiaomi was just a budget brand in China. Among the swaths of smartphone OEMs in the land though, Xiaomi differentiated itself in a few ways: they not only kept an unbelievably competitive pricing scheme that matches specs with the best phones on the market, but it also packed the already incredibly popular and feature-rich MIUI Android skin out of the box too. After all Xiaomi established itself as a major player in the market with MIUI, not it's devices per say. Over the years though we've seen Xiaomi’s devices move from simple affordable vessels for their own version of Android into true powerhouses of tech and style. These aren't iPhone clones anymore and they don't feel like cheap knockoffs either. The Mi line of flagship phones has been Xiaomi's bread and butter for some generations now, and now we're settling in with the 5th generation Mi phone, the Mi 5. Does it live up to the hype and the established quality that so many of Xiaomi's recent phones have? Let's take a look.
Xiaomi has become a master of combining stunning hardware design and spec list with a small price tag, and the Mi 5 fits right in with that description. The Mi 5 is packing a top-of-the-line MSM8996 Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor inside as well as an Adreno 530 GPU and 3GB of RAM. A 5.15-inch 1080p IPS LCD display sits up top and is covered in Gorilla Glass 4 protection. Above the display is a 4-megapixel camera featuring a 1/3-inch sensor with large 2-micron sized pixels, while the camera on the back features a 16-megapixel 1/2.8-inch sensor with 1.12-micron sized pixels. Inside of the sleek chassis, which measures 144.6mm heigh by 69.2mm wide by 7.3mm thin, sits a large 3,000mAh non-removable battery. The phone weighs an unbelievably light 129 grams and features either 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. Android 6.0 Marshmallow powers the back end while MIUI 7 is Xiaomi's front-end skin.
In The Box
Per usual the real value here is the phone itself, not what's in the box. With that said Xiaomi has stepped up their box design game a bit this time around, eschewing the rather plain and boring brown cardboard box of the past for something ever so slightly fancier looking. Inside it's still a pretty bare bones package though, including only a 5v/2.5a wall charger and USB cable aside from the phone. What's handy here is that it's a USB Type-C to standard Type-A cable, making the transition to USB Type-C a bit easier on folks who don't have these cables or ports just yet.
Xiaomi has long been a supporter of inexpensive yet quality IPS LCD displays. The Mi 5 doesn't deviate from this trend one single bit, and honestly feels like more of the same from the company rather than anything new or exciting. This isn't a bad thing, but is certainly out of the norm with the industry. As usual the display is super bright and features accurate colors, coming in at just enough saturation to please the eyes but not too much so that it looks unrealistic.Refresh rate could use a little help, although it's nowhere near the poor refresh rate found on the LG G5 or HTC 10 by any means. Viewing angles are great, as expected from an IPS LCD panel, and tend to just dim a bit when tilted instead of showing color shifting or gradient changes as some other displays on the market do. Black levels are decent at best, and you'll find that blacks look a lot more like dark grays than blacks.
1080p is a perfectly acceptable resolution at 5.15-inches as the Mi 5 sports, and looks excellent in every way while not breaking the processing bank. As expected from Xiaomi the digitizer is absolutely top notch and doesn't disappoint in any way. While some other Chinese OEMs have traditionally cut back on components related to the multi touch abilities of a panel to scale back costs, Xiaomi has always pushed for the highest quality panels available in this regard. The result is a touch experience that you expect: every touch registers, no matter how many fingers you use, and there's no weird ghost swipes or other strange artifacts that can be seen when a cheap digitizer is used.
Hardware and Build
For years now Xiaomi's phones have looked a lot like iPhones. There's really just no getting around the incredible similarities between the two, and that historically also extended to the software side too. This time around though Xiaomi is taking its design from last year's Mi Note and shrinking it a bit, giving us a device that looks a lot more like a Samsung Galaxy S7 than anything, but remember that Xiaomi had those curved sides on the back before Samsung did. Much like the Mi Note, the curved edges on the back give it a sheen of elegance that both looks and feels better than a plain flat back. Our particular model is the white version and uses a curved glass back to achieve its look, but there are a number of different materials available for customization just as the Mi Note had. It's this glass back that's both a blessing and a curse as it always has been on any device utilizing such a material. Glass looks and feels nice without a doubt, but being on the back of a phone means it's going to be insanely slippery, especially if you live anywhere that has a lower relative humidity rating than a tropical climate would. You'll also find it slips off surfaces incredibly easily too, so be careful where you place it.
The only other things found on the back are the Mi logo, centered on the bottom, as well as the usual tiny camera lens and dual LED flash on the top left. The sides of the phone are all metal though, and feature a gorgeous set of curves and lines that run in a unique fashion around the whole edge of the phone. It's thinner around the left and right side to make room for those curved back edges, and thicker on the top and bottom to fully cover all the ports. The right side holds the volume button, which is raised just above the midpoint of the phone, with the volume rocker situated just above that. Both of these buttons are made of metal and feel acceptable when clicking, but ultimately feel considerably cheaper than the metal buttons of the Samsung Galaxy S7 or HTC 10. On the left side sits the SIM card tray, while the top of the phone has not only the 3.5mm headset jack, but also a noise cancelling microphone and most importantly an IR blaster. On the bottom you'll find what appears to be dual speakers, although upon use you'll find that only the right grille actually holds a speaker. In-between both grilles is a USB Type-C port.
Up front you'll find some incredibly thin bezels all around the screen, minimizing the space needed to fit the 5.15-inch screen size. Below it you'll find a new kind of home button, one that features not just the regular click you might expect from a physical home button, but also one that features a capacitive touch. Xiaomi has always traditionally used 3 capacitive buttons for its navigation bar, but this time around the capacitive home button also doubles as a fingerprint scanner and a physical home button. This gives users the option to choose how they want to operate the phone, something Xiaomi has always been very good about doing. Flanking the button on each side are customizable capacitive keys that look like little blue dots to avoid visual confusion when changing their function.
Overall the built of the phone is nice, but ultimately feels a bit cheap. Yes this one utilizes the same premium materials that we've come to expect from Xiaomi in the past, however they've reduced the weight so much this time around it almost feels like it's not there. 129 grams is insanely light, a good 30 grams lighter than the average modern smartphone. Some will love this without a doubt, but this coupled with the weak clicks of all the buttons all add up to make this phone feel like a much cheaper device than those other big name devices feel. Weight gives the illusion of quality, and while being too heavy also makes it feel cheap and poorly designed, being this light makes it feel like something is missing.
Performance and Memory
The Xiaomi Mi 5 features the latest in mobile processing prowess, the Snapdragon 820 System-on-a-Chip (SoC). This processing package contains two Kryo-core dual-core processors, one powerful 1.8GHz chip and another more power efficient 1.36GHz chip. These combined with the Adreno 530 GPU and 3GB of RAM place the Mi 5 among the highest performing smartphones in existence, something its $350 price point likely won't have you considering at first. As is to be expected with such power there's nothing that you can throw at the Mi 5 that will slow it down, and that includes both the lighter daily tasks and the heavier ones like gaming or video editing.
Multi-tasking has been considerably improved in one of the most recent MIUI updates to the Mi 5. Gone is the awful single row of 4 icons to multi-task and here to stay for a while is a thumbnail-based interface that looks right out of the iOS playbook. It's not a surprise seeing Xiaomi once again go straight for an iOS design, but this is such a vast improvement from the icon-based multi-tasking interface that has plagued MIUI for generations that it's easier to ignore the shortcomings this new interface provides. The same gestures apply here as before with the icons, swipe up to close an app and swipe down to lock it into memory.
There's even a clear all button below as well as how much free RAM you have, although the obvious downside here versus using the stock Android carousel is that you can really only see 1 full-sized thumbnail at a time and only a sliver of 2 others at the most. It makes it less efficient than the stock Android interface would be, but it's at least better than what was here at launch for the Mi 5. What's actually disappointing here is that too many apps still are forcefully closed in the background, and that has a lot to do with the power saving features of the phone, which we'll cover below.
Mobile VR is still in its infancy, but that doesn't mean you can't have a good time if you look around a bit. Most of the problem with mobile VR is that there's no standard for important things like frame rate for games or refresh rate for devices, so your experience from device to device and from app to app is going to vary vastly. Testing VR on the Xiaomi Mi 5 was a pretty decent experience, but it shows that processing power is only one of many factors in making a good experience. At 5.15 inches and a 1080p resolution, the panel on the Mi 5 is dense enough to give users a good visual experience without obviously staring at pixels the entire time. Where the display falls apart is in its persistence rate, as there's quite a bit of refresh trailing going on even when using the display normally.
This persistence rate means that everything becomes blurry when looking around in VR or when there's lots of movement on screen, temporarily taking your brain out of the VR space until you move again. This sort of in-and-out effect really does a number on the human brain and will cause headaches and eye strain after only a few minutes, something that ultimately gives the Mi 5 a pretty low VR score in our book. It's really a shame too because the performance of the Snapdragon 820 CPU and Adreno 530 GPU at 1080p is nothing short of phenomenal, and would otherwise have made a great VR experience. You might be able to get away using with some VR apps and games for a little while, but ultimately this one is highly likely to make users sick sooner than they would like.
As a Snapdragon 820 phone, especially one only toting a 1080p resolution, the Mi 5 rises to the top of the performance charts in the benchmarking space. Check out all the benchmarks we ran below. Note that there's no AnTuTu score here because it wouldn't run on the phone due to some permissions management issues mentioned further down below in the security section.
Network and Wireless Communications
The Xiaomi Mi 5 is primarily designed to be sold in the Asian market, and as such you'll find that it doesn't cover the wide variety of spectrum that's available around the world quite as well as some others might. Utilizing both the AT&T and T-Mobile GSM networks here in the Orlando, Florida area I was unable to procure an LTE signal most of the time from either carrier. I did see the 4G icon pop up once or twice around town when using T-Mobile, but it wasn't consistent enough to call this one a great performer in the U.S. Other networks and carriers around the world will certainly fare better at this task but will of course depend on your carrier of choice's spectrum holdings. Check the list below for all supported signals and make sure your carrier supports these before buying.
There are plenty of other wireless communications to consider when purchasing a modern smartphone though, and that's where the Xiaomi Mi 5 does best. This phone features an NFC radio on the back of the phone, a key component to making a modern smartphone a major part of our lives, which means you can use Android Pay and Mi Pay with the phone, among plenty of other uses for NFC too. Bluetooth v4.2 is here for the latest Bluetooth accessory support, and you'll even find WiFi dual-band support for 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks up to 802.11ac speeds.
Supported network bands
2G: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz
3G HSPA: 850/900/1900/2100 MHz
4G LTE Bands: 1/3/7/38/39/40/41
Many phones nowadays claim 2 day battery life, a claim that we always put to the test and often times doesn't quite hold up to the mark. Xiaomi actually makes no such claim, only that it's got a "3,000mAh all-day battery," however we've found that 2 day battery life is very easy to achieve if you're a light to moderate user. With nearly 3 hours of on screen time and almost 48 hours off the charge, the Mi 5 was still sitting around the 15% mark waiting to give me a few more hours of use. Heavier days brought that time down obviously, but it's still impressive to see 5-6 hours of screen on time with heavy use in a single day and still make it to the end of the day without issue. Most of this is just good hardware and software design, but some of it involves tricks that can, at times, hinder user experience.
Xiaomi seems to be running an overly aggressive background app killing setting that'll close most apps running in the background if they've not been used for a while. It's difficult to assess exactly how long this time period has to be, but I found common apps like GroupMe and Hangouts, among plenty of others, having to reload every time I went back to them. I don't spend all day in chat apps but it's annoying waiting for them to load back up again, and sometimes I even found that notifications were delayed until I opened the app again. This happened most often with Google's Inbox, and caused me to miss emails a number of times. This is all done to save battery, which it certainly achieves, but it creates a negative user experience when it does happen, and is less desirable than just killing my battery quicker.
There are a number of battery saver modes that will get you through longer periods of time if you're willing to let syncing services go by the wayside, and you can likely get 3 days or more out of a single charge if you're a user who doesn't constantly need to check their email and other tasks that require syncing. Qualcomm QuickCharge 3.0 is here as well, meaning you can get 80% of your battery back from the dead by utilizing a compatible charger. That's some incredible recharge time and means that only 30 minutes will get you a full day or more of use out of the phone, a statistic that absolutely held up throughout our 2-month review period for this phone.
Sound quality hasn't always been high on the list of features in many of Xiaomi's phones, but the Mi 5 certainly bucks that trend. In fact when using headphones I often decided to bring the Mi 5 with me no matter where I went simply because it sounded so good. By default the output is solid, if not a tad “dim” sounding, but turn on the ambiguously named Mi Sound Enhancer and the ballgame changes completely. Below this setting you'll find a grid of a dozen different kinds of headphones, all Xiaomi branded of course, but they at least represent the many different varieties of headphones available on the market anyway. Above the enhancement setting is a full equalizer featuring 7 different frequencies to adjust. There's also a dozen different presets in the list to choose from, and the ability to save any number of custom settings that you would like.
While this is all great for headphones, which don't normally feature their own built in equalizers, it may not work out so well for other types of speakers that you might plug the Mi 5 into. All of these presets are simply for headphones and will not sound great on larger speakers, which normally feature a much wider range of audio playback and thus behave quite differently. If you've got an EQ on said speakers you should be fine with the Mi Sound Enhancement setting off, otherwise this may be a disappointing segment of the phone. The external speaker on the bottom is about what you would expect from a bottom-facing single speaker. It's loud and clear but doesn't feature much range of audio, and don't hope for bass in music either. It does the job but it doesn't do it well, and you'll not likely be enjoying the latest album release from your favorite artist on this speaker unless you have no other choice.
The reason we're only just now reviewing the Mi 5 is because Xiaomi has been delaying the global release of MIUI for the Mi 5 for quite some time now. Initially available close to release, the global ROM was pulled from the Xiaomi download page and the forums citing plenty of experience breaking bugs, and we absolutely experienced those during that time. Xiaomi was able to release a significantly improved version of the global ROM in late May, and it's from there that the phone returned to being my daily driver for the review period. These sorts of delays happen, and they are great to see simply because it means that Xiaomi wasn't willing to release a buggy product to the international market, rather the initial Chinese release was perfected and they moved on from there. This is actually a Chinese Mi 5 running the global ROM, version 126.96.36.199 as of this writing.
Folks are likely very familiar with MIUI by now, the skin of Android that got Xiaomi going so many years ago. This skin has evolved significantly, and while we're waiting for the next version of MIUI to make it out of alpha and beta states, MIUI 7 is still going strong on the Mi 5. This particular version is based on Android 6.0 Marshmallow and is the latest and greatest from Xiaomi's powerhouse development studio, which often still releases updates on a weekly basis. Xiaomi absolutely has the upper hand in development schedules over any company out there, including Apple and Google themselves, and is one of the biggest and best reasons to own a MIUI-powered Xiaomi device.
In addition to this Xiaomi offers plenty of services to both Chinese and International customers, starting with the excellent Mi Cloud. Mi Cloud offers syncing of many important parts of your phone with your Xiaomi account, including contacts, messages, photos, call history, notes, calendar, WiFi settings, browser, sound recorder and more. Every user gets 5GB of storage for free, which of course can be upgraded if you'd like more space. This syncing works seamlessly with the build-in apps as well, so call history, photos and messages will all pick up on this syncing and work together with the cloud without you needing to think about management.
The UI for MIUI hasn't changed since the intro of MIUI 7 last year, and while the upcoming MIUI 8 offers some tweaks and updated designs, we're sitting in the middle of the two right now. As we noted earlier in the performance section, the multi-tasking interface was changed for the better in the most recent MIUI 7 update for the Mi 5. Aside from that little to nothing has changed, or is different, from Xiaomi's other phones on the market, and that's sort of the beauty of MIUI. Seemingly no matter what phone you buy from Xiaomi you're going to get nearly identical features, and it's down mostly to the hardware that changes the experience.
There's also a negative side to this lack of change thus far, as there are still lots of little issues here and there where Xiaomi's changes to Android don't play well with certain actions in the system. Sharing, for instance, seems to be broken some times. For example if I go to the Twitter app and try to share a tweet, the only app I can share the tweet to is the messaging app, there's no other apps populated in this list for some reason. Notifications can't be expanded either, and while sometimes you'll find there are actions that can be performed on notifications like quick reply on some apps, most of the time these stock Android features are simply missing.
Adjusting the sound only brings up the currently active audio channel, meaning there's no easy way to adjust the media volume before jumping into YouTube, music or whatever app you're about to use. The stock launcher is terrible, and while you can of course change this out for just about any one on the market, the stock icons for all of Xiaomi's apps look quite ugly if you use something like Google Now Launcher. A lot of this stems from the fact that Xiaomi wants this phone to look and operate like an iPhone in many ways, and that ends up changing what Android users have come to expect from navigation and behavior over the years. If you're an iOS user or someone who's already used to this style of OS you'll likely feel right at home. The rest of us are going to be frustrated because things just don't work right all the time, or at least like we've come to expect them to.
Fingerprint and Security
One of the biggest additions to the Mi 5 is the fingerprint scanner, located in the physical home button below the screen. On this size of phone this location generally serves more positive purposes than negative ones, giving users an easy way to wake the device quickly while lying on a table for instance. In general this extremely small fingerprint scanner works incredibly well too, and unlocks in fractions of a second upon waking the phone. Just don't get your hands wet or dirty in any way, because the surface area is simply too small to try and make up for these distortions in your fingerprint, and will often simply not recognize your fingerprint. Since this is Android 6.0 Marshmallow you'll be able to use your fingerprint in any supported app, including Android Pay and plenty of others that are now building fingerprint recognition and sign-in into their authentication steps.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow also brought about native permissions management for apps, something that should cue most OEMs to remove their pre-existing permissions managers. Unfortunately it seems that there's either hints of Xiaomi's old permissions manager in here or just some odd way of dealing with permissions, as some apps simply wouldn't work no matter what I did. Apps like Google Messenger and AnTuTu would not run on the phone correctly, citing that they needed permissions that the phone clearly couldn't infer. Even going into permissions management wouldn't pull up permissions on these apps, although thankfully they were few.
Lastly I found there were simply too many restrictions put on the notification abilities of apps out of the box. By default apps are only allowed to display notifications on the status bar up top, and are not allowed to display lock screen notifications or pop-up notifications without specifically being changed. There's no quick way to do this either, as the stock launcher doesn't give you a quick way to go into an app's permissions or notification settings, rather you'll need to go to the Security Center app or through the usual settings>apps>etc. way of doing it. This is annoying and would be nice to either prompt you upon first notification request, or just give a better way to interface with the notification permissions in the future.
As with essentially every other part of MIUI, the camera software doesn't change from phone to phone. Interface wise it looks exactly like an iPhone at first glace, but start swiping around and you'll realize that functionally it's quite different, and that's a very good thing. For one having a dedicated shutter and video record button at all times means grabbing that shot or recording that video is mere milliseconds away at any given time. You don't need to swipe through a menu to change modes just to get to these vital pieces of a smartphone's camera, they're just there, and it's fantastic.
Xiaomi's Mi 5 camera software is as rich as you could hope for too, offering a dozen different live filters, as well as a dozen different types of photography and video modes to perfect your experience. There's even a large number of settings to toy with, including many post-processing adjustments like sharpness or saturation for instance. Manual mode is here too and offers a very feature-rich way of tooling with camera settings, including manually adjusting the ISO, shutter speed and manual focus. You won't find every single nitty gritty option here, such as RAW mode for instance, but most of them are here and give you better control over the scene than auto mode will.
Camera Performance and Results
Packing a 16-megapixel Sony sensor with 1.12-micron sized pixels usually would mean that this phone gets great daytime shots with lots of detail, but not such great low light shots because of the tiny pixels. Xiaomi has worked some sort of programming magic here though, and it seems the physical limitations that we generally associate with pixel size and lower light shooting have no baring on quality here. Part of this also comes in the fact that Xiaomi has drastically toned down their denoise and sharpening algorithms from the past, something that has often muddied the details when zooming in on previous Mi phones. Just about every shot I took was not only taken quickly, but it came out unbelievably well too, and I would easily put it above the Samsung Galaxy S7 in many ways too.
Aside from the incredible detail level in any light, the speed at which pictures are taken is astounding too. Even HDR mode is instant and produces some fantastic results, with the auto HDR mode doing a fantastic job at choosing when HDR needs to be used and when it doesn't. Just make sure not to use HDR at night or in lower light conditions, as it seems to have an issue with holding the shutter open too long between exposures, and I almost always ended up with a blurry picture in lower light when using HDR. Thankfully the auto mode almost never turns it on in lower light conditions, and in general these are among the very finest low light shots I've ever seen on a phone; something that's even more astounding when you consider the instant capture speed of the photos.
Balance is generally excellent as well, with incredibly wide dynamic range even with HDR off. Colors are almost always accurate, although there were a handful of times I found the automatic light balancing wouldn't choose quite right, resulting in a more yellow or other off-color image than need be. This usually just takes a simple adjustment in post process with the gallery app on the phone, but it's an extra step that you generally shouldn't have to take. Even focus times were ultra fast, and although not quite as fast as the Galaxy S7, it's as fast as any other flagship released this year without a doubt.
That front facing camera is astounding too, and belongs right in the same package as the rear-facing camera in every way. It's super fast, does a great job of focusing, has great dynamic range and sports excellent details at 4-megapixels. Low light shots are even better too, as this sensor features super large 2-micron pixels to suck in more light than every other flagship phone's selfie camera aside from the HTC 10.
Let's not forget video either, where Xiaomi sports a brand new 4-axis Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) model for its sensor. This is designed to significantly reduce hand jitter and shake, but I found that it didn't seem to work as well as the OIS on any of the other 2016 flagships like the Galaxy S7, HTC 10 or LG G5. Quality is generally excellent, although I found that the default setting of 720p kept reappearing after some time, even after switching to 1080p or 4k multiple times. I've seen this bug on other Xiaomi phones and it seems that it hasn't quite been ironed out yet, so be sure to check that setting when starting up the video app if you're paranoid. Check out the Flickr album below for all our picture and video samples.
Solid and premium build
Dual-action home button
Specs are incredible, especially for the price
Great headphone audio output
MIUI is super feature rich
MIUI is updated nearly weekly
Battery life is better than average
Display is poor for VR
External speaker is mediocre
Poor worldwide spectrum coverage (no LTE in the US for instance)
Software still gets in the way too often
Over the past few months we've used the Xiaomi Mi 5 on and off, but the last couple of weeks since the stable global ROM release have treated us to some truly excellent experiences. Xiaomi has upped their build quality game once again, ironed out some bugs and annoying software issues from previous MIUI iterations, and done plenty to ensure this is a fantastic experience worthy of one of the biggest names in the smartphone world. It's also outfitted with a world-class camera that outperforms most other flagships in every way, and does all this for around $350 for the 32GB version. That's some serious undercutting of the competition and yet again proves that Xiaomi is here to win.