Review: Xiaomi Redmi Note 4

Xiaomi's budget lineup of Redmi devices are the stuff of legend. This lineup of phones touts being a true original in the area of proving that well specced phones don't have to be expensive, and Xiaomi followed up that line shortly after with a larger version aptly titled Redmi Note. While the original device felt like an overly cheap phone that just so happened to perform well, its descendants have upped the game considerably. It feels like the Redmi Note 3 just came out, but the Redmi Note 4 offers some significant build quality differences and design changes, as well as launching with MIUI 8 and Android 6.0 Marshmallow out of the box. Is this a worthy upgrade from the Redmi Note 3?  Let's take a look!

Video Review

Specs

It's hard to imagine getting a good looking and performing device for a mere $135, but Xiaomi has absolutely done that in the Redmi Note 4. $135/899 Yuan gets you the model with 16GB of internal storage and 2GB of RAM, while $180/1,199 Yuan will up that internal storage space to 64GB and 3GB of RAM.  Both models have microSD card support for expandable storage and dual-SIM support as well for one micro-SIM and one nano-SIM, although a microSD card takes up the nano-SIM slot.  On the front sits a 5.5-inch 1080p IPS LCD display, while the back end is powered by a MediaTek Helio X20 deca-core processor running at 2.1GHz alongside a Mali-T880 MP4 GPU.

Underneath the hood sits a 4,100mAh non-removable battery, and MIUI 8 running atop Android 6.0 Marshmallow runs the show. The all-metal unibody frame houses a rear-facing fingerprint scanner and a 13-megapixel Sony Exmor IMX258 sensor with Phase Detection Auto Focus (PDAF) and an f/2.0 lens. Up front is a 5-megapixel Samsung camera sensor with a row of capacitive buttons below the screen. The Redmi Note 4 ships in silver, dark gray and gold colors. The phone measures 151mm high by 76mm wide and 8.4mm thin, and weighs a slightly above average 175 grams. Dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi is supported up to 802.11ac speeds, and you'll also find Bluetooth 4.2 on board.

In The Box

As usual, and as should be expected at this price point, there aren't any extras included in the Redmi Note 4's box. Underneath the phone you'll find a USB Type-A to MicroUSB cable, a 5v/2a 10w wall charger, SIM tray ejection tool and a small set of pamphlets and manuals.

Display

It's difficult to expect much in the way of a quality display when a phone retails for $135 out the door, but the IPS LCD display on the Redmi Note 4 is actually quite good for an LCD display. The usual negatives and positives for LCD displays are all here and the display doesn't bring much in the way of surprises other than actually being a pretty quality panel in this price range. There's some light bleed on the edges, evidenced by the gradient effect you'll see at the edges, and of course black levels are just decent since this is an LCD. Blacks are more gray than anything but you'll probably only notice this when inside and the brightness is above 40%, otherwise lower brightness and sunlight help hide these details. The panel is perfectly viewable in sunlight thanks to being bright as a torch, and auto brightness works quite well.

The panel hinges a tad bit on the cool side, making whites just a little bit more blue than they should be. This can be adjusted a bit in display settings to be warmer if it bothers you, but then that setting makes them just a tad yellow/brown. Contrast levels are decent but nothing to write home about, and colors do a fair job of representing reality, although they can be a bit washed out at times. Refresh rate is absolutely fantastic though and is among some of the better LCD panels seen this year on any device in terms of refresh rate, including phones many times more expensive. As expected from Xiaomi too, the digitizer on the Redmi Note 4 is absolutely top notch too. Every touch registers without a hint of pause or error, and multi-touch works exactly as it should, no weird ghost swipes or grounding issues as some cheaper phones can sometimes exhibit.

Hardware and Build

Surprisingly enough given the price, the built quality is probably one of the absolute best parts of the phone. Everything about the Redmi Note 4's build quality is absolutely solid, from its tough and sturdy metal frame, to the smoothly chamfered edges around all sides. Unlike it's nearly visually identical cousin, the Redmi Pro, the Redmi Note 4 features a powdery finish on its metal back and gives it a super premium feeling instead of a slippery, glossy one. This finish also seems to do something to making the device feel more sturdy, as tapping on the back makes a super solid sounding noise, and overall we can say it feels like the absolute best made phone in this price range without hesitation.

The rear-facing fingerprint scanner is perfectly cut out of the metal body and sits just slightly recessed in the frame enough to help you press it without fudging up the camera lens, which sits just above the fingerprint reader and is even less recessed into the frame. Between these two circles on the back sits a dual-LED flash. On the bottom of the phone you'll find a centered microUSB port with speaker grilles flanking it on either side, however only the right side is actually a speaker. The top of the phone holds a 3.5mm audio jack and an IR blaster next to it, while the SIM tray sits on the left and the volume rockers and power button sit on the right. These buttons feel super premium this time around, unlike with the Redmi Note 3, and help complete the overall package, making the device feel and look premium in every single way.

The weight distribution in the phone is absolutely perfect, and this coupled with the curved back sides give it a wonderful feel in the hand. On the front you'll find a row of three capacitive buttons below the screen, from left to right an Overview button, Home button and Back button. These can be customized within the OS to change their function too if you prefer, including short and long presses on each. Minimal bezels around the screen make it look elegant, although the slight protrusion of the panel above the metal unibody frame do make it feel a bit awkward, as if the phone was made and then later pressed within this metal frame. Above the screen sits an LED light, front-facing camera, earpiece, proximity and ambient light sensors.

Performance and Memory

Once upon a time you would have to worry about how well a phone that costs $135 would perform, but thankfully those days seem to be long gone.  MediaTek's latest Helio lineup of processors are nothing short of incredible, delivering performance akin to 2015's $500+ flagship devices in every single way, from daily performance to graphics-intensive 3D games.  2GB of RAM is definitely going to cause some multi-tasking issues in the base model of the Redmi Note 4 though, and while you likely won't experience apps closing all the time, it'll happen more than it would on the 3GB model or other phones on the market with more RAM. 1080p really only becomes a resolution possible when at least 2GB of RAM are available, and running at the minimum spec in this area will be felt from time to time.

Xiaomi's new multi-tasking interface in MIUI 8 is a significant improvement from previous generations to say the least, but still isn't as good or efficient as stock Android's vertical carousel of apps. Aside from being more awkward to swipe from left to right instead of up and down to move between apps, only 1 full thumbnail is shown on screen at once, with 2 partial thumbnails possible on screen while scrolling. Xiaomi gets around this a little bit by adding vertically stacked thumbnails when an app has multiple windows or instances of itself, such as a browser with multiple tabs. It also takes a second or two for this interface to come up after the button is pressed, which makes multi-tasking a little bit more annoying than it should be since it's not instant.

There are some major problems with the phone's default management of background data and power usage, and these will ultimately make more users frustrated with their purchase than any good they could have possibly caused for battery life. First up is permissions, which seem to be completely broken in MIUI 8. Many apps would never ask for permission for specific things like GPS location, access to contacts or other common permissions, and instead the system would just deny them. This is turn breaks app functionality when an app relies on these permissions to do its job, and unless you dig through individual app permissions you would never know why something isn't working right.

Next up is background data usage, which by default MIUI essentially keeps everything from running in the background or starting up with the phone when it's rebooted. As you might imagine this is detrimental to lots of apps including messaging apps like Hangouts and Allo, to email apps like Inbox and Gmail, and even to apps that help connect peripherals like Android Wear or Samsung Gear. Without going into two different power management sections and turning off this terrible "power saving" feature of the phone you can expect no background data, no messages coming through, no notifications of emails, etc.  It's an infuriating experience out of the box and one that Xiaomi needs to immediately address, as it's a problem that's consistent across all MIUI 8 powered phones out of the box. The silver lining in all of this is that once these "features" are disabled, everything will work as expected, so be sure to turn these things off ASAP for an actual smartphone experience.

VR Performance

Last year's flagship phones were the first that could truly provide a passable VR experience, and since the Redmi Note 4 outperforms many flagships from last year by just a hair, the VR performance side of the card is something the phone does mostly well. Many VR apps are still unoptimized for a mobile processing experience, and as such you'll find plenty of titles struggle to get anywhere near the 60FPS that many people need to keep them from getting sick. This is more of a problem with the market as a whole and not the Redmi Note 4 exclusively, so ultimately when a title is made well the phone will deliver great VR performance.

Even the display is great for VR usage, as the refresh rate of the panel and low persistence rate of the pixels keep too much motion blur from entering the frame. Excessive blurring is another cause of nausea when playing VR games or having other VR experiences, and the Redmi Note 4's screen does a good job of matching up with these requirements for a good VR experience. Just about the only negative part of the VR experience on the phone is the resolution, namely because it's a 5.5-inch display but only 1080p resolution. This means you will absolutely see individual pixels when placing the phone in a VR headset, but after a few seconds you'll likely not worry too much about these and just learn to ignore them. Still a lower resolution means some games will be difficult to play, as distance detail diminishes significantly at this resolution.

Benchmarks

As expected from the every day performance measurements, the Redmi Note 4 outperforms many flagship phones from 2015 without issue. To put this in perspective, a phone that will cost you $135 brand new right now outperforms phones that cost in upwards of $900 just this time last year. That's some pretty insane value to say the least. Check out all the benchmarks we ran on the Redmi Note 4 below.

Wireless Connectivity

As a phone that's mainly designed to run on mainland China-based networks, the Redmi Note 4 will most likely only get 3G HSPA coverage where you live, at best. On T-Mobile here in the US I was able to get both 2G and 3G coverage, but no 4G LTE coverage because of the spectrum supported. Check below for a list of all supported spectrum and verify with your carrier of choice before purchasing to avoid any incompatibilities. This phone supports dual SIM cards, with one micro-SIM slot and one nano-SIM slot, however using a microSD card will take up the nano-SIM slot, so be aware of that if you're planning on using a microSD card. The Redmi Note 4 supports dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi up to 802.11ac speeds, which is surprising given that the more expensive Redmi Pro we just reviewed features a much less impressive set of radios inside. Bluetooth 4.2 is also supported here for lots of compatibility with wireless accessories, however there's no NFC here for mobile payments or other NFC-reliant features.

2G: 900/1800/1900MHz

CDMA: 800/1900MHz

3G: 850/900/1900/2100MHz

4G LTE Bands: 1/3/5/7/8/38/39/40/41

Battery Life

The Redmi Note 4 has quite a few positive hardware traits going for it that should mean pretty epic battery life. First off MediaTek's processing packages are generally pretty low power, and their new deca-core solutions are set to be even more power efficient than their predecessors. A 4,100mAh battery is 30% larger than the average smartphone with a 5.5-inch screen, and on top of this the screen is only a 1080p resolution panel. All these things combined mean you're going to easily get a full day out of the Redmi Note 4, and maybe even two days depending on what you normally do with the phone. I regularly was able to get through a full 20-hour day and still find the battery hovering around the 35% mark, however it seems that the phone didn't fare as well on heavier use days, and I often struggled to get 4 hours of screen on time with it on these sorts of days. Quick Charge 2.0 is supported for fast charging, and in general it took 1.5-2 hours to charge the battery from completely empty to completely full, with 30 minutes giving it about a 40% initial charge.

Sound

Smartphone sound quality has improved significantly over the past few years, and it's the less expensive models that might have improved the most. Once upon a time music playback through inexpensive phones simply sounded awful, with little to no positive traits to them. Now even these phones sound great with just about any pair of headphones, and that's not just in part to Xiaomi's software, but also to some better hardware. As has been the case for years now, Xiaomi's audio software features a full adjustable EQ with music genre presets, as well as presets for different types of headphones. Default audio output with all enhancements disabled borders on mediocre though, and doesn't sound as full or strong as the sound coming from the Redmi Pro, for instance.

Sound coming from the single bottom-facing speaker on the body of the phone is pretty good overall, especially for a bottom-facing speaker, and is considerably better than many phones' speakers at this price range. Sound is loud and clear, although there's not a whole lot of body to the sound overall, including general lack of bass or kickback. These sorts of things shouldn't be expected from a single bottom-facing speaker, but the sound here will get the job done when you need to play music, games or movies and don't have a better way of projecting the sound. It also works perfectly as a loudspeaker while on the phone, and provides volume loud enough to easily hear while driving down the highway.

Software

MIUI 8 is the latest in Xiaomi-developed Android skins, and with it comes a bevy of new and familiar features that MIUI fans have come to know and love. One of the great things about MIUI in general is that almost every single feature is identical across devices, so buying a more expensive Xiaomi device won't necessarily get you exclusive software features, just ones related to the hardware. Xiaomi updates MIUI on a nearly weekly basis, which is an added value that most companies simply don't offer, and while it's a little slower on integrating the major releases of Android, you're still guaranteed big bug fixes, security patches and feature additions throughout the lifetime of your device.

MIUI 8 is packed with a boatload of features on the Redmi Note 4 too, and you'd be hard pressed to find a phone at this price that comes with so many flagship-level features. Security and privacy have long been a staple of most phones coming out of China, and Xiaomi's security center app is the hub that will direct you toward pretty much all of the important features on the phone. This app's main screen includes useful tips on getting the most out of your device, including hints on how to use many of the important features found within the OS. Included with the Redmi Note 4 are plenty of common MIUI 8 features such as Dual Apps, Second Space and App Locking to name a few. These features allow you to make a clone of your device, a clone of individual apps or just lock apps down behind a second password for extra privacy or data protection.

Not everything is rosy though, as you'll have found if you saw our notes on multi-tasking and background data in the performance and memory section of the review above. This is still a problem out of the box with MIUI but is thankfully fixable, even if it takes quite a few steps to do so with every single app you've got. It's annoying to have to do these things just to get your favorite apps working, and hopefully Xiaomi can change this behavior out of the box so that more customers don't run into these problems and get unnecessarily frustrated. I also found that the default Xiaomi text messaging app doesn't work right with MMS, as it doesn't group MMS at all when addressing to multiple people or receiving one of these group MMS's. Using some third party apps like Textra fixed this, while other third party apps like Google Messenger wasn't allowed to use MMS at all even though the correct permissions were given to the app.

UI/UX

MIUI 8 is a mostly excellent change from previous MIUI designs, and one that distances itself from the overly iOS-clone past of its designs and moves into some more unique and useful design language. There's absolutely plenty of iOS inspiration here, including that new multi-tasking overview interface, but even in these cases a familiar interface was taken and modified to add useful features, and thus is the common thread throughout the OS. Visually you'll likely find the new notification shade to be incredibly attractive, with its circular icons, beautiful pastel color palette and color changing nature throughout the day. This new notification shade comes in the "combined" form by default and features a horizontally scrolling row of quick toggles, displaying 5 at a time at once on screen. If you prefer the original second page style this can easily be switched in settings, yet still offers the new, more attractive visual style.

There are still problems with the notification shade that haven't been fixed though, and by default most apps will not display notifications on the lock screen or in a pop-down tile. It would be nice to be able to change this default behavior instead of having to individually set apps, and such a feature would really make a massive positive user experience difference if implemented. As it stands apps seem to only be able to display a single row notification instead of the larger, more dynamic notifications that Google has moved to for many Android iterations now. This means you'll likely only ever see a preview of text in a text message or chat app's notifications instead of being able to reply straight from the notification shade as intended.  There's no way to expand this notification to display more information like you normally can in Android, and there are still notifications that display white text on a white background, making them completely useless.

The new volume control panel is mostly a positive move too, finally offering a way to adjust more than just a single volume slider at a time. Pressing the volume buttons will bring up the currently active sound element (ringer, notification, media, alarms), while pressing the arrow on the right side will reveal all volume adjustment sliders at once. This is considerably better than the old MIUI way of having to adjust volume only from the audio section of the system settings menu, to say the least. Theme support is also here just as it has been in MIUI for years, and represents one of the finest theming engines on the market. Thousands upon thousands of themes are available, with plenty of paid and free themes, and individual elements can be changed out too for a more customized feel. Even the ringtone or notification tone selection market is stunning and provides boatloads of content to users, although most of this content will be in Chinese and likely difficult to browse for some users.

Fingerprint and Security

Fingerprint scanners are common among modern smartphones, but not necessarily on all smartphones just yet, especially in the mid to lower price range segment. Xiaomi's fingerprint scanners, especially the one on the Redmi Note 4, are among the best in the industry, featuring not only a response time in milliseconds, but also an accuracy rate of near 100% recognition every time. The fingerprint scanner on the Redmi Note 4 is rear-facing and is located under the camera lens on the back. This location is optimal for larger phones as it is located in a place where you are already grabbing the device instead of making you reach your thumb down to press the home button on front. This doubles as a way to help users to keep from dropping the phone when trying to press the home button since you don't have to shift your hand or physically push down a button on the bottom-most section of the phone.

Camera Software

Looking for the best smartphone camera you can buy on any phone under $200? You've absolutely just found it, and it's on the Redmi Note 4. Xiaomi's cameras have evolved significantly over the past year or so quite a bit, but it's their lower end cameras that seem to have improved the most. Much of the same experiences you'll find on a flagship-tier smartphone's camera can be found here, including a familiar interface, fast performance and tons of features in addition to some incredible overall quality. Following the slight redesign of the camera app in MIUI 8 as a whole, the interface is familiar, yet fresh when compared to previous Xiaomi camera apps.

You'll find the prominent shutter button for taking a picture instantly in auto mode upon startup, with a quick switch button to move between photo and video modes. It would be nice to see this button simply just start recording instead of having to wait to switch to a completely different mode, but it seems that we're finally moving in the right direction in many of these apps instead of just copying the clunky iOS camera interface. Modes are now accessed via a well labeled button above the shutter button, and then are displayed in a familiar grid. Filters now show up in a small horizontally scrolling row instead of taking up the full viewfinder, and flash toggle and HDR toggle modes are prominently displayed at the top of the window.

Auto HDR is enabled by default, as well as auto flash for lower light environments. Modes in total are Panorama, Timer, Audio, Manual, Straighten, Beautify, HHT (Hand-Hand Twilight or night mode) and manual scene selection. Video modes include auto, slow motion, and timelapse. Manual mode is incredibly disappointing when comparing to many other Xiaomi phones, and you'll only find manual white balance and ISO selectors here, no manual focus, shutter, or other settings that users might have become accustomed to.

Camera Performance and Results

Performance of the camera on the Redmi Note 4 is simply stunning. It's not just about speed either, it's also about quality, and the overall package here is much closer to a flagship experience than one that you would expect from a sub-$150 phone. Launching the camera from a cold boot takes 2-3 seconds total before it's ready to take the shot, which is a pretty average time in flagship phones, but well ahead of many phones in this price range. Once the camera is in memory it takes less than a second to launch the interface and take a shot, something most phones could only dream of regardless of price. Switching modes takes less than a second too, and while video recording won't be done in under 5 seconds from a cold boot, it's still not a slow experience overall.

Photo quality is simply excellent and exceeded expectations in every single regard. Just about the only places where the Redmi Note 4's camera struggled at all were in lower light conditions with moving objects, and with white balance indoors. Even still these issues were not problems most of the time, and I was easily able to take plenty of great pictures of my 2 year old son indoors without tons of blur or being out of focus. Low light shots in general were generally excellent, and even HDR functionality was quick and high quality. It's simply an excellent experience you won't find in the vast, vast majority of phones in this price range, period.

Video quality is also excellent and provides some of the better 1080p video in recent memory. Just as with photo mode this video quality absolutely smashes the competition in this price range and provides a quality experience that rivals that of considerably more expensive phones. There's no optic image stabilization here, so videos with lots of movement will definitely be shaky, but overall the electronic stabilization does a good job of making up for this to an extent and provides some incredibly clean, clear video, even in lower light. Check out all the shots and video we took with the Redmi Note 4 below.

The Good

Extremely high value

Amazing price

Flagship-quality metal build

Good IPS screen

Phenomenal performance

Great battery life

Excellent camera

Ultra fast and accurate fingerprint scanner

MIUI 8 is a big improvement over predecessors in many ways

Tons of features

IR Blaster with built-in remote software

The Bad

No NFC

No LTE in some territories

Somewhat mediocre sound output

Background app restrictions are crippling and need to be turned off

Conclusion

$135 buys a nice night out with your significant other, or can be used to pick up the latest elite edition of your favorite game, but it's hard to imagine that same amount of money could get a phone as capable as the Redmi Note 4. Xiaomi has proven time and time again they're willing to shatter expectations when it comes to what you can get for a certain price, and they've done it yet again with the Redmi Note 4. That's not to say there aren't some issues with the phone, but all of them are weird software issues that will likely either be fixed with updates or just a bit of tweaking to the system. When it all comes down to it there is simply no better deal on the market, regardless of price, and it's extraordinarily difficult not to recommend the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 to anyone who's willing to use a 5.5-inch phone and has a bit of patience to tweak software a bit out of the box. If you're willing to take the steps necessary to fix some stuff that Xiaomi broke and don't need a phone with the absolute cream of the crop specs, this is the phone you should get in Fall of 2016.

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