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Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war (REVIEW)

Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war - REVIEW

This is Xiaomi’s third year in the hardware business. The Chinese startup is a software firm first, so its phones – the actual hardware – can sometimes feel perfunctory, like the box that holds a diamond ring. But the Beijing-based company, which now ships to six countries outside China and Hong Kong, is slowly starting to take more care with its hardware, and that’s seen clearly in its flagship smartphone. 
Last year’s Mi3, with its lozenge-like edges borrowed from the Nokia Lumia phones, was a vast improvement in terms of hardware design over its predecessor, the Mi2, which was basically a Soviet brick. The latest Mi4 pushes things forward again by melding the best bits of the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S4. However, the fact that the Mi4 has changed so much from the Mi3 – and borrows different style cues from different rivals – shows that Xiaomi still lacks its own style language for hardware. Samsung has a recognizable style (albeit a boring one), and HTC has a flair all of its own (albeit one few people are buying into), but Xiaomi is more of a magpie, stealing shiny things from here and there. 
Despite all that, the Mi4 looks good and packs in a lot. And it’s only RMB 1,999 in China, so it’ll be the equivalent of about US$325 when it eventually hits a few other markets. Before we get on with the review, let’s recall the Mi4 specs compared to that of the outgoing Mi3:

Xiaomi Mi4 specs vs Mi3

Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war - REVIEW

The Xiaomi Mi4 looks solid, handsome, glistening, despite its oddly hybrid appearance. It reminds me of the old comedy skit for cheesy peas – if you love cheese and you love peas, you’ll love cheesy peas. So if you like the way the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4 look, you’ll like the Mi4. OK, the cheesy peas skit is satirical, but the Mi4 breaks through the cynicism by looking and feeling like a great deal at that price. That’s the Xiaomi secret sauce.

When I first unboxed the Mi4, I spent a few minutes trying to peel a protective cover off the back. But it turns out there was no cover – the Mi4 really is that shiny. It’s also a bit slippy, which is a concern I had with the otherwise attractive MiPad that I tested out last month. But at least it feels like quality plastic on the Mi4, and there’s not an atom of flex or shifting.

Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war - REVIEW

The Mi4 is less likely to slip out of your hand than the MiPad thanks to the gently gradated metal (or is it polymer?) band around the frame, which allows you to get a grip of it with relative ease with one hand. The 5-inch form factor is perfect for that, ensuring you have a good hold of the device while still having a thumb free to do some tapping in the lower area of the screen – but you’ll need to do that perilous palm shuffle if you’re going to get your thumb up higher the screen. But a 5-inch screen feels good – like it’s the maximum realistic size that I want to grapple with on my phone each day.

The Mi4 will have swappable rear covers, taking a leaf from the Motorola book – albeit not truly customizable and unique ones. Still, many might appreciate the choice of rear cover. Apparently the Mi4 rear covers are easily swappable with the use of a small suction cup. But without a replacement at hand, I didn’t give that a shot.

Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war - REVIEW

That slick white plastic on the rear looks too shiny for my taste, and it was also too slippery for my favorite pair of summer pants, slipping out of my pocket several times. You’ll either want to buy a less plasticky rear cover for the Mi4 – perhaps the neat wood one – or buy a case for it. Or wear skinny jeans. I’m glad I didn’t take a taxi in the past week, or the Mi4 would have slid silently from my pocket, later to be turned off and pocketed by an unscrupulous cabbie (a fate that two Nokia phones of mine have met in the past).

The rest of the body is pretty standard save for an infrared blaster at the top edge which works with the Xiaomi TV – though I didn’t test that out.

Unlike with some cheaper Xiaomi phones, the Mi4 has lights beneath its three hardware buttons (menu, home, back). But the lights are quite dim, and in daytime I found that, because I was using the white phone, the button lights actually camouflage themselves when it’s not nighttime. The lights are only really useful when it gets darker, as shown in this photo:

Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war - REVIEW

Screen and sound

The 5-inch 1080p HD screen really stands out on the Mi4. It’s on par, if not better, than similarly crisp screens on phones costing double the price, such as the Samsung Galaxy S5. Some large phones, like the LG G3 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, are moving on to even higher-res screens, but that strikes me as an unnecessary bit of one-upmanship. Indeed, to the naked eye at normal operating distances, 720p is enough for a phone.

Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war - REVIEW

Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war - REVIEW

The Mi4 screen has more than ample brightness, but the auto brightness mostly works well except when it gets a bit confused by shades in dimy-lit rooms, resulting in it not amping up enough. Dig into the display settings and you’ll see a ‘color temperature and saturation’ option that lets you pick one of three levels for the screen – warm, standard, or cool. You can also set the color saturation to ‘brilliant’ or ‘standard’.

The speaker at the bottom edge is quite loud – about the same as my iPhone 5c – but the sound from the Mi4 is noticeably more tinny and less rich.

Software – customizable MIUI

Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war - REVIEW

The Mi4 is shipping this week with MIUI 5 based on Android 4.4. But Xiaomi is prepping the rollout of MIUI 6 for some time in October that will bring a significant visual refresh to Xiaomi’s Android skin.

While we did check out MIUI 6 – the developers beta that came out at the end of August – on the Mi4, this review was conducted on MIUI 5, since it’s the current version of the software.

MIUI 5, like a lot of Android skins, brings some extra and worthwhile features to Android, while it also removes a number of good things that people familiar with stock Android will miss. That’s the balancing act companies engage in and the difficult choice that buyers face. If you’re familiar with stock Android, you’ll miss things like Google Now built in (with the handy “OK Google” command), lockscreen widgets, lockscreen music controls for third-party music or radio apps replete with artwork, Google’s smart contacts app, and Google’s Photo Sphere – to name but five things that sprang to mind. In exchange, MIUI is a lot more polished and customizable than stock Android.

The biggest differentiator is the easy theming built into MIUI. There’s even a Themes app that’s a store for free and paid themes. It takes just two clicks to download and ‘apply’ a theme, giving your phone a whole new look. I’m not a fan of such user-generated content and would rather have my software designed by the world’s best professionals, but some users will love this level of easy customization.

Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war - REVIEW

Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war - REVIEW

Other positive aspects of MIUI include more configurable settings (including a very nice ‘do not disturb’ section), specific controls over which apps can give you notifications (a big source of hassle for me with stock Android), controls over app permissions and auto-starts (the main source of hassle for me with stock Android), and a useful guest mode (which hides your photos, notes, calls and messages).

While MIUI 5 is polished, there are still bugs. The most glaring I found is an issue with third-party widgets not refreshing properly, resulting in stopped clocks and frozen news. Oddly that’s not an issue for Xiaomi’s own widgets.

MIUI gets weekly updates, but Xiaomi is not so fast with Android OS updates, so rival phones from HTC, Samsung, and OnePlus will likely get the next big Android upgrade – to Android 5.0, or L, or whatever it’s called – a lot faster than Xiaomi.

Quick glimpse at the more minimal MIUI 6

Bearing in mind that this is a developer-only beta, let’s have a gander at MIUI 6. In line with moves from Apple and Google, it’s a simpler and flatter interface, largely scrubbed of kitschy skeuomorphic elements. Icons lose their shadows on the homescreen, and Xiaomi’s own icons become flatter, funkier, and more minimalist.

When MIUI 6 was first unveiled last month, some tech blogs mocked it for imitating iOS 7. But the reality is more nuanced. MIUI’s current look – with lots of blurs and translucent elements – actually pre-dates Apple’s iOS 7, so it’d be fairer to say that Apple mimicked MIUI in some ways.

Having said that, some individual apps in MIUI 6 have been revamped and now too closely resemble those in iOS 7, especially the calendar and calculator apps. Elsewhere in MIUI 6, the menus get a dash of color, while things like the notifications and toggles shade get a bit of translucency.

Here are some side-by-side comparisons for MIUI 5 and what you can look forward to in MIUI 6:

Xiaomi Mi4 review and MIUI 6 versus MIUI 5

Xiaomi Mi4 review and MIUI 6 versus MIUI 5

Xiaomi Mi4 review and MIUI 6 versus MIUI 5
Xiaomi Mi4 review and MIUI 6 versus MIUI 5

Xiaomi Mi4 review and MIUI 6 versus MIUI 5

Camera blues

Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war - REVIEW

As my colleague noted during his first hands-on with the Mi4 at the launch event, the 13MP camera with an F1.8 aperture lens is super fast, allowing you to snap photos almost as fast as your thumb will allow.

However, the camera as a whole was more of a frustration than a pleasure for me because of Xiaomi’s preference for setting the camera software to be so bright, warm, and rather ‘processed’. That results in photos that, even without HDR turned on, often look like they’ve already been processed by a photo-editing app. With HDR on, the effect is even worse – like you’ve put the image into an app and then gone nuts with the HDR setting. The iPhone’s HDR is beautiful, subtle, and deeply satisfying – but Xiaomi’s HDR is coarse and over-stated and, I feel, ruins many photos.

The camera is also too bright. Occasionally, this lightness allied with the camera’s software led to some inaccurate colors. I noticed this when the Mi4 failed to capture the right color of a purple lamp. No matter what I tried – under floods of natural light or electric light – the Mi4 insisted that the lamp is blue. My iPhone 5c, however, got the shade of purple picture perfect. Here’s a comparison:

Xiaomi Mi4 camera versus iPhone camera

It’s not just the Mi4 that does this. I also did the same test with a Xiaomi Mi2S, and that also got the lamp color wrong. Indeed, the Mi4’s camera feels like it’s tweaked just as Xiaomi’s cameras always have been – with a strong preference for rich and processed images. Perhaps that’s what the Chinese market wants, but it made me dislike the camera.

In a further blow, my favourite photo app, VSCOcam, failed to work with the Mi4.

Perhaps some will like its vibrancy, but only if you love heavily touched-up images. Here are some sample photos from the Mi4’s camera:

Performance and battery life

With 3GB of RAM, MIUI feels buttery smooth throughout, and even intensive games fly along. 2GB of RAM was normal for strong Android phones last year, and 3GB is the new normal this year, so the Mi4 looks future-proofed with enough horsepower for the rest of its gadget life. Same goes for the latest 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 chip.

Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war - REVIEW

The non-removable 3,080mAh battery is big enough to give juice to the large screen. This model has 3G, but the 4G version is not yet out, so this model will likely perform better than its 4G cousin. In daily usage of occasional emailing and messaging on WeChat, mixed in with snapping a few photos and some very light casual gaming – yes, an unscientific test – the phone lasted a full day but I couldn’t entrust it to go for two whole days as I often do on my iPhone 5c.

Nonetheless, the Mi4’s large battery is apt for the large screen, and a proper test of playing a web-streamed video (with wifi on in the background; brightness at about two-thirds; volume half way up) yielded a battery life of approximately 6 hours and 40 minutes.

Mixed bag of rivals

Xiaomi is now facing a lot more tough competition than it was when the upstart company unveiled its first ever phone – indeed, new rivals making powerful Android smartphones at amazing prices are popping up all the time, such as OnePlus earlier this year. Plus established Chinese companies like Huawei, Lenovo, and Coolpad are rethinking their software, marketing, and prices in order to lure people away from Xiaomi. Those companies are running scared.

Although brands like Samsung and HTC are not bringing down their prices, they remain strong rivals to the flagship Mi4. While Chinese people are frugal, many like to stand out from the crowd as having more money, and so Xiaomi gets less appealing as individuals get wealthier. Well, that’s just my theory.

There’s still plenty of room for pricier phones like the latest iPhone or Galaxy Note, even in emerging markets like Indonesia and India where Xiaomi is expanding to. But Xiaomi is in a price-sensitive sector, so let’s say that its most direct rivals are those that have about the same price-tag – around 300 bucks. That puts the Mi4 up against many superb phones like the OnePlus One, Meizu MX4, Oppo R3, and the Huawei Ascend P6. The OnePlus One is the truest competitor in terms of strong specs and philosophy, but the new company is still emerging and it’s not even clear if the OnePlus can manufacture enough units to keep up with demand.


Xiaomi Mi4 is a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war - REVIEW

The Xiaomi Mi4 is undoubtedly a bombshell in the $300 smartphone war, proving that it can punch well about its price tag. There are, in what’s now Xiaomi tradition, only some small compromises, but they’re ones most people can overlook. I’d consider the camera a big negative point, but others will disagree.

For Android geeks and those who want a prizefighter of a phone, the Mi4 is hugely tempting, but the company no longer has its own way with OnePlus doing pretty much the same thing – and OnePlus will give you faster Android updates. See our OnePlus One review here. Choosing between the two is tough, like between a cappuccino and a flat white.

Those who are crazy about their timely Android updates – which is something I like to see – might want to wait to see what Nexus phone will appear with Android 5.0.

But the Mi4 will sell like hot cakes – like hot cakes that are being given away for free. It’s launched only in mainland China so far, but it looks set to be a hit in Xiaomi’s newer overseas markets too.

Pros & cons

Mi4 pros 
  • Superb price for all that hardware 
  • Great screen at 1080p 
  • Good build quality MIUI is a nice and configurable Android skin; upcoming 
  • MIUI 6 update will be nice 
  • Swappable rear covers will be fun
Mi4 cons 
  • Camera is too ‘warm’ and often produces images that appear over-processed 
  • Slippery rear plastic 
  • Missing some software features compared to stock Android 
  • Recurring issues with third-party widgets not refreshing

I’ve got the Mi4 for another week, so I’m happy to answers your questions in the comments section.

credit : http://www.techinasia.com/xiaomi-mi4-review-and-photos/

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