In the world of smartphones, building up a brand name is one of the most important steps. While the Shenzen-based Xiaomi is still predominantly a Chinese manufacturer with some sales in adjoining countries, it has built up both a romance and a notoriety in those watching the company’s progress from further afield.
I’ve recently imported its latest flagship handset, the Xiaomi Mi 4, to find out if reality is just like Xiaomi promised.
Xiaomi launched the Mi 4 in August 2014, and if the Chinese company follows its normal plan, the handset will be considered a ‘current’ model for at least eighteen months and probably closer to two years. While the specifications and the bill of material implies the Mi 4 is currently being sold with almost no profit at this point in time, over the life of the device the economies of scale and Moore’s Law will allow the Mi 4 to be seen as an incredibly profitable device over its retail life.
Xiaomi also do not rely on ’just the phone’ for income. CEO Lei Jun is not building a consumer electronics company, but a lifestyle brand. Ben Thompson breaks it down incredibly well at Stratechery, and this is probably the key paragraph:
There is a younger generation, though, the Xiaomi generation, that has grown up in a country that has been growing by near double digits every year they have been alive. To their minds of course China is a global power, and why wouldn’t they embrace Chinese brands? Xiaomi is tapping into that nationalistic bent, and the red star on their mascot’s hat couldn’t be less subtle.
That said, the Mi 4 is the keystone of the Xiaomi world, and the most visible part of that world to western eyes. It’s also a damn fine slice of Android smartphone in its own right.
More To The Design Than Meets The Eye
If there’s one thing that everybody thinks they know about Xiaomi’s latest smartphone it is this… it’s a blatant copy of the iPhone.
The truth is perhaps not as strong as that statement. There are certainly echoes of the iPhone in Xiaomi’s design (and in terms of the presentation on the website, and at its press conferences, it’s a little bit more blatant), but if you line up many of the current smartphones today, you will find there’s not a huge amount of variation between the look of the Galaxy S5, the Sony Xperia Z3, the Apple iPhone 6, and the Xiaomi Mi 4. There’s not a huge amount you can do with a large touchscreen, thin bezels, a chassis of around 8mm, and the physics of antennas, radio-transparent materials, and the expected buttons and connectors.
That said, the Mi 4 runs right up to the competition for inspiration. The capacitive buttons under the screen are part of the bezel (Galaxy) with a squircle shaped home icon (iPhone), a metal frame around the edges (iPhone 5/5S) with chamfered edges at 45 degree angle (Galaxy Alpha), a flat cut out for the speaker at the top (everybody, frankly), a top-dead-center camera with a slight bulge (Galaxy)…
It’s actually the weakest part of the Mi 4 offering. It does not need to rely on these echoes of other handsets, but the initial impression of the handset is not just ‘seen it all before’, but ‘seen it all before on this, that, and the next’. Get over that first moment and you realise that Xiaomi has put almost everything where you would expect to find each element. Out of the box the Mi 4 has a touch of deja vu, but it is instantly comfortable in the hand and works with the muscle memory I already have.
Perhaps the only surprise for me was the back of the Mi 4. Unlike the flat glass front, or the metal chassis that wraps around the handset, the back of the handset is a single piece of polycarbonate back plate with a gloss finish. It’s very slippery in the hand, and the contrast in textures between front and back is noticeable. It also bulges out, not obtrusively, but enough to give the components room in the casing and taking it out to a depth of 8.9 mm. Thanks to that bulge, laying down the Mi 4 on a flat surface and all you see is glass and metal. A smart bit of visual design but one that might catch you out when buying online.
The back plate is removable (a suction cup is recommended) and I’ve no doubt alternative back covers will be available from Xiaomi and third-party accessory manufacturers.
It May Not Look Like Much, But It’s Got The Power
The Xiaomi Mi 4 goes for high specifications inside the handset. Built around the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor running at 2.5 GHz, the Mi 4 also has the Adreno 330 GPU, 3 GB of RAM, and is available with 16 GB or 64 GB of internal storage. If you know your Android devices, that’s the ‘top line’ circuit board layout.
Connectivity wise be aware there are two versions of the Mi 4 available. The first handsets did not support 4G LTE data, with a top speed of 3G being the only option. 4G LTE is now available for a slight increase in price. China might have 4G in the main population centres, but as most of the country is still waiting for it to roll out, 3G only was a viable launch choice. Nowadays you can make the decision at the point of purchase depending on your circumstances.
I’m reviewing a 16 GB unit with 4G LTE, and there were no problems logging onto a UK network with the unlocked handset.
Do You See More With The Mi 4?
It’s not all ‘maxed out specs though. The screen doesn’t reach out to the QuadHD of some newer Android handsets, coming in at 1080p resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. In a five-inch screen that gives 441 pixels per inch. It’s not a slouch, but if screen resolution is a key factor for you, it’s probably worth looking elsewhere for a handset with similar chip specs but a better screen.
The screen is an IPS LCD screen unit, and it’s a good one. With a strong response in direct sunlight, information on the screen remains clear and easy to read, although there is the expected washout of the color. The viewing angles for the pixels are good, although the light and saturated colours have a slightly more restrictive angle. Try to share a YouTube video with three people and someone is going to see a darker display than the other two.
It’s still an impressive screen, and matches that of other high-end handsets. Xiaomi has not cut costs here.
It Takes Time To Tango
The battery is sealed into the handset, although it looks like it could be a DIY replacement if required in the future with some leverage. At 3080 mAh it is slightly larger than the Galaxy S5, almost matches the Xperia Z3, and is a third larger than the 1810 mAh in the iPhone 6.
The Xiaomi Mi 4 is advertised as coming with a ’quick charge’ capability to rapidly top up the battery, but in practice this was slower than most competing smartphones, with my empty Mi 4 needing well over two hours to fully charge.
Smile For The Sony Camera
Xiaomi does not try to hide where the components of the Mi 4 come from, so it’s very clear that the two camera units on the handset are supplied by Sony. The rear 13-megapixel camera might not be as large as that found on the Xperia Z3 (or even the Xperia Z3 Compact), but it takes surprisingly crisp pictures.
One thing to watch out for is Xiaomi’s post-processing of the image data. No matter how good the hardware, the software that processes the data to create the saved image can have a huge impact on the final photo. In the case of Xiaomi, the designers have decided to push the color levels and the saturation as high as possible. While it doesn’t quite break up the image, it’s not easily corrected, even with the saturation and sharpness settings available in the settings menu.
The camera also offers a significant number of manual controls. As well as settings for contrast, saturation, and sharpness in the settings dialog, you set up white balance, focus points, exposure times, and ISO as you take your pictures.
Part of the decision to saturate the images must be to have a picture that pops off the IPS screen, and also because of the tendency for social network users to heavily push the color levels through filters. Xiaomi is building a youth brand so it makes sense to calibrate the camera towards the majority of use cases. I would love to see an easy way to dial it back, but for snaps to capture memories and moments for sharing it’s not the worst flaw in the world.
The rear camera also supports video recording up to 4K resolution, although if you’ve went with the 16 GB model you’re going to run out of storage rather quickly.
The fashion for smartphones over the last six months has been to beef up the forward facing ‘selfie’ camera, and the Mi 4 was part of that push. Staying with Sony components, the Mi 4 has an 8 megapixel Exmor R sensor. This is a fully automatic camera, and the only option is an on-screen countdown timer, and a choice of ‘in-vision’ filters to apply while taking a picture.
Xiaomi is not selling the Mi 4 as a high-end camera phone with advanced optics. What it does have is a strong specification for imaging so it can deliver results that are above average. Just be aware that Xiaomi is using Chinese standards to judge the processing, and that’s going to look slightly too colourful and too sharp to western eyes.
Another Day, Another Dollar, Another Android UI
Like the majority of high-end Android manufacturers, Xiaomi has developed its own variation on Android. My Mi 4 arrived with the sixth version of MIUI running, which is based on Android 4.4.
One of the advantages of MIUI is that it is constantly in development, and you can generally pick up the latest build every Friday if you want to stay on top of all the changes from the Xiaomi developers and the heavily involved members of the fan community. This close connection to the community means MIUI has a consistent upgrade path and bugs are addressed quickly and openly.
(You can read more about MIUI at the official site).
MIUI also follows the Android conventions around controls, so you have a physical power key as well as volume controls on the edge of the device (the down volume button doubles as a shutter key when you are in the camera application). Under the screen are the three mandated keys for menu, home, and back. Rather than on-screen controls, Xiaomi has made these capacitive areas on the bezel, with LED lighting behind them. Unlike most current Android implementations, the keys are reversed on the Mi 4, with the back key on the right, and the menu key on the left. That takes a little bit of getting used to.
One note about the application launcher is the lack of an app drawer. In a similar vein to iOS, every app is found on the home screen panels. You can tuck them away in a folder, but unlike the vanilla version of Android where you only add your favourite apps and widgets to the home screens (and the rest of the apps are in the app drawer), everything is on the Mi 4′s home screen – just like iOS. The difference between Apple and Xiaomi is that widgets can also be added. Get ready for a lot of scrolling from side to side.
The built-in apps all have a common presentation style, with a large square splash of color or an image at the top, and then a list view that can scroll up from the bottom, eventually taking up a full screen with the information. It allows graphics and images to be used, but also gives a clean focus to information that needs to be displayed.
This gives a kinetic feel to the apps, and provides a consistent look and feel that is unique to MIUI. It’s also cleanly implemented with very little extra fluff getting in the way. I also like the little touches, such as the clock icon actually changing to show the current time in hours, minutes, and seconds, as the clock hands move round. There’s a feeling of maturity to MIUI that isn’t always apparent with other flavors of Android.
Both the music player and the video player are tied into an online stores, with the ’online’ view set as the default. It’s a simple matter to slide over to local to find the music copied over, and you can browser either through the file system under /Music, or by song name/artist/album. While this player does look the part, I found that it had trouble with my MP3 collection, and it defaulted to sorting by artist name and then the track name, rather than track number.
The suggested workaround is to have the track name in the title of the song. I suspect this is a local convention, but it’s a deal-breaker for me on this app. I downloaded Google Play Music, and all was well again – other music players are available (QuasarMX is worth a look).
MIUI ships with its own cloud, including online back-up, messaging platform, app store, and hooks into Xiaomi’s services. These are expected to grow over time in China and provide the main revenue streams to the company.
This doesn’t leave the Mi 4 isolated from the main Android routes. Mi 4 units sold outside of China generally ship with Google Play installed, offering the standard suite of Google apps and access to the Google Play Store. With the hardware representing an ‘off-the-shelf’ approach, apps and games coded to the lower levels of the stack will generally have compatibility guaranteed. It’s also possible to download the Google Play service unofficially through Xiaomi’s own store if you import the handset and absolutely, positively, have to have the YouTube app.
One of the biggest strengths of MIUI is the theming capability. New themes are abundant online (both free and paid for) and it’s a simple matter to switch themes on the device. Themes cover wallpapers, skins, icons, menus, and widget functionality in some cases – if you really must have the iOS look on the handset, there’s a theme for you (or if you want to run Tony Stark’s Ironman UI, or have My Little Pony appearing everywhere, those are options a well).
MIUI is a highly competent and user-customizable implementation of Android. It does the job well, and has a clear layout and a focused way of managing data that makes it easy to use. Some of the apps are rough at the edges. I’m unsure if those edges are rough because I’m not used to the Chinese norms of UI, or if Xiaomi has simply been a bit lax in quality control.
What is clear is that any missing functionality can be easily found through third-party applications, and while they might not follow the MIUI GUI conventions, an Mi 4 user is not going to lose any functionality over another Android handset.
Xiaomi’s Flagship. China’s Flagship. Android’s Flagship?
It’s important to realise that the Xiaomi Mi 4 is tailored to the Chinese market. For example, with very little NFC penetration in China, there is no demand to include the communication technology. Balancing that out is the perception that an IR Blaster is needed on every smartphone in the country, so you’ll find one tucked into the top of the unit.
The software is also geared towards the cultural norms of China - the color correction in the camera application being one of the most obvious areas, but also the pastel tones of the UI and iconography, the language used throughout the first-party applications, and the overall feel of the interface.
The styling is reminiscent of other handsets (it’s up to you how much that affects your purchasing decision) as is the UI driving the Android operating system. If you’ve used Android before on other devices, the Mi 4 is not going to be a difficult handset to come get to grips with, everything is where you would expect to find it, and once you pick up on the quirks of the system (and I’m looking at the reversed buttons under the screen, and the lack of an app-drawer on the home screen) then using the Mi 4 is as simple as a Galaxy S5, One M8, or OnePlus One.
The Xiaomi Mi 4 is not a revelation in terms of Android handsets, but it is one of the best handsets that I have reviewed. It does most things slightly better than the competition, although there always seems to be one tiny mistake that makes me pause for a moment. It has taken the best styling tips from every handset and amalgamated them to get the not quite distinctive look (and the awkward plastic back). It has a UI that keeps every option within reach and has a consistent look (but with the older order of soft keys and some weird bugs that should have been caught before reaching public. The hardware matches the best on offer from other flagships (but the lack of microSD card support is irksome).
There’s not quite enough in this package that would make importing the handset an attractive alternative to the flagships available in North America and Europe from a functional level. But it is something a little bit quirky and different, and that might appeal to some people. If you are in a region where the Mi 4 is easily available then the choice is a little easier… go with the Mi 4 over handsets in the Galaxy family or the One M8 range, because Xiaomi’s focus on reducing the initial handset cost is huge. Why pay almost double for hardware at a similar spec to the Mi 4?
If the world was a level playing field for smartphones, then the Xiaomi Mi 4 4g LTE handset would be seen as the Android flagship. But that’s not how the world is laid out. For customers in the main Mi 4 retail countries (i.e. China, Singapore, and India) then the Mi 4 is the Android handset to choose. It is Android at full speed, it is hardware at an affordable price, and the software is comfortably compatible with the best Android apps the rest of the world has to offer.
You can’t really go wrong with a Mi 4.