In China, Xiaomi is a titan, second only to China's other giant Huawei. People go crazy for new Xiaomi phones the way fans go crazy for new iPhones.
The company's latest flagship, the Mi 5, racked up 16.5 million pre-orders in the few weeks since its unveiling in late February.
What's Xiaomi's secret to success? There's no secret sauce, really. They just sell high-quality phones at ultra-low prices.
Compared to the iPhone 6S and Galaxy S7, which start at $650 and $700, respectively, the Mi 5 starts at only about $305.
You'd expect a phone at this price to come with some serious compromises, but I can confidently say there are very few and they're all pretty minor. The Mi 5 is the best Chinese smartphone I've ever used, ranking right up there next to the Huawei-made Nexus 6P.
It's just too bad you can't buy one if you live in the U.S. For the time being, it's only available in China.
Quality 'made in China'
The comparison can't be helped. The Mi 5 looks like the Galaxy S7. It's easy to point fingers and say Xiaomi copied Samsung, but the opposite is true. Xiaomi did the whole curved-sides-on-the-glass-back first with the excellent Mi Note, which Samsung then copied on the Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S7.
But honestly, who cares? The aluminum frame looks fantastic and feels excellent in the hand and the sloped sides make the phone easier to scoop up off a table. It's still a slippery phone, though.
The shiny chamfered edge is as elegant on the Mi 5 as it was on the iPhone 5.
At the right angles, the phone looks like a luxurious piece of jewelry.
The Mi 5's bright 5.15-inch 1080p resolution screen runs to the edges of the device with virtually no side bezels. It's not the best phone screen I've seen — the Galaxy S7's is still better and higher resolution — but it's pretty crisp for a $300 phone.
Below the screen is a pill-shaped home button with an embedded fingerprint sensor and a touch-sensitive button — a back button and a button for recent apps — on each side. The phone unlocks really fast when you place your finger on the fingerprint sensor and press down. Though it's faster than the iPhone 6S's Touch ID sensor, it can sometimes be unresponsive; sometimes the sensor refused to authenticate my fingerprint no matter how many times I tried and wouldn't unlock unless I put in my PIN. (And no, it wasn't because of a reboot, which requires you to enter your PIN.)
The Mi 5 also has an IR blaster on the top, which lets you use it as remote control for your TV, A/V receiver, DVD player, home appliances and other IR-controlled electronics. The inclusion of the IR blaster, a feature Samsung and LG once touted on their own phones but no longer deem essential, is no doubt a tactic to get owners into the Xiaomi electronics ecosystem.
For photos and videos, there's a 4-megapixel camera on the front and a 16-megapixel camera on the back. The back camera has extra optical image stabilization and the autofocusing is quicker than most cameras, but more on that in a little bit.
Roar of the (Snap)dragon
The Mi 5 has tons of power. It's rocking Qualcomm's newest Snapdragon 820 processor — the company's most powerful chip yet. The 820 is 100% more powerful than the 810 predecessor and 50% more power efficient.
The performance it brings to the Mi 5 is nothing to sneeze at. Android 6.0 Marshmallow with Xiaomi's MIUI 7 interface is generally smooth and fluid. I only noticed a couple of lockups and app crashes during testing. It handled 3D games like N.O.V.A. 3 and Asphalt 8: Airborne quite well. When you're pushing the phone's graphics hard, it does get a little warm, but not hot.
At the floor level, the Mi 5 comes with 32GB of internal storage with 3GB of RAM. There's a mid-tier model with 64GB of storage and 3GB of RAM. And if you want to ball out, there's a Mi 5 Pro model with 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM.
It's nice that the phone comes with two nano SIM card slots (a must-in Asia) for managing two numbers, but I would have preferred a microSD card slot for storage expansion instead.
Despite the uncanny resemblance to iOS — the lack of an app drawer, the rounded square icons, the recent apps page copied from iOS 7 — there are a few things about MIUI and Android that I prefer. Widgets are better on Android. You can customize the UI really easily with the built-in Themes app. I also like that you can add five apps to the dock instead of four.
The software on the Mi 5 is really the best of both worlds —
the look of iOS with the flexibility of Android.
You won't find Google Play services and apps on the Chinese version, but they'll be pre-installed on devices sold outside of China. Our review unit came with Google Play and Google apps pre-installed — everything worked right out of the box.
The Mi 5 comes with a non-removable 3,000 milliamp-hour (mAh) battery, same as on the Galaxy S7. I wasn't able to get realistic battery figures since the phone was stuck on 3G — sometimes 4G HSPA and Wi-Fi — most of the time, but I strongly feel it can go a full day without needing to hit the charger.
Should you need to recharge during the day, the Mi 5 supports Quick Charging 3.0, which can charge a phone up from 0% to 80% in 35 minutes. As impressive as QC 3.0 sounds, I didn't reap its speedy charging claims; in my tests with an Anker Quick Charge 3.0 PowerPort and USB Type-C cable, the Mi 5 charged from 0% to 26% in 15 minutes, to 52% in 30 minutes, to 78% in 45 minutes and to full in a little over an hour. But at least the phone's rocking the new reversible USB Type-C port. In your face Samsung!
At Mobile World Congress, Xiaomi CEO Hugo Barra bragged about the back camera's 4-axis optical image stabilization and phase detection autofocus. The what and what?
In layman's terms, the camera stabilizes itself in multiple directions to account for shaky hands and the it autofocus really fast.
Barra wasn't lying. The camera's fast to shoot and autofocus — probably as fast the excellent Galaxy S7 camera. Also like the S7, the colors are more saturated and warmer compared to the more realistic colors from the iPhone 6S. See for yourself:
Where the camera struggles most is in low-light. Its f/2.0 aperture is nowhere near as good as the S7's large f/1.7 aperture, but the pics are comparable to those from the iPhone 6S's.
Selfies from the 4-megapixel camera look good. Like many Android phones these days, there's a "beauty" setting to smooth out your skin and make you look younger. It's set to "mid" by default and the results weren't too bad, though you can also turn it completely off.
The goofiest selfie feature is the age detector. As soon as you go to snap a selfie, the camera uses facial detection and some kind of algorithm to try to guess how old you look at different angles. I suppose the point is to tell you which angles and poses will make you look younger. It's so silly that it never gets old.
China's time to shine
For years, I've warned friends to stay away from Chinese smartphones. As the saying goes: You get what you pay for. That's no longer true, especially if you're buying Xiaomi smartphones.
The Mi 5 is anything but cheap junk. You can accuse Xiaomi's MIUI of copying iOS, but the phone's polish is unmatched for $305. The One Plus X's build quality is equally as remarkable for a sub-$300 device, but it's saddled with an ancient processor and poorer cameras. It also doesn't have a fingerprint sensor.
It would have been nice to see a microSD card slot for storage expansion. Water resistance would have been great. And the cameras could be a little better, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better phone at this price.
The big caveat for U.S. peeps is still the fact that you can't buy it in the U.S. but if it's available in your region, yes, go buy it! It's got it all.
Xiaomi Mi 5
Costs half as much as other flagships • Beautiful, premium design • Speedy performance • All-day battery life • Ultra-fast fingerprint sensor • Handy IR blaster
MIUI is an iOS knockoff • Tons of extra Xiaomi duplicate apps • Doesn't support U.S. LTE networks • Not available in the U.S.
The Bottom Line
The Xiaomi Mi 5 is a stellar Android smartphone for an unbeatable price. It's just too bad you can't buy one in the U.S.