DNA Test: Xiaomi Mi Note balances price performance with style
By Keith Liu September 4, 2015
- Xiaomi's flagship phablet is designed with premium materials like metal and glass
- Features large 5.7-inch display but physically smaller than 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus
XIAOMI has garnered a big reputation for delivering smartphones with decent specifications at low prices. Its Redmi series, for example (starting at S$149/RM399) continue to be one of the most popular models and helped it to rise to the top of the China’s smartphone vendors ranking.
The Mi Note is a clear shift for Xiaomi towards the premium segment, with a price point that breaches the US$350 mark, compared to its previous models which hovered between US$100-$250.
Still, price and specs aren’t everything, since many Chinese vendors have recently launched high-end devices at the sub-US$400 price point, include OnePlus, LeTV and Motorola (a Lenovo company).
Which is why despite having been in the market for more than half a year (but only available in Singapore and Malaysia since late July), we’ve put the Mi Note through its paces to find out if it’s worth your hard-earned cash.
Hardware and Design
The first thing we noticed about the Mi Note is the build quality. It seems Xiaomi spared no expense to make this device look and feel like a high-end product.
The front and back are encased in Corning’s scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 3 while an aluminum edge surrounds the device, giving the Mi Note a high level of rigidity and a solid
A large screen with rounded edges (known as 2.5D glass) adorn the front.
The power and volume buttons on the right side while the dual SIM card tray is on the left with slots for a nano SIM and a micro SIM card.
At the bottom, you’ll find the micro USB port and loudspeaker, while the audio jack is positioned at the top.
Behind, the camera lens and a dual tone flash take up a small corner at the top left, with an understated Xiaomi logo imprinted below past the halfway mark.
The smooth glass back plate tapers off on the sides, providing a slight curvature to give it a more comfortable grip, but it’s almost too smooth for its own good.
The phone tends to slip off non-flat surfaces easily. This is one device which we have seen fall off the table or chair more times than we can remember, simply because it was placed on top of some files or just because there was a slight incline.
Thankfully the Mi Note has proved to be quite resilient to these gravity-inducing incidents and it came away with hardly a scratch.
Bottom line, we’re impressed with the design and its durability, but just to be safe – we’d recommend investing in a protective case if you’re going to use this phone.
But like all phablets, the Mi Note may not be for everyone due to its size.
It’s one of the thinnest smartphones around at just 6.95 mm, but the 5.7-inch screen means it’s awkward to use with one hand.
To be fair, the device is slightly shorter than the iPhone 6 Plus and similar to the HTC One E9+, both of which come with a smaller 5.5-inch display.
But it’s precisely the screen size and not the phone size that almost makes it necessary to operate it using both hands since our thumbs just cannot reach beyond the center of the screen.
Xiaomi seemed to understand this, as it provided a one-handed mode which shrinks the usable screen to one side.
Unfortunately you need to swipe the bezel at the bottom of the screen towards you to activate it, but most times it would either activate the home button or one of the other capacitive buttons instead.
The only times we managed to get this to work was when we used our other thumb to activate it, which means you’ll end up using both hands anyway!
Otherwise, the Mi Note is a triumph in design and materials, especially when you consider the cost.
Display and Cameras
Xiaomi has consistently provided delightful displays across its range of smartphones, so we had high expectations for the Mi Note in this area.
Fortunately the Full HD (1920 x 1080 resolution) screen, which provides 386 pixels per inch (PPI) didn't disappoint.
The colours look natural without being overly saturated, but in case you’re unhappy with the colour temperature or the contrast, you can always customize it to your liking.
Xiaomi also included a ‘Sunlight Display’ technology which makes pictures and text look clear even when seen under bright sunlight, since it apparently adjusts the highlights and shadows selectively, rather than just ramp up the overall brightness.
The display’s minimum brightness is extremely dim though. It’s useful for avoiding that screen glare at night, but you won’t be able to see anything at all if you’re in a well-lit environment.
So make sure you turn up the brightness before heading out otherwise you may struggle to find the settings when you’re out and about.
Xiaomi’s take on Android, called MIUI (Mi User Interface) also provides an option called Reading Mode, which removes the blue light from the screen and makes it less of a strain on the eyes.
When it comes to cameras, the Mi Note delivers in spades.
Xiaomi fused the capable 13 megapixel Sony IMX214 rear sensor, an f2.0 aperture lens, optical image stabilization and the company’s MIUI camera interface to produce satisfying pictures in most situations.
The ability to just capture decent photos on Auto Mode with fiddling too much with the settings is a real boon.
Swipe to the right and you’ll find a host of filters to add some fun and effects to your image.
The camera software does allow you to change the HDR (High Dynamic Range) and flash settings easily, as well as offer a Manual mode along with Panorama, Gradient, Timer, Refocus and Beautify as additional options.
It doesn’t come with a fast shutter speed (as seen in the waterfall photo below), but you can capture burst shots easily by holding down the shutter button on the screen (which we did with the fast-moving neon yellow flags blowing in the wind).
For the front camera, Xiaomi opted to use a 4 megapixel sensor, but it features larger pixels, similar to HTC’s ‘Ultra-pixel’ technology.
It’s able to capture more light per pixel and as such selfies are generally sharp and bright even when shot in low-light environments.
As usual, the software comes with the standard beautify mode with different levels of ‘enhancements’ to adjust your skin brightness and smoothen out the wrinkles.
Performance and user experience
The Mi Note is powered by the Snapdragon 801, a quad-core chipset that runs up to 2.5 GHz.
It’s not the latest octa-core offering from Qualcomm (that would be Snapdragon 810) but we’re glad to report that this continues to be a very capable processor that doesn’t suffer from the thermal issues faced by the 810.
Paired with 3 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage, and the result is a speedy smartphone that can multitask well, browse the Web quickly and most importantly free of lag.
And while in terms of pure performance benchmarks it’s no longer the king of the hill, it is still able to perform admirably with some of the most graphically intensive games we tested, such as Modern Combat 5 and Mortal Kombat X.
The 64 GB of storage in particular is a good move on Xiaomi’s part since the Mi Note doesn’t support micro SD cards for expandable storage.
We found the default music player a little too bare bones, since it doesn’t categorize your songs via albums and artists, but instead employs a file folder format.
That being said, the audio performance via a pair of headphones is punchy and clear, thanks to a built-in digital to analogue converter sound chip.
The speaker itself is loud enough for voice conferences and YouTube videos, but plug in a pair of cans or hook the phone up to a Bluetooth speaker if really want to enjoy your tunes.
Battery life on the Mi Note is above average despite the large screen. The 3000 mAh non-removable battery lasted slightly more than a day when we used it heavily for WhatsApp, Facebook, e-mails, a long conference call, web browsing and a few bursts of gaming sessions.
Typically though, we believe it would be good enough to go on for two days if you turn off the phone at night.
In case the battery runs out of juice when you least expect it to, the Mi Note supports fast charging, which will provide it with at least a 50% charge within half an hour.
In terms of software, the Mi Note is currently powered by Android 4.4.4 (KitKat) with the MIUI 6.6.8 interface.
This may be a disappointment for some, since many of the new smartphones launched in the second half of 2015 do come with Android 5 (Lollipop) baked in.
However, with Xiaomi’s recent launch of MIUI 7, which is based on Android 5.1, we expect the Mi Note to be upgraded to MIUI 7 before the year is through.
Some of MIUI’s highlights continue to be the hundreds of themes which are available for download so you can personalize your device, but you’ll need to sign up for a Mi Account to do so.
There’s also a plethora of settings to tweak if you wish, although many users would find it mind-boggling.
Others may also find the lack of an app drawer on MIUI’s interface annoying, especially when you need to go into ‘developer mode’ (you can find the instructions here) to change the desktop launcher to any one of the dozens available on the Google Play Store.
When the company announced in January that the Mi Note would be priced at CNY2299/US$370, the reaction to the high price point wasn’t entirely positive.
Yet, Xiaomi received 220 million reservations for the device and when it went on sale, the first batch of Mi Note units were sold out in under 3 minutes.
Clearly Xiaomi knows how to make a desirable premium smartphone, and the price seems acceptable to those who are already used to paying top dollar for high-end specs.
Half a year later, the Mi Note’s hardware is no longer top-of-the-line, as Xiaomi’s Mi Note Pro is now seen as the company’s new flagship in China.
The Pro comes with 4GB or RAM and the Snapdragon 810, as well as a 2K display but costs a whopping US$530.
Meanwhile, Xiaomi’s rivals are touting curved displays, 20 megapixel cameras, NFC (near-field communications) and fingerprint readers.
The Mi Note has none of those and yet – it doesn’t really need any of that tech to provide a great smartphone experience.
For S$569/RM1549, what you get is a phablet that looks great and feels nice, performs well, takes nice photos effortlessly, produces pleasant sounds and comes with a large brilliant screen for web browsing and watching movies.
It may be Xiaomi’s most expensive offering in Malaysia and Singapore right now (at least until the Mi Note Pro lands locally), but beyond being reasonably priced, the Mi Note strikes a really great balance between price, performance and style.
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