Last week Chinese electronics company Xiaomi gave Western media an in-depth look at its products and business model. From its phones and the Android variant that powers them to its ambitions in the smart home of the future, Xiaomi demonstrated its approach to capturing the demand for premium gadgets while costing less than industry leaders like Apple and Samsung.
As reporters shuffled out of the two-hour long briefing, we were each handed a bag with Xiaomi’s recently-launched Mi Note phablet, a pair of headphones, and a portable battery charger that looks an awful lot like Apple’s iPod mini.
The phones we received run MIUI 6, Xiaomi’s take on Android. Its home screen and built-in apps look and feel quite a bit like recent iterations of iOS. The additions they’ve made are meant to appeal to upper-middle income Chinese consumers — a keyboard that makes it easier to type Chinese names, anti-spam features in the phone app, and a “Beautify” feature that edits your selfies based on an algorithm that guesses your age and gender. Xiaomi also provides a virus scanner, necessary to handle the malware that’s made its way into China’s many app stores.
Most of the additions they’ve made just aren’t that useful to me, an English-speaking Western gadget geek. So Xiaomi did me the favor of including Google services, so I can still use Google Now and download games and apps from the Google Play Store instead of downloading Chinese apps from the Mi app store. While it’s running Android 4.4.4 instead of the latest build of Lollipop, MIUI’s customizations felt like they made up for the niceties missing from Google’s latest operating system.
The 16 GB model I received costs roughly $370, significantly undercutting the iPhone and other Android devices aimed at the premium market. Its specs roughly match the Mi 4 Xiaomi released last summer but with a bigger screen and battery, and second SIM slot. Unfortunately the phone doesn’t support LTE in the United States, so I was stuck with Wi-Fi and 2G cellular for testing.
In real-world usage, the Snapdragon 801 system-on-a-chip that powers the Mi Note handled every task I threw at it. I could jump between Twitter, video, streaming music, and browsing the web without a dip in performance — though that’s becoming less impressive with each generation of mobile hardware.
The 13 megapixel camera on the Mi Note is better than your average camera on an Android phone, though I’d still give the iPhone 6 Plus the edge in overall quality after using it for a few days in different situations. With that said, I love the camera app, which has a simple three-pane design that lets you quickly change settings or apply filters and get back to shooting.
With its glass front and back (and metal rim), the Mi Note looks like an iPhone from an alternate dimension where Apple decided to stick with the look of the the 4/4s instead of covering the back of its phones with aluminum. It’s incredibly light and thin while still feeling like a solid, premium device. If it were to come to the United States, it would be competitive with the 2014 Moto X, which starts at only $20 more on-contract.
I’d say it’s extremely unlikely we ever get this particular model in the U.S. While Xiaomi announced at its media briefing that its Mi.com e-commerce site will launch in the United States later this year, they also explicitly stated they won’t bring any of their current phones or tablets.
Between the potential of lawsuits over intellectual property from Apple and Microsoft to the advantage carrier subsidies give to pricier phones, it’s just not the right time for Xiaomi to shift its focus from more obvious opportunities in China and India. But based on my first extended use, I’d be happy to give a Xiaomi phone a shot when they eventually do make it over to Western markets.