Any seasoned Android enthusiast would have no doubt come across Xiaomi Corporation's MIUI at some point. For those who haven't, here's a quick intro: MIUI is a heavily customizable Android ROM based on the works of CyanogenMod (at least on the driver level, so we've been told), and currently the Chinese startup is officially offering its free software for 12 well-known Android handsets, including the HTC Desire, Samsung Captivate and Motorola Droid. Of course, we'll also have the Xiaomi Phone on the list when it launches in China next month.

Using Foxconn's tooling and Inventec's manufacturing resources, the aptly named Xiaomi Phone is the company's first attempt at developing its own hardware, and boy, it's done one helluva job here with the specs: a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8260 SoC (note that this isn't just an overclocked 1.2GHz chip), 1GB RAM, 4GB ROM, eight megapixel camera and the usual wireless bundle including WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS (plus the rare GLONASS). By now you must be thinking: surely there must be a tradeoff somewhere for that tempting price of ¥1,999 ($310)? Read on to find out if this is the case.

Xiaomi Phone review

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Xiaomi

Xiaomi Phone

Pros

  • Very affordable for such a powerful phone
  • Generous battery size
  • Intuitive and regularly updated OS

Cons

  • Slightly thicker and heavier than competitors
  • Not available in retail stores or outside China
  • Slow frame rate when filming in the dark
Summary

The Xiaomi Phone defies all rules with its powerful specs yet attractive price point, and it's also very well made.


Hardware


When we first received our review unit, it was actually the packaging that caught our attention. Unlike most other phones, the Xiaomi Phone comes in a thick, pale brown box that's both eco-friendly and exceptionally rigid (you may recall a photo from the launch event showing a person standing on one such box), and the box art focuses on the phone's internal components (you can tell that Xiaomi's emphasis is on the specs rather than the appearance here, but more on that later). Some of you might be disappointed to learn that there aren't that many accessories within the box: you'll only find a USB cable and a power adapter (for China, of course). To be honest, we don't see this as an issue for phone nerds -- the lack of headset, for instance, is likely because Xiaomi assumes its users will pick their own headphones anyway. Also, this keeps the cost down as well. There's no point in wasting money on making mediocre headsets that come with many phones these days, right?

It's time to get to the meat. While Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun famously said his phone has adopted the "no design" design, we couldn't help but think of a similar-looking device -- no, not an iPhone, but the LG Optimus Black. The 149g phone isn't particularly slim, but the body width and rounded edges give us a nice grip. There are only three touch buttons below the display: menu, home and back. Wait, no search button? Thankfully, there's a fix if you wish to do so -- it's actually the two-stage camera button on the right hand side, towards the bottom of the phone. Xiaomi calls this the MI button, and it can be customised to perform other tasks such as prompting the search tool, take a screenshot, launch an app, toggle WiFi, et cetera. As a camera button, we dig the feeling when it's pressed half way for focusing, but the full press could use a more apparent click feedback.


We'd say the overall build quality matches those from other leading brands, which is a surprise for this price point.

The only remaining buttons are the power button at the top right and the volume rocker on the right hand side -- all are within an easy reach with our fingers. Flip to the back and you'll see there's not much going on across the cover (which consists of graphite for better heat dissipation) except for the openings for the camera module and a little secondary mic for noise cancellation. We'd say the overall build quality matches those from other leading brands, which is a surprise for this price point. Our only complaint here is that sometimes it's hard to determine whether the cover is snapped into place when putting it back in, so hopefully Xiaomi can give this a tweak for the retail version.

Interface and settings

We've already mentioned earlier that the Xiaomi Phone is powered by the company's self-developed MIUI Android (2.3.5) system. Glancing at the home screen alone, it would appear that MIUI has merged some of iOS' features into Android; in other words, there's no app tray, so all the apps are spread across the home screens. In some ways this is more convenient, but for those who aren't familiar with this layout it may become cumbersome. For instance, while rearranging the icons, we forgot that there was no app tray and had therefore managed to accidentally deleted some apps. Of course, those who transition from iOS to MIUI wouldn't have the same issue.

In terms of homescreen customization, the Xiaomi Phone uses a similar method for editing widgets as seen on the Galaxy S II: each are displayed in the form of icons at the bottom, and when dragged around the home screen the amount of space required is highlighted; or you can just look at the dots displayed under each icon for an idea on how much grid space is needed. Moving on to the notification tray, MIUI offers two layouts: one is much like HTC Sense's where the general notifications and the quick settings are split into two tabs. The other mode merges the two together, with the quick setting buttons aligned along the bottom scrollable bar. If you're often frustrated by the lack of certain shortcut keys for, say, changing the screen brightness or toggling WiFi tethering, then you'll definitely love these highly customizable trays.


Going back to the homescreen, externally MIUI offers many options -- not only can you download themes, but when applying them, you can also pick just some of the features from each theme, thus minimizing the chances of having the same skin as other users. Depending on the theme, you may also be able to toggle the dialing pad or texting app directly from the lock screen -- the default themes has two extra draggable tabs to enable this, very convenient, though Meizu's M9 also has this feature.

The fun doesn't end there. If you head over to settings, there's a stash of homescreen transition effects (cube, fade, roll, et cetera) for you to choose from, all of which ran smoothly on our Xiaomi Phone. Additionally, you can see that MIUI has added some of its own elements there, the most interesting one being the battery settings -- here you can set your own level for low battery warning, as well as customizing the battery icon. If you're into RPG games, there's even one that looks like an HP status bar for giggles.


Last but not least, let's not forget a nifty feature that's not visible to most people: the dual-partition update system. This is made with Android enthusiasts in mind, as it allows users who want first dip into MIUI beta builds (updates released every Friday; stable builds monthly) to proceed without losing the existing build and user data. Speaking of which, the vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich build will be made available in January, so that's also something for Xiaomi fans to look forward to.

Another benefit of this dual-partition system is that rather than having to boot into some sort of recovery mode, the user can instead continue using the phone while the other partition (about 150MB on each side) is being updated, and then all that's required is a reboot into the second partition. If something does go wrong with the new build, simply revert back to the other partition.

Alas, due to the way both partitions share the same database, this setup doesn't allow an MIUI ROM and a vanilla Android ROM co-exist on the same device, nor does it support a major version jump (like 2.x to 3.x or even 4.x) between the two partitions -- both would require a full wipe. Similarly, this dual-partition system is currently exclusive to the Xiaomi Phone, as it's up to the manufacturers to implement this low-level modification.

Bundled apps


In addition to the tweaks in the OS, MIUI's also fiddled with some of the bundled apps as well as throwing in some handy tools. Let's look at the bundled apps first: the dialing pad does smart dialing and also supports quick dialing for your favorite buddies; whereas in texting the conversations are displayed in threads with customizable themes. For those who care, another special feature lies in the calendar app where you can also see the lunar calendar. Hey, it is a Chinese phone, after all.

We don't normally pay attention to file management apps in Android, but we totally dig MIUI's offering

Now, we don't normally pay attention to file management apps in Android, but we totally dig MIUI's offering: here the files can be browsed by file type (music, videos, pics, docs, etc.), and it even supports FTP! Another noteworthy tool is the call blocker app, which lets you set a white list, black list and SMS text filter, all of which can also be toggled automatically at a set time as well.

For those having to keep an eye on data usage, the Xiaomi Phone comes with its own monitoring app that can alert you when you hit a set limit, and you can even configure it to just cut off the data connection to save your piggy bank. Oh, and there's also a firewall for you to fiddle with while you're at it.

Xiaomi Phone review (bundled apps)

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Multimedia and browsing

Compared to most other native Android music players, MIUI's own take offers a bit more oomph: you can stream music from an online chart (presumably only available within China), edit ID tags while playing tracks, and download lyrics plus album art. Speaking of which, we were surprised that even though iTunes had already set the album art for some of the tracks, the Xiaomi Phone failed to recognize them and needed us to download new ones.

As for picture browsing, the gallery app's image loading time isn't bad at all thanks to the speedy processor, and pinch-to-zoom is likewise very slick. Most importantly though is the screen: the Xiaomi Phone features a vibrant 4-inch 850 x 480 transflective LCD, and while it's not exactly a brand new display technology (remember the PDA days?), its outdoor performance fares significantly better than AMOLED panels and other common LCDs. Truth be told, we had a little "wow" moment during our first outing with the Xiaomi Phone under strong sunlight, as we were accustomed to not using our Galaxy S II when the sun's out. Now, it'd be even better if MIUI lets us switch off the backlight entirely to save some battery -- after all, we were able to do this on PDAs. Good times.


So how about the eight megapixel camera, then? Well, there's certainly a heavy taste of iOS in the app but with plenty more functionality, including anti-shake, continuous shooting, self-timer, filters (such as black and white, sepia and negative), scenes (night, theater, beach, snow and many more), skin enhancement and many more. The overall focus speed (both auto and manual) didn't disappoint, and likewise with the picture quality -- fine detail, nice colors without over-saturation; though sometimes the white balance was a bit off and needed manual adjustment.

Xiaomi Phone review (camera)

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As for video recording, the Xiaomi Phone currently only supports up to 720p MPEG-4 format, with a video bit rate of up to around 6,260kbps. In a well-lit environment we obtained some nice footage, but at night, the frame rate dropped dramatically to make up for the exposure -- this is the same bug that's seen on many HTC phones, which is a real shame. Anyhow, below is one of our sample video clips:


Last but not least, we want to quickly talk about the internet browsing experience: the Xiaomi Phone's native browser supports tabbed browsing as well as full-screen browsing, and it even predicts the URLs as you type. Needless to say, Flash is supported and it loaded quickly for us, but we noticed that while scrolling up and down, the Flash content would overlap the browser's interface. This should be easily rectified in a future software update anyway.

Performance


Being one of the few devices sporting a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8260 SoC, we'd be silly to not do any benchmarking with the Xiaomi Phone. Accompanied by an Adreno 220 graphics processor, 1GB RAM and 4GB ROM, a slick performance is a given -- after all, Xiaomi did start off as a third-party ROM developer, so system optimization should be a piece of cake for it. From the scores we obtained, we'd say the Xiaomi Phone is on par with the Galaxy S II despite the higher clock speed: on Quadrant the former got 3,040, which is only a bit behind the Galaxy S II's 3,396. However, the graphical performance showed mixed outcomes:

Benchmark Xiaomi Phone Galaxy S II
Quadrant (higher is better) 3,040 3,396
Linpack (higher is better) 86 85
NenaMark1 (higher is better) 48.9 59.8
NenaMark2 (higher is better) 31.4 45
Neocore (higher is better) 61.4 59.8
Sunspider (lower is better) 4,040 4,280

While the scores aren't that exciting when compared side by side, the Xiaomi Phone does have one more trick up its sleeve: the massive 1,930mAh battery. From our normal usage (internet browsing, gaming, taking photos for half an hour each) plus the usual phone calls and texting, our phone easily made it over 12 hours; and even with a bit more web usage (like jumping on Facebook and Whatsapp) we still got at least 10 hours of juice. For a dual-core phone this isn't bad at all.

Xiaomi Phone review (multimedia and browsing)

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Wrap-up


Having used the Xiaomi Phone for over a week, it's definitely left us a great impression: nice build quality and top notch specs for a $310 device. Our new favorite phone from the Far East also differentiates itself from other Android devices with nifty and unique features, though the enthusiasts are more than welcome to flash other ROMs as well. However, good luck with finding this phone -- Xiaomi is only selling its baby online and doesn't plan on distributing it outside China (even though it'll play well with AT&T's 850MHz 3G); though given that 300,000 units have already been pre-ordered, we wouldn't be surprised if a few of them slip through the Great Wall.

More notably, we're surprised by how far a Chinese startup can get to these days -- our tour around Meizu's headquarters had already dazzled us, but Xiaomi's ambition took it to the next level, attempting to prove that powerful phones can be a lot more affordable and a lot more intuitive. It'll sure be interesting to see how the market will react to Meizu's much anticipated but more expensive dual-core and quad-core MX smartphones towards the end of the year.

Engadget Chinese Mobile Editor Danny Mak contributed to this review.

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