As mobile phones have become more powerful, prices for many flagship models have managed to linger were they always were -- at the top end. The Xiaomi has always been one exception, though. Last year, this Beijing startup launched its very first namesake phone at just CN¥1,999 ($320), which was rather impressive given that this was the first Chinese device to feature the 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon MSM8260 chip (not to be mistaken with the Krait-based MSM8260A). This stimulated two fronts of the smartphone war: the price-per-performance ratio kind, and the cheap-as-hell kind. With regards to performance, we're looking at competitors like Huawei, ZTE, Lenovo and good old Meizu; while the price battle involves taking on MediaTek-powered devices under various new brands -- many of which have done so well that they've now set up stores in Shenzhen's Huaqiangbei area.
Needless to say, Xiaomi is now facing a greater challenge -- one that barely existed a year ago. But on the brighter side of things, the company now has three Android devices spanning two price tiers: two editions of the Xiaomi Phone 1S for ¥1,299 ($210) or ¥1,499 ($240), and the quad-core Xiaomi Phone 2 -- the star of this review -- for ¥1,999, which is well below its ¥2,350 ($380) raw cost, according to CEO Lei Jun. There's no doubt that Xiaomi could recoup some of the costs from its vast range of accessories, and with the imminent launch of the Xiaomi TV set-top box next month, it's clear that the company's hoping to profit from content. Still, as mama said, it's the first impression that counts (especially for consumers outside China, anyway), so read on to see how we coped with Xiaomi's second-gen flagship phone.
Fantastic value for the moneyWell-tuned cameraHighly customizable interfaceWeekly OTA updates
No microSD expansionSubpar battery life
At just $320 unsubsidized, you'd be a fool to pass on this powerful phone packed with so many software goodies.
Sadly, the old microSD slot is nowhere to be found.
What makes Xiaomi tick is that it's always been at the forefront of delivering top specs at surprisingly low prices, and this time it seems to have outdone itself. Discounting its earlier pre-production units, the Xiaomi Phone 2 is the fourth retail device to feature Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ8064, a 1.5GHz quad-core Krait SoC complemented by 2GB of RAM and the powerful Adreno 320 GPU. Right now, the device comes in 16GB and 32GB flavors, though sadly, the old microSD slot is nowhere to be found. There's 5GB of MI Drive cloud storage if you want to count that in, but that's not quite in the same league as ASUS' 50GB or Baidu's 100GB offerings. Alternatively, you can plug in an external drive via a USB OTG adapter.
On a more positive note, Xiaomi's thrown in a superb 4.3-inch, 720p gapless IPS display from Sharp and JDI, similar to the one on the Xperia acro S. There's also an improved 8-megapixel BSI camera sensor with f/2.0 aperture and video stabilization. Even the front-facing camera -- which was absent on the Xiaomi Phone 1 -- has a 2-megapixel BSI sensor. To power all these, there's a removable 2,000mAh (7.4Wh) battery underneath the swappable back cover, and soon users can also purchase the thicker 3,100mAh (11.47Wh) mammoth cell with its special cover. There's no LTE radio here, but you do get DC-HSPA+ (WCDMA 850/1900/2100) along with FM radio, Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11b/g/n WiFi plus WiFi Display.
We hope Xiaomi will eventually offer matte covers to rid the cheap plastic feel.
Xiaomi's latest flagship device takes a rather different design approach compared to its predecessor. For starters, the phone's default look features a glossy white back cover that contrasts with the black front face. Particularly with the near-straight sides suddenly curving to the flat back of the cover, it reminds us of the Meizu MX and MX 4-core. That said, Xiaomi's six other color options -- magenta, cyan, lime green, yellow, orange and purple -- look much nicer than Meizu's pale crystal covers. To be nitpicky, though, we hope Xiaomi eventually offers matte covers to rid the cheap plastic feel. Plus, the coating would cover the ripples around the logo and the openings. Regardless, the phone felt solid thanks to the secure cover fitting, and this was still the case even after we've peeled off the cover multiple times to change the mini-SIM card (which is located underneath the battery).
Let's talk about the keys and ports. Below the display you'll find three shiny capacitive buttons for menu, home and back. But, unlike most Android phones these days, Xiaomi didn't implement a backlight this time around. No big deal, perhaps, but it's just not as convenient as what we're used to seeing on most other Android phones these days. Thankfully, there's still an LED indicator -- it's right below the home button instead of next to the earpiece. As for physical keys, they're all on the right-hand side of the phone: there's a volume rocker followed by a power button, both metallic and nicely crafted. It's a slightly weird arrangement compared to most other phones, but we got used to it very quickly.
But what about the old two-stage multifunctional MI key towards the bottom of the volume rocker? To our disappointment, Xiaomi decided that it's no longer needed, which we're certain our very own Myriam would disagree to. You can still set the volume rocker as shutter buttons (as well as zoom buttons, for that matter), but obviously they won't be as handy as a real two-stage shutter key. What's left are the usual 3.5mm headphone jack at the top, a micro-USB port (MHL and OTG supported) at the bottom and a secondary microphone on the back for noise suppression (which we'll talk about later).
Xiaomi started off as a team that built MIUI, a heavily customized Android ROM, to cater to various flagship devices, so obviously the meat of its own phones lies within the software. In fact, when we first wrote about Xiaomi Phones, many readers erroneously accused Xiaomi of stealing MIUI, when in fact they were staring right at the ROM's creator. In short, MIUI brings the iOS home screen experience to Android, in the sense that all the apps are spread across the home screens instead of the usual Android app drawer. At the same time, the OS also allows highly flexible personalization. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but if nothing else it's a good way to bring people out of their iOS comfort zone. Other than that, MIUI has preserved most parts of the native Android UX for Ice Cream Sandwich and beyond. Plus, users are promised weekly OTA updates.
The Xiaomi Phone 2 ships with Jelly Bean-based MIUI so the same rule applies, but as with many Android phones in China, it doesn't come with any Google services due to local regulations. Fortunately, you can still get the Play Store app from Xiaomi's market app, and from there onwards you can get back Gmail, Google Maps (the phone comes with Baidu Map instead), Google Search (which includes Google Now), YouTube and various other apps from Mountain View. Obviously, the lack of an app drawer means you can't toggle Google Now by swiping across the non-existent app drawer button; but if you want to replicate a similar experience, you can hold down the menu key and then set this as the default way to toggle Google Now.
Such flexibility is what made us fall in love with MIUI in the first place.
As before, the latest version of MIUI still lets you keep a bunch of quick toggles (such as screen rotation, WiFi, torch, data connection and guard mode) on the Android notification tray, and better yet, this time the default layout is page mode instead of compact mode. In page mode, the notification tray is split into two tabbed pages, one for just notifications and the other for just toggles. Whereas in compact mode, you get everything on one page, but naturally you don't see as many toggles at a glance -- you have to scroll the row of toggles horizontally to see more. Again, users are free to rearrange these toggles at will. Such flexibility is what made us fall in love with MIUI in the first place. Having said that, somehow Xiaomi left out the toggle for WiFi tethering, but it shouldn't be too hard to add it back.
Fans of MIUI should already be familiar with its library of funky themes. These aren't just skins that you slap onto the icons and home screens, as many themes also offer unique lock screens and handy toggles, as pictured above. Like a lock screen but prefer a different set of icons, fonts and ringtones? No problem: for each theme, you can select which of its particular features you want to apply.
New this time is something called free launcher, an interactive interface with common functions portrayed by graphical objects. As of this writing, there were only two themes that came with a free launcher: the default Study Room theme and the Angry Birds Space theme. These are rather self-explanatory -- you get a panoramic study room in 2D (remember Microsoft Bob?) or a level in the Angry Birds Space game, as pictured below. For us this was amusing initially, but the novelty quickly wore off as we got fed up with having to constantly scroll around to find what we wanted. Nor was it easy to immediately identify some of the icons in the Angry Birds free launcher. Another problem with themes is that some of them clash with the text color and therefore render the text invisible in certain apps, so users may have to experiment with elements from other themes when they see this. At the end of the day, this feature is great for showing off, but not so good for everyday use.
MIUI comes with a host of other handy tools, most of which exist for the sake of privacy (SMS filters and caller blacklist), security (antivirus and app permission monitor) and network usage monitoring (monthly bandwidth reminder and prompt for large file downloads). These are particularly important for users in China, where spam messages, unsolicited calls and infected apps are the norm. Additionally, the carriers there aren't very generous with 3G data usage -- you'd be looking at a $140 per month tariff for a 3GB allowance on China Unicom. Even $46 per month would only get you 950MB, and $25 per month gets you 500MB. With this in mind, it's no wonder the Xiaomi Phone 2 comes preloaded with stringent settings, such as a prompt for every file or app download that exceeds 10MB. We've only managed to disable the prompt for file downloads in Downloads under Tools, so hopefully Xiaomi can also add such an option for Play Store downloads.
One of the new highlights of the tool bundle is the voice assistant, and yes, it's basically a shameless Siri-wannabe. Hold down the menu key at any time (unless you've assigned that to Google Now already) and you'll be greeted by a familiar-sounding tone plus a silver round button awaiting your vocal command. Alas, this service is only available in Mandarin, but even if the language is no issue for you, the level of intelligence offered here is far from what you'd get from Siri, S Voice or even Google Now. Let's say a simple question about the weather: the phone's incapable of assuming that you're asking about the weather at your current location, so it would always ask you to specify the city.
Similarly, the assistant can't recommend a nearby restaurant unless you mention the location. Here's another amusing one: we asked what activities we had that day and the response was, "I'm enjoying the greatness of life." Thanks? Despite all this, you can still ask the assistant to stream music (powered by Baidu Music), make a joke, call or send someone text messages (though it can't recognize English names), ask for directions and set up reminders. Just don't expect a huge amount of freedom with your commands -- you gotta stick to the script. There's plenty of room for improvement here, and Xiaomi can start by changing that UX to avoid upsetting Apple.
MIUI is also about the small details, some of which have been around for a while. For instance, if you want to move an icon from one home screen panel to another, you can hold your finger on it until it hovers, and then use another finger to scroll to your desired panel. (In fact, if you have one of the latest HTC phones, you can do the same.) You can also organize all the home screen panels by pinching with three fingers on any panel, at which point you'll see a preview of your six to nine panels at a glance, and you can rearrange them or set your main panel as you desire.
Another old but neat feature that can be easily overlooked is that when you're in the lock screen, you can hold down the home key to use the LED light as a torch. Last but not least, here's a new addition that impressed us the most: there's now a "misoperation prevent mode" feature which uses the proximity sensor to detect whether the phone is in your pocket or bag, and if that's the case, it prevents any input on the touchscreen should the power button be accidentally triggered. This is enabled by default so you can leave it as it is, but if it isn't working out for you (which we can't imagine it would), it can also be overridden (by holding the back and volume up keys) or even switched off entirely.
While there's no drawer to house all the apps and widgets in MIUI, Xiaomi has kept the same widget selector from the Gingerbread days -- you can either pinch the home screen with two fingers or hit the menu key and select "Edit Widgets" to enter widget mode. While selecting your widgets, you'll notice that each of them has a few dots below it to indicate how many tiles it takes up, which is pretty handy and considerate. In the same mode, you can shake the phone in order to tidy up icons on a home screen. While there still isn't an option to sort the icons in alphabetical order, there are several other useful settings for the launcher: you can toggle between a 4 x 4 grid and a 4 x 5 grid, change the transitional effect (classic, crossfade, tumbling, page, cascading, rotation or 3D cube) as well as the wallpaper alignment (scrollable, center, left or right).
MIUI is also about the small details, some of which have been around for a while.
For multimedia entertainment, the bundled music app does a pretty good job: you can sort the music by artists, albums, folders and playlists, plus it automatically looks up synchronized lyrics for those who want to sing along. There's also a sleep timer which can be set from one minute all the way up to 90 minutes. Our favorite part of the app is the integrated search engine for Baidu Music, which has a surprisingly large library with both local and foreign music (they even have PSY's Gangnam Style accompanied by Chinese lyrics), and it works outside mainland China. By default, you can only stream music over WiFi, but if you have a reasonable 3G data allowance, you can manually enable streaming over cellular network in the app's settings. On the other hand, the native video player isn't as exciting but it'll handle your usual AVI, MP4 and RMVB files -- you'll have to open them through the file explorer app. If you need to view any MKV files, you'll still need to rely on third-party apps like MX Player and PPTV (which is now very popular in China as it also offers a vast range of movies and local TV shows for streaming).
One multimedia feature that Lei Jun's rather proud of is the Dolby Mobile certification. You can find these three settings all the way down at the bottom of the Sound menu under system settings: off, music mode and movie mode. These actually work rather well with the phone's loudspeaker on the back, but not so much with our own earphones. But then again, it's probably all subjective, so new users should just bear in mind that the Dolby music mode is enabled by default.
It shares a similarly impressive low-light performance with the HTC One X.
Xiaomi says that its quad-core phone uses a second-gen 8-megapixel BSI sensor, which turns out to be either a Sony IMX175 (as used by some of the Galaxy S III) or a Samsung S5K3H7. Our particular unit had the former, according to Supercurio's Voodoo Report (thanks for the help, Brian Klug from AnandTech!). Of course, ultimately, it all comes down to the optics -- an f/2.0 five-element lens -- as well as the sensor's software tuning, and we're happy to report that the camera on the Xiaomi Phone 2 does pretty well overall. The picture above was actually captured in HDR mode, and if Xiaomi can go easy with the default saturation level for HDR then it'd be a perfect shot. This issue was more apparent when we attempted to do HDR shots of the Shanghai skyscrapers at night, but hey, you can count that as an intentional effect.
We do have a few niggles with the Xiaomi Phone 2's camera. For instance, we occasionally noticed some slight underexposure in outdoor shots. At night, we sometimes saw a fair amount of noise in the dark regions (and this gets worse in HDR shots), but at least the details on lit subjects are still preserved, as illustrated below -- it shares a similarly impressive low-light performance with the HTC One X.
Several readers have asked whether they'd miss much if they went for the more readily available Xiaomi Phone 1S, so we decided to compare its camera quality with the Xiaomi 2's camera samples. A quick look in a Voodoo Report revealed that the 1S is preloaded with drivers for the Sony IMX105 and Samsung S5K3H2 (both of which are also utilized by the Galaxy S II, according to Klug from AnandTech). Our particular 1S is equipped with the Sony sensor, so it's no wonder that its images look similar to the ones we took at the same spots -- provided that they were well-lit -- with our Xiaomi Phone 2. Notice that we said "similar" and not "identical" as the newer phone does produce slightly sharper images, and it really showed off its higher sensitivity when we compared dark shots from both devices. The Xiaomi Phone 2 also manages up to eight frames per second in burst mode (we got up to about 15 continuous shots, with super fine quality setting), whereas the 1S supports neither burst mode nor HDR.
Apart from those performance differences, the cameras on both phones otherwise offer the same set of features: panorama mode, sound shutter (to trigger the shutter with sound), filter effects, white balance, skin tone enhancement, redeye reduction and various other advanced settings. As on the Optimus G, you can also capture 1,920 x 1,088 stills (yes, it's 1,088 for some reason) while recording 1080p video on both the 1S and 2, but if you absolutely must take full resolution stills while recording video, then you'll have to consider either the One X or the PadFone 2.
We didn't have much problem with video capture on the Xiaomi Phone 2. As you'd expect, the highest resolution is 1080p, and we've seen captured clips rated at 25 fps and with a video bit rate of up to 7.3 Mbps. This is a bit less than the One X's 10 Mbps but it still does the job. Even on a dark street at night, the camera maintained the same frame rate instead of dropping frames for the sake of exposure compensation -- which was what the first Xiaomi Phone suffered from. The one bug we noticed in our clips is that there's a somewhat infrequent random crackling noise, but chances are it can be fixed via an OTA update.
Xiaomi added fast-motion (from 2x up to 250x) and slow-motion (60 or 90 fps capture) modes.
On top of a satisfactory video camera performance, Xiaomi added fast-motion (from 2x up to 250x) and slow-motion (60 or 90 fps capture) modes, and both kinds of clips play back at a fairly smooth 30 fps sans audio. Then there's also a video stabilization feature that's actually disabled by default, and we soon knew why this was the case: the digital process creates a huge amount of distortion even with the help of the phone's gyroscope. But for stationary shots, the stabilization does provide a certain amount of benefit for some. Anyhow, the option's there for you. See for yourself in the sample clips below.
1080p with digital stabilization:
Slow motion (90 fps capture; skip to 0:35 for the juicy part):
Performance and battery life
Xiaomi Phone 2
Optimus G (all models)
Galaxy Note II
Vellamo 2 HTML5
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)
GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt HD C24Z16 Offscreen (fps)
Video loop test battery life
4:03 (Normal mode)
SunSpider: lower scores are better
We managed to get about 6.5 hours of normal usage, mostly on 3G.
With a quad core APQ8064 SoC on board, it's no surprise that the Xiaomi Phone 2's benchmark scores and graphics performance come close to that of the PadFone 2 and the Optimus G, so we won't go into too much detail here. Also, we've rarely experienced a hiccup on the phone, nor did it crash during our time with it -- unlike the engineering sample we had beforehand. The only concern here is that under normal power mode (instead of performance mode or power saving mode), our review unit only lasted four hours in our standard video loop test (where we set the screen brightness to 50 percent, use 3G data only but leave WiFi on, and keep Twitter, Gmail and Facebook running in the background). As for real-life battery performance, we managed to get about 6.5 hours of normal usage, mostly on 3G. That's better than that four-hour showing, but still ranks behind competing devices. Hopefully this will improve over time -- the engineers probably just need to consider heavier 3G usage, as opposed to the more common and readily available 2G in China.
As for audio input performance, the Xiaomi Phone 2 boasts Audience's earSmart technology for dual-mic noise suppression, but the end result we got had a big impact on the volume, and some early adopters of this phone have also experienced the same problem during phone calls. In the same scenario (in the middle of a Hong Kong shopping mall), our PadFone 2 produced a tinny but easily audible voice recording, whereas our Xiaomi Phone 1S came out with a more natural recording but still with effective noise suppression. For some bizarre reason our One X's noise suppression failed to kick in (presumably a bug of some sort), but in this case we shall keep its audio clip as a reference. You can hear all four sample audio clips below.
We gotta hand it to Xiaomi for delivering such an amazing package for this price. These guys have yet again proven that they aren't here to make quick money with cheap components -- they should really be charging us twice as much for that spec, let alone their generous bundle of software features plus their commitment to weekly updates. Sure, the software and performance aren't perfect (especially the voice assistant interface, battery performance and the weird English here and there), but they can be fixed, and the rest of it is already stable and also highly customizable. Simply put, you'd be a fool to pass on any opportunity to pick up this phone.
Now, it's a given that the next step for Xiaomi is to spread the hype beyond China, with Taiwan already confirmed to be the next stop, possibly followed by some European countries early next year. The biggest challenge now is that the company is seemingly struggling to keep up with demand, which is giving competitors the opportunity to accuse it of artificially stirring up hype, as well as letting them catch up with similar products in the meantime. As outsiders, we don't know the truth behind the shortage, but what's certain is that entering those new markets would require massively scaling up production. Only then can they worry about setting up new retail channels, which should be a doddle anyway if the local carriers are fighting over partnership deals. Now, let's see where that Xiaomi set-top box will take the company next.