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.
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.