Xiaomi Mi Note First Impressions: More than just an Apple clone

Xiaomi Mi Note First Impressions: More than just an Apple clone

The Chinese tech major pulled the wraps off the Xiaomi Mi Note and the Xiaomi Mi Note Pro in grand fashion at an event in Beijing.

The Mi Note has a fairly powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor but its more powerful sibling, aimed at Xiaomi’s community of loyal fans and power users, has a beefier Snapdragon 810 processor. While the Mi Note Pro looks very enticing, you’ll have to hold your horses at the moment since it is not expected to hit stores in China until the end of Q1 this year.

Xiaomi is on a charm offensive, and that means setting the record straight. Outspoken VP of International Hugo Barra returned to San Francisco alongside Xiaomi President Lin Bin to introduce the MIUI flavor of Android, not to mention the latest Mi Note smartphone, to a curious – if a little skeptical – tech press. Wildly popular in China and other countries, but known more for the inspiration it’s accused of taking from Apple and others in the West, Xiaomi isn’t quite ready for a US launch but thought it was high time we saw just what Chinese users are enjoying.

Xiaomi put out a number of teasers about release of a new flagship device earlier this month. Obviously, the Internet went into a frenzy and started speculating that the company was going to show off the Mi5. There were also other rumours floating around that two devices were going to be launched.

The first rumour turned out to be false even before the launch event, when Xiaomi refuted it publicly, whereas the second one was true. Xiaomi did unveil two completely new flagship devices and surprisingly, they were both phablets. This move by Xiaomi seems to be a direct response to Apple’s runaway success with the iPhone 6 Plus in China. In fact, Xiaomi’s entire presentation was filled with direct comparisons between the new flagship phablets and the iPhone 6 Plus.

Mi Note hardware is more nuanced than it looks in photos, where Xiaomi’s renders can make it look flat and overly simplistic. In your hand, though, there’s some interesting surfacing that comes into play.

True to Xiaomi’s claims, the Mi Note is probably its best-looking device yet. This is primarily because the body uses Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3 with a 2.5D curve on the front and 3D curve on the back. The glass is supported by a sturdy metal frame with chamfered edges. Interestingly, the iPhone 6 Plus also has a 2.5D curved glass on the front. Xiaomi showed videos highlighting the durability of the glass but we shall reserve our judgment for the detailed review.

While Xiaomi gets knocked for “copying Apple”, if anything there’s more of the Galaxy Note 4 about the Mi Note if you must make a comparison. I can’t really complain about the parts that have Samsung echoes to them, though: the volume and power buttons on the side are crisp and sliver-thin, while the chamfered bezel is neatly finished. When you consider it’s sold, unlocked, for the equivalent of around $368 (pre-tax) in China, it’s bordering on astonishing how well constructed it is.

The spec overload doesn’t stop there, either. The 5.7-inch display runs at 1080p resolution, and there’s Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 801 processor inside with 3GB of memory. A 13-megapixel camera using a Sony CMOS, color-mixing dual-LED flash, and optical image stabilization, all fitting flush into the chassis. On the flip-side, the front camera is “only” 4-megapixels but uses the same, 2-micron oversized pixels that HTC has made such a big deal about in its One M7 and M8 phones.

It’s worth noting that, currently, the Mi Note is only on sale in China, and as such our review unit is really more of a preview device. 4G support is absent for the US, and there’s only partial 3G support too.

It’s a topic Barra was keen to touch upon. “We didn’t fork Android, which is something that I hear a lot,” he observed. “In many ways I don’t think we’ve done anything different to what many others have done, we’ve just put a lot more effort into it.

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MIUI began life back in August 2010 as a custom UI on top of Android. Since then, the platform Xiaomi describes as a “live OS” for the frequency of its updates has evolved with shocking rapidity. 224 updates have been pushed out, with Xiaomi setting a pattern of one per week, and the changes largely based on feedback from the audience of users running MIUI on one of over 347 models across 96 brands.

Where Android arguably has a Western focus, MIUI developed to attend to Chinese needs. T9 tailored for Chinese characters, and baked-in greeting messages for festivals, complete with a mail-merge style feature that can customize mass texts with different names. A persistent problem in China is “one ring” spam calls, apparently, hoping to trick people into calling back premium numbers: Xiaomi made it so MIUI doesn’t make a sound on the first ring for unknown callers.

Xiaomi’s taking a smart, measured approach by showing it in the US without selling it here, because let’s be honest — it’d be murdered in the marketplace today. Carriers would be reticent to carry a brand that’s unknown to Americans as anything other than an also-ran, but the Mi Note isn’t priced that way: a 16GB version goes for 2,299 RMB in China, which works out to something like $367.

All in all, it looks like the Xiaomi Mi Note will carve out a nice audience for itself with its design and pricing, but most of its features are borrowed things we’ve already seen other brands do. We’ll have to wait and see how this strategy pans out for a company known for its low-cost, high performance devices.

But now that we’ve seen it, we know what Xiaomi is capable of. We’ve heard of the company, we’re following its progress. That sets the stage for the future — sometime when the market is perhaps more favorable to launch an upstart smartphone that people will actually want to buy.In the meantime, China has access to one of the most interesting tech companies on the planet right now.