CAN XIAOMI’S NEW Mi4i COMPETE ABOVE ITS CLASS?

It’s no doubt that in the past two years or so, budget phones have surpassed the unreliable moniker that they have been known for. However, have we reached that stage where someone can move from a once top of the line flagship, to a current, but well liked budget phone without feeling much of a difference?

To put that hypothesis to the test, I decided to give up my HTC One m7, that I had been using since november of 2013, in exchange for Xiaomi’s latest offering, the Mi4i.

HARDWARE

The Mi4i is a slim phone, very slim

At first blush, it really is surprising how pretty the device is. I would go as far as saying it’s the best looking Xiaomi phone I’ve used, and I’ve used all but the top of the line Mi Note and it’s pro variant. The device is light, extremely light. It’s no iPhone 6, but compared to something like the Redmi Note and the Nexus 5, it definitely feels lighter. I especially liked how they kept the bezel black no matter the colour of posterior, which gives the device that classy, sexy look when the screen is off. Take off the Mi logo from the top left of the device and it would be levels better. The back is soft touch and feels great, although I do worry that it may collect dust. The Mi4i’s rear is exactly what the white Nexus 5 should have been, soft touch and not plastic. It definitely feels more premium than some of the other phones in that price category. Speaking of the back, it’s supposed to come in a variety of colours, including yellow, blue and gray. However, right now it can only be purchased in white. Bummer.

Switch the device on and the 5 inch, 1080p display impresses you even further. It’s bright and vivid without being over-saturated and as far as I have been able to tell, the colours have mantained true to their source. However, it’s important to note if you have different preferences for your display, there is an option to customise it to your liking. The device doesn’t come with a micro SD card slot, which makes it hard living with the 16GB of built in storage (only 12GB of which is usable). It does come with a dual always on 4G supported sim card slot, which makes sense given this phone was geared toward the Indian market. However, it would have been great to have a micro SD card slot, but oh well.

Another thing worth mentioning is that Xiaomi did leave NFC out of this device as well, an interesting choice given the advent and possible future growth of mobile payment solutions such as Android Pay. Then again, it’ll be many years before those services make their way to Asia, and many more years before people decide to trust having credit cards on their mobile phones.

The rear of the device looks like an iPhone 5C, but feels like a Nexus 5

The device is rocking a Qualcomm Snapdragon 615, which is actually made up of two processors, a Quad-core 1.7 GHz Cortex-A53 & quad-core 1.0 GHz Cortex-A53 and Adreno 405 graphics. It’s packing the afformentioned 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM. It also comes equipped with a non-removable 3120 MaH battery, a 13mp shooter on the back and a 5mp front facing “selfie” camera. It also supports Bluetooth 4.1.

SOFTWARE AND PERFORMANCE

Up until this point, the phone has managed to meet and even somewhat surpass the expectations of a budget phone, unfortunately this is where it begins to go downhill. At first boot, Xiaomi’s MIUI is close to unusable. Its choppy and weird, it lags and apps freeze. Soon, I realised that there was one thing causing this, MIUI can’t handle lollipop animations. Once you figure out what needs to be tapped in order to access developer settings, and navigate your way through the mess that is the MIUI settings page and change the animation and transition scale, it sort of gets better. There are things that still don’t work well, for example I had to switch off chat heads in Facebook Messenger because that remained choppy, and it was really bad. What adds salt to the wound, is how great MIUI v5 was. Sure, it somewhat makes sense given that they had years and years to perfect v5 and not only is MIUI 6 fairly new, but this is the first device to run MIUI 6 in tandem with Android 5.0.2 Lollipop, which was a huge jump from 4.4 KitKat.

When you look past the flaws, you see that MIUI is pretty nice. Aside the obvious and overstated fact that it looks a little like iOS, the UI design is gorgeous. It advances on the elegant yet worldwide poorly executed idea on flat design by making it useful, clean and elegant. Colours are used the right way and there really isn’t much to complain about there. MIUI alone remains as customisable as ever, with a theme store that lets you change everything from the notification shade to the system font, although you are limited to the themes published to the MIUI store and can’t make use of the vast Play Store library. MIUI also has a bunch of built in apps that happen to be useful and not really feel like bloatware. Another nice touch is how the compass app’s icon actually works as a compass, it’s the attention to detail that shows how serious Xiaomi is. That being said, MIUI is a fairly heavy skin, leaving you with just around one gigabyte of usable RAM, not counting apps that run in the background.

Battery life on the Mi4i is pretty stellar coming from something like the HTC One. I easily get a whole day of charge, taking it off the charger at around 9am and ending up with about 5% by 2am the next morning. In fact, I’ve never had to use my portable charger and I’ve just got used to not having to carry it around, now I must figure out what else I can use to weigh down my pockets.

THE SNAPCHAT BENCHMARK

Now, we reach the true test of a phone, how good is it for Snapchat? A phone could be great and hit all the right spots, but if I can’t Snapchat on it, what practical use is it to me? On top of that, Snapchat on phones is always going to have a long list of bugs and errors. Bugs and errors, that are unique to different devices. This is why, on all phones I test, I run what I call the Snapchat Benchmark to see how well it can play videos, photos, take pictures and videos and basically how it handles one of the most used applications on my phone.

Snapchat on the Xiaomi Mi4i is, average at best. The HTC One scored a 2/10 on the benchmark, due to the fact that everytime I tried to apply a filter it would crash, it had trouble switching between the front and back camera, and on top of everything it couldn’t take a video to save its life. All of these work on the Mi4i, in fact it handles all these things like a champ, aside from the video thing.

Snapchat Video taken on the Mi4i isn’t choppy, but instead morphs and turns everything into weird shapes, sort of as if it is trying to run Premiere Pro’s Warp Stabilizer on all it’s footage. Its usable, but it isn’t great. Keep in mind this is only Snapchat Video. Periscope video runs smoothly and fine, so does regular videos taken via the camera app. The weirdest thing however, is that everytime you want to use Snapchat, you’re going to have to exit the app through the task switcher and move back in. Otherwise, everytime you take a picture the screen is either going to go grey, or the cute image you took of your cat will be replaced with a giant, pixelated icon from the Snapchat UI.

The Xiaomi Mi4i gets a solid 6/10 on the Snapchat benchmark. It’s not great, but compared to the HTC One, it’s a blessing.

CAMERA

The Mi4i has a pretty great camera, for a phone in that price range. The colours remain pretty true to their colour, but lack the punch or contrast that you find from other offerings such as the LG G series and Samsung’s line of phones. It’s all a matter of preference however, as I prefer how Xiaomi handles the camera, as giving me a flat image leaves more room for me to edit it later on, if I desired to do so. Where the camera falls short is, as most other smartphone cameras, in low light. Don’t get me wrong, the Mi4i takes pretty decent shots in low light, even surpassing those of the HTC One m7, but it’s really hit or miss. The probable reason for this is the omission of Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) that causes the camera to get very shaky in low light conditions, requiring you to really keep your hand stable to get a sharp shot.

The 5mp front facing shooter on the Mi4i is more than capable to handle all your narcisitic tendencies (we all have them). Pictures are nice and bright, although nowhere near as wide angle as some of the other options out there, but it should be enough to get you what you need. It also has a feature that allows you to say “click!” to take a picture, making it much easier for all you selfie stick users.

The camera app has a few features, while feeling minimal and not as bloated and over complicated as Samsung’s camera app. It has a live filter feature ala iOS, and also some pretty unique features such as Beautify (which makes you look younger supposedly) and refocus for those pictures that missed the mark, as well as a full manual mode for the more pro photographers. All in all, one of the better camera apps available for Android.

Xiaomi boasts about it’s enhanced HDR mode, but when put to the test, really causes images to look blown out and fake. I guess it all depends on the situation it was used.

I believe the true test of a device’s camera is not when you purposely go out and try to take great shots, but it truly proves itself as a camera you can use for your random, daily snaps. You can find an entire gallery of test images from my daily activities here.


FINAL THOUGHTS

On paper, the Xiaomi Mi4i is an excellent device, and one would think that it’s a bargain at this pricepoint. After using the device for over two weeks however, I can easily see why this phone is priced at this range. I’m still convinced however, that this is a software issue rather than a hardware one. The HTC One m7 runs as smooth as a Japanese bullet train, while sporting the Snapdgragon 600, the older generation of the processor that’s currently in the Mi4i. Xiaomi may still be able to bounce back with a software update, however one thing is certain, the moment CyanogenMod is released for the Xiaomi Mi4i, is the day this phone will get much, much better.
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