Xiaomi Mi 4 review: how is this thing so damn cheap?

Note: After this review was published, the review unit decided that it would be a good time to install a MiUI update. The below review device ran MiUI 7.0, however I’ll be sure to report if MiUI 7.1.1 does improve the user experience.

Here’s a quick exercise: close your eyes and think off all the products in your house that have been “Made in China”. Come 2016, that number will likely grow, especially if you love your technology.

More and more products are being made in the land of the Great Wall and awesome ping-pong players, and more still are the number of growing Chinese smartphone brands. Huawei. Hisense. Gionee. Oukitel. Apple. Name a brand, and they’re probably more Chinese than anything else. But one brand we’ll likely mention more often this year, especially in South Africa, is Xiaomi.

The Apple of China as it’s ironically known, is still a startup for all intents and purposes. Born in 2009, the company is now the fourth largest smartphone maker on the planet, selling more smartphones in China than previous king Huawei, and breaking down the “Made in China” stigma faster than sticky duck dim sum ever could.

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And even though Mobile in Africa is only bringing two smartphones into the country initially, one of these is definitely one of the more interesting phones we’ve seen in a while. Enter our Xiaomi Mi 4 review.

Unboxing

To get started, let’s have a look at the box.

Two words come to mind: elegant and understated. There’s no faux leather here, or some swanky magnetic box that only opens when the stars and planets align. Nope. Its cardboard in a light shade of cardboard. And it’s easy to unlock too. Snip. Slide. Pop. And it’s open.

The phone, nestled on top of the box, stands out like a daisy on a football pitch, and looks particularly handsome surrounded by the brown protecting it. Slip up the next piece of cardboard, and herein lies the rather paunch 2A charger, and a particularly rubbish charging cable that ripples and bends like Apple’s ever-reliable cables.

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There’s not much else really, unless you’re a lawyer, or insurer, or have absolutely no idea how to switch a phone on (which isn’t uncommon).

Design and aesthetic

Once you do manage to find the power button on the device’s right hand side, you’ll be met with a seriously good screen. It could easily be the best 5.0-inch 1080p panel I’ve ever seen on a phone, including those from the Xperia range and the LG G4 Beat.

Stepping back though, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is an iPhone. The Mi 4 does have a similar aesthetic, with its white sheen and narrow bezels. It’s not doing the phone a disservice either, but it does have its distinct differences upon closer inspection. Take the Mi logo in the top left, flanked by an ambient light sensor, a loudspeaker and the front facing camera. At the bottom, there are three typical Android capacitive touch buttons, and below that, there’s a single grated speaker and a microUSB port for data and charging.

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The sides are bordered by a rim of chromed metal which gives the device a rigid, bend-resistant feel in the hand. The back panel also tapers slightly, which makes the phone a pleasure to hold too. It’s only a slight curve outwards, but it works . It also makes the phone appear as if it’s levitating while resting on a table.

Also at the rear is the dominant camera, and flash below it. And finally, there’s another Mi moniker near the device’s bottom and the usual FCC numbers.

With everything considered, it’s a stately if not understated phone. It’s not as elegant as Apple’s products, as stylishly innovate as LG’s or classically simple as Huawei’s, but the Xiaomi Mi 4 is distinct enough to wear its own brand of cologne without stinking of copycatism.

Internals and specifications

So, it sounds good so far right? Well, it’s about to get even better, especially if you like slightly-dated hardware.

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There’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset inside, with 3GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage. The latter can’t be expanded, which is quite an idiotic design decision in this multimedia-hungry day and age. Nevertheless, there’s a healthy 3080mAh battery as well, which powers the aforementioned screen and internals.

Key numbers:

Dimensions: 139.2mm x 68.5mm x 8.9mm
Weight: 149g
SIM Type: Micro SIM
Display: 5.0-inch, 1920×1080, 257ppi
Chipset: Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core | quad-core 2.5GHz Krait 500 CPU | Adreno 300 GPU | 3GB RAM
Storage: 16GB (Around 11GB usable)
Imaging: Rear: 13MP, f/1.8 aperture, autofocus, LED flash | Front: 5MP
Video: 4K at 30fps, 1080p at 30fps, 720p at 120fps
Battery: 3080mAh fixed
OS: Android 4.4.4 KitKat with MIUI 7.0 skin

Up front, there’s a 5MP selfie camera and around the back, the camera features a 13MP sensor.

And if you’re wondering where the “slightly dated hardware” claim sources — that Snapdragon 801 is the same chip that powered last year’s March-launched Samsung Galaxy S5. You’ll see that this is both a blessing and a curse.

Performance

Let’s start with the blessing: the Xiaomi Mi 4, for lack of a better phrase, is one quick bastard. It’s possibly the best raw speed-to-price phone you can buy right now. In terms of Antutu numbers, this means points tallies of 45000 in “benchmark mode,” which means that games and intense processing tasks, like video editing, are swatted aside without any fuss.

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And not to mention the 3GB of RAM. It’s actually such a big reservoir that you could probably use the phone all day without having to close any apps. It just keeps going, and going.

Now, for the curse: as a result of the slightly dated chip and dizzying clock speed of 2.5GHz, battery life is atrocious. Battery leaks from this phone like a faucet in a public bathroom. While running Antutu, the Xiaomi Mi 4 used nearly 7% of its battery reserve to run a three minute benchmark. It’s quite remarkable how hungry the chipset is.

Benchmark results:

AnTuTu 5.7.1: 37 327 (benchmark mode: 45 973)
Geekbench 3 Performance: (Single core) 840 (Multi core) 2089
Geekbench 3 Battery: (Total time) 9h02:40 (Score) 3617
GFXBench OpenGL 3.1: (Manhattan) 649.5 frames, 10 per second; (T-Rex) 1538 frames, 27 per second

But let’s put it into every day terms: the LG G4 Stylus has a slightly smaller 3000mAh battery, and is powered by a much, much slower CPU, but in my non-standard “leave the phone alone until it dies” test, it went a full week with some change before I had to rejuice it. The Xiaomi Mi 4 on the other hand, barely got through two days. And this is without even touching the device. I left the GPS switched on on both phones, but switched the cellular radio off. The Mi 4 does seem to prefer the former switched off though, and that mildly improves conditions.

This could signal a software issue that could easily be fixed with a patch, or it means that the Snapdragon 801’s just a power guzzler. I think it’s the latter.

When we had the Samsung Galaxy S5 at Gearburn last year, the phone suffered from the same strange battery drain issues, and more interestingly, it got strangely hot when in use. Sound like the Xiaomi Mi 4 right?

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If battery usage is a big feature for you, cross the Xiaomi off your list. But I am being extremely harsh. Perhaps I just got a bad sample, or maybe my expectations are much greater than they should be. Whatever it is, this phone is so much more than its crap battery management would suggest.

The cameras, for one, are great. While the sensors are keen and the lens exact enough, the rear camera doesn’t boast some of the high-end technology found in more recent phones, including image stabilisation. That’s not to say you can’t take great snaps with this thing. And selfies? Well, you’ll be able to fit about seven people (or three-and-a-half giraffes) in shot at arm’s length. It’s not the widest lens in that sense, but the colour representation is good with minimal overexposure in bright scenes.

Unlike some claimed flagships, the Xiaomi Mi 4 has a simple, easy to use manual mode. It isn’t as extensive as the LG G4, but I was happy with the degree of control I had over my shots.

And speaking of software…

Practicality and usability

We have to deviate here to talk about MIUI — the skin that overlays Android KitKat on the Mi 4 and informs much of the phone’s usability. And yes, Android KitKat.

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I traditionally wave my pitchfork at any OS or skin that doesn’t have an app tray, or a way to organise apps in a coherent, easy-for-a-human-to-use manner, but I’ll make an exception for MIUI. The skin uses the best pieces of Android, Apple’s iOS and even elements of the now dead Firefox OS to create one of the best, most user-friendly interfaces I’ve ever used on a phone.

The lock screen, like Huawei’s Emotion UI, doesn’t require a tap of “OK” after entering a lock code. If it’s correct, it logs you in. Boom. And in terms of the home screen, it’s decidedly iOS but with a less restrictive feel about it.

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This camera definitely punches above its weight. It's a great sensor, but suffers from a lack of OIS.

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If you happen to have a steady hand, and light at your back, snaps like this are possible.

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These Euphorbia milii is always a challenging snap, thanks to their deep red flowers.

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The camera definitely lacks definition in some aspects, notably when snapping the lavender.

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Another example of the Xiaomi Mi 4's colour balance: it's very good.

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This is where I wish Xiaomi considered OIS, or some other stability method.

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Something like LG's laser autofocus would also do wonders, even though manual mode allows users to adjust focus manually.

For a better example of the Xiaomi Mi 4’s photographic capabilities, have a look at this gallery.

The settings screen does seem like it was planned on a Friday afternoon, but it does feature interesting tabs, including Child Mode and the ability to change the font and size of said fonts. Themes for MIUI can also be downloaded from the Mi Store, which changes icons, base colours and wallpapers among other features.

However, MIUI comes at a cost. Bloatware is all over and Google Play Services crashes for no apparent reason. Updating Androud, MIUI and said Play Services yielded no positive results. I still have the issue at the time of writing. Much of the bloatware can be disabled and uninstalled, but others are part of MIUI, like the Security app, for instance. It’s not as bad as Asus’s devices, but it is annoying that you aren’t fully in control of what processes are running on your device at all times.

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But what about physical usability?

Apart from the wretched battery usage and general heat developed by the phone under stress, it’s one of the nicest phones to hold and use on a daily basis. The screen’s extremely responsive even if it doesn’t adapt well to light, while the size is perfect for one-handed use. Buttons are pretty much where they’re supposed to be and require a defined press to fire. And that goes for the ports too: headphone jack is up top, charging port down below.

I wish the Xiaomi Mi 4 also featured a dual SIM setup, and a microSD card port. I can’t understand why the company denied its users these two simple pleasures. You’re screwed if you want to load more than a few movies for a long flight too (but the battery would’ve probably died halfway through the first, anyway) or if you’re flying to another planet without roaming.

Value for money

And finally, Xiaomi’s probably licking its lips in anticipation for this section.

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Honestly, I can’t think of another phone that features 3GB of RAM and costs R3799. I genuinely can’t. Xiaomi has managed to shove what is effectively an upgraded Samsung Galaxy S5 into the shell of a smaller flagship and sell it for half as much. It’s quite incredible.

Yes, you might not get the creature comforts of some of the bigger-named devices, but there’s nothing wrong with Xiaomi’s build quality, exterior aesthetic or internal hardware here. And for that price, I can’t think of a better, more attractive phone to launch in South Africa this year.

Verdict: On paper, there isn’t another phone that comes close at this price. In practice, the Xiaomi Mi 4 falls short in many aspects, including battery life, user experience and storage solutions. But on the whole, for what you get, it’s a phone that you can’t go without considering, at least in the mid-range market segment. And truth be told, it could probably give a few flagships a run for their money in 2016.

Score: 7.5/10

Disclaimer: Mobile In Africa, the South African importer of Xiaomi products, let me keep the Xiaomi Mi 4 review unit prior to this review.

Andy Walker
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