Xiaomi puts iPhone 6 Plus in its sights with Mi Note phablet

The Chinese phone maker's new device features a slightly bigger screen and a lighter, thinner body than Apple's biggest phone -- at less than half the price.

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Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun reveals the new Mi Note. Aloysius Low/CNET

BEIJING -- Xiaomi, known for creating budget smartphones with stylish, Apple-like designs, took a step toward the premium end with the flagship Mi Note phablet .

Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun unveiled the phablet on Thursday at an event in the Chinese capital.

With a 5.7-inch, full high-definition display and a 13MP shooter, Xiaomi is going head-to-head with Apple's iPhone 6 Plus. The Note name suggests it is also targeting Samsung's Galaxy Note line, which kicked off the trend of jumbo-sized smartphones.

"Xiaomi 'going phablet' with the Note wasn't a surprise," says IDC analyst Bryan Ma. "It was an obvious gap in their portfolio that was only being serviced by a low-end Redmi Note before. High-end users need their phablets too."

It's the latest device from a white-hot company that has emerged out of nowhere to become the world's third-largest smartphone vendor over the past four years. Xiaomi is already the biggest smartphone brand in China. With its last round of funding, the company is the most valuable startup in the world. Xiaomi's success is the result of its strategy of selling more than 1,000 products at or near cost, with the primary goal of delivering software and services riding on top of those devices.

The Mi Note represents a step up from its typical budget-friendly line, the Redmi Note , but it still significantly undercuts the competition. Going on sale in China on January 27, Mi Note will sell unlocked for 2,299RMB, the company says, which converts to roughly $370, £245 or AU$455. Xiaomi attributed the higher price tag to the high manufacturing costs of the phone, but it is still less than half the price of its high-end competitors. The iPhone 6 Plus costs $749, £619 or AU$999 unlocked. The Galaxy Note 4 similarly starts at $749.

Jony Ive, Apple's hardware and software design chief, has knocked Xiaomi for products that he believes look a bit too close for his comfort.

"I don't see it as flattery," he said. "When you're doing something for the first time, you don't know it's going to work. You spend seven or eight years working on something, and then it's copied. I have to be honest, the first thing I can think, all those weekends that I could have at home with my family but didn't. I think it's theft, and it's lazy."

Xiaomi vice president Hugo Barra said in October that he thought the copycat claims were overblown.

Lei welcomed comparisons on Thursday, directly calling out the iPhone 6 Plus in comparison to the Mi Note. Despite the larger size, the Mi Note weighs 161 grams (5.7 ounces). It sports a curved glass front and rear. The company is betting that consumers in markets, such as India, who want phones similar in quality and size to the 6 Plus will opt for the Note instead.

The iPhone 6 Plus sports a 5.5-inch display and weights 172 grams (6.07 ounces).

Xiaomi claims it has a patent for its rear 13MP camera. And, unlike the Apple iPhone 6 Plus, the thinner Note doesn't have a protruding carriage for the rear shooter. It also has optical image stabilization.

For the selfie-loving crowd, Xiaomi has taken a page out of the HTC One M8 's book. The front camera uses a 4 megapixel sensor, the same size as HTC's Ultra Pixel cameras. This should make for better-looking selfies, especially in low-light conditions.

The Mi Note won't stay at the top of Xiaomi's product range for long. Consumers who want something even more powerful can look forward to the the Mi Note Pro, which will be one of the first few phones to sport the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core processor, 4GB RAM and a 2K display. It will retail close to Xiaomi's manufacturing cost, the company claims, at 3,299RMB -- which converts to $530, £350 and AU$650. The company didn't reveal a launch date for this more powerful model.

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