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Xiaomi: Don't hold your breath for a US phone in 2017

Even though the company teased us by passing around a gorgeous, white, nearly bezel-less version of a Chinese phone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

CES 2017 was probably the only time Americans will see the white ceramic Mi Mix phones.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The gleaming white phone with its razor-thin bezel and unique call technology is just the kind of thing you'd want to put in your pocket and try right away.

But even though Xiaomi announced this version of the Mi Mix phone at the giant CES 2017 tech show in Las Vegas, it's just one more example of a promising Xioami product that you won't be able to get your hands on for some time.

"We don't have any specific-enough plans yet that we're comfortable talking about yet," Xiaomi's global VP, Hugo Barra, told CNET about binging a phone to the US, dispelling previous suggestions that Xiaomi would start selling them stateside by the end of 2017.

"Eventually we'll make our way over here," Barra said.

Xiaomi is one of the many Chinese phone makers set on winning customers in the fiercely demanding US market, alongside the likes of Huawei, ZTE and relative newcomer OnePlus. But while those companies are already selling their unlocked devices, Xiaomi has yet to directly compete. It won't be easy, either, not in a market where Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxys dominate the field.

There's also some question about Xiaomi's reported slipping hold in China, and its ability to make enough of its traditionally good-but-cheap phones for US buyers. New entrants also have to use technology that works with the country's wireless networks and regulations -- and striking a deal with patent-holders of internal tech or similar designs can be time-consuming and pricey.

Barra's spin? Xiaomi is taking its time building out its operation, starting with non-cellular devices like the set-top box it launched at last May's Google I/O.

"We don't want to go anywhere near the half-hearted efforts to launch a brand in the US just to say we're in the US," Barra said.

That's a dig at rivals for sure, but it's also sound advice for a company that hinges its upstart rise in China -- and now expansion into India, Brazil and Russia -- on social media hype, tech journalist reviews (like ours of the Mi Mix here) and word of mouth recommendations.

A misstep or PR nightmare would tank its chances of becoming a cult hit like OnePlus, whose 3T is CNET's favorite midprice phone, and that's not something Xiaomi wants to do, not when US customers are gradually becoming more open to buying affordable phones from lesser-known manufacturers.

"There's a huge audience of tech enthusiasts here," said Barra, who served as Google's Android VP before moving to Xiaomi in Beijing. "Brands in the US become global brands."

But if Xiaomi is intent on taking it slow, that time could still be years away.