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Xiaomi's Mi Mix shows the company isn't just a copycat

Commentary: Xiaomi's creative chops have always been in question, but its latest phone proves the Chinese company is ready to take on the world. Will it?

Aloysius Low/CNET

Xiaomi's latest phone, the Mi Mix, has definitely kicked up an online storm. It certainly caught me by surprise.

Not only did Xiaomi manage to keep the device a complete secret -- tech journalists were gathered at a Beijing event expecting only the Mi Note 2 -- the company initially introduced the phone in vague terms, calling it a concept device. It also spent an hour introducing the phone's almost magical design and specs, leaving many journalists, including me, questioning why Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun was spending so much time talking about the gadget.

Even as French designer Philippe Starck took to the stage to ramble on about how he helped design the phone, the audience was still not convinced the whole shebang wasn't just fantasy, until Lei got back on stage to announce pricing and availability. And as reality sank in, I looked around to see if I wasn't the only person in the event hall with a stunned look on my face.

When I finally got the chance to play with the Mix in the experience zone (which you can read about here), I realized Xiaomi had finally shown it can create original products.

You could argue that Xiaomi had built this phone based on rumors about the next iPhone, but that doesn't give the Chinese company enough credit. Putting out a product like this helps dispel the criticism that it's a copycat. Xiaomi needs to change that perception because the competition in China is heating up.

Not that Xiaomi's rep is going to change anytime soon. There was still the Xiaomi Mi Note 2, looking exactly like the now departed Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

To be fair, the Mi Note 2 is really what you'd expect the phone to look like, based on the original Mi Note design, which was the first phone to feature curved rear sides. Samsung had already made curved front displays on its flagship phones, but it was with the Note 7 that its Korean designers added the curved rear backs, combining both design aspects for a beautiful aesthetic.

Given that phones usually have a pretty long design cycle, and rushing it has so far proved unwise, Xiaomi likely had the dual-curve design planned since the first Mi Note launched. So while the Mi Note 2 resembles the Note 7, it's a different device and stands on its own, and together with the Mi Mix, it's what the company really needs to lift it from its current market doldrums.

The Mi Mix is "a trophy product that they needed to help turn heads and try to break the impression of them being a low-end player," said IDC analyst Bryan Ma. "But this alone won't do it. Perceptions take time to change.

"Regardless of the Mi 5s Plus or Mi Note 2," Ma said, "my biggest takeaway from Xiaomi's recent high-end product launches is that they are trying really hard to show the world that they are not pigeonholed into just cheap phones. Competitive pressure from the likes of Huawei, Oppo and Vivo probably is a factor here too."

Calling the Mi Mix a concept phone isn't really fair, it's real and you can get it (if you live in China or are willing to pay a huge premium from online sellers), and you'll be blown away by just how amazing having a large screen-only phone is.

Of course, it's not perfect, the ceramic phone is a fingerprint magnet, and the location of the front selfie camera at the bottom right corner is pretty strange.


Because it wouldn't be a phone without a selfie camera: The Mix's front-facing 5-megapixel shooter at the bottom right corner. It's an awkward location, to be honest.

Aloysius Low/CNET

But the Mix, and arguably the Note 2, is a perfectly designed phone that will help Xiaomi capture attention from users in China. It's a shame that the global version of the Mi Note 2 won't hit international markets, given that it's in a perfect spot for former Note 7 users who love the design and price and wouldn't mind trying out a phone from Xiaomi.

Hugo Barra, vice president of international for Xiaomi, said in an interview that there are no plans to go overseas -- the decision was made even before the recalls happened.

Groundwork for a US launch?

Still, Barra did admit that the Note 2 is a small step toward Xiaomi's US ambitions, as the phone will help the company conduct field tests with the tricky US LTE bands. That work will likely help with future phones when Xiaomi finally heads to the US.

When it does, the company likely won't go in with a bang, like rival LeEco, Barra said. Instead, it will continue to use its current strategy of building up a small presence and growing it steadily.


Xiaomi's Hugo Barra speaking earlier this year at Google I/O 2016.

"At the right time we'll bring in a phone," Barra said. "We'll bring in one model in small quantities when we feel that we're ready.

"This strategy of coming in with big money, a massive event, lots of suits -- that's not us," Barra said. "And I don't think this will work with any brand coming into the US.

"If you want to be welcomed as a brand, you have to come in with a captive audience already in mind, with a relationship built over time."

This means Xiaomi's US phone won't be as flashy as the Mix. But it will likely feature flagship specs at an affordable price.

Meanwhile, the Mix will serve as a showcase of the company's technological innovation, while proving to Xiaomi's detractors that it's not just a copycat.

Eventually, when other phone manufacturers release similar bezel-less devices, Xiaomi can easily lay claim to the fact that its rivals are now the copycats.