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Xiaomi Mi 4i review: A surprisingly sleek low-priced handset

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There are, however, some aspects of Google's Material Design language present -- when scrolling to the end of a page, you'll see an arc to let you know you've reached the end -- similar to other Lollipop phones.

Other features of MIUI include themes you can download from a store -- this lets you change the look of the phone to even something like iOS if that's what you want. You can also quickly move apps from screen to screen by flicking a finger in the right direction while your other finger holds down the app you want to move. In India, MIUI will have a clever virtual voice menu system that lets you skip quickly through voice menus ("Press 1 for...") by simply selecting the option on the phone's screen, which would then correctly input the sequence. Xiaomi says it has plans to bring this to other markets as well.

miui02.jpg
MIUI's has a pretty flat style, but you can change that with the built-in themes app. Screenshot by Aloysius Low/CNET

miui01.jpg
One of MIUI's great features is the ability to quickly rearrange your apps. Screenshot by Aloysius Low/CNET

Camera

  • 13-megapixel rear camera
  • 1,080p HD video
  • 5-megapixel front-facing camera

The rear 13-megapixel camera on the Mi 4i uses the same module and technology as Xiaomi's Mi Note, but it lacks optical image stabilization. This means a f/2.0 aperture and five-element lens, and in the right settings the Mi 4i can take pretty good pictures. But you'll need to have a steady hand; I found some of my shots were blurry because of a slight hand shake when I hit the shutter key. In low light, the camera does well, though noise is quite apparent. The phone also supports manual shooting, but to be honest, I find the automatic settings more than sufficient. Check out the shots below.

On the front 5-megapixel shooter, the beautify mode does let you take nicer selfies, but the skin smoothing and wrinkle removal can be a bit too aggressive, so your very nicely taken self-portrait may look a bit too touched up with digital magic.

For videos, you get to choose between 480p, 720p and 1,080p, and it's really all about the lighting -- in bright outdoors you'll have no issues with what you shoot. For a bit of fun, the Mi 4i comes with both a slow- and fast-motion mode.

This outdoor shot feels a little dreary, but looks a lot better when you turn on HDR (next picture). Aloysius Low/CNET
With HDR the picture looks a lot better, and the greenery at the bottom is a lot clearer. Aloysius Low/CNET

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The camera managed to capture the fine details of the shells, but it wasn't as good as I thought it would be. Aloysius Low/CNET
The picture here seems a little cool compared to another shot I took with the Galaxy S6. Mind you, though, this was taken under incandescent lighting. Aloysius Low/CNET
The phone can take pretty good night shots, but you'll need a steady hand! Aloysius Low/CNET

Of the three test shots I took, this was the sharpest -- the rest had issues with hand shake. The lack of optical image stabilization does hurt the picture taking quality. Aloysius Low/CNET
The front camera's Beautify mode helps you look better when taking selfies, though the effect is quite obvious. Aloysius Low/CNET

Performance and battery life

Compared with the recently reviewed Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 , which runs the first-generation Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 octa-core processor, the Mi 4i uses the slightly faster 1.7GHz second generation chip. There doesn't seem to be any sluggishness with the phone, and everything seemed to churn along fine. I also managed to try out Hearthstone on the phone and found it smooth. Check out the results of the benchmarks below.

The Mi 4i easily matched the more expensive Idol 3, but still lags behinds more powerful and expensive flagships such as the Galaxy S6, of course. Obviously, benchmark numbers aren't really the end-all to a phone's performance, but they do give you a general indication how a device holds up against its competition. Also, the tests were all done with the phone set to Performance mode -- this does eat up the battery, so it's best to leave that mode off.

Performance test

Test 1 Test 2 Test 3 Average
Geekbench 3 2,909 2,926 2,943 2,926
Quadrant 25,590 23,650 24,578 24,606
3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited 7,431 7,847 7,886 7,721

As for battery life, I've been putting the phone through the paces for a week or so now, and it easily lasted me a full day of use. On the CNET Labs video test, the phone lasted 13 hours 18 minutes, which is pretty decent and similar to other phones with battery capacities around the 3,000mAh mark. While I would've guessed that the phone would last longer, a full day is usually good enough in my book.

Call quality

  • GSM: 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz
  • 3G: WCDMA 850, 1900, 2100 MHz | TD-SCDMA 1900, 2000 MHz
  • LTE: FDD 1800 (band 3), 2600 (band 7) MHZ | TD 2600 (band 38), 1900 (band 39), 2300 (band 40), 2500 (band 41) MHZ
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a, b, g, n | 802.11ac

I've had no issue with making voice calls or hearing the person on the other end, and the phone's rear speakers were loud and clear. This was tested in Singapore, on the SingTel network. I also had no issues connecting to 4G. Speeds seem to hover at around 50Mbps, though this is determined by network strength. Still, 50Mbps is pretty good for watching YouTube videos.

mi4ispeedtest.jpg
Screenshot by Aloysius Low/CNET

Conclusion

Xiaomi says the Mi 4i was designed as a flagship phone for "emerging markets." And while its specs can't compare to those of high-end phones like the Samsung Galaxy S6 or the LG G4, its performance is good enough for most everyday tasks and it is available at an impressively low price.

Compared with say, the slightly more expensive $250 Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 , the $205 Mi 4i is a bargain, but you'll need to be able to get one first, especially if you don't live in the markets where the phone is sold. It has mostly the same specs, but the Idol 3 does have expandable storage (though you'll pay more for it).

Against the $180 Samsung Galaxy Prime, well, the Mi 4i handily beats it, with better all-around specifications, camera and a higher-resolution display for only $25 more. The 4i is also better designed -- both phones have a 5-inch display, but the Mi 4i is thinner and lighter with a bigger (though nonremovable) battery.

Xiaomi's handset could easily be the phone that jump-starts the company's future Western ambitions, but this isn't something it's looking at right now. While it may have plans to sell its popular accessories in the US and Europe, handsets will continue to remain elusive. This is unfortunate, as the Mi 4i is a really good phone that would shine even in developed markets.

Aloysius Low/CNET

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