Though still relatively unknown outside of its native China, Xiaomi is now one of the largest handset makers in the world. And if you had any question about where the company is going in 2015 (and that's after a busy 2014), the Mi Note has the answer. Clearly taking aim at its larger main rivals, the 5.7-inch Mi Note is designed to be slimmer than the iPhone 6 Plus while having a larger display, while boldly borrowing its name from Samsung's Galaxy Note series.
With its trim design, powerful hardware and camera, the Mi Note is a premium high-end phone that sets the benchmark for the company's upcoming flagships, all while selling at a much more affordable price than competing phablets. The 16GB version will sell in China for 2,299RMB -- this converts to roughly $260, £245 or AU$450 -- and 2,799RMB ($450, £300 or AU$550) for the 64GB model.
After going on sale in China on January 27, it will be available more widely in the second quarter of 2015, though still limited to the seven other countries that Xiaomi already has a presence in -- India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines. If you live in one of those places, the Mi Note warrants a serious look. In the US, UK or Australia, you may be able to get it online (and pay for the privilege), but the higher cost and lack of LTE (for the US) diminishes its appeal. And considering the phone's potential, that's really a shame.
Xiaomi has been criticized for liberally borrowing design cues from Apple, especially by Apple's design chief, Jony Ive, who has gone on the record as calling it "theft," but the Mi Note manages to stop just short of that.
While the Xiaomi Mi 4 felt like a take on the iPhone 4S , the Mi Note has its own distinct flair. Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun compared the Mi Note to Apple's iPhone 6 Plus at the launch, but this was more of a hardware comparison -- the phones don't look alike at all. And while the 7.1mm-thick iPhone 6 Plus looks slimmer, the Mi Note is actually a hair's breadth thinner at 6.95mm. Interestingly, the Mi Note also lacks a protruding carriage for the camera on the back, something that Apple was unable to avoid with its own smartphone.
With both a curved glass front and rear, the Mi Note opts for rounded edges that resemble Apple's iPhone 6 Plus on the front, but the rear curved glass (Xiaomi calls this 3D glass) is more like the bend of Samsung's Note Edge -- without it being a display, of course.
The result is a very beautiful phone and the build quality of my review set was top-notch. I, however, consider the black version to be better looking than the white. If there's a flaw though, it lies with this glass rear -- I saw plenty of smudges on the black model, though it's not at all obvious on my white model, which has managed to stay clean.
I'm not too worried about the glass breaking, either. It doesn't feel fragile and Xiaomi has shown off the phone's resistance to drops in videos. In those clips, the Mi Note survived a 1.5 meter (5-foot) fall as well as having ball bearings dropped on it.
The aluminum frame of the Mi Note really sells the premium feel -- from the machined speaker grills to the chamfered edges, the Mi Note is a gorgeous device that one-ups the company's previous offering, which had a glossy plastic rear instead of glass.
Xiaomi's phones are known to offer very competitive specs, and the Mi Note, as its flagship device, comes loaded with the best hardware available right now. Its Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core 2.5GHz processor matches the current flagship devices from other companies, although the upcoming Mi Note Pro will use the next-gen Snapdragon 810, which is likely to figure in 2015's best Android phones.
The hardware may be a little dated when the Mi Note finally hits markets outside of China, but the Mi Note Pro should be out by then, for those who want the fastest phone around. The Snapdragon 801 is still powerful enough for at least a year, so the Mi Note shouldn't feel dated even then.
Besides the processor, the phone boasts 3GB of RAM, either 16GB or 64GB of onboard storage (no microSD expansion, though), a 5.7-inch full-HD display and dual 4G SIM support. The Mi Note should work in the UK on the Three and EE networks, and on Optus in Australia. It's unlikely to support 4G LTE frequencies in the US, however, though 3G should still work, depending on the carrier. You can check here for the Mi Note's list of frequencies.
The Mi Note is powered by a 3,000mAh battery, has a 13-megapixel rear camera with optical image stabilization and a 4-megapixel front shooter that utilizes a sensor with pixels twice the normal size. It's similar to the rear camera found on the HTC One M8 , and should really help with better looking selfies and snaps in low-light conditions.
MIUI is Xiaomi's skin for Android, operating over version 4.4 KitKat. The UI is flat, and lacks an app drawer, like you'd see on a typical Android-based operating system. This is common on Chinese-made devices, so no surprises there.
Users who are familiar with iOS will find it easy to switch, and while some may remark on the similarities to Apple's operating system, think of MIUI as a blend of Android and iOS, but with features that are not available on either platform.
Take, for instance, being able to quickly collect the apps you want to move and, with a flick of the finger, send them to a new screen. If you need to move an app by itself, simply tap and hold the app with one finger, then use another finger to swipe to your screen of choice, instead of having to move the app to the edge to get it to change.
That's not all. Because of the large screen, there's a one-handed mode that you activate by swiping from the home button to the left or right to reduce the onscreen display. You can also choose the size: 3.5, 4 or 4.5 inches.
One last thing to note -- MIUI's built-in theme function lets you change how the phone looks, which is pretty handy if the flat design isn't for you. If you're importing the phone from China, do note that it doesn't come with Google services, such as Gmail and Maps, though there's an app in the MI store that helps you install them. I'm also told the global version will have some minor changes to the UI, since some Chinese services won't be available.
Xiaomi has made serious claims about the prowess of its camera, and based on my tests, they appear to hold true. For one, as mentioned, the lens is flush with the chassis and doesn't stick out. It also has optical image stabilization, which really helps with night shots.
I'm pretty impressed with its photos, though I do think the Auto HDR tolerance is on the low side, and sometimes doesn't trigger, leaving pictures a tad too dark. HDR pictures turned out great, with the dark areas properly lit and the bright sky not over-exposed. There's also a handheld twilight mode for night shots, which helps, but doesn't do as well here compared with the iPhone.
Check out the sample shots below.
In the Quadrant benchmark test, the Mi Note did pretty well. When you first load the benchmark test, the phone will prompt you if you wish to benchmark either balanced or performance mode. The Mi Note scored 15,920 in balanced and 23,970 in performance. In the Linpack test, the phone scored 875.018 MFLOPs in balanced mode.
In general, the Snapdragon 801 processor scores seem pretty close to what you'd find on other devices with a similar chipset, so no surprises there. It also holds up well to phones running the Snapdragon 805 processor, such as the Nexus 6 .
Anecdotally, the phone has enough juice to last a full day of use. In our CNET Labs video test the Mi Note lasted 11 hours and 34 minutes. That's pretty good, and comparable with other flagships such as the Galaxy Note Edge (11 hours 16 minutes) and the Nexus 6 (11 hours 56 minutes).
Call quality and audio
The phone's speakers are pretty loud, and you may want to turn the volume down at the office if you get a lot of messaging notifications. Calls were crisp and clear, and the other party had no issues with the clarity. The Mi Note also comes with an ESS ES9018K2M audio chip, and is meant to be paired with the Mi , which have 50mm beryllium diaphragm speakers. I'm not really the expert on sound here, but Xiaomi's playback sounded fine to me.
The Xiaomi Mi Note is one heck of a phone. In the days I've spent with this device, I'm very much taken with its design, performance and features. And given how the Mi Note is half the price of current flagship phablets, bigger players such as Samsung and Apple could feel the heat if the handset was available in more markets. As of now, though, I'd only recommend it if you live in a country where Xiaomi operates and where the lack of LTE isn't an issue.
If you're outside Asia and want to track the Mi Note down, I'd caution you to test it first if at all possible. You'll want to make sure you like the UI (you can do this by installing the MIUI ROM on an Android device) and that the phone translates well to your network (outside of the missing 4G support), especially if you have to pay extra to get it.
That aside, the Mi Note really shows just how capable Xiaomi has become in the four years it has been in business, and once Xiaomi starts expanding into more countries this year, such as Brazil and Mexico, I wouldn't be surprised to see it claim a bigger slice of the global smartphone pie. It's clear that Xiaomi is setting its sights high and the Mi Note will lead the charge.