The smartphone business is notorious for eating companies alive. Even giants of industry have fallen: Sony is on the cusp of throwing in the towel on its phone division, Nokia is now out of the game entirely after having been the largest manufacturer of phones in the world as recently as 2011, and even smartphone-centric companies like HTC are struggling. Yet somehow, there are a few upstarts that are navigating these treacherous, Samsung- and Apple-infested waters — sometimes with enormous success.
Somewhere in this technological New Wave lies Xiaomi, a Chinese firm founded in 2010 that has become impossible to ignore. That’s driven partly by its unapologetic Apple mimicry: its marketing, product strategy, and design aesthetic all borrow elements from Cupertino’s playbook. It’s also driven partly by the high-profile hiring of former Android boss Hugo Barra from Google. But increasingly, it’s driven simply by the fact that Xiaomi is making genuinely interesting products. And at a valuation north of $40 billion, it’s apparently doing something right.
Xiaomi must think so too, because it has just embarked on a US media tour handing out the Mi Note, the company’s 2015 flagship, a phone that isn’t even intended for US sale. Specifically seeking out grizzled US tech journalists to check out your phone — journalists who grind through pitch-perfect iPhones, Galaxy Notes, and HTC Ones all year — shows a certain level of bravado.
THE MI NOTE IS INTENDED TO BE A SHOWCASE OF WHAT THIS FIVE-YEAR-OLD COMPANY IS CAPABLE OF
The company will open an online store in the US later in 2015, but it’ll only sell accessories like headphones and fitness bands; in the lead-up to that, the Mi Note is intended to be a showcase of what this five-year-old company is capable of. And, yes, if the Mi Note is well received, perhaps it foretells an American phone release down the road. For now, we’re just getting a taste. (In fact, the model being distributed doesn’t support US LTE bands, so I wasn’t able to do a full-on review; there’s no battery test here, but I’ve been able to compile some thoughts on the hardware and software.)
I’d describe the design of the Mi Note as an amalgam of the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy Note 4, with a little bit of Xiaomi originality mixed in. That’s not a knock — it really works quite well, marrying large glossy surfaces on the front and rear with a thin metal rim along the edges. On the back, the left and right sides slope abruptly, which gives the phone something different from the bog-standard “thin, large rectangle” profile. The volume rocker on my unit is a little fidgety, and the metal edges are too sharp, but otherwise, there’s absolutely nothing about the Mi Note that screams “low-end,” “knockoff,” or any other derogatory term that you might hurl at a brand you’ve never heard of. It’s solidly built; there’s no creaking. Seams where glass meets metal are tight and even. I’m surprising myself by saying this, but if Samsung or LG had released this phone, I wouldn’t bat an eye — it’s that good. It looks and feels like a device from a company that’s been doing this for a long time.
That’s not to say it’s perfect: the Mi Note’s design lacks the je ne sais quoi that bumps a design from good to great. When I think back to the phone designs that have truly dropped my jaw — the original RAZR, the original iPhone, perhaps the iPhone 4 — the Mi Note lacks that kind of unmistakable originality that moves the needle. Xiaomi borrowed the best of everything, rather than creating it: the laser-drilled speaker grille, the glass / metal sandwich, the corner-mounted rear camera with dual-tone flash. Certainly, two or three years ago the Mi Note would’ve dropped jaws, but today, it’s generic and sterile. It’s impressively sterile, granted, but it’s sterile nonetheless.
The same argument applies to the display, a 5.7-inch LCD with 1080p resolution that works out to 386 ppi. My middle-aged eyes are far from perfect, but the time has long since passed where I can tell the difference between the best and the fifth-best phone screen on the planet. To me, the Mi Note’s display looks just about as perfect as a display can: it’s laminated so that the screen looks flush with the glass, viewing angles are basically 180 degrees, and the colors are so vibrant that they have an almost OLED quality to them. And unless you have superhuman vision, there’s no way you’re going to be making out individual pixels. One area where the Mi Note falls short is brightness: with the slider maxed out, it’s still a little dim in bright daylight.