Xiaomi Mi4 review: excellent hardware for a fair price
Xiaomi is a company we didn’t have a lot of experience with before last month, and understandably so. The Chinese company is only four years old and didn’t start expanding its business internationally until last year.
Clearly, the company is doing something right, though. Its Mi3 handset from earlier this year has reportedly sold out in mere minutes on more than one occasion and Xiaomi replaced LG as the fifth-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world earlier this month.
Back in July, Xiaomi announced the newest addition to its high-end smartphone lineup, the Mi4. The specs and pricing seem great, but can Xiaomi pull it all together to provide the full package, an all-encompassing experience with classy hardware? As proven time and again by its competition, that is no small feat.
We’ve now been using the Mi4 for eight days and below you will find our thoughts.
One last time, we’d like to thank 28mobile for lending us this Mi4 for review. If you would like a Mi4 of your own, click here or go to 28mobile.com where you can also browse dozens of other devices to purchase!
Xiaomi Mi4 Review Video
Specs & Hardware
Earning a reputation as the “Apple of China,” Xiaomi has always received flak for its lack of imagination, seemingly taking a heaping dose of inspiration from Apple’s topnotch products. And from the very first time the public saw what would ultimately become the Mi4, it was mocked for being very “iPhone-like.”
With a steel band wrapping around the edges of the phone, it certainly shares some visual similarities with Apple’s last four generations of iPhones, and we feel it also bears some resemblance to the Nokia Lumia Icon. But to get caught up on such details in a market full of smartphones which are all rectangular slabs is to miss the point entirely – not to mention, a complete waste of time.
Xiaomi holds high standards for its build quality, and the Mi4 is no exception. The steel chassis is precision-machined through 40 different processes and 193 individual steps. Xiaomi uploaded a video introducing its manufacturing process – and it’s just as impressive as it sounds. That attention to detail definitely translates down into the handset itself. We expressed how nice the phone’s hardware was in our unboxing video – our first ever hands-on experience with the device.
At 149g, it bears a certain heft that often implies great build quality. Even the minor details, such as the SIM tray also being built form the same steel as the chassis, are made with care. The tray fits very snugly – forgive the cliché, but like a glove – into its slot. And it feels extremely sturdy in the hand – no amount of gripping or squeezing the phone caused any squeaking or creaking in the hardware.
The only part of the Mi4’s design we weren’t crazy about is the glossy plastic around back. It makes the phone unnecessarily slick while creating an unsightly contrast to the high-end steel around the edges. Fortunately, this backplate is swappable – more styles and colors will be available soon.
Xiaomi didn’t give us much to complain about on the inside either. The Mi4 comes with some of the best specifications you can find in a high-end smartphone today: a Snapdragon 801 with a 2.5GHz quad-core Krait 400 CPU and Adreno 330 GPU run the show. It has 3GB RAM, 16GB or 64GB of storage – our model is the 16GB version – with no option to expand, and a non-removable 3,080mAh battery. The primary camera on the Mi4 is a 13-megapixel sensor capable of recording 4K video. And the front camera is an impressive 8 megapixels.
One of the most notable features of the Mi4, however, is the display. At five inches diagonally with a resolution of 1080p, it manages a respectable density of 441 pixels per inch. Colors pop quite a bit, and the black levels are relatively deep. It also has a wide brightness range, stretching from barely visible to nearly painful to look at. Text and the edges of icons are all crisp, and video playback is fantastic.
It’s a gorgeous display and our only two complaints are how warm the picture is in comparison to other current smartphones and the side visibility, which seems to dramatically taper-off at certain angles.
In all, the Mi4 is built exceptionally well. We’d go as far as to say it’s one of the nicest pieces of Android hardware around today, though we’d love to see and feel what it’s like with a different backplate style.
The Mi4 shipped with Android 4.4.2 KitKat on-board beneath Xiaomi’s globally popular MIUI software. Preloaded is MIUI 5, although MIUI 6 has now entered beta. Seeing as MIUI 6 isn’t ready for consumer release yet, we kept MIUI 5 installed and opted out of MIUI 6 … for now.
The first thing we noticed about this version of MIUI is that Google Play services are not pre-installed. That means no Google Play store, Gmail, Hangouts, Maps, or any other Google application available out of the box. Instead, the phone’s loaded with Xiaomi’s own services: Mi Market, a theme store, and the Mi store app. And, of course, Xiaomi provides all the necessary applications to completely replace Google’s services suite entirely.
However, the Mi Market was almost entirely in Chinese and virtually impossible to navigate. We discovered that (unofficially) installing Google Play services is actually very simple and can be done through the Mi Market in a matter of minutes. Using this method, we were able to install all our previously purchased applications, games, and other content.
Other Xiaomi smartphones come with Google Play services installed, so this issue is likely limited to the China-specific model. If history repeats itself, other global editions of this phone will likely ship with Google Play on-board.
One of MIUI’s defining features is the lack of an application drawer – all applications reside on the home screens. You must leave every application on a multitude of home screens or throw them all into folders for the slightest hint of organization. After spending upwards of an hour getting everything into a corresponding folder, we were frustrated to learn that when you delete an icon or folder, everything else will shift, completely throwing off the previous layout – annoying, to say the least.
The other differentiator is a very powerful theme engine. Using the dedicated theme store application, thousands of themes can be purchased and downloaded. These allow users to greatly alter the appearance of the phone’s UI, from lock and home screens to the notification shade, and even the settings application. Most of the themes are premium, requiring between one and six Mi Credits, the currency used in Xiaomi’s stores. However, it isn’t difficult to find some nice free themes.
The nitty gritty features are undoubtedly the highlight of MIUI. The more you dig through the settings, the more things you will find to tweak and customize. For example, there are standard features like guest mode and do-not-disturb, but you can also customize what long-pressing a hardware button will do, or how the settings toggles in the notification shade appear – as a bar at the bottom or as a dedicated page. You can also customize what the in-line buttons on headphones do, what the notification LED can do, and more.
With MIUI, the user experience is truly yours to own. That said, there is a much darker side to MIUI, a side that’s filled with quirks, bugs, and glitches.
We lost count of how many times the phone completely froze and the touchscreen quit working. The capacitive buttons would still sort of work, but the phone was pretty much useless until you performed a hard reset by holding the power button for around 10 seconds. This happened quite frequently and seemed completely random in most cases, but was very easy to replicate by changing themes or the notification shade layout.
On the bright side, Xiaomi delivers very rapid, weekly software updates. We installed two OTA updates in our time with the Mi4 and the issue was not resolved – it may have actually gotten a little worse with the most recent update.
But those aren’t enough to snuff out the idiosyncrasies of the software entirely. For instance, pop-up applications like Link Bubble and the fill window in LastPass simply didn’t work at all. And applications which require location services regularly could not detect our correct location. The Speedtest.net application suggested “nearby” severs in New York, Texas, Georgia, and Kentucky. Not once did it offer a nearby server in Virginia or North Carolina like it typically does. And don’t even get us started on permissions. MIUI is like the Windows Vista of Android versions: there is a security prompt for everything.
MIUI is one of the most adaptable versions of Android on the planet. My personal experience dates back to 2010, when it was brand new. Xiaomi has only added functionality since then, but its appearance, despite the thousands of themes, hasn’t progressed beyond the overbearing and overproduced Android interfaces of 2012.
As nice as MIUI is on the surface, it’s a hot mess underneath – to the point that it’s very frustrating to use for an extended period of time. Some things just don’t work like you’d expect them to, and having to reboot the phone multiple times per day is unacceptable.
The camera software has two modes: simple and advanced. Essentially, the only difference is the number of features shown to you and how they’re displayed. In advanced, you get things like manual focus, exposure, and white balance. Simple mode is more concerned with things like filters and shooting modes, like panorama or HDR.
The viewfinder software itself looks a bit dated, but it’s easy to learn and navigate.
Images captured with the Mi4 are pretty average. Its performance in great lighting outdoors is great. Saturation is a little on the heavy side – which is par for the course in smartphone image sensing – and there’s plenty of detail for cropping in post. Contrast is a little lower than we’d like, but for the most part, images were fine. We were happy with more than a few photos taken with the Mi4, but there were just as many – if not more – that turned out dull, blurry, or out-of-focus.
The Mi4 is particularly bad indoors and in low light situations. Images are noisy, dark, and colors lose most of their saturation. Fortunately, HDR mode worked exceptionally well. We shot a few HDR photos on an overcast day and it made the photo pop without a noticeable halo effect – although it was obviously an HDR photo.
It also comes with a refocus mode. Like Nokia’s refocus application, it requires planning ahead. You must first plan to want to refocus the photo later, which is a bit of a drag. But if you want a refocusing feature similar to that of the Duo Camera, it does work quite well.
Video quality was on par with stills. Colors were very saturated and it was quick to overexpose, but focusing happened in an instant. There was also some stabilization software at work, which caused warping and distortion in the image, and the audio, while not bad, made the videos almost unbearable to listen to due to incessant clipping.
The front camera, despite the higher-than-normal resolution, isn’t mind-boggling. Sure, it’s better than most front cameras and has several times the resolution, but most images were washed-out and lifeless. We found some competing front-facing cameras to be better than the Mi4’s, but this one will definitely do for high-quality selfies and video calls.
Performance is a high point of the Mi4. Thanks to the Snapdragon 801, gaming was very enjoyable, providing a smooth and lag-free experience. The same goes for multimedia playback and everyday tasks. Scrolling, pinch-zooming, and opening or switching applications all happened smoothly and quickly. However, the home screen showed signs of stuttering and lag quite often, particularly with the animation for opening a folder. There was a slight hesitation and stutter about half the time. This is something we didn’t expect to see on such a high-end phone that performed so well in almost every other area.
Benchmark scores were also great, though not the best we’ve ever seen. And we had no notable issues with the phone getting too hot, even as hard as we pushed it with gaming, benchmarking, and multitasking. The handset would get a little warm, sure, but not what we would consider hot to the touch.
The single speaker along the bottom edge is the hurdle of the multimedia experience on the Mi4. It can output a fair amount of volume, but the sound is tinny and muffled most of the time. Music playback was okay, but when playing mostly spoken videos on YouTube and movies, we’d suggest opting for headphones.
Being the Chinese-specific model, we didn’t focus too much on call quality or network performance; this phone isn’t optimized for use here in the States. Data speeds prove that, as we were limited to HSPA+ on T-Mobile here in the Piedmont Triad area of North Carolina. We did average some respectable speeds, though: 6Mbps down and 1.5Mbps up. Call quality was middle of the road, as well. In-call audio through the earpiece speaker was fine and callers mentioned no issues hearing us, but we wouldn’t call the quality anything but average.
Without proper network optimization, battery life is also subject to serious discrepancies. Still, we can say, all things considered, we’ve been very impressed with the battery life of the Mi4. It comes with a fixed 3,080mAh battery, which easily lasted us around a day and a half of use with over four hours of screen-on time per charge. That was through moderately heavy testing, playing graphically intensive games like Modern Combat 5, watching YouTube videos, browsing Reddit and Twitter, emailing, and texting.
However, we found the battery usage in Settings to be unreliable. After shooting an entire comparison video with gaming, screen tests, and nearly an hour of screen-on time, the battery usage menu only listed the screen-on time as 55 seconds (this was likely due to the incessant freezing from switching themes).
+ Excellent hardware and build quality
+ Extra slim bezels and a gorgeous display
+ Great battery life and performance
+ Very flexible software
– Limited LTE band support
– Constant freezes and hangs from the software
– No built-in Google Play services
Pricing and Availability
Currently, the Mi4 can be purchased via Xiaomi’s store at mi.com, starting at 1999 yuan, or approximately 325 USD. It comes in either white or black and with 16 or 64GB of fixed storage. If you’re outside China, you will have to import the Mi4 to your country through a third-party retailer like 28mobile, which may mean paying extra taxes.
Current network support is limited to:
2G: GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz
3G: WCDMA 850/ 900/1900/2100MHz
4G: TDD-LTE 2570-2620/1880-1920/2300-2400
So what do we make of all this? Frankly, the Xiaomi Mi4 is an impressive handset, especially for the price. Of course, once it officially launches in other countries, the phone will become more affordable for those outside China. But right now, even with import taxes, the phone is cheaper than most no-contract, high-end smartphones.
The hardware is solid, inside and out: the display is crisp, bright, and vibrant; the specs are comparable to LG’s G3; and the steel chassis seems rather resilient, showing no signs of wear so far. It feels great in the hand and remains one the best-built Android smartphones around.
MIUI has potential. It’s packed full of plenty of useful features and comes with thousands of themes to choose from. The appearance of MIUI is truly in the hands of the user. Hopefully, MIUI 6 will bring some much-needed stability. But for now, it’s the software which keeps the Mi4 from being a full package. The bugs and constant freezing were impossible to overlook.
Would we recommend it? If you want exceptional hardware for relatively cheap and can deal with some bugs – absolutely. Otherwise, we’d recommend something a little more reliable and refined – the LG G3, HTC One M8, or Samsung Galaxy S5 are great places to start.