Anirudh RegidiJun 17, 2020 10:25:39 IST
This 14-inch ‘Horizon Edition’ laptop from the country’s largest smartphone maker is just what the doctor ordered for the not-so-picky consumer who wants a great laptop for everyday use.
With the Mi NoteBook series, Xiaomi has essentially designed a laptop that is smart, sensible, and beautifully crafted, and Xiaomi is offering it at a very reasonable price at that.
The standout feature of the Mi NoteBook 14 Horizon Edition (the flagship model), has to be its build quality. The laptop feels almost as solid as a unibody MacBook Pro while weighing next to nothing (1.35 kg) and still offering regular USB-A ports, a USB-C port, and even a full-size HDMI port. The dull grey, metal finish is reminiscent of Apple’s MacBooks.
Oh, and it passes that all-important one-finger-lid-open test that most laptops that are not MacBooks fail so miserably at. Speaking of, the hinge is solid and has enough friction to keep the lid perfectly stable no matter how hard you batter away at the keys. That in itself is an achievement of sorts.
On opening the lid, you’re greeted with a slightly better than average 14-inch 1080p display with narrow bezels, an unlit keyboard (Why, Xiaomi?) and a relatively tiny, but perfectly adequate trackpad. But wait. Where’s the webcam? There isn’t one. In what I can only describe as a very strange decision, Xiaomi, in this post-COVID WFH world, has decided to bundle a separate USB webcam as opposed to offering an integrated option.
The 720p-capable USB webcam is pretty decent and easy to mount, there’s no denying that, but I’d rather have a built-in webcam than something I’d have to carry separately.
The specs on my top-end review unit include an Intel Core i7-10710U Comet Lake CPU, 8 GB DDR4 RAM, 512 GB NVMe storage, a 46 Wh battery, and, interestingly, a 65 W fast charger. The inclusion of that last is an unexpected bonus and it’s nice to have a laptop that can charge to 100 percent in about 90 minutes. For reference, Apple’s wimpier MacBook Air, which sells at over twice the price (but also packs in a far better display, speakers, and trackpad), takes about 4 hrs to charge to 100 percent with its bundled 30 W charger. Still, I’d have liked to see a USB-C PD charger bundled with the Mi Notebook. It would save me the hassle of having to carry a separate charger for my phones.
In terms of OS, the laptop is running Windows 10 Home and — in what is a pleasant surprise — a bloat-free version at that. To be honest, I was initially worried that I’d be forced to deal with yet another MIUI-like ad-supported experience.
There’s no third-party antivirus – Windows Defender has always been more than enough – and there aren’t a flood of useless power and management apps to tinker around with. You also don’t get nagged with registration screens and offers for various cloud storage services that the competition just loves to bundle with its laptops.
You do get two utilities from Xiaomi pre-installed. These are Mi Smart Share and a feature that lets you automatically unlock the laptop with a Mi Band. Lastly, there’s a discreetly-placed shortcut to Mi services that links to a user guide, online services, and laptop info. I like how these icons are placed out of your way and won’t interfere with daily activities.
Let’s talk performance
Xiaomi sells the Mi NoteBook in a variety of configurations, and for the uninitiated, choosing between them will not be so easy. To understand the options, and to help you understand what you need, I’ll have to get a bit technical in the following sections. If all you’re looking for is a set of quick recommendations, feel free to skip straight to the verdict at the bottom of the page.
Xiaomi offers a 14-inch 1080p display on all Mi NoteBooks. The display is bright enough (206.7 nits) and contrasty (965:1), but it’s colour rendering (63 percent sRGB) barely qualifies as average.
Note: These values were measured via a Spyder 3 colorimeter and one can expect a five percent margin of error in the readings.
The high contrast ratio means that this is a good display for reading and writing, and it offers acceptable quality for watching video on. The poor colour gamut, however, means that it’s not a good display for editing photos and videos on. The red Netflix logo, for example, tends more towards orange than red.
Lenovo’s 15-inch IdeaPad S series laptops do come with better displays in the same price range, and if display quality matters, opt for one of those instead.
Regardless, this is not a bad display for this price segment, and there are even some gaming laptops selling at twice the price that will struggle to match the quality of this display.
CPU: Get the i5
You get a choice of two CPU options: The Intel Core i5-10210U or the Intel Core i7-10710U. The USP of the i7 is that it can turbo to an insanely high 4.9 GHz on a single core. This is great, on paper, but it has no practical value in the real world. A 4.9 GHz turbo (or an all-core 4.3 GHz turbo) will only be attainable for a few seconds, and in ideal thermal conditions at that.
More realistically, the CPU hits 4+ GHz for a few seconds before the speed drops off. Under sustained load, such as when editing a video or compiling code, the CPU drops to a much tamer 2.4-2.5 GHz. The i5-10210U will also do the same. Other than offering an insignificant short-term benefit, you will not see any benefit from the i7 CPU. In benchmarks like GeekBench, the i7 scores just 7-10 percent higher than the i5-10210U (3955 vs 3628 in GeekBench 5 MC).
Xiaomi’s thermal design is impressive in that the device runs relatively cool while not making too much noise. The bottom plate, which sits on your lap, can get hot under load, but the keyboard and palm rest region stay cool. You won’t notice any heat when just browsing the web or watching video. At the same time, the cooling system is clearly not designed for sustained loads.
In our Mozilla Firefox compile test, the MSI Prestige 14, a thin and light gaming laptop with the same CPU and similar form factor, managed to complete the build in 55 minutes. The i7 in the Mi NoteBook 14 Horizon Edition took a full 12 extra minutes to do the same.
Under bursty loads, such as the 2-minute Cinebench R20 render test, the i7 in the Mi Notebook beats the same CPU in the MSI Prestige 14 by a small margin. The 13-inch MacBook Pro’s 8th Gen i5, however, performs just as well as the Mi Notebook’s 10th Gen i7. Clearly, there’s a lot more to a CPU than just it’s specifications.
The bottom line is just this: The i7, while certainly more powerful when the stars align, will not give you any practical benefit in real-world usage. The i5 will give you essentially the same performance, while potentially offering slightly better battery life.
GPU: Light gaming or all-day battery life?
You get a choice of three GPUs: Intel UHD 620, Nvidia MX250, Nvidia MX350.
The Nvidia MX350 is an entry-level GPU with 2 GB of dedicated VRAM. It’s a great GPU for the Ultrabook form factor as it allows for gaming in a device that weighs a mere 1.3 kg, but, it’s not really a ‘gaming’ GPU. You can game, just not very well. Can it run Crysis? ‘course it can! It’s a 13-year old game after all. Can it run PUBG? Nope. Not very well, anyway.
2007’s Crysis, a PC killer in its hey-days, runs at about 50 fps at 1080p med-high settings. Frame-rate does dip below 30 on occasion though.
Apex Legends managed a playable 35-40 fps at 1080p low settings and with some noticeable stutter. You can play the game, but you won’t be competitive.
PUBG runs abysmally, offering up about 30-40 fps in empty environments, but dropping to single-digit fps when there’s any action on screen. There’s also so much stutter that you’ll be lucky to track a target at any distance. PUBG Lite runs just fine, but then again, PUBG Lite runs just fine on the UHD 620.
Esports titles like CS:GO and DOTA 2 are where the MX350 does manage to shine. Frame-rates remained consistently high at 60-80 fps, with the occasional dip to 50. And this was at 1080p High settings. Intel’s UHD 620 will struggle to give you even a cinematic 24 fps at 720p low settings. You should also manage playable frame-rates in games like Forza Horizon 4 and GTA V at their lowest settings, but don’t expect a quality gaming experience.
The MX250 should also be able to manage good frame-rates in esports titles, but you’ll have to tone settings down to med-low for a consistent experience.
Photoshop and Lightroom do benefit a bit from the GPU, but not so significantly as to warrant an upgrade. As mentioned earlier, the screen isn’t exactly suited for serious editing anyway.
Video editing performance sees little to no benefit from the GPU. The MX350 lacks support for Nvidia’s NVENC, but Intel’s QSV makes up for its absence, rendering the GPU redundant. NVENC and QSV are hardware-based mechanisms that help accelerate video encoding/decoding workloads, which helps when rendering video. This is apparent in the video conversion test, where Intel’s QSV transcodes a 90-minute mkv file to H.265 in just 20 minutes. Without QSV, that render would take three to four times as long.
4K editing is basically impossible because of severe stuttering, and 1080p edits are manageable provided you’re not running too many effects.
Storage: PCIe SSD FTW? Nope.
I’ve been saying it for years, and it’s nice to see it finally happening. Xiaomi has gone all-in on the SSD, offering nothing but SSDs in its entire line-up. As a PC enthusiast, I think this is a big deal.
SSDs or Solid-State Drives are several orders of magnitude faster than a spinning hard-disk drive (HDD). An SSD-based system will, in just about any circumstance, feel faster than an HDD-based one.
Traditional hard disks consist of spinning platters, disks that spin up to about 5,400 rpm (in laptops). Then, a magnetic sensor physically moves into position across the disk and ‘reads’ the data that’s stored in spiral tracks on the spinning platters. This is a physical process that takes a noticeable amount of time. The typical response time to access a bit of data on an HDD is about 7-20 ms. That’s fast, but when you have to access hundreds of thousands of randomly scattered bits to perform even a simple task like launching a program, or even starting up Windows, the access time adds up.
An SSD, which is basically an electronic circuit with no moving parts, will have an average access time ranging between 0.01 – 0.2 ms. That’s blisteringly quick, and the primary reason why SSDs are so fast.
Now, in the Mi NoteBook line, Xiaomi is offering two SSD options: SATA and PCIe (aka NVMe). In theory, the PCIe SSD in the Horizon Edition is orders of magnitude faster than the SATA-based SSDs in the rest of the line. In practice, that difference will not be noticeable to the user.
The jump in responsiveness when going from an HDD to SSD is significant, the jump when going from SATA to PCIe is simply not noticeable.
Without going into too much detail, the design of the SSD also plays a significant role in its performance. The PCIe SSD in the Mi NoteBook showcases a read/write transfer speed of about 3 GB/s in CrystalDiskMark. This is impressive, but my 7-years-old SATA-based Samsung 840 Evo can double that speed, seemingly ignoring the 770 MB/s limit of the SATA interface and outperforming even the very best NVMe SSDs that money can buy. Again, in the interest of brevity, this happens because of the way Samsung’s drive caches data, which shows significant benefits for short, bursty data transfer workloads.
The more thorough HDTune benchmark shows the PCIe SSD on the Mi NoteBook averaging a transfer speed of about 555 MB/s, a minimum speed of 200 MB/s, and a response time of 0.22 ms. My SATA-based Samsung SSD manages an average of 444 MB/s, a minimum of 421 MB/s, and half the response time at 0.1 ms. As is evident from the data, the SATA-based drive performs more consistently than the PCIe one in the Mi Notebook.
Point being, PCIe SSDs are not, by default, better than SATA SSDs, and don’t pick up the Horizon Edition laptop just because it has a PCIe SSD. You’ll do just fine with a SATA drive.
And just as a point of comparison, an expensive, enthusiast-grade PCIe SSD like the Corsair MP600 will hit average transfer speeds of over 2 GB/s in the same test.
Audio: Good for a Windows device in this price range
The speakers on the Mi NoteBook 14 are placed on either side, firing downwards and at an angle. As far as loudness goes, they’re loud enough to be heard over a fan or air-conditioner and are about as loud as the best speakers on any laptop in this budget. Sure, there isn’t much bass or sense of presence with the audio, but at this price, we should just be thankful that we can hear anything at all. Do note that the loudness and quality is only good relative to other Windows laptops in the price range. An iPad Mini will offer more authoritative audio.
Battery life: Best in class
Xiaomi’s claimed 10-hrs of battery life with the Mi NoteBook line. I suspect that the i5-based, GPU-less variants will hit that figure, because the similarly specced Lenovo Yoga C640 does cross the 10-hr mark.
The Horizon Edition notebook with its i7 CPU and MX350 GPU only manages about 7.5 hrs. This is still fantastic and more than enough for a full workday, especially if you don’t game.
The bundled 65 W charger juices up the device in 90 minutes, which is also great.
Misc: RAM, Webcam, mic
8 GB RAM is a good minimum and sufficient for the average student or office worker. I’d have liked to see a 16 GB option at the top end at least, or at least an option for user-upgradeable RAM, but 8 GB is admittedly enough for the kind of user this laptop is designed to satisfy.
The RAM isn’t running in dual-channel mode, but honestly, in this class of device, dual-channel just doesn’t matter.
The included USB webcam manages 720p video, and while noisy in even good lighting (even when using a 60 W studio lamp) manages to show good colours. I’d say it’s better than most in-built webcams available at this price. Still, I’d have preferred even a 480p webcam to this external one.
The laptop’s onboard mics are OK and manage to capture my voice well enough to allow for voice chat.
The keyboard, while it isn’t backlit, is great, as is the trackpad. I think Lenovo’s island keys are still better in terms of feel, but that’s an opinion coming from someone who’s a keyboard nerd, so don’t take the criticism too seriously. The keyboard is good.
Verdict and recommendations
As mentioned at the start of this review, for most users, the Mi NoteBook line is fantastic value. I cannot think of any other device in this price range that offers such a compelling combination of design, build quality, and performance. Xiaomi’s done an excellent job of balancing features and specifications at every price point in the lineup.
If you’re a content creator, photographer, or gamer, however, up your budget a bit and skip the Mi NoteBook line in its entirety. For gamers and video editors on a budget, look at ASUS’ TUF line of gaming notebooks, MSI’s GL65/66 series, and Lenovo’s Y series laptops. For people who need quality screens, you can opt for Lenovo’s Yoga line or higher end Ideapad laptops.
For everyone else, here’s what I’d recommend:
- Mi NoteBook 14 Horizon Edition (Core i7, 8 GB RAM, 512 GB PCIe SSD, Nvidia MX350) - Rs 59,999: This one is overkill. The i7 and PCIe SSD are not going to offer any tangible performance benefits and is best avoided. Spend the money you save on an external HDD or carrying case.
- Mi NoteBook 14 Horizon Edition (Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 512 GB SSD, Nvidia MX350) - Rs 54,999: If you want an Ultrabook-class device that you can game on, this is the one to get. It offers the right balance of performance and portability for light gaming on the go. Performance should be identical to the more expensive i7 model in actual usage.
- Mi NoteBook 14 (Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 512 GB SSD, Nvidia MX250) - Rs 47,999: If you’re opting for a GPU for light gaming, go with the more expensive Horizon edition with the MX350 option. The MX350 is borderline acceptable for gaming. The MX250 will be much slower.
- Mi NoteBook 14 (Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 512 GB SSD) - Rs 44,999: This is the best value for most users. The i5 and lack of dedicated GPU means that you’re guaranteed excellent performance in daily tasks that don’t include gaming, and you’ll also get excellent battery life. 512 GB storage is also the minimum I’d recommend for most users.
- Mi Notebook 14 (Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 256 GB SSD) - Rs 41,999: As with the top-end Horizon Edition model, I’d say skip this one. You’re getting double the storage for just Rs 3k more, and the upgrade is more than justified in my books. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll run out of space with a 256 GB model.
Build And Design: 4
Keyboard And Trackpad: 3.5
Overall rating: 4
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