As we settle into the second half of the year, where Apple and Google reveal their next-gen flagships, the smartphone market should ideally cool down. But not in India, where it’s a bonanza of smartphones from LG, Asus and newcomer Xiaomi. The Mi 3 is in many ways the phone that will define Xiaomi in India, even though it won’t be the one selling the most. That honour could lie with either of the Redmi phones that will follow soon, but Mi 3 signals Xiaomi’s intent. Is it a good start?
Design and build quality
Boy, is it a good start. The Mi 3 exudes confidence from the moment it’s in your hands. The well-disguised silver back on our review unit could pass off for metal even on second glance, but tap on it and you can tell it’s plastic. That’s no slight, though, as the feel is very much like metal too, which also means there will be times when it feels cold and slippery.
The front of the phone is all black, with a single cut-out for the earpiece on top. This is in fact quite recessed, which means grime gets in easily. There are three capacitive buttons on the bottom. Xiaomi uses the old Menu button, instead of the current multi-tasking or Recent Apps button, but each capacitive key can be configured to do double-duty through settings (more on the software later).
There’s a silver MI on the top left, which is the only branding. It’s also on the back in the lower portion. The back is plain otherwise save for the square camera on top and the dual LED flash, microphone next to it.
The volume rocker and power button are crammed on the right, which looks less elegant than the traditional arrangement. The buttons themselves are carved out of metal, and have good tactile feedback, and are not hard to find at all, stick out as they do from the body.
The top and bottom are flat, unlike the rounded edges. The top has the 3.5mm jack, a mini SIM slot (that’s the big one, mind you, so you might need adaptors if moving from a micro or nano SIM), and a noise cancelling mic. The bottom has the speaker grille, which takes up much of the space, but it’s actually just a mono speaker. Next to it is the rather straight-looking microUSB port, which takes in the cable hook-side facing down.
Overall, we were more than pleased with the build quality and ergonomics, though at times a rubberised case would have made us feel more assured about gripping it.
Display and performance
The 5-inch full HD display is a joy to view and use. It’s bright, peppy and vibrant without being over-saturated. Viewing angles are very good too, and Xiaomi packs in some basic colour temperature and saturation settings for you to get it just right.
The Mi 3 did not give us any stutters or freezes in operation. The Snapdragon 800 SoC, the 2GB of RAM deliver what they promise, and everything from camera operation to playing games, and switching between apps was smooth. MIUI is infamous for being a buggy OS, but the Mi 3’s raw performance powers it past these minor impedances.
Multimedia performance was great. 1080p videos look sumptuous on this screen, which has renders dark scene with as much aplomb as colourful frames. The audio experience is equally good, through earphones, headphones and even through the speaker. The stock music app is quite slick and easily lets you see tagged lyrics and change tracks, while letting the album art shine.
The mono speaker on the bottom was actually quite powerful and delivered enough detail to make us use it regularly. Volume during calls is quite terrific too, despite the recessed earpiece and the grime that it’s prone to collect.
While performance is not a hitch, the UI of Xiaomi’s custom skin is another matter altogether. MIUI has been in development for years and having used it during the Android Gingerbread days, I can say that not much has changed, even though this is Android KitKat. The massive amount of themes makes it fun to keep tinkering with the OS’s look.
But out of the box, there’s one thing you cannot change; MIUI does not have an app drawer so all new and system apps are laid out on an ever-expanding number of homescreens. Thankfully, MIUI has native widgets support, so you don’t end up with an iOS lookalike. The widget support does give users a lot more freedom to arrange their screen. For example, you could have all your music and video apps with the music player widget; and all your productivity apps with the glorious Keep widget. In any case, if you hate MIUI, this is Android and with Google Play support to boot. So go crazy with launchers.
I have not brushed up on my custom ROM history, but MIUI was possibly the first custom ROMs to bring in a full page of toggles, along side the notification area. At any time 11 toggles are present and there are others you can drag in, but not more or less than eleven, which is possibly all the toggles one would need. The brightness slider lets you set the minimum brightness, and the auto brightness sensor does not dip below that mark, which is great for outdoors.
Xiaomi packs in a lot of settings for each aspect from display to sound to how the toggles are arranged in the drawer. It lets you adjust sound according to the kind of earphones plugged in, and lets you tweak long-press actions for the capacitive keys.
It also lets you choose the permissions each app can access. In fact, when it comes to permissions, MIUI does a better job than stock Android, alerting users when apps tries to access contacts or phone info, and letting them select the action, and whether to allow the app access. Speculation is such a feature is coming with Android L, but MIUI has it right at the moment.
Other than the homescreen arrangement and the extensive theming through the UI, including in core apps such as phone, messaging and contacts, the Mi 3 is any other Android phone and it runs all apps that you would on a Nexus 5 or any other comparable smartphone with ease.
The 13-megapixel camera does a decent job outdoors and indoors. The dreary weather of the last few days did not allow us to test it extensively outside, but the few shots we did manage were quite good and something that’s expected from a 13MP sensor. The front camera is quite adequate too, and should work fine for selfies or video calls. Here are some samples.
Xiaomi has made big claims about its HDR mode, and it’s surely snappy. While the results are not super impressive, it does not overly saturate the image. Burst mode is a charm to use. You could easily shoot around 50 images in four seconds. The stock camera UI comes with native filters and a skin tone adjustment tool. It also features a panorama mode.
The Mi 3 is stellar in the battery department, when it comes to battery life and charging speed. We got a full days’ usage without any issue as the Mi 3 conserves power brilliantly when not in use. We never found ourselves fretting about the Mi 3 dying on us on our way back home, because it always had enough to get through the next hour and more. Xiaomi has also built in PC-like power management profiles which lets you select the use case such as high-performance or power-saving mode.
What’s brilliant is that the phone charges very quickly. In about 30 minutes, we went from 0 to 40 percent, which is a boon if you are constantly pulling down cellular data, on the move.
Verdict and price in India
It’s been a great month for Indian smartphone buyers of all budgets. You have the superbly-priced and brilliantly-produced Zenfone series from Asus. Then there’s the LG G3, the best high-end Android in the market currently, and possibly the phone of the year. And then we have the Mi 3.
It’s brilliant in nearly every aspect. I say ‘nearly’ because there’s one audience that the Mi 3 is not for, and I am part of that pool. During the course of the review my trusty Nexus 4’s display went bust and I have been struggling with the notion of buying a new phone, because seriously there’s just so much choice. Was the Xiaomi Mi 3 for me? It’s almost identical in specs to the Nexus 5 and at half the price. But I turned it down because the custom ROM support for this phone is negligible. Having become used to mods and flashing aftermarket ROMs on a weekly basis, I could never imagine giving that up for the Mi 3.
Secondly, MIUI is all-pervasive and we don’t know yet how Xiaomi will respond to the massive paradigm shift that is Material Design. MIUI is from a different era of Android, one where Android and design did not meet, but as third-party apps and more of Google’s apps make the shift to Material Design, MIUI is going to feel ancient and far-removed from Google’s vision. Yes, Xiaomi may manage to release an Android L-based MIUI as soon as it’s out, but whether it will be able to retain any of that slick L UI is still a big question.
But don’t let that nitpicking digression distract you from the verdict; those are not the considerations of an average smartphone user in any case. The Xiaomi Mi 3 is fantastic; it’s near-perfect. For its price, it’s without parallel, and any talk about competition is hollow given how the Xiaomi Mi 3 has performed in our hands. It’s Android at heart and brings with it all the familiar customisation options to change the UI, which is honestly the only demerit. Regardless of whether you can afford to pay three times the asking price, the Xiaomi Mi 3 is the one to go with (when it's back in stock).