Cheap phones are increasingly starting to feel way more premium than their prices would lead you to expect. We saw this with Huawei's Honor 5X at CES in January, and just this week I got my hands on Xiaomi's Redmi Note 3, another phone that's setting the bar for the level of design and quality that $200-ish phones can achieve. Like other phones from the popular Chinese vendor, this one can't be had in the United States; we'll have to stick with Motorola for our decent, inexpensive selection of handsets. But Xiaomi seems to be operating on another level, and it starts with the Note 3's metal build.
These phones still look a little boring and uninspired; you've got the camera in the center, and right underneath that is a circular fingerprint reader. Standard stuff, and it's hard to tell this apart from other current Android devices. But even if Xiaomi isn't particularly creative, it's at least producing hardware that feels great in your hand. The Redmi Note 3 absolutely does. It's well balanced and easy to hold thanks to tiny side bezels around its 5.5-inch 1080p display.
Inside is a Snapdragon 650 processor, 16GB of storage (with microSD suppport), 2GB of RAM, and an enormous 4,050mAh battery. A pricier step-up model ups the built-in storage to 32GB and memory to 3GB. That's the version I tested. The software story hasn't changed from what we've seen previously; Xiaomi's take on Android is much different than you're probably accustomed to, sans any type of app drawer and with an interface that's nowhere close to Google's stock OS. To its credit, everything feels very fast and fluid.
My limited time with the Redmi Note 3 tells me that the camera is its weak point, delivering underwhelming results despite a 16-megapixel sensor and speedy autofocus. But for under $200, this is still a mighty impressive package. Xiaomi still isn't ready to tackle the US smartphone market just yet, but we look forward to the day that it does and starts pressuring other phone makers to offer a lot for a relatively small price — free of contracts or financing plans.