2016 is shaping up to be a great year for smartphones — and the Xioami Mi 5 is an embodiment of many of the best trends. Like Samsung’s Galaxy S7, the Mi 5 is a handsome mix of the latest specs and Android software, and it checks off most of the requisite boxes for a premium mobile device: beautiful display, fast fingerprint sensor, large battery, and the latest LTE modem. But unlike traditional flagships, Xiaomi’s new premier smartphone doesn’t cost upwards of $600.
Xiaomi is one of China’s most popular brands precisely because of its fanatical commitment to having the most aggressive specs-to-price ratio. It sees itself as a mobile internet company first (hence the "Mi" in its product names) and strives to make a profit not by selling hardware but by selling stuff via that hardware. That makes it imperative to create phones that are as cheap and, at the same time, as pleasurable to use as possible, which only serves to benefit Xiaomi’s users. By now, it might be trite to say that premium smartphone features keep trickling down to lower price tiers, but they really are, and it’s companies like Xiaomi that are pushing that trend hardest and fastest.
You can't buy it in the west... yet
The Mi 5 is only available in China and neighboring countries that Xiaomi already operates in, and the company remains cagey about expansion plans into Europe and the United States, but this new flagship did have its official launch in Barcelona during Mobile World Congress. That, along with the launch of Xiaomi’s global accessories store last summer, signals a Chinese company on the cusp of breaking beyond its status as a regional power.
First impressions of the Xiaomi Mi 5 are favorable, owing to its glamorous appearance, though they’re offset by some concerns about the handset’s fit and finish. A glossy glass back curves into a metal frame, which wraps around to the front and culminates in a chamfered edge1. Reflections dance prettily across those chamfers and glass to lend the Mi 5 a sophisticated look, which is helped by the almost complete absence of side bezels on the front. Xiaomi makes very efficient use of the space around this phone’s attractive 5.15 inch display, fitting a home button with built-in fingerprint sensor next to capacitive touch controls at the bottom.
It looks very much like a smaller Galaxy Note 5, however Xiaomi’s quick to point out that its own Mi Note, which preceded the Note 5, was first to introduce this particular design early last year.
The more time I spent with the Mi 5, the more it reminded me of a smartphone by another young Chinese company: the OnePlus X. Both handsets are designed to grab the eye, but both falter in terms of practicality and durability. My initial Mi 5 review unit had a nasty sharp edge at the bottom, and its fit and finish was actually so bad that I was able to pry open its rear case. That’s not a feature Xiaomi advertises because the back is not supposed to be removable — though the good news might be that you can easily reattach it, like any plastic cover. Let’s just say there’s room for improvement in Xiaomi’s quality assurance department.
The Mi 5 has a bigger screen and a higher (1080p) resolution than Apple’s iPhone 6S, but is practically identical in size. Because it doesn’t have a full metal construction, Xiaomi’s phone is also noticeably lighter, and because it’s tailored to the Chinese market2, it has a pair of nano-SIM card slots.
Don’t fret about it lacking Google Play Services. The international version of the Mi 5 comes will the full suite of Google apps and access to the Play Store.
Fingerprints and dust are as much a nuisance on the black Mi 5 as they are on Samsung’s Galaxy S line, and only the white variant will be suitable for people with a low tolerance for blemishes. The Mi 5’s rear is also slippery, which caused the phone to slide off flat surfaces on more than one occasion in my testing. It’s not a problem for handling the phone, which has its buttons in all the right places — volume rocker and power button within easy reach of the right thumb — and is actually a breeze to use with a single hand.
The new Snapdragon 820 chip simply sings
Though it shares a price tier with the $249 OnePlus X phone, Xiaomi’s Mi 5 pulls ahead in the specs department. And I’m talking meaningful specs. The Mi 5’s Snapdragon 820 chipset is literally years ahead of the 801 inside the X, and its inclusion pays off in a big way. Firstly, I don’t think I’ve seen better LTE performance from any phone I’ve tested yet. Qualcomm makes a big deal out of the X12 modem built into the Snapdragon 820 and I can vouch for its benefits. The Mi 5 maintained signal even inside the lower floor of a mall3 where I usually lose connectivity, so I couldn’t be more satisfied with it. Voice calls were another highlight, with my brother asking me if I’m reviewing a new phone because I sounded better than usual4. The 820 processor also delivers great performance, making the Mi 5 capable of playing any game or taking on any processing task with ease. For my purposes, the most important part of that is simply the phone’s responsiveness, which is generally fast and hard to criticize.
Yes, we have malls in the UK. Yes, they are as awful as in the US.
Usual being an iPhone 6S Plus.
Beyond fit and finish, which even on my replacement Mi 5 isn’t quite as perfect and refined as on Samsung’s new Galaxy devices, the one aspect that betrays the Mi 5’s budget price is its camera. Let me be clear: this phone’s camera is not bad, but neither is it as great as its specs would suggest. Featuring four-axis stabilization, deep trench isolation (to prevent colors from bleeding into one another), phase-detect autofocus, and Sony’s latest 16-megapixel sensor, it’s supposed to be a "true flagship camera," but it rather left me underwhelmed.
Having experienced the glories of LG’s V10, Apple’s iPhone 6S Plus, Google’s Nexus 6P, and Samsung’s Note 5, I just can’t look at the pictures the Mi 5 takes and be impressed. Sharpness and color accuracy are both lacking, even in well illuminated images. Xiaomi relies on Qualcomm’s image-processing engine — which happens to be exact area where companies like Apple, Samsung, and LG pour in their biggest investments to improve — and that holds it back.
On the plus side, low-light images don’t exhibit as much degradation as most other cameras, suggesting that the Mi 5’s sensor is indeed a good one, and the camera’s speed and performance are very good. I’m also impressed by the video stabilization of this handset, and it happens to have one of the better selfie cameras on the market right now. So it’s a mixed bag: I’m okay with relying on the Mi 5 for casual snaps, but I find myself longing for something like an LG G4 when I know I’ll want to save a photo for posterity.
Constant software updates are part of Xiaomi's business model
Xiaomi’s first software build had as many issues as the device it was provided on. I wasn’t even able to scroll through the options on the setup screen. I bring this up only to illustrate how fast Xiaomi is moving, because a week after Mobile World Congress, a new handset arrived at my door and it had none of the bugs I initially encountered. Hugo Barra made the point, while introducing the Mi 5, that no other company issues as many software updates as Xiaomi does with MIUI, calling it "a living OS." I’m testing the international variant, so I don’t quite get the regular weekly patches that Xiaomi’s Chinese audience enjoys, but I still appreciate the company’s commitment and speed. Unlike pure hardware vendors, who might consider their relationship with the customer concluded at the point of sale, Xiaomi has a direct business interest in keeping its users happy long after the initial device sale. Remember where its money is made.
As to MIUI itself, it’s an Android skin that predates Xiaomi’s hardware business and there’s good reason for why it has endured as long as it has. People like it because it’s relatively clean and simple, plus it’s now built up a respectable library of themes and customizations. This is the first Android skin where I actually found a theme and a visual style that I enjoy more than the Android default. It’s not because it’s necessarily better, but it’s pretty and adds a refreshing bit of diversity.
Xiaomi has a couple of other handy tricks up its software sleeve that I found really useful. One is a built-in call recording option that I think every phone should have. It’s unbelievably convenient, whether you’re conducting a phone interview or just keen to document a Comcast customer support call. The other big thing is granular app management, allowing you to select which apps can show what notifications, which apps can work in the background, and which apps can use roaming data. It’s almost PC-like in the depth of detail and control it provides, which means it won’t be for everyone, but those who want to get a firm grasp on their Android experience will appreciate these options in a big way.
It doesn’t end there, as Xiaomi’s software throws up helpful tips like letting me know that the phone will still turn on for the alarm if I’m trying to power it down, or offering me the option to turn off just the next instance of my recurring alarm. Small touches, but they build toward a better experience overall. The only annoyance that I found was the lack of an option to directly delete or otherwise interact with emails from the notifications menu — that’s something I make regular use of on other Android devices. As a whole, though, the combination of Xiaomi’s intelligent additions and the Snapdragon 820’s brilliant speed and responsiveness make this a fun and enjoyable phone to use.
Last, but certainly not least, on the Mi 5’s list of strengths is this phone’s battery life. The 3,000mAh battery inside is claimed by the company to have the highest density in any consumer device yet, and it’s married to new display backlight technology that makes the Mi 5’s screen as much as 17 percent more efficient than previous generations. Those attributes are helped by the Snapdragon 820’s efficiency — this new chip exhibits none of the overheating and power consumption flaws that plagued last year’s 810 — and Android Marshmallow’s Doze mode for powering down the phone’s radios when not in active use. The result is a phone that causes me no anxiety about being away from a charger. From the start of a busy day until late in the evening, I’m consuming roughly a third of the Mi 5’s battery, and it takes me as much as 22 hours to go through half of it. One day’s use is easy, and two days aren’t out of the question with some judicious power management. HTC’s One A9 and the OnePlus X are in the same size and weight class as the Mi 5, but both are comfortably surpassed by Xiaomi’s new flagship.
Xiaomi has put the strength of its convictions into the Mi 5
Xiaomi’s Mi 5 fits a lot of easy classifications. Yes, it’s a poor person’s Galaxy S7. And yes, it’s another Chinese phone that wants to wow buyers with good looks and high specs. But what distinguishes it is how good it is at accomplishing its goals. I thought the OnePlus X was good value for money, but the Mi 5 demolishes that idea and sets a much higher benchmark, with better software and better hardware. The old copycat label has also been well and truly shed, and while I think Xiaomi can refine its designs and improve on the quality of its manufacturing, I have no lingering doubts about the originality of its work.
At a time when HTC has cynically fallen in line with other iPhone copycat makers, it’s heartening to see others like Xiaomi putting the strength of their convictions behind their latest devices. I’ve used almost every smartphone introduced over the past six years and the Mi 5 still feels fresh and distinct in its own particular way.
The Mi 5 drags premium performance and features down into an even lower price tier. Its arrival is bad news for Xiaomi’s competitors but good news for consumers. This is as much smartphone as almost anyone will need, and for its price, I'm willing to forgive a couple of understandable shortcomings.