Xiaomi Mi 3 Review: If Apple ever made an Android smartphone…

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Four years ago Xiaomi didn’t exist and until earlier this year, the brand did not sell outside of mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. So it isn’t surprising when people ask Xiaomi, who? Yet, the Chinese sensation that is often called the Apple of the East, has its fan base all over the world, including India where over 100,000 consumers pre-registered to buy the Xiaomi Mi 3 smartphone, which goes on sale today.

Xiaomi (pronounced as shao-me) sells high quality smartphones almost at cost. It makes money over the life cycle of the product as component costs come down as well as selling accessories that have higher margins. Consumers benefit by getting high quality hardware at a fraction of the cost of what a typical tier one brand would sell the same hardware specifications.

The Xiaomi Mi 3 is no different. Priced at just Rs 13,999, the Mi 3 features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset with a quad-core processor clocked at 2.3GHz, 2GB of RAM, a 5-inch 1080p IPS display with Gorilla Glass protection, a 13-megapixel camera and 16GB of internal storage. A similarly specced smartphone like the Sony Xperia Z1 costs nearly Rs 35,000!

xiaomi-mi-3-review-4Xiaomi has launched just the metallic gray version of the Mi 3 in India. The device looks and feels premium and the matte finish plastic initially fooled me as being metal. The tall design with curves on the edges reminded me of the short-lived Nokia N9, which in my opinion has to be one of the best designed smartphones ever made. The front is dominated by the 5-inch display with capacitive menu buttons at the bottom. The bezels are not as thin as one finds in smartphones these days, but then the Mi 3 was launched last year and this can be expected. Overall, the Xiaomi Mi 3 feels great to hold and doesn’t come across like the plasticky toys that many brands churn out these days.

Like many high-end premium smartphones, the Xiaomi Mi3 also boasts a magnesium alloy frame for extra sturdiness and comes with precision grilled holes at the bottom for the speaker. The top houses the 3.5mm audio port as well as the SIM card tray – the Xiaomi Mi 3 uses a full size (mini SIM) card, which is a rarity these days. The right spine sports the power and volume rocker keys while the micro-USB port is at the bottom.

But the secret sauce of Xiaomi’s success is only partly due to its hardware and pricing strategy. That anyone with the right resources and intent can replicate. What cannot be replicated is the software, which the company calls MIUI. It is based on the AOSP version of Android (which both Nokia and Amazon also use in their Android devices) but comes with the complete Google suite of services including the Play Store, Gmail, Google Maps and the works. The Xiaomi Mi 3 runs on Android 4.4.2 in India.

xiaomi-mi-3-review-3The user interface, however, has been reworked to mimic a very iOS like interface with no application drawer like most Android smartphones. It reminded me somewhat of Gionee’s Amigo UI but with MIUI you can also add widgets on the home screens. The part I like the most is you can uninstall all the pre-loaded apps including Xiaomi’s own browser. This is something I have never seen before and users are typically stuck with a number of pre-installed bloatware that is never used.

Also, while setting up the phone for the first time, users can choose between Swipe or Google keyboard – two of the best keyboard solutions on Android – rather than having its own keyboard, which users are most likely to replace with either of the two.

Xiaomi also provides users with a number of themes that can change the look and feel of the device completely. Many of these themes have been created by Xiaomi’s fans and the list is updated regularly. Presently, all of the themes are free to download in India.

My favorite part of MIUI, however, is the security feature Xiaomi has added. One major problem with Android is that most app seek access to features that they have no business with and most of the times we don’t read the permissions while installing them.
A security feature in the Mi 3 allows users to see exactly what permissions individual apps seek and you can allow or deny the app to get access to it. While not foolproof, but it limits the chances of rogue apps sending text messages to premium numbers, for instance.

Another feature in the same app lets users see which apps are consuming how much data and limit individual apps from accessing costly cellular data and enabling them to connect over a Wi-Fi connection only.

The Xiaomi Mi 3 doesn’t disappoint  in performance either. I have been using the Mi 3 for a week now and not once did I feel it struggling to perform day to day tasks. With about two hours of Internet surfing, three hours of WhatsApp, an hour of calls and two Gmail accounts, the Mi 3 was easily able to last me an entire day.

The 13-megapixel camera churns out great results in adequately lit conditions with proper color reproduction and sharpness. However, photos turn out to be soft, grainy and slightly washed out in low light conditions.

xiaomi-mi-3-review-2With the Mi 3, Xiaomi unravels the real power of Android. Rather than using customization solely to differentiate itself from others, Xiaomi has created MIUI keeping user needs first and foremost. Xiaomi listens to its fans for features and adds them in subsequent builds that are pushed out to users regularly.

The Xiaomi Mi 3 brings great hardware at an unheard of price and doesn’t skim on performance either. At Rs 13,999, I won’t hesitate to recommend it in a heartbeat.