Xiaomi had a relatively quiet second half of 2015 with no major device launches. It almost seemed as if the company had forgotten about India. It was something that Hugo Barra spent some time explaining, in his own emotionally charged manner, during the launch event yesterday. But things are changing, for the better. Xiaomi has finally launched the Redmi Note 3 in India and will follow it up with the Mi 5 next month. I have been using the Redmi Note 3 as my primary smartphone for over a week and here’s my review.
The Redmi Note 3 Xiaomi is launching in India is different from the one that was launched in China last year. It is the Snapdragon 650 version, which is in every manner better than the Mediatek Helio X10 variant it had launched in China. In fact, many call the new Snapdragon variant the Redmi Note 3 Pro. But more on that in a bit.
We are a week away from the launch and I am sitting with Xiaomi’s Jai Mani, who has a Redmi Note 3 unit torn apart next to the Redmi Note. But before getting to what’s under the hood, he wants to talk about the design. Even for a smartphone that costs just Rs 9,999 for the base 16GB variant, Xiaomi wants to emphasize it has spent a lot of time perfecting the design.
Mani, who used to work with Barra at Google, looks at my phone that also had a 5.5-inch display and asks me to hold the Redmi Note 3 and see if I feel any difference. I do — the edges curve perfectly, all the way to the display’s bezel. The edges don’t feel sharp when it touches the skin of my palm. The feel reminded me of the Moto Pebl (remember that?). It feels nice. The metal body feels premium. It doesn’t feel like a sub Rs 10,000 smartphone.
He goes on to explain how the designers have taken into account minute things that most users won’t even notice. Like how the camera lens, flash and the fingerprint sensor are in a straight line and dead in the center. How the size of the camera lens is exactly the same as the fingerprint sensor. How the infrared blaster and 3.5mm audio jack on the top are aligned equidistant if you draw an imaginary line from the center of the camera lens to the top edge. Or how on the front, the earpiece, ambient light sensor, selfie camera and notification LED light are all on the center of the top bezel.
Like I said, most people won’t even notice it. But it does bother me that the micro-USB port on the bottom is on the left edge rather than being on the center to be perfectly aligned. I guess you need to give some concession to your engineers. From the front, you might not be able to make out which one is the Redmi Note 3 or which is the LeEco Le 1s, but hold the two phones together and you’d instantly know which one you like more. No points for guessing that.
Processor and performance
What really impresses about the Redmi Note 3 is the SoC humming under the hood — the Snapdragon 650. Qualcomm had a rough 2015 with the horror that was the Snapdragon 810. Not only did Qualcomm suffer in the flagship smartphone space but also in the mid-end segment with the Snapdragon 615, which had its own set of performance issues. But it seems the year of the monkey, will bring good fortune for the company.
The Snapdragon 650 has a hexa-core processor with two Cortex A72 cores and four Cortex A53 cores. It also comes with the Adreno 510 GPU and the combination blows everything away. In benchmarks, the Redmi Note 3 easily takes on smartphones like the Nexus 6P powered by a Snapdragon 810 processor and the Moto X Style, which runs on Snapdragon 808. It destroys the Helio X10 too.
But I am not a big believer in synthetic benchmarks. They give you a good sense of the hardware’s capabilities but never the real world experience. The Snapdragon 650 doesn’t disappoint. I played Asphalt for about 20 minutes and the phone did not heat up, the game didn’t stutter and I couldn’t notice any significant frame drops either. I shot some video on it, ditto, no heating up. I played video content for about 20 minutes, again nothing. Everything worked. This is not the Qualcomm silicon from 2015 and a lot can change over a year.
The 5.5-inch 1080p display has good sunlight legibility and the colors are bright and vivid too. Like the Mi 4i, the phone has what Xiaomi calls Sunlight display, which automatically increases the contrast under harsh light. But the display lacks Gorilla Glass protection. Xiaomi says it has the equivalent of the protection Corning provides from multiple suppliers and ensures it will be uniform across batches.
This is one department where most smartphones falter. Either manufacturers go for a smartphone that looks pretty and sleek but end up compromising on the battery capacity. Or they build the entire phone around a massive battery, but it becomes a brick. Xiaomi has somehow figured out how to do both. The Redmi Note 3 32GB variant I am using comes with a massive 4,050mAh battery. Xiaomi claims the Redmi Note 3’s battery is the densest available, which makes it more compact and slim compared to other batteries of similar capacity.
During my week long usage, I could easily see through the entire day and still have some battery left for the next day. I consistently got around six-seven hours of screen on time and I had 4G, Wi-Fi and GPS consistently switched on. I had two Gmail accounts, one Slack, Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp account each. The usage included about three-four hours of Internet usage and about two hours of calls. Even with the battery at 10 percent, I didn’t rush for the nearest charging point. The Redmi Note 3 is the best smartphone a road warrior could ask for, especially a heavy user like me.
The thing about expectations is when you set it once, you can never go back. Xiaomi had set the gold standard in smartphone cameras across price points. Be it the entry level Redmi 2 to the flagship Mi 4 or the mid-level Mi 4i, Xiaomi smartphones have always been impressive. Unfortunately, that cannot be said about the Redmi Note 3’s 16-megapixel f/2.0 camera with PDAF.
Photos clicked outdoors in good lighting conditions are passable, but they lack details. While this should be expected from a phone priced a buck under Rs 10,000, we have been spoilt by the similarly priced Mi 4i. Yes, the auto-focus is fast under daylight conditions, but images lack detail and the colors look pale. In HDR mode, photos take a couple of seconds to process and at times the shutter click does not register. The bokeh effect from shallow depth of field isn’t very pronounced either. Check out some of the photos I clicked in low light.
Things get worse in low light as it takes a lot of effort for the camera to focus on the subject. Even if it locks focus, the photograph usually turns out blurry. It fails to lock focus if the subject happens to be close. All said, clicking and getting passable results in low light conditions is a patience testing affair. I am told a software update is incoming, which should improve things a bit. Check out some of the photos I struggled to click in low light conditions.
Software and additional features
The Redmi Note 3 runs MIUI 7 on top of Android Lollipop 5.1. It is a little disappointing to see Xiaomi not pushing Marshmallow on it, but the consolation is it still remains one of the few devices that keep patching Google’s security update regularly. I find MIUI to be one of the better UI iterations on top of Android with some thoughtful feature additions, many of which are a result of demands made by its users.
There is a reading mode that bathes the display in a yellow hue for night time to help users go to sleep — a feature that is coming to iOS 9.3. You can create hidden folders. You can set a child lock and select which apps would be visible. Similarly you can even lock individual apps which can be opened by a pattern or by placing your registered finger on the fingerprint sensor. (The software build on my review unit didn’t have the ability to unlock apps with the fingerprint sensor, but the final build should have that.) There are a number of camera features as well, which you can check from the camera settings.
The Redmi Note 3 is one of those rare smartphones in this price range that supports all LTE bands – both TD and FD variety — and even supports VoLTE, which should come soon via Reliance Jio. After dissing the hybrid SIM card slot in the Mi 4i, Xiaomi has opted for it now, which means you can have either two SIM cards or one SIM card and one microSD card (up to 32GB). It also supports Wi-Fi 802.11ac.
TL;DR version: Yes.
Detailed version: The Redmi Note 3 is a well rounded smartphone, both literally and figuratively, that punches above its weight. For me, the highlight would be what I call the “all day and then some more” battery along with the powerful Snapdragon 650 smartphone. The camera is a disappointment, but only because of standards one hold Xiaomi up to. Otherwise, its performance is par for the course for smartphones in this price segment.
Priced at Rs 9,999 for the 16GB version with 2GB RAM and Rs 11,999 for the 32GB version with 3GB RAM, opting for the Redmi Note 3 is an absolute no-brainer. I would recommend buying the higher-end variant. The first flash sale for the Redmi Note 3 goes live at 2PM on March 9 on mi.com/in as well as Amazon India.
Photos: Manish Sinha