In India, Xiaomi wants to be perceived as an Indian smartphone brand. The smartphone vendor has already had a great start since its India debut last July by selling over a million smartphones in less than five months and became the fifth largest smartphone brand in the country in the last quarter of 2014. However, Xiaomi is not content with that as it seeks for India domination in 2015. The Mi 4i marks the beginning of that journey, becoming the first smartphone it has launched first in India — even before China. Priced at Rs 12,999, the Mi 4i plays on the standard Xiaomi promise — high quality smartphones priced extremely competitively. Butdoes it deliver on the promise?
At the global launch event in New Delhi last week, Xiaomi’s Hugo Barra mentioned the Mi 4i was a product made from scratch keeping India in mind. He didn’t lose out on the opportunity to spin the Mi 4i name as “Mi for India.”
Branding aside, the Mi 4i is exactly what you’d expect a Xiaomi smartphone to look like. The design language is closer to the Redmi 2 than the Mi 4 with a polycarbonate plastic body and rounded corners. It is a unibody design and the back panel is non removable. Xiaomi takes great pride in mentioning that the speaker grills have been drilled with precision CNC machines rather than using a mold. With a thickness of just 7.8mm, it is much easier to hold and use with one hand. I could easily type on the keyboard without having to use both hands.
The only Mi 4i design element I wasn’t too impressed was the placement of the speaker at the rear of the phone. Xiaomi says that it is the ideal position considering that’s where the users hand cup the phone from and it helps amplify the volume. The designers have also given a tiny protrusion just below the speaker so that there is just enough gap when the phone is kept on a flat surface for sound to bounce off it. However, it doesn’t really work when on soft surfaces — think when the phone is kept on your bed — and the speaker gets muffled. In such situations, it becomes difficult to hear the phone ring, especially if you are not nearby. While there are many phones have the speaker placed at the rear, the muffling problem was more noticeable on the Mi 4i.
Another area where I differ with Xiaomi is about the absence of a microSD card slot. The Mi 4i comes with 16GB of internal storage and slightly less than 13GB is available to users. There is no microSD card slot.
Xiaomi’s Barra told me it was a calculated move and there were multiple factors for not including the memory card slot. First, it would have increased the size of the PCB and they wouldn’t have been able to fit the 3,120mAh battery wiithout making the phone larger. Secondly, he feels, microSD cards degrade the user performance and Xiaomi has observed that many user problems like the phone slowing down or errors in apps arise because of the low quality and even fake microSD cards floating in the market.
It sounds logical but then it would have been ideal had Xiaomi given 32GB of internal storage rather than just 16GB, especially considering the price point and positioning of the phone, which is likely to attract more serious users than casual users you would find on higher-end smartphones. Barra said that they would launch higher capacity variants of the Mi 4i in India but didn’t give a timeline. If you load your smartphone with lot of media content and games, it would be a good idea to wait for a bit longer.
With my rants out of the way, now let’s get on to the good stuff. The Mi 4i is the first Xiaomi smartphone with what it calls the ‘Sunlight Display’, which sets a new standard for smartphone displays in its price segment. What it essentially does is it enhances the contrast on an individual pixel level depending on the ambient brightness. During my week with the Mi 4i, I found the display’s legibility under direct sunlight to be exceptional. It also makes a significant difference while clicking photos in sunlight when the display usually gets washed out and you are essentially shooting blind.
The Mi 4i also features a 5-inch 1080p IPS display with a pixel density of 441 pixels per inch and a viewing angle of 178 degrees. I couldn’t find any other popular smartphone with a 1080p display in this price segment.
Another thing Xiaomi prides itself upon is the camera. The Mi 4i comes with a rear 13-megapixel camera with an f/2.0 aperture and in my experience, the camera is unbeatable in its price segment with great sunlight performance and pretty decent indoor shooting. The camera UI offers three shooting modes – normal, HDR and Live HDR. The HDR mode shoots three photos with varying exposures and merge them together, while the Live HDR mode does the same in a way that you can see what the photo would look like directly on the viewfinder before clicking the shot.
The regular HDR mode worked like a charm and the Mi 4i really impresses in regular daylight conditions. In fact, the photo quality isn’t very far behind from what you would get from most flagship smartphones. The color reproduction is close to real and they are sharp. Just for kicks, I simultaneously clicked photos with the Samsung Galaxy S6, which is touted as the best camera. While the Mi 4i had no chance to compete, I was pretty surprised how close it was. Photos clicked from the Galaxy S6 obviously had more details but the Mi 4i wasn’t very far behind.
Indoors and low-light performance, however, did not meet my expectation with photos turning out to be soft and not sharp enough. Having said that, the photo quality is still better than what any smartphone priced under Rs 15,000 would click. My slight disappointment comes because of how seriously Xiaomi tends to take the camera on its phones.
Another camera feature I would like to highlight is the torch feature, which is a pretty neat trick that can be used for clicking photos in extreme low-light conditions. What it does is it keeps the flash on throughout that also lights up the scene without the overexposure that comes with using the regular flash. For those who like to play around with the settings, there’s a manual mode as well.
The front facing 5-megapixel camera is also much more capable than most you would find in this price segment. Selfies clicked in good lighting conditions turned out to be sharp and with good color reproduction. In fact, some shots could be mistaken for those clicked from any other smartphone’s primary camera.
Coming to the core specifications, the Xiaomi Mi 4i features a second-gen Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 octa-core processor with 2GB of RAM. During the week of using the Mi 4i as my primary smartphone, I never felt the performance lacking with multiple apps running in the background. Even playing regular games like Asphalt 8 and Riptide GP2 went off without a glitch.
The biggest surprise for me, however, was something I didn’t expect — the battery life. During the last decade of reviewing phones, I have seen hundreds of smartphones where companies claim an all-day battery life but it is always accompanied with a fine print talking about conditions in which the battery was tested and so on.
The Mi 4i is one of those rare smartphones that gave me a day long battery life in real-world conditions where I did not have to think about switching off Wi-Fi, turning the display brightness down and take other precautionary measures. On the contrary, I kept Bluetooth switched on throughout the day as I was also using the Mi Band, didn’t bother to turn off Wi-Fi when I wasn’t in a Wi-Fi zone and had multiple email accounts, Twitter, an overactive WhatsApp account, an hour of calls and about three hours of web browsing. The Mi 4i still managed to last me from 6:00AM till 9:00PM, with still 15 percent battery remaining.
Xiaomi has achieved this by having a 3,120mAh battery, which is incredible considering the thin and handy frame of the phone. To achieve this, Xiaomi has used one of the smallest dual-side PCB to make more space for the battery.
The Mi 4i is also the first Xiaomi smartphone to run on Android Lollipop version of MIUI 6. There are not many user noticeable differences. Xiaomi has also added support for six Indian languages. The company will also add a new India-specific feature called visual IVR that will help users interact with pre-recorded voice services they encounter while calling services like banks, e-commerce sites, and IRCTC. The service is still in beta and wasn’t available on my review unit.
Priced at Rs 12,999, Xiaomi seems to have another winner in its kitty. It is not perfect, and despite the missing microSD card slot, it is easily good enough to get my recommendation. Xiaomi’s rivals have yet another device to make them nervous. What remains to be seen is whether Xiaomi can manufacture enough devices to meet demand.