The Xiaomi Mi3 (pronounced “Sh” + “Oww” + “ME” — “ME” “Three”) is one seriously good phone at a seriously low price. You probably aren’t familiar with the Xiaomi brand if you are are a Western reader. However of all the Chinese upstart electronics manufacturers, Xiaomi is perhaps the MOST poised to become a household name before 2016.
There are several things that set Xiaomi apart from the bulk of other Chinese companies:
1. Quality – Xiaomi over-engineers their phones and tablets in much the same way as Apple and Samsung do. They feel solid, go through rigorous quality control, and therefore generally hold up pretty well. The Mi3 for example sports a “magnesium alloy” internal frame and a Gorilla Glass 3 screen which together provide wear resistance, rigidity, and a surprisingly light weight.
2. Hardware – Xiaomi uses top-shelf internal components – The Mi3 has high-speed eMMC flash storage, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, 2 GB of RAM, and a rear-cam featuring a 13MP Sony Exmor sensor and Phillips dual-flash. Even their lower-end Redmi 1s features solid build-quality, an excellent HD IPS panel display, and an 8 MP rear camera that outperforms all others in its price bracket and many devices well outside of it.
3. Design – Xiaomi often takes flack for using design elements that closely resemble parts from Apple. Intellectual theft issues aside :), it actually means their devices look and feel good. Furthermore, units like the Mi3 are quite unique imho while still sticking to an industrial minimalism that I, and many others, find highly appealing. The physical design of the Mi3 phone was one of the main attractions for me. I believe the Samsung Galaxy S5 is one of the most horrendously ugly pieces of modern glass and silicon to ever grace the shelves of your local Best Buy. To each his own though… Xiaomi should really be applauded in this particular area. While they do take obvious cues from Apple, the Mi3 is in many ways all their own and what they came up with is quite elegant.
4. Software – Xiaomi is the creator of “MIUI” modded version of Android – Which I actually like aside from the Launcher itself. What is interesting though is that this majorly differentiates them from other Chinese smartphone companies in that they actually do ongoing software development for their products. The end result are phones that have extremely smooth performance and are very stable.
5. Price – To be fair, I had a friend pick my device up directly while in China. The street-price is currently around $260, and can be gotten to the USA from reputable vendors for around $290. This is a fully unlocked no-contract device. The nearest competitor would be a Nexus 5 at $350 unlocked however the battery on the Nexus 5 is only slightly more than 2/3rds that of the Mi3 and it only features an 8 MP camera – The Nexus 5 does support LTE which is a notable win. If you can sacrifices LTE, the Mi3 is the better way to go. Furthermore, to be fair, the Mi3 does support HSPA+ which is 42mb/s down and 21 mbs/up theoretical max bandwidth, so you aren’t necessarily stuck on 3G from 2010 just because you are lacking LTE.
So what are the downsides?
1. Sourcing from China – You have to order it from China as they don’t have international availability in the West yet…
2. Outer Shell Material – The Mi3 looks awesome, and feels awesome. But the outer shell is actually plastic. I wish they had used aluminum or a magnesium alloy like the frame but there ya’ have it. Many of the earlier reviews assumed it was in fact a magnesium alloy shell, the plastic looks and feels that good. But when push comes to shove I believe it is going to get a few scratches and dings with time
3. No LTE – As already mentioned above.
4. Full-Size SIM card – It uses a full-size sim card slot which is more of an annoyance in the US than a problem. It would be a fairly valuable feature if traveling though.
5. IPS vs AMOLED – The screen is the best IPS panel you can get… but I personally prefer the deeper saturation/more vivid colors found on Samsung’s super AMOLED screens. This is a minor quibble as the screen on this device is actually quite amazing.
6. Getting Google Apps – The play store and other Google apps don’t come pre-loaded unless you flash a third-party developer rom. You can thank Beijing for that move… That being said, you can very easily install the play store within a few minutes with an app available on the included “Xiaomi” market. Western users who are brand new to smart phones or perhaps just android will be a bit put off by the initial out of the box experience all around due to the amount of Chinese “stuff” you need to wade through and clean up. It is certainly usable and enjoyable out of the box, but it needs some tweaking, particularly for the English speaking among us…
Overall, I really love this phone. The Snapdragon 800 is still cutting edge (if not bleeding edge…), the 5″ screen size is just right for me and the pixel density is perfect.
Thus far, it has been the perfect tablet :). That’s right, it isn’t activated yet. I am still waiting on the company I work for to get it added to our AT&T corporate account however the cellular radio should be drop in compatible. Just for kicks, I did drop a Straight Talk unlimited SIM card into it and sure enough both calling and HSPA+ data were working. I made a few calls and quality was very good. As Straight Talk works off of the AT&T network I am not too worried about it activating with them. If you are looking at getting this phone, make sure you get the WCDMA version and not the TD-SCDMA version which is only for China. All of my testing and work on it thus far has been via WiFi.
UPDATE 08/14/2014 – I was able to get the Mi3 activated with AT&T two days ago. Call quality is excellent and data speeds are great. They are completely in-line with what other users report with AT&T’s HSPA+ service (AT&T markets this as 4G “non LTE” which is just marketing BS – it is just upgraded 3G). Speed tests showed around 5 mbps down and 1 mbps up! I am pretty thrilled!
Finally, I would recommend this phone to anyone that knows and loves android and isn’t afraid to tinker a bit to get the best device they can possibly have. Also, if you want this phone and have a friend that can set it up for you, that also works :). In my next article on this site I am going to be providing a single package file which will have all the tools and instructions you will need to get this all setup for Western use. I created a special update package script/file for myself that loads all of the common google apps, replaces the home launcher, and cleans out all of the Chinese stuff that most English speaking folks won’t care to bother with. More on that next article!